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Urban Hillbilly Quartet’s Erik Brandt: Celebrating 10 Years of Melting Pot Music
By Jeff Cebulski
It tells you something when the leader of the Urban Hillbilly Quartet, Erik Brandt, gets most excited about a northern Wisconsin camp that is the beneficiary of sales of UHQ’s latest CD, a “hits” compilation called The A List (Fundamental).
Camp Manito-wish is “a magical place,” says Brandt, who was its music director for three of the twelve summers he has worked there. Many of Brandt’s compositions for the group were written at this YMCA wilderness and backpack camp, located in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, due east of Brandt’s current dwelling in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“It’s solitude leads to creation—‘Beautiful Lazy’ is totally a camp song,” said Brandt.
Traveling and culture seem to energize the 30-year-old Brandt’s creative juices. Having been raised in the relatively-bucolic south central Wisconsin city of Janesville, Brandt has visited a fair number of foreign lands, including Scotland, where he lived for a year, and Australia, where one of the group’s favorite tunes, “St. Paul Town,” was written (“the tune that I hope gets us on Prairie Home Companion”).
And, as if to maintain a world-centered existence, Brandt teaches English at an urban high school that contains several minority groups; half of the school is Hmong. Brandt’s wife Hanna teaches Japanese at the same school.
“I’m just interested in life,” he said. “I always saw myself as a rural teacher, but my first job was in the city---a wonderful but rough inner city school. My school is United Nations all the time!”
As befits a sophisticated leader of a band called the Urban Hillbilly Quartet, Brandt waxed multi-generic when asked to describe just what his group plays.
“’Urban’ describes the rock, ‘hillbilly’ is the Americana, folk, and country, and ‘quartet’, is jazz, improvisation, and our instrumental music, with tinges of eastern European melodies. Some are the Israeli, funky minor melodies that all of us like.”
Brandt’s croaky baritone (“I was at first trying to be Jay Ferrar”) ironically adheres to the broad range of the band’s repertoire as a symbol of his dedication to the multiethnic-centered music.
“Our diversity is a blessing and a curse,” mused Brandt. “Record stores don’t know where to shelve us, radio stations don’t know where to play us.”
No better introduction to UHQ’s folky eclecticism and underlying wit can be experienced (short of live performance) than through The A List, which includes not only highly representative selections from UHQ’s first six years of recording but also the packaging designed by Ben Levitz of Studio On Fire that includes a cartoon biography by Andy Devore, followed by a typically bemusing yet heartfelt “historical” commentary by Noah Riemer of Ticklepenny Corner, a band that is more than slightly influenced by UHQ.
Included on the new disc are some of the group’s signature tunes: “Living In the City”; the live gospel-tinged classic “This Train”; the chamber rock “Drowsy Maggie” (also live); a remake of the ironic duet “Happy Anyway”; and an unreleased song, “Adrift,” a rocking road tale that features the angular and sometimes muscular playing of two longtime group members, cellist and fiddler Sena Thompson and guitarist Jeremy Szopinski.
“Adrift is a leftover from the ‘Amelia’s Boot’ session,” he said. “I love how the song came together, with Sena’s backup vocals…I wrote it while the band was touring…taking the leap and not knowing where you will land.”
Among genre explored on this new disc are Celtic, neo-Cajun (“Stepping Stones” gets an invigorated remix), lazy Bluegrass, reconstituted Texas swing, electric Mazurka filled with jazz influences and European beats (“I don’t play Polka,” claims Brandt.). The latter style receives much of its zest from Brandt’s accordion, which is featured on the lovely “Amy’s Ring Waltz.”
“[That] song has been played in all of our weddings. It’s one that I hear about often from people—the melody stays with them. I received a random letter two years ago from a woman wanting the music for her wedding.”
As for the accordion, “I was playing in a college band that did REM covers,” said the nine-year high school English teacher, “and I think Peter Buck played some accordion, so I bought a used one.” Brandt currently studies the instrument under the tutelage of Dan Newton, the “Daddy Squeeze” of Prairie Home Companion.
