New Mongrels is Not Dead (Yet)

Written by on June 26, 2014 in Interviews, June 26, 2014, News To Shout About! - Comments Off

New MongrelsCollective artistic musicians New Mongrels have gotten together to create something that is joyful and meaningful to themselves and those alike. Their great skills create great albums including their most recent release “Raised Incorruptible”. Being currently led by Haynes Brook (guitar, vocals, mandolin, piano, ukelele, percussion) was the main man to discuss this release going in-depth with it’s details and some insight into the band as well.

AAM Introduce yourself, tell me what you do in New Mongrels? How long the band has been together?

Haynes: I’m Haynes Brooke, songwriter and co-producer for this New Mongrels project, and founder —- or maybe, re-founder — of the New Mongrels. Questions about how long the band has been together, or even exactly how “together” we are as a band, or even if we are technically a band at all, those are all tricky. We’re kind of an unusual outfit. The short answer we sometimes give is our group is 148 years old. Begs explanation, doesn’t it?

AAM Can I get a backstory on the band/ band biography?

Haynes: Sure. We initially grew out of the Atlanta/Athens music scene — basically a group of folks hanging out. Artists, actors, musicians, writers, all interested in what everyone else was doing – and especially the music side of things. A bunch of folks were in different bands or were playing solo, writing songs, creating music for theater, all kinds of stuff.

I wanted to figure out the best way for me to create music, basically, and I got interested in this eccentric musical ancestor of mine. He was deaf in one ear, shell-shocked, and just 17 when he came back from the Civil War and he promptly founded this group called the Smythe County Mongrels Society. His by-laws stated their purpose as “the joyful promotion, through song and rhythmic utterances, of a unified moral code for all creatures.” Apparently the group met to drink hard cider and sing the entire book of Psalms to their own improvised melodies. The charter of the group also included a provision that there be no restrictions to membership based on species. It seems dogs and possibly even horses were welcome.

This just struck me as cool. But it also resonated with my life at the time. I was making a living as an actor, but I was also writing songs at a crazy pace at that time. I didn’t have the desire — or the performance chops, truthfully — to be a solo musical artist. What I loved was the collective energy and creative spirit of the artists I was hanging around with — not just musicians, but actors and filmmakers — everybody feeding off of everyone else’s art.

It seemed to me the Smythe Country Mongrels Society was a blueprint for what I was wanting to have musically and artistically myself, so I brought the group back to life as the New Mongrels. Then when I moved to Seattle, I connected with another bunch of musicians, and mongrelized them. The same again when I moved to Los Angeles. At this point we’ve got musical mutts connected with us all over the place.

AAM Where is the band based out of and what is your music scene like there? Are there any local bands you could recommend?

Haynes: At the moment the band isn’t based out of any one city, but this project was built around my songs and I’m in Los Angeles, so there is an LA foundation to it, I suppose. But we still have an Atlanta and Seattle contingent, and some great input from one of our young Canadian mongrels up in Vancouver. So, music scene in all those cities? Way too big a question. I can tell you that in the LA area I’m a huge fan of Dawes and Father John Misty, both of whom I saw recently hanging out at each other’s shows. And of course Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros — amazing. But that’s hardly breaking news to anyone how great that band is.

AAM Can you explain as to how and why New Mongrels is a 148 year old band?

Haynes: Well, that’s basically true. Kinda true. In that we are operating under the same set of by-laws that the original Smythe County Mongrels Society used in 1866, and trying in a sense to carry on their spirit of friendship-based musical collaboration. Though when you do the math it means we only average one record every 49.3 years, so I guess we could be more productive.

AAM How did you guys come up with your band name? Does it have a meaning behind it or symbolize anything?

Haynes: I just took the Mongrels Society to start with, figured we were a new incarnation of it, and went from there. But I also like the idea of what a new mongrels might be — might imply. I think we’re all mixes of so many things, and any time you think you’re just one thing you’ve probably got it wrong.

AAM What bands have influenced your band and its sound?

Haynes: I give the other mongrels complete freedom — hmm, or almost complete, maybe — to contribute whatever they’re inspired to, so the sound comes from all of us, and that means in the aggregate there are an enormous number of influences. Personally, I can tell you I shall never forget my first “official” concert. KISS, in all their rock-god glory, with Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band opening. But of course by then I had already heard countless church choirs and sat through piano recitals and all the other kinds of musical influences you might encounter growing up in the south. I listened to whatever was on the radio, got lost in my parents records — The Four Tops, Herb Alpert and the Tiujuana Brass, lots of classical, swung between Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Springsteen, REO Speedwagon and The Grateful Dead. The Beatles, Bob Dylan of course. And Warren Zevon really helped me get through high school. The very first record I really wore the grooves out on, though, was the LP of Fess Parker as Daniel Boone, King of the Wild Frontier, if that tells you anything. I can still quote it to this day.

