Brian Kassan (Wondermints, Chewy Marble)

 Brian Kassan

How did you get started as a musician?
BK: My parents played a lot of great music in the house when I was growing up—Bread, Chicago, CSN&Y, Creedence, Cat Stevens, Elton John.  My Dad had a great singing voice and played a bit of guitar.  My Mom won a piano on a game show when I was seven at which time the folks gave me piano lessons which I continued until I was about 15 or so and realized I’d rather be Elton John than Van Cliburn.  Not long after I really got into the Beatles and taught myself guitar as well. It was hard to be a keyboardist in a band as a teen because I had to lug a very heavy Fender Rhodes suitcase keyboard around… the guys would always have to help me, I think even my Dad helped me. I was a scrawny kid.

First some history, How did you get involved with the Wondermints and could you tell me about what you learned from the experience? Tell me a little bit about the Wondermints tenure playing at the Irish Mist and a bit about the Mello Cads. 
BK: I was in a band called Brief Candles with David Ponak at the time, who gave me their cassette and needless to say I was quite impressed.  Brief Candles played a garage show where the Wondermints—just Darian and Nick at the time—performed as well and I became friendly with them as we had a number of similar influences, etc.  Eventually when they began putting a band together to play out, I began playing bass guitar with them and later Mike D’amico joined as the drummer and it was a bone fide band.  I became a much better songwriter when presented with an opportunity to contribute as I did with “Silly Place”, “In a Haze” and “Time.” I learned my way around the recording studio and learned that it’s the details and care with your songcraft and production that make the difference between a ho-hum piece of work and something special.  I also learned that if you are going to make music with other musicians, it has to be fun to make it worthwhile or it’s not worth doing.

The Irish Mist days were fun.  It was a small dive bar and we were playing tons of fun covers that most bar bands wouldn’t attempt or even know for that matter…”Magic” “Go All The Way” “Love is Like Oxygen” “Telephone Line” and many others!  We’d play four sets a night, one of originals and the rest covers.  There was a hard core 20 or so folks who would show up.  I think we played there at least once a month for quite a while… I don’t think the regulars had any idea what we were doing.  I do remember our lawyer Craig Gates brought his dad…a David Gates (Bread) to see us one night.  He had a cowboy hat on and fit right in.  I also remember playing a Christmas show there with a high fever, sitting in a chair because I didn’t want to miss the gig.
 
Since I had played in a band with David Ponak prior to Wondermints as I had said, around the time that Chewy Marble started, David put together his neo-lounge combo the Mello Cads and asked if I was interested. It was also great fun.  I played keyboard in that band.  We’d do all sorts of cool lounge tunes, Paul Williams, TV themes, etc.  We’d play “Wives and Lovers” and David would come out wearing a robe and give some woman in the audience a spatula and a can on Manwich Sauce and tell her to “take care of her guy.” 

Are you still close to any of the old band members?
BK: I haven’t been in contact with them since my departure from the band, but I think what they have done for Brian Wilson is remarkable.  I’ve seen them perform a few times with Brian.  I have said hello to Probyn from time to time… he’s a lovely guy.

The first two Chewy Marble albums are notably sunny pop music, especially the first album. Did you want to go down a darker path for "Modulations" to try a new direction?
BK: The music was sunny, but lyrically, there has always been a certain darkness to my work.  “I Want You Only” from the first album upon careful inspection is about a stalker…not a love song per se.  “In the Next Five Minutes” from “Bowl of Surreal” was written from the point of view of a young person whom I had read about in the paper who had shot a couple classmates with his father’s gun—this we pre-Columbine. This is not to say it’s all dark, but I’ve always liked the dichotomy of a sunny melody and a dark lyric.  For Modulations, I had some life experience to draw from and during the period which some of the material was written, I did have some life-changing events.  I think I started writing about these events as a natural progression in my songwriting as they bubbled up in my subconscious.

The subjects here like "Somewhere Else" and "Hey Dad" are pretty serious personal stories. Are they based on your real life experiences and how did they evolve as songs?
BK: Absolutely.  Again, they were just part of my life experience and it just came out naturally.  “Hey Dad” was not really recorded for an album, but as a tribute to my late Dad and given to all my relatives.  When putting “Modulations” together, I decided that since I had taken the big step of actually singing lead vocal on some of the songs, and that my themes were becoming more personal that “Hey Dad” belonged there as well. 

The time between "Bowl of Surreal" and "Modulations is almost 6 years. Why did it take so long to get this album together?
BK: I had periods of writer’s block, upheaval in my personal life, scheduling time to record, having funds to record and just wanting to wait until I had an album that was of high quality and ready to put out there.  There were times when I wasn’t sure I’d finish it, but the desire to get this material out into the universe became a priority at a certain point.  It was recorded at several studios with friends and I’m really happy with the way it came out. I am also very grateful to Jerry and Brian at SideBMusic for taking the chance to release it. They had released my friend Nelson Bragg’s wonderful cd “Day into Night” and I thought they might like my stuff as well.

What do you find works best for your creative process when bringing a song together? Does it evolve from jams, riffs, lyrics?
BK: I usually sit with a guitar or at the piano until musical ideas emerge, then I sweat with a pen and paper for the more challenging part of songwriting—coming up with a lyric that is neither too obscure nor banal. The music usually comes much more easily and sometimes when I’m not even near an instrument.  But it’s usually music first, then lyrics.  It’s a matter of just spending time with an instrument…what did Edison say about invention it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?

Most embarassing moment on stage? 
BK: Not being able to figure out how to change the key on a keyboard module and having to abandon the keyboard and change the set with more guitar songs—but the guitar I had that night was new and wouldn’t stay in tune so it was just a nightmare…it was an IPO show sometime in the late 90s.  I was really disappointed because the Spongetones were on that bill and it certainly wasn’t one of our better shows.

What’s next for Chewy Marble?
BK: Chewy Marble has not performed for several years and has become mostly a recording project a la XTC or Steely Dan before they began touring again.  I’m not sure if the next album will be more of a solo project as Stu is a family man now and I have started singing the songs…. Whatever happens, I have new songs and intend to start recording soon, so there will be new music from me, I’m just not sure if it will be called a Chewy Marble cd.

Thanks for the interview. I’ll be sure to look out for Brian’s next musical adventure –a solo album, perhaps?

 

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