A roaring ‘Engine’: Ithaca prog-rockers BRIAN! set to release their fifth album
Ithaca prog-rock trio BRIAN! will celebrate their fifth album, "The Cataclysmic Engine," with a release show Friday night at The Cherry Arts.
The new album finds Bubba Crumrine (guitar, bass, electronics), David Resig (bassoon), and Willie B (percussion) covering a variety of introspective themes and sonic concepts over the course of nine songs. The band is joined by saxophonist Keir Neuringer (Irreversible Entanglements, Dromedaries) on two songs.
A followup to 2018” “Chasms of Color & Thought,” "The Cataclysmic Engine" was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Matthew Saccuccimorano at Electric Wilburland Studio in Newfield, New York, and completed with artwork by Sam "Skullboy" Mameli.
Earlier this week, Crumrine (they/them), Resig (he/him), and Willie B (he/him) held forth on the new album, the band’s continuing evolution since its formation in 2009, the album release show, and upcoming tour plans.
Q: Bubba, I remember when you posted on Facebook that you were looking for a bassoon player for a potential project. Now here we are 13 years, and five albums, later! Has it been everything you hoped it would be? (and why bassoon?)
Bubba Crumrine: This band has evolved in ways I could have only imagined from those early days! The grandeur of this project has waxed and waned over the years, but I truly feel we’ve hit the sweet spot with this record and performance as a group. Remaining a trio at our core over the years has kept space for collaborations with Sarah Hennies, Jordan Sands, Emily Jackson, Alejandra Marie Diemecke, and now Keir Neuringer, which have all been really rewarding. All in all, performing with David and Willie has certainly evolved me into a better player and musician.
BRIAN! formed specifically out of David and my friendship. He was one of the first people I connected with after moving to Ithaca in 2005. We’d been friends for a few years and while I knew he’d gone to Ithaca College for music, I wasn’t aware for which instrument. One day while we were hanging out he mentioned picking up bassoon again and I basically insisted on starting a band together!
David Resig: I believe their immediate reaction was "We should form a band!" Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I agreed. Having no experience in a band setting, much less with experimental music, I didn't know what to expect. So, in a way, my expectations were vastly exceeded! We continue to grow and challenge our capabilities.
Q: Did you approach this album differently than its predecessors? Did you try anything new, technically or musically?
Bubba: For me, definitely. I started taking guitar lessons from Dara Anissi around 2019 just before we began work on Josh Oxford’s “Quartermaster” as well as working with Anna Coogan on voice. This album is more technically challenging than its predecessors, inspired by non-western scales and modes and prepared guitar (“The Eye"), in addition to our whole-tone shenanigans. I also built an increased confidence in my vocal delivery, such as on the climatic track, “Intemperate To Death” (the track which the album title lyric comes from). My setup – pedals, amp, cab, and all but one guitar – are completely different from prior releases, having added Kiesel headless 7-string guitars to the mix. Overall, we wanted this to be a more direct record, “all killer no filler,” so to speak, without 10- to 15-minute tracks. We get in, make our point, and go on to the next.
David: In general, we were much more deliberate about the compositions. Making sure that individual parts have a relationship with each other and that the form works for each piece. In writing the bassoon parts, I am often creating right at the edge of my capabilities.
Bubba: Great point – we were deliberate as to which instruments are taking up which frequencies and which times, given the similar sonic space guitar and bassoon take up.
Q: Can you elaborate on the album title? Would you say this is a “concept album” or connecting threads throughout the songs?
Bubba: “The Cataclysmic Engine” is in reference to the self-destructive nature of the human mind and the journey of traversing life and growing despite that. It’s a concept they touch on briefly, in “Fantastic Planet,” in reference to the Draags, which has always stuck with me. It’s a thread more than a linear concept, touching on topics like building healthier relationships while working through childhood traumas, and personal discovery, while also finding brevity during challenges and not taking things too seriously all of the time. I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation for many years. This is the first record written from what feels like, at the moment, the other side of that experience.
Q: Can you talk about the recording process? When and where did you record it? Any challenges in the process, pandemic related or otherwise?
