- Dale Reince
On Saturday Chicago-via-Champaign outfit Braid coheadline a show at Double Door with Smoking Popes; the influential second-wave emo band is preparing to release its first full-length in 16 years, No Coast, and Saturday’s set is the only show Braid has booked in the area before the album comes out. No Coast is a high-energy, matured take on emo, and its sleekly produced tunes are ready-made for summer evenings spent staring at the setting sun. It’s a great pop-rock album in the broadest sense of the word, and you can easily slip songs such as “No Coast” and “Bang” into a playlist full of indie powerhouses without throwing off any emo-averse listeners.
To prepare for Saturday’s show I decided to speak with singer-songwriter Bob Nanna about the process of writing and recording the first collection of Braid songs since the band’s 2011 EP, Closer to Closed; we talked about collective songwriting, the double meaning of the title of Braid’s new record, and the unexpected popularity of band flags. Read the full interview below, and if you like the new singles from No Coast preorder the album from Boston label Topshelf—it comes out July 8.
Leor Galil: I wanted to start with the last EP, Closer to Closed. When you guys were putting it together, I remember that Miles talked to you and he asked if Braid is officially reforming, and uh, you said, “Nah, the band’s not really back together.” At what point did that change and at what point did you guys say, “Hey, let’s record a new album?”
Bob Nanna: Did I really say the band’s not back together?
Here it says, “When asked if playing shows and recording records means Braid might officially be reforming, he’s firm: ‘The band’s not really back together.'”
Hmm. I’m not doubting that I said that to Miles, but I usually never ever . . . like, when people ask, “Hey, is Hey Mercedes gonna get back together and play a show?” I’m like, I’m not ever saying never. I always just leave it wide open.
But either way, if I did say that, there is some inkling of truth to it even now, because where we are in our lives. We can’t be a full-time band the way we were in, you know, ’95 through ’98, because we just can’t—we have families and jobs and things of that nature. So that could’ve been where I was headed with that.
As for writing new music, I know that Chris [Broach, guitarist-vocalist] and I always wanted to keep writing music, especially after Closer to Closed. And when we all sort of decided that we could still be a band without having it be kind of a 24/7 obligation with months of touring per year . . . we all decided that we still wanted to do it. It was at that point—and it wasn’t too long after Closer to Closed came out—that Chris and I started writing music specifically for a new Braid record.
Gotcha. I was reading the Entertainment Weekly story yesterday, and it said that you came up with the album title first.
Was that around the same time that you were like, “Hey, let’s start working on more songs,” that you came up with the album title?
When we started writing songs, it wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s put out an album.” When we got together with Damon [Atkinson, drums] and Todd [Bell, bass] for the first time, we had about seven or eight sort of half-songs, and then when we got together with Damon and Todd and started putting actual full songs together—that’s when we sort of came up with the idea of No Coast and let it sort of guide us through the process of putting together the record and choosing the songs on which to focus on and stuff like that.
And the idea behind No Coast is to not coast, which is funny. When I saw the title, I was like, “Oh, no coast. Is this like a midwestern thing? Is it because there’s literally no coast?” It’s not the east coast, not the west coast. But I think it’s a pretty to say like, “Hey, let’s not lean on our legacy.”
It’s sort of like that double meaning because—I don’t know, maybe we feel like, in the midwest, in Chicago and Milwaukee, that there is sort of that work ethic that has guided us through not only our music lives, but our lives in general. So there is a double meaning, and you know, when we came up with the idea, everyone was like, “Oh yeah, Midwest!” And it’s like, sort of, but what we really want it to be is this sort of like, “Let’s not take it easy. Let’s challenge ourselves, let’s work hard at this as if this is our first album and this is the first time people are going to hear us,” as opposed to being like, “Eh, it’s a new Braid record. We’ll work on some songs and throw a bunch of like, jams or fillers in there.” We weren’t interested in that.
How long did it take for you guys to see it through the writing process to completion?
It was pretty much a lot of homework for Chris and I because we’re in the Chicago area, and Damon’s in Nashville and Todd is in Milwaukee. We had three long extended weekends that we just, nonstop, turned off everything and just worked on putting together the record based on what Chris and I had started.
So we got together one weekend, put together a bunch of songs, and then Chris and I got to work on the lyrics and fixing up some things, got together again, and then once we got together the second time, we were thinking, “Let’s listen to these songs as if they were an album and what is missing right now? What do we want to say that’s not in here? What is missing from a full flow of an album as well . . .” We really wanted to work hard at every facet of it.
And it sounds great. You mention not wanting any filler, and all these songs are great. How did you approach writing for this record lyrically, and how did it change from the last EP?
Well, with the last EP, Chris and I basically each took a song, then we wrote a song together, and then we did a cover. So with the last EP, we were all sort of—except the song “Universe or Worse” which, for better or worse, is almost like a jam, like I was mentioning for No Coast, and I don’t mean that as in like, “Yeah, that song’s a jam!” but like “Wow, is this a jam band?” sort of thing . . .