AAM What lyrical theme do you guys use in your music? What message do you want to send?

Haynes: To the extent there are any lyrical themes, they’ve evolved out of the material rather than being decided before. Analytically, I can see the passage of time, loss, letting go, ruination, regeneration, and celebration all reflected in the songs. But, and I know this will sound weird, I feel like the unifying theme, if there is one, is friendship — and that the songs themselves are friends to each other — balancing and complementing each other in the way that friends do. And that reflects what I feel is important about the band itself and its artistic endeavors. I hope people can really sense that feeling on the song “Freedom,” which I wrote for my late friend, the indomidable Thor Hesla, who was killed in a terrorist attack. That song is pure celebration, but that’s in keeping with who he was. Maybe it can all be traced back to my ancester Henry and his example — everyone gets damaged as they pass through life, but you can choose to respond to that with negativity or with “the joyful promotion of song and rhythmic utterances.” We go with that one. Plus dogs and beer.

AAM Why such a long gap between album releases from 1998′s “Big Cup Of Empty” up until 2014′s “Raised Incorruptible”? So these two releases would be the only one’s released under the New Mongrels name?

Haynes: Nope, there’s another release, also originally on Daemon Records, called “Not Dead (Yet)”. Very much worth checking out, by the way — lots of great music on that and it was really well reviewed. But that was a while back — that was our first release.

Anyway, the gap basically comes from everybody being incredibly busy with other artistic pursuits. Obviously, artists like Indigo Girls, Michelle Malone, Dudley Manlove are touring, playing and recording consistently with their own musical outfits. Amy Ray has made a couple of really brilliant solo records in addition to an enormous amount of work on behalf of social causes. Laura Hall was busy as the house musician for the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” among a bunch of other music projects. Mike Moynihan has been working as an actor and poker shark and traveling the world. Kubi Uner has been working as a film and television composer. And the list goes on.

But I guess the primary reason for the gap has been my own variety of projects in these in-between years. I’ve written a bunch of stage plays with music, starting with Texcalibur, a country-western take on the Arthurian legends I did with Mongrel Clark Taylor in Atlanta, and then several shows for Tim Robbin’s Actors’ Gang here in Los Angeles. I’m an actor as well as playwright, so these are really fun undertakings for me — I write myself a role in the play and also write the songs for it and do the sound design. Live theater is really in my blood — it’s my chance to get that audience connection I miss by not touring as a musician. I’ve also done TV and film work, a one-man show, won a screenwriting fellowship, been featured in ad campaigns, and I’ve spent a lot of time playing tournament-level ultimate frisbee. Plus, my wife and I have been procreating. Kids take time to raise properly!

At the moment I also write and produce an online series called THINK TANK with a great actor named Tim Hornor. It all sounds kind of schizophrenic when I think about it, but I know a lot of creative people who don’t fit in one category. So there’s been no gap creatively — just a gap between things with the New Mongrels name on them. For me, poetry, acting, playwriting, sound design, songwriting, improvisation, performance — they all seem like very natural and very connected forms of self-expression.

Having said all that — it’s great to come back to the process of making a record again. It seemed at long last like time for another New Mongrels collaboration, and I managed to get a bunch of us to commit to the project. I’m glad I did — I think this is really a special record.

AAM Who produced “Raised Incorruptible” and what was it like working with them?

Haynes: The process we go through to get a record together is so unwieldy, people with unpredictable schedules in different locations, on tour or whatever, that there’s no good way to control it. I needed a way to put this together that would embrace the chaos. That’s how we ended up with the perfect guy co-producing with me — film composer Kubilay Uner. Chaos is the norm on film work — insane deadlines, sudden changes, conflicting directives, and of course explosions, dialogue, robot sounds, ambient beds — all that stuff is part of your everyday musical vocabulary.

The moment I knew I wanted Kubi to help me with this record, though, was when I saw a live performance of his wild operatic Piece for Orchestra and Incoherent Diva — you’ve got musicians playing this complex orchestration and a massive Soprano in viking horns and stilleto heels lurching into the audience as she sings — and it’s all written right into his score. My kind of Mongrel.