David: We recorded at Electric Wilburland Studio in May 2021. We were able to make good use of the small window safety during the middle months of that year. The pandemic did impede our ability to rehearse in person, though we were able to distill our composition process by sharing scores and working over Zoom. It made for more focused rehearsals once we were able to actually play the pieces together.
Bubba: Agreed – we were all vaccinated, spread out, masked whenever mouths weren’t in use, and Matthew Saccuccimorano was in the control booth. Having recorded “Chasms…” there prior, knowing exactly what we were getting into and how we could utilize the space made a big difference.
Q: How do you guys write and arrange your songs? Are they tightly scripted, or is improv involved?
David: Our work is a mix of highly composed and loose suggestions. Works like “Uluru” are composed to the note; yet, we leave room for the performance to be alive. “Grotto, “on the other hand, is a loose form with only a few expected motifs, so in this case, each performance is unique. “Wholed” is an amalgamation of composition and improvisation.
Bubba: “Wholed” is a great example of that middle ground. Willie and I are following a tight chart, giving David the space to shred how the mood strikes. That also lent itself well to having Keir join us on one rehearsal before recording. During 2020-21, lockdown drove the compositional approach further in some of the writing, trading MuseScore and audio files back and forth, while evaluating them over video calls.
Q: Do you factor in potential live performance, or consider the recording studio its own distinct thing? Have you ever written something you actually weren’t able to play?
Willie B: My setup had been pretty basic on previous albums, a simple five- or six-piece drum set. When we began writing for this particular album I was hearing a lot of different things tonally and sonically that I could add to the compositions. More of an orchestral approach. As Bubba and Dave’s pedal boards started to expand, I started to feel left out! It’s really fun to have a bunch of stuff in your setup, but I still feel like I can represent material on this record with a small setup.
David: For me, I see the studio as a live performance. Due to the nature of how the bassoon hangs in front of my body while I'm playing, all of my pedals are in my peripheral vision, or not visible at all. When we originally compose a piece, there may be a multitude of effects changes. Those changes and colors get distilled in the final preparation. That way there are fewer places for errors to occur and overall performance demands are simplified.
Bubba: This album, and “Chasms…” before it, are basically a loud jazz record (laughs). The vast majority of the record can be performed live. For some tracks like “Rose” and “The Eye,” Willie used a unique gong drum for a double bass effect, which for the tour will be played on a four-piece kit instead – and while touring with a gong and timpani was fun in the past, those parts will be represented in other ways. Willie did add some tasteful low-frequency Moog that’s for the recording only, which will be a treat for those with the release.
Q: Bubba, can you talk about the song “Rose”? Seems like it’s an important personal statement for you!
Bubba: Definitely. “Rose” is a track about queer discovery and my journey coming out as non-binary, represented in playful motifs, which build in confidence and intensity throughout the track. I was listening to a lot of King Crimson, while re-binging Steven Universe, thinking back to a house show at Varsity Sex Club and a discussion about how masculine-centric the prog and math-rock scenes were (there are some excellent folks representing out there). I was ruminating on what it might look like to flip that on its head, while the trans and queer narratives from the show circled in my brain.
The phrase “Qing Rose” came to mind and while genderqueer AF, it was a little on the nose. I truncated to “Rose'' after coming out, blossoming so to speak. Sometimes a Rose is a Rose.
Q: Can you talk about bringing in Keir Neuringer to contribute to the new album? Seems like he’s a kindred spirit for this type of music!
Bubba: He sure is! I feel like Keir was one of the first handful of people who really got what we were looking to accomplish from a compositional aspect and not just being a weird rock band. Those comments from the early years still resonate and inspire me today. Plus, he and I align a lot on sociopolitical topics and I’m a fan of his work, frankly.
Willie B: I've known Keir for well over 20 years. When he left town to go study composition in Europe we lost touch a bit. It’s been great having him around again. He’s a really inspiring human being and it’s been great to reconnect with him.
