Most everyone has known the “rapture of the sole” that comes from finding a long lost favorite pair of shoes at the back of an explosively untidy closet – those beloved kicks that just seem to fit like a second skin.
And with that delightful image etched into the collective psyches of music lovers everywhere, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Et Tu Brucé’s unmistakably familiar blend of pop, rock, folk, and country, all held together with incredibly cozy harmonies.
Londoners Jamie White (guitar), Matthew O’Toole (guitar), Jo Griggs (vocals) and brothers Craig (drums) and Darryn Bruce (bass) have made the most of their “West London meets West Coast” sound to become one of the music industry’s bands to watch. ETB wowed the appreciative crowd with their U.S. unveiling at the 2013 SXSW Music Festival – straightway earning them a record deal with SonaBLAST! – and return for an encore performance at this year’s event.
And it’s no wonder as the quintet has drawn well deserved comparisons to music heavyweights The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Foo Fighters – not to mention a huge army of followers. Their exceptional debut album, “Suburban Sunshine,” is proof positive – written, performed and produced by the talented fivesome.
ETB chatted with me about their music and their first record as they toured the U.S. opening for another “somewhat popular” British band, The Zombies. It was more than a bit ironic that the emerging U.K. band was “invading” the U.S. with one of the British “infiltrators” from the ‘60s – something not lost on ETB.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” said White. “I know bands like One Direction are the ones that are doing well and some indie bands that are coming over and doing okay. But it’s the globalization of music.”
“It’s a different type of invasion than the ‘60s,” pointed out O’Toole, “‘cause they were almost all the same type of music. It’s American music but we just brought it back, whereas now it’s across all genres of music. You’ve got Adele doing her thing, you’ve got One Direction which is pure pop, you’ve got a lot of new wave indie bands as well. So it’s a much more eclectic mix of music.”
While it was clear that the rising artists respected their “elders,” that didn’t extend to mailing in their performance to open the show. “I’m not saying that we’re gonna steal the show from them,” admitted O’Toole. “But they want the audience to be raring to go and we want them to be by the end of our set.”
“So I suppose in a way we are trying to blow them off the stage (laughing). I'm not saying we’re succeeding but it’s good to try. I’d like to think that coming on after us they might let it rip a little more as well. We’ve become masters of working our hearts out – at least we’ve honed it over the year. The only thing that’s really challenging is having to play mostly the same songs every night.”
“If you have your own gig you can put in all the things you’re working on and you get to learn them playing on the stage. The biggest challenge with The Zombies is that you don’t really have the scope to do that.”
With a chuckle, O’Toole did offer his “can’t lose” strategy for keeping it fresh and engaging the crowd. “We give them rum most evenings.”
White on the other hand was a little more pragmatic. “We all get a different reaction every night because we’re playing to a crowd that’s never heard these songs before. So we’re seeing the excitement in the first time they’re seeing it and it excites you and that keeps it fresh.”
“Even though it’s not new to us, it’s new to them every night,” added Craig Bruce. “And that makes it new to you because it’s a different place, it’s a different audience. Part of you is thinking, ‘How’s it going to go down tonight?’ or ‘Maybe I’ll let it rip a bit more on the guitar for this part.’”
After chatting with the band for only a few minutes, it was easy to understand the reasons behind their matchless musical diversity. White ascribed it simply to listening preferences. “If you talked to Colin or Rod (The Zombies’ Blunstone and Argent), they listen to all kinds of music and so do we. We listened to dance music on the way here and Fleetwood Mac.”
“A lot of bands these days, if they’re an indie band, all they listen to is indie music. If they’re a rock band, all they listen to is rock music. So all you’re ever gonna be is a pale imitation of that. Black Sabbath, the guy Tony Iommi was massively into Django Reinhardt (acoustic guitarist). That was what he was trying to do on the guitar. Darryn's into Iron Maiden and Metallica, they’re his favorite bands. As far as he’s concerned, that’s what he’s doing on the bass.”
“So we’re not just one genre. We don’t all listen to the same type of music and the music we do isn’t all one type of music. It’s all marketing. People like to think in boxes, they put a band in a box and then the band chooses to stay in that box.”