He was totally unphased that I’d be bringing a motley assortment of tracks from my garage studio to him over an uncertain time frame with an evolving vision of how it should sound. Hell, he’s a punk band bass player with classical training and his studio is full of weird-ass instruments he’s built himself — he was born for this job. It didn’t matter to him if I walked into his studio with an instrument, an itinerant mongrel, or a hard drive full of location recordings, he was up for whatever, as long as he could keep his coffee/beer equilibrium on target.

AAM. Is there any story or concept behind the “Raised Incorruptible” title?

Haynes: Good question. The phrase comes technically from the King James Bible, but it really connected with me via Handel’s Messiah, from the amazing section called “The Trumpets Shall Sound,” which I can recommend to anybody no matter what their musical tastes.

I started thinking about the great dual meanings of the words if you take them on their own, and I ended up writing a song that asked the question, Were you raised incorruptible? To me this is about one generation imparting integrity to another through their example, but also about the promises and implications of faith, and about change — what is good and bad about change. The archaic meaning of the words is also fantastic, and the phrase has enormous resonance with certain generations due to its frequent use at funerals. Whew! — it’s loaded with overtones for me, and I felt the song deserved to be the title track for the record. The entirety of the lyrics for that song are in the form of a series of questions.

AAM. Who did the cover art for “Raised Incorruptible” and how much input did you have on it?

Haynes: I went through dozens of album cover prototypes myself, trying to get a handle on what direction would suit this project. I wanted some manifestation of the concept of a “new mongrel;” that is, some creature part one thing, part another — but in some new way. We are all obviously mixtures in so many ways: of two parents, different traditions, various races, physical and mental sides of ourselves, public and private personas, sacred and profane, old and new, it goes on and on.

Anyway, I had lofty ambitions for the album art but my attempts were falling short. One day my daughter Elizabeth, who is a talented photographer and designer, finally had enough. I had showed her yet another of my failed mock-ups and she shook her head and said, “Fine, I’ll do it.” She emerged a little while later with our album cover pretty much as-is.

The photo is hers. The figure immersed in the river carries a lot of symbolic weight in the tradition I grew up in, and it connects with the lyrics of the title track, “Raised Incorruptible.” The great half-human, half-deer figure rising from the water is from an itinerant print-making outfit that we encountered on Orcas Island in the San Juans. All the New Mongrels records have featured an image of some soulful creature that seems to inhabit more than one world. This is the latest incarnation.

AAM. Is it important for you to paint visual pictures with the songs?

Haynes: I’ve never been asked that before — great question! I’m not sure I try to do that. I definitely am connecting with my own series of visual pictures as I write, but I feel like my job is to really descend into and connect with those personal visions and then let the words come out from that unfiltered. I guess I believe that if my own emotional connection is strong that the lyrics will possess some of the evocative power of the original vision. And of course there is some alchemical connection between truthful words and the melody and phrasing that carries them — that has to be right. After that, I don’t really think about whether a picture has been painted. Maybe I should think more that way — the question is kind of inspiring, actually. I can also tell you that I frequently write lyrics based on the emotional journeys I’ve explored by playing different characters as an actor. That’s a very rich way to expand empathy and to learn what if feels like to stand and speak as another person.

AAM. How has the band’s sound evolved from “Big Cup Of Empty” to “Raised Incorruptible”?

Haynes: From our first record, “Not Dead (Yet)”, to “Big Cup of Empty” to the newest one, the sound has certainly evolved in some subtle ways, but the truth is, we don’t really aim for a “sound” for the record as a whole, we just try to give each song its own fullest expression — kind of follow where it wants to go. Then when they all get together, collectively, that’s our sound. The biggest shifts have to do with lead vocals — we’re one of those bands where you will hear different people taking the lead depending on the song. I sing some, but other songs are better served by having someone else’s voice at the forefront. Amy Ray, truly one of the great singers of her generation, sings the lead on two songs, including “Freedom,” the tribute to our mutual friend Thor Hesla. Michelle Malone brings her amazing voice to a couple more. But the biggest change for people familiar with our previous records will be hearing some brand new New Mongrels on “Raised Incorruptible.”

