For someone who’s grown comfortable with the idea of being alone in the world, Sean Bryant sure keeps good company. The Atlanta songwriter and former Slang guitarist, who pens his sprawling yet inmate folk and rock songs under the unlikely moniker Big Brutus, will today unveil his sophomore full length, The Odd Willow. Bryant selected the title because the idea of a single willow tree standing on its own seemed well connected to his feelings of anxiety and alienation around people. Such a plaintive concept may seem dark and foreboding, but the album is anything but. Rather, it’s an ambitious record full of dense layers and myriad details that leap out at the listener like so many sparks from a flame. Listen close and you’ll discover the binds that tie Big Brutus’ songs together — themes of death and mortality, beauty and being. But while the vision remains singular, the album would not be possible without the collective intertwining of disparate voices — friends, collaborators, colleagues — Bryant brought together to help him conjure The Odd Willow.
Ahead of his release show celebration tonight at the Earl, Immersive spoke with Bryant about the process of creating his new record, opening himself up to greater collaboration, his love for for Wilco and Sun Kil Moon, and how thoughts of death can lead someone to embrace beauty and life.
In a previous interview, you spoke of death and beauty being the driving themes of this record. Are the two themes meant to be in opposition or are you examining the way the two intertwine?
I think it’s the way they intertwine that I wanted to explore. I would say the “theme” of the album wasn’t really prevalent at first… my goal was to just write from a place that felt like it couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. So I started writing about the most immediate thoughts in my mind, which happened to be this anxiety about dying not achieving what you set out for, and the juxtaposition of remembering to put those thoughts behind you sometimes and just live in the moment, opening your heart to the people and love around you, even if it breaks you or hurts you. To live is to let both of these processes in simultaneously: to live knowing you are finite here and better get a move on, but to slow yourself to the beauty of this world.
You seem awful young to let thoughts of death weigh on you so much. You have so much time and music ahead of you. Do you think these thoughts are embedded in your nature or do they arise out of some experience you’ve had?
I think I just worry about not accomplishing what I set out to do in my life. I want to play music and use that as a vehicle to help people. Yes, I’ve had certain situations arise in my life that has made me contemplate life and death and what it all means, but I wouldn’t say more than anyone else. I’ve seen my fair share of good and bad things, and I just want to reflect that as much as possible, in the hopes that it helps or pushes someone else to also want to use their talents for helping this planet, at a time when we really need people to come together to repair the divisions between us.
I think what’s most striking about this record it how rich and full of detail it is. In a way it almost goes against the title and the idea of standing alone against the world. Do you feel music is your means of combating that isolation, of filling your world, so to speak?
It’s funny you mention the detail of this record. A big goal for me (and tying back to the theme of the record) was to let other people have more musical say in the songs. I demoed every song (and then some) on the album to my iPhone and walked around for weeks fine tuning some words here, or a melody there. Stylistically I wanted the piece as a whole to feel like a Mardi Gras death parade from the future, but musically the structure was there to give something for all the other wonderful musicians to hang their parts on to. It was important to me that they felt like their “voice” was there on the album.
Liz Regas (from Hot Sauce and Honey, an awesome local band) arranged the horn sections and strings for the album. Geoff Goodwin played piano/bass/synth/accordion/bells/etc.as well as some mixing, and Ryan York and Grant Taylor from our last band Slang came and laid down the rhythm section. Ryan actually is the MVP of this cause he stayed through the weekend with Geoff and I, and the three of us would be the ones really digging into the songs. When it got later into recording I started focusing that style of working towards the vocals, specifically bringing in some beautiful female vocalists to hold the songs up where I felt I couldn’t.
Liz Regas chipped in again, as well as Rachel Wright (of another awesome band called Villain Family), and Tasha LaRae from the band Arrested Development. Mine and Rachel’s duet on “Louise” and “Prelude” were high points for me specifically. It felt like lightning in a bottle, with what she brought to the table and the emotion we caught. I remember talking with her for the hour drive to the studio and back and just diving so deep into these topics of life, death, and love. It was truly special.
To answer your question though, it didn’t feel at all like it went against the idea of The Odd Willow. That title was always just a way for me to embrace being me. And sometimes I feel like the odd man out, and that I might be truly alone in the world. But the truth is, don’t we all? Don’t we all feel those things, and don’t all of those voices deserve to be heard?