Anyway, so when I was writing the music and lyrics for “Do Over” Chris was writing the music and lyrics for “The Right Time,” and there was like no collaboration on it pretty much. And we thought that was the best way to do it because we weren’t going to be able to get together as often as we wanted to.
And in terms of writing lyrics, I sort of did it on my own and kind of quickly, so for No Coast, we purposely got together and collaborated on lyrics for all of the songs. I mean, we really, really helped each other and worked together on it. So when we had the songs together and we had sort of vague vocal melodies in mind and sort of vague thematic things in mind, then Chris and I just sort of sat and divvied up parts, but then worked on them together. We had a shared Google Doc and any time we would think of something that we would want to say in the song, or a thought, or a few thoughts or a few lines, or just some cool words or something, we would throw them in this Google Doc and we would use some of those if they were necessary in the songs.
In addition to that, I had like a backlog of lyrics from years and years ago that I’ve always wanted to use, so I used some of those as well. But I guess the point is we really worked together, to the point where we would go practice and not even plug our instruments in. We wouldn’t even listen to music, really. We’d just write, sort of plot out things and write out what we wanted to talk about and help each other with like, “Hey, this line could be better. This line is great. I want to sing together on this,” et cetera. A lot of collaboration.
It definitely comes together. There are certain songs where you and Chris both have different singing styles and it felt like you blend together really well, in a way that I hadn’t heard on previous releases. You mentioned wanting to use lyrics that you’ve just had on backlogs for years. What songs are basically altered ideas that you kind of reimagined for Braid?
There are some lyrics in a song “Damages!” that I’ve just had, like even from pre-Hey Mercedes days, that were experience-based, anecdotal type things that I just wanted to use, and so a few of the lyrics are in that song for sure. I have this problem with documenting everything, so I’ve always wanted to have a song begin like the song “Put Some Wings on That Kid” where it’s just like this beating into your head that you need to keep track of stuff, so that was definitely an idea I’ve had for a long time and wanted to do.
After Frame & Canvas when we were starting to write some new songs for a possible future release—this was in 1999—I did have a song called “Bang” that wasn’t anything like the song “Bang” that’s on No Coast. But it was an idea for a sort of . . . it’s not as explosive as “Bang” on No Coast, but it was sort of this rushing torrent of like, thoughts and ideas, pretty stream-of-consciousness sort of stuff. So again, the idea for a song called “Bang” was a long time in the making.
And then I’ll give you one more example. In “Light Crisis,” I’ve always wanted to try or be aware of using place names in songs and street names in things, so talking about Ashland and Belden. Those sort of ideas have been around for a long time. I like that because it’s a little bit insider, but it also adds specificity to a part or a section.
Yeah, there’s some great detail in that. It feels like you’re traveling through the west side as you’re singing the lyrics on “Light Crisis.” How did that differ from the less specific stuff? What was that change like to enter into such specific lyrics for that song?
You’re saying like was it different to write such specific lyrics?
Yeah, like with a specific street name.
Different in that it’s not like my go-to. It’s sort of like, going back to the whole No Coast idea, it’s like when I start writing lyrics for a song, I’ll just write the first thing that comes to my head. Sometimes I look back on it and I’m like, “goddamn it, I’ve done this a million times.” Or like, “This sounds like this and this sounds like that.” So that’s why I wanted Chris and everyone to look at this stuff and be like, “What do you think of this? And then I would also, like I said, look back at some old things and be like, “Oh right. I think if I put a little more context to this story or add a place name, that gives people more of a picture of what’s happening.”
And so, yeah, that was it. It’s weird. It’s like, I suppose for a lot of musicians or lyricists, you sort of write down the specific story and then be like, “How can I generalize this or make it understandable to people or make it a little more vague?” And it’s kind of the opposite for me. My go-to is to make it vague and getting specific. I get there, it just takes a little more work.
“Light Crisis” also has a sample at the beginning of it. What is the story behind that?
Well, Leor, I think you know the story behind that. But yeah, the story behind the sample in the beginning is I very recently found my real parents—I was adopted when I was born. So, a few years ago, through a fun, eventful search—it wasn’t very long, it was maybe a month at the most—I found them and I found out I had full siblings and they’re musical, which is amazing.
But one of the more interesting things that I found out was that my grandfather, he was a songwriter, and wrote a few songs that had been recorded by big bands in the 50s, and this was one of the recordings I was able to track down. There were three songs, and this was the only one I could find. I scoured the Internet for them, and I found some collector in Ohio who had this random 45 of this song—his song is on one side and the other side is by a different writer with the same performer.
So, yeah. I thought it was a fun idea to start “Light Crisis” with that song. The song is called “So Blue,” and it’s like, of course it is.
Yeah, and the chorus . . . is that, I mean in the version in the sample that’s played on “Light Crisis,” the part “so blue” is repeated. Is that how it appears on the initial song or is that . . . ?
No, no. That’s like, “Hey, let’s make the record sound like it’s skipping.” It wasn’t like Girl Talk back in the day [laughs].