“We love to mess around with our music,” said Brandt, 30, who is one-fourth of the glue that holds this musical amalgam together, along with Thompson, Szopinski, and Sena’s husband, bassist Greg Tippett. “These things just happen…I’m really into folk and country, Jeremy is into rock and blues, Sena is into classical, jazz and hip hop, and Greg is into prog rock and jam bands.”
The Quartet evolved from small bands run by Brandt and original fiddler Mikey Bales. The group called themselves The Churchmice before changing to its current moniker in 1995.
Having considered themselves a ragtag coffeehouse band at the start, the group little knew what was in store for them when Foote suggested a summertime festival in Western Illinois. Many Phantom Tollbooth readers became acquainted with UHQ through its appearances at the Cornerstone Festival. Brandt waxes wide-eyed when recalling how the group found itself in Bushnell.
“My coolest memory is probably of our first year there. Our drummer, Jeff , said something like, ‘Hey—there’s this festival I used to go to all the time. I bet they’d like our music. Why don’t you send them a CD?’ He tracked down the address and I sent something along and promptly forgot about it. About two months later Henry [Wong] called me up and was really enthusiastic about our music and wanted us to come play the C-stone Mag tent. I had no idea what we were in for, but said ‘yes’ anyway. “The band came from Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin just to meet up for the gig…we had been taking the summer off… and, somehow, we all found the farm, managed to jam a bit before the set and then took the stage. Before we even made it to the stage, people kept asking us, ‘Are you the Urban Hillbilly Quartet?’ or saying things like ‘We’ve been hearing all about you!’ and wanting to know all about us…and we had never seen any of these people before! It was really bizarre. Before our first C-stone gig, we were lucky when 20 people would come out to a show [and here] the tent was packed with 2,000-plus people and new fans were pounding the stage, chanting ‘UHQ, UHQ, UHQ’ and we felt we had arrived! The entire set was a fantastic blur—I mostly remember the faces of people pressed against the stage, all their expressions saying something like: ‘What IS this music I’m hearing? Do I like it? Should I like it? Who ARE these people?’ That year we all did have a rag-tag, woodsy, bohemian look about us. Within our 45 minute set we sold more CDs than we had in the last year totaled, our mailing list doubled, and we met tons of fantastic people.
“That first performance at C-stone gave us the confidence that we could make it as a band, and that there was a larger market out there—somewhere—that wanted to hear our music. It was a powerful experience. The following year I quit my teaching job and we went on the road.”
Brandt is careful to point out that UHQ, while it has performed gospel music and songs with spiritual meaning, did not then and does not now consider itself a Christian band, although he and certain other members have been Christians.
“The UHQ has never been a religious band—which is partly why we always find it strange to end up playing at Cornerstone. I guess we ride the same line that VoL once did, which usually results in a lot of confusion about where we’re coming from. Not everyone who has been in the band [over 20 people] is Christian, nor is there an expectation that they have to be. I love how we’re a big family, regardless of who each member is, and I’m honored they’re willing to follow my lead.
“Most of the UHQ attends a church in St. Paul called the House of Mercy. It’s a very funky place, and very welcoming to people who have been burnt out by the contemporary Christian machine. Everything seems to be on the table there, and I’ve found my faith challenged and nurtured because of my time there.”
As for himself: “I guess I’d have to say what my friend, Bill Mallonee, once said, ‘I believe Jesus is who he said he was.’…I didn’t become a Christian until I was in college, and even then I operated on the fringe. That might explain at least why I was so perplexed by Cornerstone. It seems that within that society there is a secret language of sorts—and code of behavior—that I can only look in on as an outsider. I am Christian, and, hopefully, my faith is reflected in my lyrics. One shouldn’t have to dig too deep to find out that most of my ‘love’ songs aren’t really about girls.”
As for the future?
“We want to get off of the album-a-year cycle with new songs, new sounds—putting out The A List was cheaper [the group has sold out all five regular albums],” Brandt said, “and start moving in a new direction—when we arrive there, we’ll be back into the studio again.”
Erik invites PT readers to
check out his favorite YMCA camp at http://www.manito-wish.org.