Thursday, May 9, 2013

Chicago band JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound explores new musical ground on upcoming CD

Photo by Clayton Hauck

On its upcoming CD, "Howl," Chicago indie soul band JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound turns personal.

The album, its second for Chicago-based Bloodshot Records and third overall, is darker both musically and lyrically than its previous efforts. But that's just another step in the evolution of the band, which had gained attention for its inventive take on Wilco's "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," which JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound performed with Jeff Tweedy in 2011 at Wilco's Solid Sound Festival.

"Howl" will be released on May 21, and the band, www.jcbrooksandtheuptownsound, will celebrate its release by performing May 25 at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave., Chicago. The show starts at 9 p.m., and tickets are $28, available at

I had the chance to talk to JC Brooks about the new album.

Q - Great talking to you again. You guys just got back from playing in France. How are audiences over there different from those in the states? Have you been able to build a good fan base over there?

Thanks man, right back at ya.  Over there it feels like shows are based more on emotion because the language barrier keeps me from using too much banter.

They appreciate that we've come so far to play for them, and we're excited to be there so it creates this feedback loop of good energy that makes for great shows. This was just our first trip to France, but I feel like we made a bunch of new fans and laid a good foundation for a return trip.

Q - Of course, the band's new album comes out this month. It seems like "Howl" is darker musically and lyrically than your last album, "Want More." In sitting down to make "Howl," what were your goals and do you think you achieved them?

We wanted to make something a lot more personal that speaks to people who feel like they're alone or yearning. I just wrote from the heart - we all did, and I'm very excited about the result.

Q - I understand "Howl" is a song about young love. What are the major themes on the album?

Isolation, despair, loneliness, heartbreak...sounds like a total downer, but we tried to find a way to delve into these ideas without being all 'woe is me' about it.

Q - How did the "Rouse Yourself" campaign go? I understand celebrity guests will be featured in the video. Can you tell me about the concept for the video?

As of right now, it's still going on. Billy has a friend out in L.A. who was willing to help us out because he likes the band but he's a busy guy with a tight schedule so we had to get out out there and shoot some stuff before he was unavailable. I don't want to say too much but it has hints of Scorsese's "The King Of Comedy."

Q - Howard Bilerman, who has worked with such bands as Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, produced "Howl." How did you hook up with him and what do you think he brought to the table?

We came to work with Howard because we were looking for a producer who would be able to help us flesh out the new sound that we're working with.

After putting out lines to a couple of different guys, Howard seemed like he really understood what we were trying to do. We're working with different themes and new sounds -stylistically and with instrumentation (i.e., synths as opposed to Hammond, etc) but we didn't want to lose the rawness that was sort of the essence of our previous records.

Howard understood that and work with us in a really relaxed way. Based on our demos he had ideas coming into the process, but he did more gentle guiding than being dictatorial about it.

We rewrote stuff that was fun but didn't quite work, and he helped us find a common thread that brought all of the different sounds together.

Q - Who are your biggest musical inspirations and how do you think they play a part in your music?

As far as song writing it changes day to day because I feel like I'm constantly immersed in awesome music. For performance, its a lot of lady musicians - Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner.

They're all highly emotive, energetic performers who leave it all on the stage. I can't imagine someone going to one of their shows and not feeling like they got their money's worth.

Q - I know that you don't like the term neo soul in describing the band, but there seems to be continued interest in soul music, both on a local and national level. Why do you think soul music has such a long shelf life?

Hey, "neo-soul" is better than "soul-revivalist", lol.  I think that soul music continues to be popular in one form or another because it tends to come from a genuine place, which a lot of music does, but it also usually has a very pleasing groove, so the music pulls you in and you identify with the content at the same time.

It's also a genre associated with expressing strong ideas in tumultuous times

Q - This is your second record for Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. Being a Chicago band, is it extra special to be on a Chicago record label?

Absolutely! We live in a great city with an awesome musical heritage, and I'm glad to keep it all in the family - so to speak.

Q - Do you think you guys grew your fan base after playing at last year's Lollapalooza's festival in Chicago? Was that a privilege, knowing you were playing at a prestigious festival right in your backyard?

I know that we got in front of a lot of people who had never heard of us before, so in that respect, yes. It was super cool to be able to play Lollapalooza because there were a ton of incredible acts on the bill, and it's flattering to be included in their number - plus it was nice to only have to drive 15 minutes to load in.

Q - It frustrated me that radio stations like WXRT continued to only play your Wilco cover, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" even though you had a new album out, "Want More." Do you find it frustrating when radio stations overlook your current songs and don't give them a chance?

A little, but it's also a thrill to hear your work getting played on the radio. As much as I wished that any station would explore the album beyond that single, you have to trust that the programming directors know what they're doing. XRT's been super supportive of us, and we get a lot of great feedback from their DJs.

Q - How do you think the band has grown since it formed in 2007? Where do you see the band going from here?

I think that our sound has coalesced into something that is more uniquely us as opposed to a somewhat angular mix of our influences.

I honestly don't know where we're going to go from here, if you asked me a year ago what the next record with sound like I might have had some ideas but I also probably wouldn't have described what "Howl" turned out to be.

It's totally a growth process  - you never know where inspiration or influence is going to come from, and believe me, I'm really shitty at predicting the future :)

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