And you mentioned finding your birth parents lately. That’s also part of the lyrical content of “Put Some Wings on That Kid,” correct?
Yeah, yeah. For sure. Yeah, definitely.
And also for some Lifted Bells stuff. Yeah, a little bit. It’s definitely within the context of like, I have this innate, not fascination, but issue with keeping track of time and writing everything down and like, for a long time I just never knew. It was just sort of me trying to figure out why am I like this?
So it’s a little bit of a story of like, “Hey, well this might be causing it,” or now you sort of know what it is or where it comes from and what they’re like. You know, it’s not all true story in the song, of course, but it’s definitely in that context.
“Put some wings on that kid” is a phrase that I said—it was on vacation with my fiancee and there was this family in the pool and there was this little kid that was like, the mother was holding him and he was just too young to be in the pool, so I said, “Put some water wings on that kid because he is gonna drown.” And then I was like, “That’s sort of a fun title. ‘Put Some Wings on That Kid.'” And so I sort of saved that in the back of my head and that’s where that title comes from. The song isn’t about children drowning.
Gotcha. I mean, I hope that kid didn’t drown.
No, he was fine. I was just being an overprotective nonparent, like backseat parent.
Addressing your desire to document things, how did putting it in this particular song feel?
Great. It felt great, nothing’s changed though, it’s not like, “Oh, got that out now, I can live life without worrying about remembering stuff, every single thing.” Like I said, it felt good, and also in the context of having all that extra material and words sort of just waiting for use that also felt good to get some of that stuff out, so it’s like it almost reinforces the whole thing where it’s like, “Well, if I didn’t write this stuff down two years ago, five years ago, 15 years ago, then it wouldn’t be on the record today.” So good thing I did it.
The album’s coming out on Topshelf, you’ve got the show coming up—have you started performing some of these songs live?
No. Other than “Lux” and “Many Enemies,” we haven’t played any of the songs live yet. We play not this weekend but next weekend. We have sort of a set list in mind for the Double Door show, which is the 14th, and there are some new songs on it. Before we recorded the album we did practice it fully. So we have played the songs together live before, just to an audience of nobody, so, um, on Friday the 13th we’ll be practicing all day and all night, just to make sure we have those new songs ready for the 14th and then for the rest of the shows too. So we’re not doing a ton of new songs on the 14th, we’re doing a few, and then, once the album comes out we’ll put more in.
Do you have an idea, I don’t want to ruin the set list, but do you have an idea of what songs you’re going to try to give a try?
Yeah, sure, I think we’re definitely gonna, well, it’s tough, I made the set list, we’re still sort of haggling a little bit over it, but I know we want to play “Bang” for sure, and we want to play “Damages” for sure. “No Coast” we might play we just need to see how it goes when we practice it, that’s one of the harder songs to play and sing. “Light Crisis” probably, yeah, I really don’t know, these all might change once we get together. We all sort of cherry picked here and there, some songs that we want to just sprinkle into the whole.
The official release date is July 8, correct?
Will you have some copies at the Double Door show?
We’re not gonna have any copies, I haven’t seen any copies, I don’t even know if they’re ready for that, but once, I mean, we play a show on the eighth in Lansing, so I mean, we’ll have records for that, but we’re not gonna have records on the 24th, but you can preorder it online and get the downloaded thing.
And get a flag too—that’s one of the options, right?
Yeah, I think there’s like, CD, vinyl, vinyl with a T-shirt, vinyl with a flag . . .
I saw the flag when the Topshelf guys were like, “Yeah, we’re gonna do this flag.” I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what?” They’re like, “Oh, no, people really like the big flag.” “That’s new to me, but, you guys, you’re the experts here on what people like.” I haven’t seen it in person I saw the picture of it when it was made, it looks really cool. I don’t know if I’d hang it up, maybe if I lived in a dorm or something, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll hang it up in our practice space—even that seems strange. Maybe, you know what, maybe I’ll just run it up a flagpole or something, I don’t know.
You’ve mentioned Topshelf really knows what people like
They’ve had a big year since The World Is . . . record came out, they’ve been doing quite well. I remember one of the Downwrite podcasts you mentioned, “Oh man, if I got on Billboard . . .”
Oh yeah, I just checked the charts today.
It wouldn’t surprise me if this album lands on Billboard considering all the interest in the scene and in you guys and in this album in particular. I don’t mean to jinx it but do you guys have anything in mind if you end up on the charts?
Yeah, I’m gonna take everyone out for a nice dinner. Yeah, absolutely, I don’t know, I’ll figure something out, because I’m the one that’s talking about it, no one else really gives a shit. I’m excited about it, it’s just part of my personality—charts and lists and shit like that, so, yeah, if it happens I will be excited. And you know I’ll check it off my list, cause I’m on that Say Anything record [Hebrews], I do a guest vocal on it. I’m thinking, “Well, that’ll probably chart, but that doesn’t count, I’m just a guest vocalist on it, I didn’t write any of the songs.”