O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!
THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE BRENNAN
by Kier Byrnes
There ain’t nobody in this town like Dennis Brennan. Hell, if you like good ole’ rock ’n’ roll, if you like your country licks with a little soul, if you like your songs with a health dose of heartfelt loneliness and reckless abandon, there ain’t anyone anywhere like Dennis Brennan. It took six years and a whole lot of heart to put together his newest CD, Engagement. It was worth the wait; he’s a true poet, a hell of a rocker, and a monster of a showman. On top of that, he’s also probably one of the hardest working men in the business, logging in more shows in one month than most bands gig in their lifetime. Player for player, he arguably has one of the most talented squads for his band: the phenomenal Andrew Mazzone on bass, the timeless Billy Beard on drums, and two axemen, Kevin Barry and Duke Levine, who are, in my opinion, the top two guitarists in the area. This whole crew is in a league of their own, and Dennis Brennan is the captain.
Noise: What separates Dennis Brennan from other musicians?
Dennis: Either thirty years or three feet.
Noise: Who are some of your influences?
Dennis: Mose Allison, Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Rogers, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, The Sonics, The J. Geils Band, Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Buddy Boy Hawkins, Justine Brennan, Jake Brennan, and Bing Crosby
Noise: You play with a lot of guys and the band can change from night to night. How does this affect each night’s show? Are there any favorite combos of players that work better than others?
Dennis: Actually, the band has been remarkably stable over the last three years. This has made the shows much more consistent and has also allowed us to constantly change and add songs, which is the key to keeping a band and its audience fresh. I’m a lucky man to be working with Billy, Andrew, Kevin, and Duke.
Noise: If you go on the road, who would you bring?
Dennis: I would bring those four gentlemen, however I don’t think we’ll be going on the road. It’s very expensive and the romance of piling in a van to play a 40 minutes set in a cellar 300 miles away and then sleep on some fan’s floor has, shall we say, waned. “Gentleman Touring,” as Sandman used to call it would be nice but you need a hit record for that. If there’s any touring to be done, I’ll do it solo.
Noise: The music industry has changed a lot since you were in your first band. What do you think of the music industry now and the direction it’s headed?
Dennis: My first professional band was The Martells. We played soul music, whatever that is. Our repertoire was all R&B played with a punk edge. Of course we didn’t think it was punk, but now when I listen to those tapes… that was 1975 to 1980. We played Great Scott three nights a week, twice a month, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. That helps you build up your song list. I don’t think about the music industry—the trick is to get the music industry to think about you. The people who run the seminars at SXSW and NEMO will tell you that’s wrong, and that’s why I’m a nobody. I beg to differ. Hire someone who you trust to think about the music business while you write some songs. Oh, and keep one eye on that someone you trust.
Noise: How many shows do you do a year? And how many are local?
Dennis: I average about three shows a week, almost all of them local or in state. Maybe a few a year in New York City. It helps that I have three different bands, The Dennis Brennan Band, The Iodine Brothers, and The White Owls. And about a thousand songs. No brag, it’s a fact. We can’t be doing the same set every week, you have to mix it up. Hats off to the musicians I play with for having big ears and the courage to use them. Learning songs on the spot is not something everyone can do well.
Noise: How long have you been playing with each of the guys in your band and how did you meet them?
Dennis: Kevin, 12 years, I met him in a bar. Duke, 11 years, I met him in a bar. Billy, five years, I met him in a bar. Andrew, five years, I met him in a bar.
Noise: Do you get anxious before you go on nowadays or is that old hat?
Dennis: I was, I think a reluctant performer as a young man. I didn’t really get comfortable in my own skin as a performer until I got out of a “band” situation. When you’re a solo act, if things go wrong there’s no one to blame but yourself. I still get butterflies, I think it’s natural and healthy.
Noise: What are some of your favorite personal rock ’n’ roll moments?
Dennis: Opening the show for Barry & the Remains at Westborough Town Hall with my first band, The Paranoids, when I was 15. Backing up Peter Wolf as he sang the great Otis Rush song “Homework” last night at the Lizard Lounge.
Noise: If you had to pick three musicians you haven’t already played with, who would they be?
Dennis: Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Chuck Berry.
Noise: I’ve been following you for the past several years but you’ve been on the scene much longer than that. How did you get started playing music?
Dennis: I was a radio kid. AM radio. All different types of music on the same play list all day long. Imagine that. These days everyone has their own personal radio—their iPod. That’s okay, but it sure does lessen the chance of a human conversation about the music you love.
Noise: You’ve spent many late nights in bars and a lot of time in front of amps. Most people would have burned out a couple of decades ago. What’s your secret?
Dennis: Don’t play too loud and know when to stop.
Noise: Half your new album was done in the studio, half was done live. Both parts are amazing. Were there any overdubs on the live songs? The recordings are great and Duke’s solo on “Hard Traveling” is a hell-bent masterpiece. It’s hard to believe there weren’t any overdubs.
Dennis: Absolutely no overdubs. We recorded ten shows and had a lot of song versions to choose from. We’ve been playing together a long time now. It can get pretty intense on any given night. We [the band] tend to forget that. We really didn’t want to record the live shows, but Tom Dube, our soundman at the Lizard and producer of the live portion of Engagement, insisted. After the first night we forgot we were recording. Good things happen when you’re just playing the song and thinking about the lyric and not worried about so-called mistakes.
Noise: How has your songwriting has progressed, both stylistically and lyrically, over the years?
Dennis: I’m a better editor. I get to the point quicker with less screwing around. “Personal Assistant” on Engagement is only 2:15.
Noise: How do you write your songs?
Dennis: A deadline helps. Pressure is a great cudgel. It helps if money is involved too. Nothing moves the creative process better than the threat of financial doom. As far as the actual writing goes I try to stay away from a formula. It’s best to try a different path all the time.
Noise: What is your favorite song on Engagement?
Dennis: “It Ain’t What You Think It Is,” Brian Templeton, late of The Radio Kings sings the high third on that with me. He sings his ass off too!
Noise: How did you come up with Engagement for an album name?
Dennis: Again, pressure, deadline along with too many beers…
Noise: Your favorite places to play around town?
Dennis: The Middle East Downstairs is quite nice, The Regent Theatre has a cool vibe, and of course the Lizard Lounge. (The Dennis Brennan Band Engagement release show is at The Lizard Lounge on Friday and Saturday, 5/18 and 5/19… Ed)
Noise: Your son, Jake Brennan, is quite a rocker and is well on his way to creating his own legend. What is life like in such a musical family?
Dennis: Jake and his sister Justine were big influences on me just by what they listened to. I think they picked up some stuff they like from me too. Musical disagreements were not uncommon and sometimes vehement but that’s all part of being in a family isn’t it?
Noise: Any advice for the younger bands starting out today?
Dennis: Don’t be too blue when your band breaks up. All bands break up. Real musicians continue, somehow. If it’s in you it’s gotta come out.