Brett Detar has been a part of the modern music scene since 1996, including a nine year run with alternative/indie band The Juliana Theory, but after a decade in the rock and metalcore scene, Brett took a hiatus, returning in 2010 with his first solo album, Bird in the Tangle. Fans of his previous work, however, were in for a surprise. Brett’s return stems from classic country and folk roots, rather than the hard rock of before.
I was able to sit down with Brett to discuss, among other things, what brought about the stylistic change, how he feels about his first ever solo tour, and why exactly he has a Twitter account.
1. I guess the big question you’ve probably been getting since your album came out would be: what kind of brought about the change in sound from your work with Juliana Theory and Zao? Obviously country is a big leap from that.
I’ve never heard that one before! (laughs) It was definitely an organic thing. I don’t believe in forcing music for one, and I certainly didn’t do it for commercial reasons because I knew right off the bat that I would lose a large portion of any audience I had left over by making such a stylistic jump. But the whole thing that’s driven me the whole time I’ve made music my whole life was that I kind of had to follow what I thought I needed to do musically. I just had to follow, you know, the muses or whatever — my inspiration. And anybody who knew me really well knew that towards the end of the Theory days I wasn’t into rock music and I wasn’t really listening to rock music. I pretty much listened even at that point for a couple years to nothing but old country and folk and stuff like that. So, really it was just a natural progression. It was just what I was into and what I’ve been into for probably about eight years. So… it just kind of came about that way.
2. I saw in another interview that Johnny Cash was your “gateway drug”, as you called it, into country music. Was that your first time really listening to country or was it just one of those right time, right place, things just kind of clicked to you things?
Yeah, I was actually in a car with a friend and he put on Live at San Quentin, and something about it when I heard it just kind of clicked, and I don’t know… I think it was the rawness first and foremost. Obviously, Cash is such a presence, and you could sense authenticity dripping out of every pore of, you know, his being.
I think that I had, for years being in a rock band, slowly gotten further and further away from the essence of songs and the essence of song writing. I think I started to think more about guitar parts and more about production and more about overdub and all this stuff, and hearing this stripped down sparse music, immediately I was like, “There you go, Brett. You forgot.” That’s what songs are: it’s the vocal and it’s the lyric and it’s the feeling you get from the melody, and all those other things if you have they’re great, but basically they’re the icing on top and not the cake. And I think just hearing Cash, literally it was like time stopped and I heard this music and it just totally grabbed my attention and I went out and bought like three or four of his records next day and just kind of dove head first into that. From there it just kind of spiraled into Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons and then it just kept going.
3. So have you gotten any feedback from fans of Juliana Theory and Zao? Has anybody made that journey with you and had their eyes opened up to the country music style thanks to you album?
A lot more than I expected, which has been really cool. In the back of my mind I had hoped that I could get a couple people to say, “I’ve never listened to any music like this before and now I’m starting to like it,” and I’ve had that happen a few times, and that’s been really cool. In general, the other thing I’ve experienced is that, you know, a lot of people have grown up in the same way I’ve grown up, and I think sometimes when you get older your tastes change and you mellow out or whatever it is. But I think a lot of people who are fans of my older bands years ago have kind of gone on a similar life journey that I have and are into similar music now, so it wasn’t nearly as cut and dry as I thought it would be: a lot of people just automatically disliking it. So it’s been very encouraging. And again, I don’t know, I think that people can sense authenticity and they can sense when an artist is doing something that comes from their heart, and I think that even some people who might not love it stylistically at least realize that it’s real, and I think people still relate to that.
4. So one of things that struck me listening through your album was the varied styles: you have your country western ballad, but then you have songs like “Devil’s Gotta Earn” and “Cocaine Whiskey Heroin” with that Appalachian/bluegrass style. Was it a conscious decision to mix those things together or did it just kind of come about through the songwriting and recording process?
It was both. It was almost like a kid in a candy store when I went to Nashville to make the record and I realized, “Oh my goodness. I can do all these different things because there are all these guys who are such amazing players and that are so well versed in a lot of this different music.” At least in the case of “Cocaine Whiskey and Heroin”, that was basically a legitimate bluegrass band. “Devil’s Gotta Earn” was different because I played everything on that — except drums — but it kind of had a little bit more of like a guy putting his own weird spin on it kind of thing. But absolutely that whole seven or eight year journey of exploring all that type of music — I spent a lot of time listening to delta blues and a lot of time listening to a lot of bluegrass and old-timey music — and so I tried at least in the best way I could at the time to kind of just do a bunch of that stuff melded together, I guess.
5. Now on your website it says you had about fifty songs when you went to record the album. What was the process like of narrowing that down to your final eleven?
It’s funny you should ask, because I just started doing that the night before last for the next record, this time it’s 150. They’re sparse demos, in the sense where a lot of times it doesn’t have a lot of lyrics, it just has a little bit of lyrics and mostly the whole melody of the song. I guess what I tend to do now is I just listen to everything in a couple sittings or whatever, because I always just record stuff on this crappy mini-recorder — now I just record it on my iPhone — and I’ll go back later, usually a it’s a couple months after, and just listen back and listen to what jumps out really. Sometimes I write lyrics first and that directs the song, but a lot of times I write the melodies and the overall feel first, just kind of a vibe, and just listen and see more than anything else what moves me and what jumps out as being better than the other things and I try to just then focus on those and try to develop them into complete ideas. I think about half the record was that way and half of it was me just flat out sitting and writing a full song in one sitting. Same thing, though. Still coming back later and deciding what was actually good and what wasn’t.
