BRNDA Paints Musical Abstractions in Bold and Influential Strokes
Washington, D.C. art punks BRNDA are soon approaching a decade together as a band and on their third album, Do You Like Salt?, they're at the peak of their craft. We caught up with guitarist-vocalist Dave Lesser and drummer-vocalist Leah Gage to discuss their artistic vision, the inspired depth of flavor across their latest effort, and hopes to release more music in 2023.
Washington, D.C. art punks BRNDA are soon approaching a decade together as a band and on their third album, Do You Like Salt?, they're at the peak of their craft. Guitarist-vocalist Dave Lesser and drummer-vocalist Leah Gage are the band's two consistent members and across the new album, they're joined by Torrey Sanders on additional guitar and vocals, with bass duties split in the studio between Christian Whittle and Nick Stavely. As much as this band can make you dance and laugh, they're a caustic force and could cut you all the same. Engineered by Justin Moyer at White Oaks Studio in D.C. and mixed and mastered by the tireless underground hitmaker Jonathan Schenke, the new album pairs the band's dadaist flair and irreverent sense of humor that's focused heavily on the mundane and food consumption, with wiry, serpentine guitar lines that cut through tight-loose noise-infused rhythms that's incredibly precise. Take for example "The Avocado," a track reminiscent of classic art punkers Pylon, Pink Selection and Come On with its wry, off-kilter musings and bass-throbbing spasms. "Year of the Hot Dog by Burger Gang" is another highlight with its sheer force of precision and Lesser's guttural vocals — "I like salt! I like salt!" We caught up with Lesser and Gage via email to discuss their artistic vision, the inspired depth of flavor across their latest effort, and hopes to release more music in 2022.
Paperface Zine: How did you four meet and form BRNDA? The lineups have changed over the years right?
Dave Lesser: We met in the usual ways: through work, going to shows, being roommates. Me and Leah have been in the band since the beginning, and Mark and Nick have been playing on and off in the band for the past seven years, so in some ways it feels like BRNDA is just one big family.
PZ: What's the music scene like in Washington D.C.? Also what fellow local bands do you love to play shows with there?
Leah Gage: It seems like the music scene in D.C. is always changing, with bands coming and going and moving to different cities, probably like a lot of local scenes. It's tough to choose our favorite locals to play with — last year, we played an all local show at Comet Ping Pong with Bottled Up, who recently put out a stellar new record, and Sensor Ghost, an amazing relatively new D.C. band. We'd highly recommend folks check those bands out.
PZ: Do you perform in any other musical projects? If so, how's the approach different to BRNDA compared to them?
DL: Leah performs in a band called Light Beams that's pretty different from BRNDA, featuring a lot more instruments, especially percussion and electronic samples. However, BRNDA's worked closely with that band's leader, Justin Moyer, in the past. He engineered our latest album Do You Like Salt?.
PZ: You sorta nail through a frantic and angular collage of noise with your nervy art-punk guitar runs and twisted rhythms. Who are some of your influences? I hear Suburban Lawns, Come On, Gauche and classic Athens, G.A. bands like Pylon and The B-52's.
LG: Yep you've got it right with most of those bands. Throw in Talkings Heads, Gang of Four, French Vanilla. We also really like The Stooges and U.S. Girls too, though, so there's all kinds of stuff that informs our music.
PZ: Three studio albums in, how do you think you've grown and developed as a band?
DL: We realized that our sweet spot is really more of a three and a half piece. Four is too many but three isn't enough. We think we write our best songs when every instrument is doing exactly what it needs to do for the song and no more, no less. Sometimes this means someone has to play a really boring repetitive part over and over again. Often this means the guitars interplay with each other instead of trying to pull off solos or lead the melody. Hopefully we've all learned how to do and say more with less.
PZ: What does a typical BRNDA recording session look like?
LG: We prefer to record live as much as possible, with minimal overdubs. Usually that means drums, bass and guitars are all recorded together and vocals are recorded later. It sounds relatively simple and it should be, but we did a lot of writing and rewriting in between recording sessions for the new album. That record had the most "extra" sounds and overdubs of any record we'd ever made, especially in songs like "The Avocado," which was finished in Dave's basement in the midst of the COVID shutdown.
PZ: What influences your songwriting?
DL: Probably whatever is happening in our lives and in the world at large at that moment. Aside from the musical influences discussed above, we really try to let our lyrics reflect our internal monologues. Of course, there are a few rules. No covers, no love songs, and we try not to swear.