David: Keir's encouragement certainly made an impression. That, and the sublime experience of collaborating with him on Naked Noise 6 in 2015. He is an exceptional musician.
Q: How and why did you end up with Nefarious Industries? Seems like a cool label to be on!
Bubba: I worked a lot with Nefarious Industries bands in the early days of Ithaca Underground – Bangladeafy, Zevious, AF Elephant, East of the Wall, Zvi, plus I’m a fan of what they’ve been putting out with Titans to Tachyons and Oxx, so they were on my radar. I spoke with a bunch of friends about labels they’ve worked with and Nefarious came out as the clear winner in terms of supporting a release, while also being a label that releases weird, heavy, mutant music.
I reached out to Greg Meisenberg who runs the label and he was familiar with our work back from playing with his band AF Elephant back in 2013 in Ithaca. We struck up a conversation and found it was a fit for both parties. He’s been incredibly supportive of our work and I couldn’t be happier with how the release has gone so far. The record looks and sounds amazing.
Angry Mom Records is also supporting the record and were a big help in the process. They’ll have the LP in-store after the release.
Q: Bubba, how does your work with BRIAN! relate to your other recent solo/duo projects?
Bubba: BRIAN! has been an anchor project for me for several years now and there’s nothing quite like the energy I feel when this band hits right. My solo work is deeply personal, setting a mood, telling a story, and many times a catharsis for grief, trauma, and personal expression - but I’m doing all of the writing.
Amok & OK is highly conceptual, and loosely compositional with considerable room for improvisation. Performing with a talent like bass clarinetist Amy Zuidema has been an incredible experience, but we knew the first phase of this project had a deadline to perform and document before she moved to the Netherlands.
With BRIAN! I get to make so much of the music I hear in my head in a collaborative fashion that touches on a lot of what I love about the prog, Rock In Opposition, noise rock and metal, and experimental genres I love, while creating something that I feel is musically unique to what’s out there is incredibly rewarding. Plus having 10 years of playing with masters of their instruments like David Resig and Willie B makes a huge impact on writing and knowing each other as a band.
Q: Can you talk about the release show at The Cherry Arts on Friday night? What will Nils Hoover be doing?
Bubba: We’re thrilled to be back at The Cherry where we held the release for “Chasms of Color & Thought” in 2018. Nils (who ran installations and visuals for many Naked Noise events) is back in Ithaca for the season, on live visuals connecting to the themes of the record, projected overhead for our set. I was elated to see that he was in town and we got back in touch.
Lea Davis and Mikaela Gould are setting up the lighting and Matthew Saccuccimorano, who engineered the record, will be running sound. It’s going to be a set and a night to remember.
We’re pumped to be sharing the stage with farm-grrl folk punks Motherwort – we truly love what these folks are doing – and La Llorona, whose witchy spells are perfect for this year. It was such a treat having her join us as a quartet at my birthday fundraiser show back in 2019 (which was recorded as "Minimum Donation," if you want to check it out on bandcamp).
Q: Can you talk about your upcoming touring? How do you feel about hitting the road again?
Bubba: The weekend following the release we’re hitting Zephyr Pub outside of Kent State in Ohio on Nov. 4; then we're off to Buffalo on Nov. 5 at Duende at Soil City, which was one of my target venues to play this year. We’ll close out the tour on Nov. 6 at the Rosen Krown in Rochester, which is my hometown. Oddly enough, it will be the first time BRIAN! has played there. We have more extensive plans for spring which we’ll share later.
Having been on the road solo and with Amok & OK this summer and fall, people are hungry for live music and new sounds, which is awesome. With gas prices, venue shortages and changes, and a backlog of musicians who couldn’t work for a long time, it means even more now for fans to support live music – especially DIY. When current or soon-to-be fans show up, are engaged, tell their friends, and pick up a record, DIY bands notice that. However big your town is, you can make an impact and help make an awesome night for a band and everyone there.
If you go
Who: BRIAN!, with openers Motherwort and La Llorona
What: Album release show for “The Cataclysmic Engine”
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Cherry Artspace, 102 Cherry St., Ithaca, New York