by Lindsay Crudele
Four hours a day, the law firm requires typing. When that's through,
once a week, he visits the track, watches the horses run around, and
tries to break even on twelve bucks.
Brett Rosenberg is not trying to paint a glamorous picture.
Alienation and anger is the theme of his new solo record, and his
explanation of how he spends his non-musical time is painted through a
lens no rosier.
“Whatever scene I'm in,” he said, during a recent late-summer
evening at a Harvard Square coffee shop, “I always feel like I'm the
socially retarded nerd version of that music.”
Brett has light curly hair, a noble-arced nose and stood only a few
inches taller than this writer. But one would think, from his
self-characterization of self, that the subject in question would be
well into his grizzled middle age. He is not; Brett is 27. His sense of
humor is so deadpan, one can sometimes hardly tell when he is joking.
Drop Dead Air is the title of the new record, a more frustrated,
adult approach. Still, the record manages to capture an easy-going '70s
feel that's common to Brett's affections to older sounds. But it was
born out of what Brett, a native of upstate New York before he came to
Boston , described as a particularly gloomy period.
The first incarnation of his first band, The Brett Rosenberg
Problem, disintegrated after members relocated this spring. “Most bands
have a three to five year shelf life,” he said. “Mine lasted five and a
half years.” Brett quit his job, played the subway for some months, and
ran out of money. He took what he described as a dead end, entry-level
job in Waltham , and he commuted in the middle of winter, walking 20
minutes through a forest.
“I'd go home and all of a sudden I had all these songs again,” he
said. “It was a more soulful kind of existence. You get older, you get
more alienated from everything, I think.”
This, from the songwriter known time and time again in print as a
“boy wonder” whose early works found him lauded around town as a prince
of power pop. That's a label that Brett resists and privately rejects,
although he's embraced it for simplicity's sake when marketing himself.
A tour last year with Gram Parker had Brett enjoying what he calls a
great opportunity, but the motions of the tour refreshed his thinking
about his direction. “People kind of hit their late 20s, and things
that were second nature yesterday, like getting onstage and just
rocking, you realize how stupid a lot of the stuff you do is,” he said.
“I realized my tools weren't really worth it anymore. My thing was to
go up there, play some Stones-y riffs, act drunk even if I wasn't, and
kind of stumble around. That's so stupid. I needed to come up with
Growing up in upstate New York , Brett said that he began writing
music as a young child as accompaniments to Winnie the Pooh themes.
Through elementary school, he recorded psychedelic-styled songs,
“whining about pillows and fruit and chocolate and stuff, trying to
make a psych record even though I didn't do a single drug until I was
18,” he said.
And grade school was, from the sounds of it, the beginning of his
lessons as a self-described outsider. “I was trying to do stuff that
wouldn't get my ass kicked,” he said. But, “for an entire year, I spoke
with an English accent because I was really into the Beatles,” he
explained. “I had no friends. I just got my ass kicked. I had no social
skills, and I was an only child in the suburbs of Albany , New York .”
A sojourn into metal in high school at least resulted in some
personal satisfaction, although bringing his guitar to school to play
solos attracted more of the same sort of attention from peers. “People
were laughing at me, calling me a poser,” he recalled. “Not much has
Whether or not anyone calls that word to mind when thinking of Brett
now, what surely does rise to the front is that “power pop” label. It's
a moniker that could be, to Brett, as tired as the now-worn joke asking
just what IS Rosenberg 's problem, anyway?
“When I started a band in 2000, The Shods were still together,” he
said. “People who were 28 then are 34 now, and it's just a much
different world. They remember The Clash the first time around. The
punk thing was very song-oriented, even the post-punk thing.
“These people don't write songs,” he said, referring to what he
hears in a lot of his contemporaries. “They write parts, and they just
put them together. And if you write songs, then you're just labeled
power pop. I've given up and just called myself power pop just to reach
an audience, but if I'm power pop,” he said, “The Eagles, The Beatles,
The Stones and 80 percent of commercially released music made before
1982 is power pop.”
He points to The Rudds' bandmate and roommate John Powhida as a key
element of support. “He was 14 in 1980, so just having all that
influence coming at me all the time kind of reminds me that there is
something vital still alive in that kind of music,” he said. There are
very few modern bands that seem to pique the interest of Brett. A
current playlist boasts a 1979 Bonnie Raitt record, as well as Paul
McCartney and Wings' Back to the Egg , and some Billy Joel. Teenage
exploits into indie rock, later mainly Guided by Voices, sent Brett
thinking that anything from two decades prior was superior to anything
being produced these days, and there he remained.