PZ: You recorded your most recent LP Do you Like Salt? Between 2019 and 2020. Take me through the recording of it. I see Jonathan Schenke mixed and mastered it who's been behind some of the best punk releases in recent years with bands like Parquet Courts, P.E. and Protomartyr. Was that exciting for you?
DL: The process was relatively simple but slow, because we were still figuring out songs as we were recording them, often rewriting parts or lyrics and needing to come back into the studio to re-record. Our engineer Justin Moyer was immensely patient throughout this process, and provided a very comfortable "blank slate" for us to come in and mess with things until we felt they were just right. We also used a lot more overdubs and extra sounds for this record, and this was one place where Jonathan's input was so helpful. We didn't meet in person until 2021, but spent lots of time on the phone in the early shutdown and he really took time to understand our personalities and sound. There's no question that the record benefited tremendously from his expert ear. As you point out, he's worked on some of our favorite bands and records so it was very exciting to work with him. We couldn't recommend him and Studio Windows more highly.
PZ: Were there any songs on this release that turned out way different than their initial idea? Were there any that really surprised you?
LG: "The Avocado" started off very differently, much sparser. Right around when COVID hit, we were finishing it up. We wanted it to have more of a backstory, but it was scary to go out, so we ended up recording a lot of the overdubbed interlude parts on our own in one of our basements. We went a little overboard. The song took on a cinematic quality we haven't quite been able to recreate live yet. Maybe we never will. The track "Red Iguana" kind of came out of nowhere. We had nine songs, and that didn't seem like enough, but Dave had his old clarinet lying around and thought it would be fun to see if he could still get some notes out of it.
PZ: Any favorite tracks on the new album? If so, which ones and why?
DL: A lot of people seem to like "Perfect World" and "Year of the Hot Dog by Burger Gang." "Perfect World" is just recorded and mixed very well, and Leah's vocals really carry it. Plus that vibraslap, and the sax solo. And then "Year of the Hot Dog by Burger Gang" is just so bizarre and quick. But people also like "Aunt Linda," maybe because it sounds a bit nostalgic and sad. Whatever other people like, we're happy with that. Those can be our favorites. We aren't writing and playing the songs for ourselves.
PZ: What’s the origins of the Brittany Jordan-designed cover art?
DL: We had our album title all sorted out, so we thought maybe the art should be food-related. We went through a few ideas, brainstorming over text and email. It might have been Leah who at some point suggested we use a diner theme, to go along with the song of the same name. Then we thought the vantage point could be from inside the diner looking out, with the album title spelled backwards. At some point Brittany's vision just took off and we let her go with it. We're so happy with the result, and wish she would paint more album covers!
PZ: You contributed a track to the most recent Garden Head Records benefit compilation May Day Music: A Benefit Compilation For Strike Funds & Artists. How did you get involved and what's it like being part of it?
LG: We really just got involved because the compilers emailed us and asked us for a song. It was a cause we were all interested in supporting. Luckily we had an unreleased live track called "Zebra" ready to go from an Under The First Floor session we did in Philly. We'll probably release a studio version of it someday.
PZ: What was the spring tour like back in April? Any favorite shows you played? I saw you also played a show with post-hardcore legends Karate for their reunion tour back in July! Also what's it been like translating the newer songs live?
DL: This has been the toughest batch of songs yet to translate live, mostly because we did so much switching around of lead singers and including extra instruments. Leah now comes out front for "Perfect World," putting Mark behind the drums, which is a totally new challenge for us all — scary yet fun. And like we said earlier, "The Avocado" still hasn't fully taken shape live, though we have figured out a way to perform it and did so on the road in April. That was a great tour, we made sure to hit a lot of cities that we especially love to play — like Pittsburgh, Nashville, Atlanta, and Charleston. We played Cleveland for the first time at the legendary Grog Shop which was a blast. And opening for the great return of Karate was such a surreal experience.
PZ: What's next for BRNDA? Do you have plans to release new music soon?
DL: Aside from "Zebra," we've got some other new songs we are currently playing live and working out in the shack. Once we've got a solid batch of songs, maybe we'll do another EP. That and keep trying to tour. We'd love to get outside of North America someday. If there's anyone out there from another continent reading this and wants to host us, we're down!
Do You Like Salt? is out now through Crafted Sounds.