6. So obviously if you have 150 songs ready, you clearly have something down there in the songwriting department. Do you have any sort of rituals or a favorite instrument to write on or does it just kind of come to you organically?
Well, I think most of the time I just write on an acoustic guitar or my banjo, but lately I’ve been writing a little bit more on my piano too, and I think that’s basically because I didn’t have a piano before but my brother-in-law indefinitely lent me his piano, so now I have a piano so I’ve been writing a little bit more on that. More or less, if I’m inspired lyrically, then I will probably just sit down and just flat out write lyrics and maybe work them into a song later, but a lot of times, most likely I just sit down with an instrument and just start singing and usally the first couple things I sing are the best ideas and so I try to have my recorder turned on right away and usually the first couple things I sing kind of feel like a song. Nothing too crazy.
7. A lot of songs on Bird in the Tangle come from a personal place. Is it kind of difficult baring your soul like that on the album or is it more cathartic?
It’s both. I really never thought of it as being really difficult because I think part of being an artist is putting yourself out there and for me I think that just goes with the territory. So more than anything else, I’ve always thought of songwriting, you know, as more of a cathartic thing where sometimes you can have something you’re going through and a lot of times when you write a song about it, that kind of helps you deal with whatever it is, maybe even forget about it.
8. And you’re gearing up for your first solo tour here in September. How have you been getting ready for that? Will you have backing musicians or will it just be you and your instruments in a more intimate setting?
It is just me. I’ve only done two shows so far, so I’ve only done two this way, and those were the first two times in my entire life that I’ve ever played totally by myself, so it’s been a very different experience. To me, it sort of hearkens back to what I was saying about the Cash thing, hearing songs really stripped down, and I think obviously at some point I’d love to take a band with me too, but right now I feel like the best way to kind of develop as a solo artist is to just force myself to rely on no crutches.
Even what I was saying about the production thing, in the past I would rely on production on records to make a song quote unquote better and before I was about to play my first show, about two months ago, I was going to get some other musicians to play with me and I was really nervous to play by myself, and I was like, “I want to get somebody else, a couple guys, or at least one guy so I’m not the only person on stage.” And about a week before the show I just decided, “You know what? The best way to face your fear is to just face it and not rely on anybody.” So I kind of feel like that’s what I should be doing right now, just being solo completely for at least a little while.
9. You’re touring with Nick 13. How did you two get connected for this tour?
It was a relatively simple one. My manager manages Nick and I had, I guess, saw his tour announcement, that he was going on tour, and it didn’t look like he had anybody opening the tour, so I just called my manager and I was like, “Hey! I think I’ll do those shows if you want me to play and he’ll have me.” And basically he was like, “Yeah, let me ask Nick,” and Nick said, “Yeah, sounds like a good idea.” Things don’t often line up like that. One thing I know about the music industry is that it doesn’t usually go anywhere like you want it to.
10. So you’ve been offering Bird in the Tangle for free on your website since it came out. What was the thought process behind that? Was it just to get your music out to a larger audience?
Yeah. Knowing that there was no label and nobody behind it and it was just me, I figured more than anything else I just wanted people to hear the music, and the easiest way to get people to hear it is to just give it to them and hopefully at some point people will like it and it would spread organically.
11. I’ve seen you’re on Twitter and have a Facebook fan page. Has the social media stuff helped you get that music out there?
It definitely has for sure.
12. So what’s next for you, musically or otherwise? You said you’re working on a new album. Can you give many details about that?
It’s a little in early the stage at this point to figure exactly out what and when that will be, but it’s definitely going to be a natural extension from Bird in the Tangle. It’ll be along the same lines for sure. So I’m working on that, and, doing, you know, I just write a lot. I have a movie coming out that I scored, coming out in February from Paramount, called The Devil Inside, and I think I have hopefully in the near future a couple other ones I’m going to be doing music for too. So just kinda trying to keep busy doing music.
13. That’s awesome. So this last one is totally off topic, but I noticed this on your Facebook page and I have to ask: where were you when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2009, because I am a fellow Pens fan.
Oh yeah, I’m religious about this. It’s good to know you are as well. I was in Los Angeles, at my house, watching it. What’s funny, to take it back to the question before this when you asked about social media, I actually joined Twitter the day that we won the Cup so that way I could tweet about it because I didn’t know where else to talk. So I literally only joined Twitter to brag about the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup. (laughter) So yeah, sometimes on a game that big, like a game 7 in the finals, I didn’t really want to go somewhere in LA and go to like a sports bar. I wanted to have complete and total control over the situation, so I usually watch big games at my house. I have to admit it wasn’t as fun as the first and second Cup wins when I was twelve and thirteen and I had every single neighborhood kid over at my parents’ house and we all played hockey, and so there was probably twenty of us going crazy. It wasn’t as fun as that, but you know, it was still exciting.
Well, Brett, best of luck with the tour starting off, and hopefully this won’t be the last we talk to you on Popblerd!
Awesome. Thank you so much!
Brett will be touring with fellow singer-songwriter Nick 13 this fall. You can find a full list of tour dates on his website (where you can also download his free album.. or buy it and help a dude out). We’ll have a review of Brett’s upcoming September 10 show in San Diego in the coming weeks.
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