Matt Brennan on his new album as Citizen Bravo
Seven years after the dissolution of Zoey Van Goey, musician and academic Matt Brennan returns with a hugely ambitious solo debut as Citizen Bravo
In making his first solo record, Matt Brennan has not done things by halves. In fact, that’s putting it mildly; Build a Thing of Beauty is less an album and more an entire body of work unto itself. It’s not just that the songs themselves run through a hugely diverse range of touchpoints, with the record taking in melodic indie rock, measured balladry and, on the wildly eccentric The Mystery of History, electronic experimentalism. It’s that the entire project effectively encompasses Brennan’s latest academic study; he’s a Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow.
The album will be available on streaming services only; as Brennan investigates the worth of music in the digital age, he’s chosen to eschew physical formats, with one big exception – literally big. He’s built a sculpture he calls the SCI★FI★HI★FI, which looks a little bit like what a Dalek might if they’d been built to play music rather than exterminate. Seven different sonic mediums, which span the history of recorded music, have been cobbled onto each other; accordingly, the SCI★FI★HI★FI will be able to play back Build a Thing of Beauty via cassette tape, compact disc, 33rpm LP, 78rpm LP, Edison wax cylinder, MP3 and through streaming from the cloud. It’s not without its own artistic merit as a structure, either; it’s a weirdly handsome beast, a sort of futuristic steampunk contraption that Rick Deckard might have had in the front room of his apartment in Blade Runner.
When the SCI★FI★HI★FI is unveiled at the University of Glasgow’s Concert Hall this month, it’ll bring to its natural conclusion a highly ambitious project that seems to have come together by equal parts design and chance. Glasgow seems as if it must have felt like a spiritual hometown for Brennan even before he moved there from his native Canada; he played in the fondly-remembered indie-pop outfit Zoey Van Goey up until their dissolution in 2012, where he achieved the twin Glaswegian stamps of approval of putting out two albums on Chemikal Underground and having one of them produced by Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian. He popped up in Murdoch’s film God Help the Girl, too, playing drums in Emily Browning’s titular band on screen and on the accompanying soundtrack.
Since his old band quietly fizzled out, though, Brennan’s pursuits became more scholarly, with his own music taking a backseat for a while. He is dizzyingly knowledgable about music; a simple attempt to explain what he’d been up to in the years following Zoey Van Goey’s disbandment suddenly veers off into discussion of his fascination with one-man bands – "back from when I was researching the history of the drum kit for my day job." The songs that make up Build a Thing of Beauty originated when he built a sort of scrap-metal percussive Swiss army knife with an artisan blacksmith from Arkansas, but the idea to combine his personal musical pursuits with his academic work didn’t come to him until later.
"This is definitely the first time I’ve explicitly tried to combine art and research into some kind of experiment, and deliberately fused them," he explains. "It came out of me still wanting to make music, but having no idea how to release it, and also of having to ask the question of what form it might take if I could. If I pressed it on vinyl, would that be a disastrous financial decision? Would cassette tapes be a good idea, now that they’re making a comeback in indie circles? How many people still own tape decks? Is it still worth making CDs?"
In the end, Brennan opted against all of those; typically, it’s something he’s already researched, having looked at the sustainability of music festivals and their environmental impact. Instead, he chose to make Build a Thing of Beauty available exclusively digitally, although he hopes the sheer scale of the project will speak for itself; between the album, the sculpture and the short documentary, The Cost of Music, that will accompany the release, he’s bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of a concept album. "I think the release of the record has a conceptual element to it, for sure," he says. "I’m asking people, rather than take something home with them and play it, to invest their time in recorded music as performance and come out to an event. I’d been looking at photographs from the 19th century of people staring at phonograph cylinders, and for a lot of those people, that would’ve been the first time they’d ever heard recorded music in their lives.
"Even though the pictures are grainy, you can still see their fascination and astonishment, how wide-eyed they are. We take that for granted in the 21st century, and I wanted to see if I could get back to making music seem miraculous like that. If I couldn’t do that with the songs – which I can’t, because I have limitations as a musician – then maybe I could by creating this sculpture that would approximate that feeling of piquing people’s curiosity."
Inevitably, the wide-ranging nature of the project came to help shape the musical decisions thet Brennan made across Build a Thing of Beauty. "Some of these songs are five years old or more, and back then, I didn’t have this in mind yet. By the end of the project, I absolutely knew how I was going to release it, so that absolutely informed not just some of the lyrics, but also the fact that I was starting to play around with sampling old cylinder recordings. Building those different formats into the compositional process was definitely something I was doing by the time the project was at a more advanced stage. The first track, for instance – the reason that’s only two minutes long is because that’s all you can fit on a cylinder."
It helped, too, that Brennan’s straddling of two musical worlds – one academic, the other the Glasgow music scene he’s come to know so well – meant that he was well-connected on both sides; he could call in the likes of Andy Monaghan of Frightened Rabbit to help handle production duties, but also track down collaborators like Duncan Miller of Vulcan Records in Sheffield, one of the few places in the country still producing 78rpm records, or Owen Green at the University of Huddersfield, a creative coder who has helped with some of the digital formats. Ultimately, though, Build a Thing of Beauty is very much Brennan’s own doing – the ideas at the heart of it were his own, and will help mark him out as a musical maverick who’s produced something that will have long-lasting importance.
"I’m writing the article just now," he says, "so that’s one part of the life that the record will go on to have, an actual study about how much people have been historically willing to pay for recorded music and how that has changed over time. Beyond that, I don’t want to tour it like a normal record – I want to tour the ideas, so that could be a live performance, or it could just be me dropping a needle on a phonograph. The less traditional those methods are, the more interesting they are to me. In my 20s, what excited me about being a musician was touring around Europe in a van, playing in bars. Now, I’m more interested in whether I can get a crazy sculpture in a van and to a public library in Cornwall so that I can start some interesting discussions!"
Build a Thing of Beauty is released on 5 Apr via Chemikal Underground