Okay, first off, Reader, full disclosure—I’ve known this week’s featured artist for going on 17 years. Which, A) means we’re both old as crap, and; B) means I’m totally biased. That said, this guy’s the best ever, as is his music.
Meredith Bragg and I first toyed with the idea of starting a band in the lounges of our respective freshman year dorms—one of which had a piano—way back in 1994. Obviously it’d have to be named after a rabbit from Watership Down—why anyone would pass up an opportunity to have their band be a namesake from that book was beyond either of us at that point. And though we didn’t get on it right away, a couple of years later, we teamed up with an amazing drummer—one Jon Roth—and started playing really, really, really emo music under the moniker, Speedwell. Like, we had a song that went for like 8 minutes and included the entire recording of the Hindenburg disaster. Yeah. That emo.
The band went through a number of iterations, adding our friends Brian and Cheryl at various stages, and—as many bands do—eventually succumbed to the many challenges that are thrown at you as you get older and try to balance the day-to-day, pay-the-bills life with the romanticized life of a touring, recording independent musician, the most significant of which is getting OLD.
Which, to my mind, makes it all the more impressive that Meredith’s kept the musical torch light bright and held high, producing better and better music with each year. Again, I’m telling you now, Reader—I’m biased. But take a listen to this week’s Song of the Week, “Birds of North America,” from his out-tomorrow third full-length, Nest. You can buy the record here, stream it for free here via Paste Magazine (for a limited time), and, if you’re in the New York City area, check him out with Donny Hue + the Colors and Lisa Crawley Wednesday at the Rock Shop. But, before you do any of that, why don’t you read our intimate, let’s say fireside interview below, where we discuss such salient topics of today as waking up in the drunk tank, how it’s okay to eat at good restaurants, and which trees are the most emo.
Kindness of Ravens: Alright, it’d be disrespectful to both you and me if I didn’t ask you this right out of the gate—What the f is up, dude? Why’d you give up the edge? I saw you drinking whiskey from a plastic cup not two weeks ago and I have PHOTOS OF YOU with a shirt that reads “NAILED TO THE X.” On the front! IN GLOW-IN-THE-DARK LETTERING!!!
Meredith Bragg: What? You told me you were going to lob softballs! I bet you didn’t ask Davey von Bohlen these questions.
I still have that glow-in-the-dark shirt somewhere. I can’t get rid or it despite having fallen from my straight edge perch my junior year in college. What can I say? People change and I have acquired a taste for fine spirits. I mean, it’s not like you’re spending 20 minutes every morning gelling your hair into spikes anymore… (not that I’d bring that up in a public forum, mind you).
KoR: Well-played, Bragg. Well-played. Though I hope to see that shirt at the show Wednesday. Sincerely though, looking back now—what, say, 17 years later?—had you the chance, would you go back and slap that 18-year-old self in the face and yell at him for distributing zines about how much big pantsed ravers sucked and everyone who drank a Bud Light was lame? Or was it just a slightly different take on the rebellious teen thing for you?
MB: Absolutely the latter. The only thing I regret from my high school hardcore days was my refusal to wear earplugs. I’m paying for that now.
KoR: I didn’t catch that last part, but now you’re a settled-on-down, married, tax-paying father in northern Virginia. Do you ever feel too…sorry…old for the whole playing in clubs for drink tickets rock scene, or do you think your audience has kind of grown and evolved with your own sound?
MB: I think there are certain genres that allow musicians to grow old gracefully. It’s not like I’m jumping off Marshall stacks and screaming into microphones EVERY night.
That said, there were times when it felt awkward. Thankfully a few years back a magical thing happened. We were touring down to Austin for SXSW and stopped in Houston to play a show. Our cellist—who comes from the classical music world and is completely immune from any perceived indie-cred baggage—wanted to get dinner at a moderately priced restaurant around the corner from the venue. Picture a restaurant with a wine menu, cloth napkins and a hostess. A few of us in the band started to balk. We were stuck in this mindset that indie rock musicians had to sleep on floors and eat at gas stations. She gently reminded us that we all have day jobs and we were basically on vacation anyway.
I swear to you, a little light bulb went off. The notion of forcing ourselves into a younger “rock-scene” mindset just shut down. We stopped pretending we were 18 year-old struggling musicians and started acting like a bunch of friends who enjoy going out and playing music. I threw out the expectation of “breaking even” and any notion of a “band fund” that must be replenished. It was liberating.
KoR: Okay, but do you ever miss the straight-up, SUPER-emo scene? Like, REALLY screaming out some lyrics that’d be supremely embarrassing today and bleeding actual blood onto your guitar while kids sing along with you in a suburban basement before buying you scattered and smothered hash browns at 2AM in a Waffle House and then letting you fall asleep on their musty couch for three hours? How can you NOT miss that?