I’ve heard rumors that Slang is no longer together. Is that true? If so, are there any remnants from the band that made their way onto this record?
Yes, it is true. We are no longer a band. Those guys are like family and every single one of them is on the first track “Death”. I don’t see them as much as I want too but they all stay pretty busy. Ryan plays with Man Up, Yancey right now, Grant plays bass in Towers, and Hayes is in Material Girls. Ryan and Grant are also part of the full band that plays the Big Brutus material. I’d love for some sort of reunion or something at some point, but it’s up to Hayes with that, and scheduling I suppose. Everyone is just so busy!
You’ve called producer/engineer Geoff Goodwin your “musical other half.” Talk about the nature of your working relationship and his contributions to this record.
Geoff and I have played music together I would say for at least 8-9 years. We’ve bonded over a wide variety of music, film, and general comic geekiness, and I’ve always seen him as a big brother in many respects. He’s just one of the most natural artists I’ve ever known, and the way he immediately empathizes with the true emotion of the songs on a very deep, visceral level is so rare in music. He just gets me. I would say voice wise he was the biggest contributor to the album. I rarely had issues with parts he would create, because he would take the time to understand the big picture of it all. He can see the forest and the trees all at once, if that makes sense. He did some amazing mixing too before we brought Jason “JJBOOGIE” Reichert (also of Arrested Development fame) to bring in the home stretch. I’m really proud of everyone who contributed to this piece, ’cause I think it caught a lot of people’s spirit in the audio, and I really think you can feel that. There’s something to be said about not doing it all on your own, even if you can.
Aesthetically, the record is a fairly significant leap from Tiny Box. Are there any specific artists or records you were fixated on when composing The Odd Willow?
I think the biggest record I was fixated on while recording was Universal Themes by Sun Kil Moon. A lot of people were turned off by that guys music after the success of the album Benji and some rants he made at shows, but I freaking love that album. I really love all of his work, but there’s something about the way he captures everyday life on that album (and on the stellar Benji) that just speaks to me. If you listen to what he’s saying, the abrupt tonal shifts in the music work perfectly, almost like a soundtrack and less like a collection of songs. I’d recommend the song “Birds of Flims” if anyone wants to hear something from that beautiful record.
Also, I’m probably the biggest Wilco fan I’ve ever met and they influence everything I write and do honestly. Their career has been so amazing and I can listen to any of their albums front to back and never tire of them. They are also extremely humble people. I’ve met a few of them (like guitarist Nels Cline) and had a chance to small talk, and they couldn’t have been kinder.
I understand you’re undertaking a cross-country bike tour to promote the record? How did that idea come about? Do you have any concerns about presenting such a lavish record in stripped-down form?
The idea for the bike tour came from me just wanting to undertake that since I was younger. I’ve always wanted to travel cross country with no car and see the country I lived in. You know, meet the people and really research the climate of this place I call home, sort of like a grassroots politician or something. I don’t want to be a normal musician who separates themselves with a stage; I want to subvert expectations and do things differently. It’s easy to do it now too cause no one really knows who I am so I don’t have to fight against preconceived expectations of me as an artist. I can just… be me.
I’m not really worried about presenting the music on just an acoustic either cause that’s where every song on the album started. I like creating albums with lots of different things going on, but I’d never want to do a song that I’d feel couldn’t translate back to a bare-bones instrument like guitar or piano. Sometimes it takes a little reimagining, but it’ll be a challenge and most importantly, it will be fun.
Will you have a full band for the release show?
Yes, we will have a full band! It’s like a who’s who of some of my favorite local musicians. I have Ryan York and Grant Taylor (both from Slang), Trey Hawkins (Poison Coats), Kyle Bennett and Scott Box (both play with Chelsea Shag), and Alex Nicholson (from an Athens band called Tarnation). It’s gonna be a real amazing evening, and I couldn’t be more humbled by the caliber of talent in the band. They are all so good at what they do.
Big Brutus will celebrate the release of The Odd Willow tonight at the Earl. He will be supported by by Shepherds and Neighbor Lady. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $8-10. 21+ to enter.