“A lot of people don't listen to anything before 1990,” he said.
“That's kind of wild. They get scared off by the '80s and they just
don't go any further back.”
For Powhida's part, he speaks with admiration and affection for
Brett, with whom he lives in Arlington . In an email, he referred to
Brett as possessing a “brilliant mind,” wickedly funny with a
particularly local—as in upstate—bent to his sense of that. He lauded
him as a songwriter, and applauded what he observes as a recent upswing
in Brett's progress as a technical musician.
“It would be an ultra boring band if Brett ever left The Rudds,” he
said. “He always seems to encourage my edgier and wackier ideas. He
seems to fight for things to be better, and will speak his mind in the
most frank terms to make his point.”
Tony Goddess described Brett as a hard-working, creative musician.
“I think Brett's new album will eventually be seen as the launching
point for a second musical round of great records,” he said.
At a recent rehearsal of the Problem, Brett tried out a number of newly minted songs on his current Problem-mates.
“Those guys pretty much got everything after four or so tries,
'cause they're just great musicians with great ears,” he remarked, the
following morning. “It's fun to play with them and hang out with them
for three hours just playing music. I enjoyed it.”
A heavily Hall & Oates-esque, '70s swing characterized the new
songs. “Mary Mary” features a lovely, lilting piano hook that Brett
self-deprecatingly outed as reminiscent of Coldplay's “Clocks” upon
some further inspection.
Most modern bands don't whet Brett's musical appetite. A rant about
modern bands has Brett condemning a “down stroke obsession” by many
bands, as well as “heavy music with a guy who can't really sing and
kind of whines under it all right down to the same gloomy four-chord
progressions.” Democratic song creation fares poorly under Brett, as
does exorbitant aping of The Pixies and Sonic Youth, as well as the
“Thom Yorke vocal plague,” which Brett means that it allows the writer
to avoid worrying about lyrics. And, there's grunge, the specter of
which, Brett said, still haunts us. “People are more song deaf than
they used to be,” he said.
As for his own career, Brett is mapping out future touring
opportunities, playing out bi-weekly with The Rudds and figuring out
the Problem, with a new lineup (including Richard Adkins, formerly of
Hip Tanaka, Ethan Kreitzer of The Charms, and Jim Collins of The Paula
“I'm just trying to make something more human, more touchable,” he
said. The first band, apartment, girlfriend, and job all took place
within the same year, after moving to Boston to live with former
bassist Geoff Hayton Van Duyne, a fellow upstater with whom Brett first
lived in Boston . “I got a late start at a lot of things,” he said.
“I kind of wanted to get back to where I was with that. I used to be
able to go to into a subway and people would pay attention. It seemed
like I needed it, like I was desperate for something. I want to bring
that quality to it, rather than making more smug-ish rock, reference
rock or whatever.”
As for the Problem, the name, despite the new arrangement, will stay
the same for convenience's sake. “It's kind of like Bruce Springsteen
has the E Street Band live but all the records are called “Bruce
Springsteen.” In a way, that band's sound is gone because that band is
gone, but the late name lives on for the sake of convenience… But it's
a good band, and it sounds a lot different.”
Brett and Geoff had been exchanging letters between New York and
Boston , where Geoff lived. Geoff explained that Brett had left college
on a Thursday, and was on a bus to Boston by Friday after a letter from
Geoff came explaining how great the Boston music scene was.
“No arrangements, no warning, no update to his parents who, with the
aid of the police, eventually tracked him down,” said Geoff.
He explained his impressions of Brett further.
“Brett Rosenberg is one of the smartest people I've ever met, top
three anyway,” he said. “His mind is going five times the speed of
anyone he talks to.”
He emphasized that he believes Brett's work will be marked by a meaningful longevity, his songs studied for years to come.
“People are going to keep coming back to Destroyer ,” he said.
“They're going to trip over ‘Shocktwins,' and call their friend, amazed
at this guy neither of them had heard of, and their band will cover
‘Love Night.' They're going to wonder why the fuck the tripe that
succeeds commercially does, while like Mission of Burma at the end of
the first wave, Brett half-fills mid-sized clubs. And they're going to
have their minds blown by whatever he does next.”
Brett said he looks ahead to studding his future calendar with some tour dates for The Brett Rosenberg Problem.
“I don't know what my plans are,” he said. “I'm just a guy with
really bad credit at this point. I don't really have any credentials.”