MB: Nostalgia is hard to shake, but actually…no. I had a good time. It was fun. But I really can’t say I want to go back. I like where I am. A lot.
KoR: Hm. Well-adjusted with a loving family and friends and family nearby. I guess that sounds alright.
So, I know you’re hyper-critical of yourself as a musician, but how do you think this album differs from your previous ones? Did you start in on it with anything in particular in-mind as far as an end result or sound?
MB: You think I’m hyper-critical? I KNEW I had to work on that!
I think sonically this feels more expansive than other records. It’s definitely more varied.
KoR: I like the weird glitchy electronic bits.
MB: Thanks! Chad Clark is a fantastic producer and over the years has pushed me to embrace the weird. I should send you some of the earlier mixes. There is some crazy stuff in there.
KoR: Like Star Trek samples? Tibetan throat-singing?
than that sounds.
KoR: That sounds kinda Wes Craven. Anyway, you’ve told me in the past your lyrics aren’t usually about anything in particular; that the subjects in your songs aren’t real people or actual situations. Is that still the case? I mean, you just had a child and you’ve got a lovely, lovely wife. SURELY they’ve got a song or two! HAVE YOU NO HEART, MAN!!??
MB: Over half this record is either directly or indirectly about having a kid.
The other half is all about you.
KoR: FINALLY! So I’m assuming the album title—Nest—a reflection of your new role as a father then? You were a pretty wild club kid back in the day—all-night raves, popping pills, sleeping it all off in the drunk tank. Things have changed, dude.
MB: I seem to remember drinking tea, playing Tekken and occasionally playing capture the flag. Perhaps you’ve mistaken me for your other male friend named Meredith.
KoR: Forgive the non-music-y, design-y question, but you had our mutual friend/mortal-enemy-designer, Jeff Docherty, create your album art (below). In all seriousness, the cover’s beautiful. Well done, Mr. Docherty. When we’ve done art for you in the past, though, you just kinda let us run with it. Was it the same with Jeff’s design or did you give him direction—it does look pretty nest-y, after all.
MB: It’s actually a rejected design idea Jeff had for another project. I loved the image and thanked the gods that someone else had passed on it. The title came from the design.
And while we’re at it, let me give a little shout out for the EP design.
You people do good work.
KoR: Shucks, thanks.
We’ve asked this general question of a few of our interviewees, but what’s your take on the whole rapidly evolving music industry and music consumer gestalt? Is it a harder or easier out there today for the independent music maker?
MB: As both a consumer and creator, I love where we are. It has never been so easy for creative people to have their work seen/heard. Of course I miss record stores, but I don’t pine for the days before the Internet. Would anyone? Creative destruction is a natural, wonderful and sometimes uneasy thing.
KoR: Good answer! Also, we’re now going Zip a folder of the MP3s from your new record and give it away for FREE!
Okay, I’ve got the best cover song you should do Wednesday, 100%. Will you agree to learn it and play it in three days?
MB: This better be good.
KoR: “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” by Alicia Keys. It’s seriously an awesome song, it’d give you great crossover potential, and you could do it either low-down straight acoustic, or play it with that hype beat in there too. DO IT!!!
Alicia Keys • Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart
MB: That IS pretty fantastic….
MB: In Our Time. It’s actually a BBC talk podcast, not a band, but A) you should be listening to it and B) I’m sure I haven’t heard anything new that you aren’t already listening to (I went through your record collection when I stayed over last weekend… it’s pretty thorough).
KoR: A) You’re a nerd for suggesting a podcast, from BBC, no less, B) you’re obviously partial because it’s hosted by a Bragg, and 3) alright, we’ll check it out. Favorite restaurant in the DC metro area?
MB: PX. Technically it’s not a restaurant, but a fancy bars close to my house. Sue me.
KoR: Stop evading the questions! Favorite ‘hood in the DC metro area?
MB: Whatever park my kid is running around in.
KoR: Aw, damn. We can’t say anything mean about that. Most emo tree?
MB: White birch.
MB: Tie—weeping willow or a barren oak with a single leaf threatening to fall…in silhouette…listening to The Promise Ring.
MB: A Clash of Kings.
MB: “Barking Dogs.”
MB: No. But I make a mean hot and sour soup.
MB: Trick question—the most emo line is the sound of a single tear falling onto a breakup letter.
MB: Not this time. But I’ll be back.
Again, be sure to check out Meredith et al at the Rock Shop Wednesday night if you’re in or around NYC. It’s sure to be a great show, and hey, you can buy us a beer! ….please. We can’t find our wallet. And, as an added bonus, you can listen to an old-school emo, but still kinda cool song from our old rabbit band, previous to the addition of Mr. Brian Minter or Ms. Cheryl Huber. Word on the street—meaning from Jon, our old drummer—is that a Speedwell discography will be coming out on Coolidge Records late 2011/early 2012.
|Bragg and the author, on tour
together in 2002. Trying to sleep.