In fact, the inclusion of some young members into the Mongrels was part of the reason we decided to make another record — to share the wealth of new talent that’s come into the group. Lucy Brooke is just starting high school, but she contributed a lot to the record, not just singing but with arrangement ideas. People will also hear a new voice handling lead vocals on a few songs — Katie Green, a super-talented young musician who is part of the Canadian chapter of the organization. She’s got the gifts to be a star if she wants to pursue it. I think at the moment she’s leaning towards becoming a doctor, though. I’m just glad we got her spectacular voice and her great violin work on this record — her contributions really caused a bunch of songs to snap into focus.

AAM. Was your songwriting and recording process any different than usual for this CD?

Haynes: Yes and no. From a songwriting point of view, I’m pretty much always writing songs of some kind or another. When I decided to make this record, I worked through a combination of my newest songs, the ones I was most immediately connected with, and some older songs that seemed like they might be looking for a home. I usually write on guitar, but I had been banging on an old upright piano a lot in the last year and that brought a different feel to my compositions. Anyway, once I had a big bunch of songs to work with, I started the process of winnowing them into something the size of an album.

The production process itself began with a bunch of demos I made so I could inform the mongrels what songs were in the running and give a hint as to their possible direction. For this task I teamed up with an amazing drummer and vocalist named Ken Palmer. He’s a guy that Tim Robbins brings in to sit at a drum set in the rehearsal room at his LA Theater company (The Actors’ Gang) for week after week as they improvise music and rhythm and movement for their stage shows. Ken is a super flexible, really inventive drummer and his improv training — he’s also a terrific actor — really shows in his music. He’s just way open to what the song is wanting to say. We created this super free bunch of low-fi demos and disseminated those to any mongrels interested in being involved in the final record.

Then, once we got into the meat of the recording process, each new person who came by swung the project in a new direction. No ego, no bullshit, no tension, just really talented friends and colleagues coming together on a project to express their art and make something beautiful. As a production strategy, I love it.

AAM. What’s the story behind the song and video for “Raised Incorruptible” ?

Haynes: I’ve already talked a little about the song, since it lends its name to the album as a whole. But I can always say more. I’m not interested in telling anybody what this song means, but I can tell you that if you take the lyrics just at what you might think is “face value,” the first impression, you’ve likely missed a big part of what I’m shooting for. But that, by the way, is perfectly fine. It’s obviously my intention, my desire, really, that this song (and all the others) belong to the listener, and what it means to them is what it means to them. But if you listen to the lyrics as a series of questions, it may tilt the meaning in a new direction.

The video is meant to convey the sense of mystery and power and beauty that for me is embedded in the melody and words. You see a shadow come to life, climbing, falling — these are all echoes of the ancient, traditional meaning of the words, “we shall be raised incorruptible.” What is a person made of? What is left behind when a person is gone? And of course the lyrics continually refer to going down to the river — and we found an insanely beautiful stretch of river for this video — in a place called Three Rivers, California. I can’t wait to get back there.

AAM. What’s your favorite song on the album right now?

Haynes: I go back and forth — ask me next week and it might be different. But I’m really enjoying two at the moment: Seems, and Heal My Heart. The title cut I also think has stood up to endless repeat listenings through the mixing and mastering process without ever losing its emotional sweep. So, there’s three. I’m sorry, did you ask for one?

AAM. What are your expectations for the CD?

Haynes: I expect it to be the thing that finally breaks the partisan logjam in Congress. We also anticipate the CD curing a lot of chronic low back pain and improving the habitat of several endangered marine mammals. If, on top of that, we make some people happy with some great music, that would be awesome — but maybe that’s unrealistic?

18. What are your upcoming tour/show plans and plans for this year?

Haynes: We won’t be touring as the Mongrels, even though it would be a blast. But the logistics are just too complicated. You’re likely to see various Mongrels playing various venues, but not in our configuration — as part of their individual acts. I might put together a reduced, LA-Centric version of the New Mongrels for some shows, but nobody can commit to going on the road at this point. I’m trying to concentrate on two things now — getting the word out about Raised Incorruptible, since I think it has the potential to bring some beauty and happiness to people, and creating new music. Something I hope will lead to another New Mongrels record sooner rather than later.

AAM. Any final words of wisdom?

Haynes: Yes. Playing music for fun with other people is one of the greatest and most valuable of human pastimes. Also, from time to time it can be useful to ask yourself if you are actually doing what you think you are doing. Finally, on an informational note, time spent watching VCU basketball will not be deducted from your life span.

AAM. Is that your final answer?

Haynes: Hey, you asked, I answered.