“It’s hard because if you’re having success doing something, it’s very difficult to turn your back on it and say, ‘We’re going to do something totally different.’ But all the best artists that have ever been, that’s exactly what they’ve done.”
Given the enthusiastic response to “Suburban Sunshine,” we can only hope that White and his bandmates don’t completely turn their back on the winning formula for their debut. But don’t ever expect just the “same old song and dance” from the evolving artists.
“It’s gonna be different,” declared O’Toole. “There’s a broader range on there. A lot of it’s crisper. We pared down exactly what we wanted to do. The first album was experimenting with what we could do and how we could do it. And now we know a lot more of what we can do and how we can do it. We’re finding other ways to play around using some of the tried and tested ways that we’ve discovered. “
“We always knew the songs were good. And we always knew that as a band, we play them well and we put them across well. But playing live and recording are two very different things. Live experience is a more ethereal, emotional thing. It’s kind of ‘in your face.’”
“But an album is something that you may well be listening to, hopefully hundreds of times. So there’s got to be a bit more depth in there. There’s got to be more going on. That’s why I love music these days; it’s quite disposable.”
“You love it for two weeks and then you’ll never listen to it again. Because once you’ve heard it 20 times, you’ve heard everything there is to hear, whether it be in the lyrics or the actual music.”
“With ours, there’s a lot of double meanings in the lyrics. There’s a lot of other things going on in the lyrics and in the music. Every time you listen to it, you’ll hear something you’ve never heard before.”
Like say, some of the catchiest pop music this side of the pond. And to all those sayers of nay who habitually scoff at the insignificance of popular music, O’Toole has a simple message. “Everything’s pop music.”
“Led Zeppelin was the biggest band in the world that was pop music. Frank Sinatra was pop music. The Beach Boys are pop music. People are always trying to put a label on things because they can’t understand it and they think by putting a label on it they’ll be able to understand it. Don’t try to understand it, it’s music. Enjoy it, don’t enjoy it.”
“A lot of people disparage pop music because it’s not that easy to do. It’s not that easy to write a pop song that’s upbeat, three minutes long and everyone’s gonna like it. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
“I'm not saying we try to make every song a pop song, but it’s something you need to be able to do as a songwriter. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘Well, this three and a half minute song is just nice and succinct.”
Certainly, the British bandmates are exceptionally adept at crafting “nice and succinct” tunes. Look no further than “This City” and “Never Say Trevor Again” from their sparkling debut. White readily professed his passion for his art.
“Writing is the most natural thing in the world to me. I've never said it was easy, but it’s the most natural thing. It’s like sleeping. For me it just happens. Sometimes you don’t write and sometimes you sleep badly. But you think, ‘I'm going to sleep well again soon, it will be alright. Today, I can’t write anything. But tomorrow it will be alright.’”
O’Toole offered a slightly different – and anxious – take on his tunesmithing abilities. “I always think that every day’s going to be the last good song I write. I always s**t myself a bit that I'm never going to write another one. But then that’s what makes you write another good one.”
“You’ve just got to keep writing. It’s like you don’t see every painting Van Gogh painted. They’re not all hanging in the gallery. They’re not all worth 25 million quid. It’s all a process and if you keep painting enough pictures, you’re gonna paint a good one. It’s the same with songwriting. You’ve just got to be prolific.”
Being a prolific songwriter is important to be sure, along with a willingness to carry on the brilliant artistry of all of the gifted “painters” that went before – which can be a terrifying responsibility. And as O’Toole confessed, a responsibility that hasn’t quite hit home yet for the rising band.
“I don’t think we’re far enough down that road to be frightened by it. And maybe we won’t go any further down that road. That’s the thing, you’re only as good as your last gig, you know? We just enjoy every day as a thing on its own. It doesn’t matter what you did last night. It doesn’t matter what you do tomorrow. You’ve got to do good today.”
The Albion quintet can do that one better. They can be great today. And if you need more proof, be sure and catch Et Tu Brucé’s set at SXSW 2014.