To hear bandleader Scott Cary tell it, Milwaukee indie-rock staple Brat Sounds began not just as a natural extension of his previous group, Dinny Bulca, but as a personal “ploy for musical control.”
“I felt like I had to take all that control, and that’s why I really wanted to record everything myself,” Cary says of the band’s early 2014 efforts. “So that’s where Brat Sounds started: my ploy for musical control.” (For the record, it’s “Brat” as in “That kid is a little brat.”)
Eight years later, the members of Brat Sounds have coalesced into a more collaborative unit. The group’s fourth full-length album, Nothing—due October 14—finds Carey checking his self-described “ultra-perfectionist” tendencies at the door and giving his bandmates—Corbin Coonan, Kelly Danen, Max Wikoff—more musical freedom.
“I think everybody was just more enthusiastic about it, and that’s why I think it turned out, in my opinion, way better than the last album,” Carey says.
Sadly, Nothing will be Brat Sounds’ final album. Carey is prepping a move to Chicago, and the prospect of becoming a long-distance band seems unlikely. The group leaves behind a catalog of increasingly tuneful records (including a lo-fi covers album), a handful of delightful music videos (dig the recent “Every Worry Like A Pet”), a few all-time-great songs (see: “Motortrend”), and oodles of live shows that made them one of Milwaukee’s most reliable bands. It was easy to like Brat Sounds. It felt good to like Brat Sounds.
Ahead of Nothing‘s October 14 release show at Cactus Club, we asked Cary to walk us through the history of Brat Sounds, album by album, from the group’s modest beginnings to its going-out-on-top finish.
BRAT SOUNDS (2014)
Dinny Bulca is really the origin of the band, because it was still me, Corbin, and Kelly. But what made Brat Sounds “Brat Sounds” was me starting to self-record. That’s what that first record is: my first effort at self-recording. Some of my favorite records are ones where a recording artist plays every single part, and that was something I always wanted to try. I’ve been playing drums for as long as I’ve been playing guitar. A lot of the times when I write, it’s on rhythm guitar, but I’m thinking about the drum part, too, and how the rhythms between all the different instruments should line up. When everybody does something at the same time, it’s more than four people playing at the same time. There are musical gestures happening when everybody’s in sync like that. I don’t think I had the skill set that I have now to be a bandleader. I felt like I had to take all that control, and that’s why I really wanted to record everything myself, so I could make sure those musical gestures that I was thinking of when I wrote the songs got in there.
So that’s where Brat Sounds started: my ploy for musical control. [laughs] The plan was that I was going to build a live band around [the record]. And then it just ended up being, “Well, okay, who do I know? Who can I work with easily?” And it was all the same people! I wasn’t too adventurous in selecting the people. In my mind, it was starting a new band, but in reality it was kind of a soft relaunch of Dinny Bulca. You can really hear it in the record. It’s me learning how to record. It’s very amateurish. I think sometimes it can be kind of charming, and then other times it can be pretty rough. But how else can you learn, you know?
BORN LOSER (2015)
As soon as I did the first one, I immediately started working on the next self-recorded thing. I saw the potential: “Okay, the first one was pretty rough. Let’s see how much better we can make this. Let’s take everything we learned from the first effort.” I was really excited to just get in there and start recording again.
It’s some new material, but a lot of it was Dinny Bulca backlog stuff. Definitely more than half was backlog stuff. Corbin already had bass lines written for a lot of the stuff because it was old Bulca tunes, so he came in and played bass on some of those. Other than that, it was me recording everything again: that album plus the Gatorade EP, plus a split with Seven Costanza. I think it was 18 songs that I recorded. I don’t know if we can call that a “session,” but it was 18 songs altogether, and then 12 of those became Born Loser.
BAD LUCK (2019)
After Born Loser came out there was a year where we didn’t have a practice space. That’s why it took so long in between Born Loser and Bad Luck. We didn’t have a practice space, and I was building our next practice space and live studio. Then I broke up with my girlfriend at the time and moved into this back cottage house by myself. I had all this pent-up energy from not being able to practice and not being able to record. I had made a bunch of demos and shared them with the band, but we couldn’t do anything with them.
After finishing Born Loser, it was like, “Okay, recording quality-wise, this is better than the last one, but I know we can do better.” So that’s why it took forever. I was me kind of being an ultra-perfectionist. I still wanted to let go of some of the control of the parts and stuff, because it was affecting the morale of the band. There was clearly a difference when people didn’t feel as much ownership over their parts. I would do the recordings and get my version of it, and then they would expand on it through playing it live and practicing and stuff. I just realized I needed to do a better job of communicating what I was thinking in the first place, and then let them go with it. If they’re not enthusiastic, it’s so much harder. I feel like a dick, and I feel like I’m dragging them along through the process. I can tell they’re not having as much fun with it, and that makes me not have as much fun with it. So I wanted to let go of some control, but I was still in hyper-perfectionist mode. I felt like I had to prove that I could record for real, not just this basement demo-sounding stuff.
When I got into the [new] basement, I was working at a computer factory in Waukesha. They would get these egg crate-shaped panels that were perfect for soundproofing, and they just threw them in the dumpster. I would get trash bags and trash bags of these panels. I soundproofed the whole room in the basement and got this really dry sound down there. So I think that record [Bad Luck] ended up being overproduced because I took way too long with it. A whole kitchen sink of ideas got thrown into every song. It would be like, “Let’s do this idea and this idea, and if they conflict with each other we’ll just turn them both down by half.” [laugh]
The big lesson I learned from that is that you have to give yourself self-imposed deadlines. It might seem counterintuitive to force yourself to finish stuff before you feel like it’s done, but if you let yourself poke and prod forever, you end up making a worse product in the end.
DUST COVERS (2021)
There’s a great antique mall in Door County, and I got a little tape recorder there. I wanted to do test recordings on it. I was mostly testing how you can record something onto your computer—you know, high-def, good quality sound—and then you can run it into the tape recorder and then run it back. It’s an effect, basically. And then I started playing some [cover] songs that I had in my back pocket. I put them down and I sent them to my dad the next day. That’s all I thought was going to happen with the tracks, and I didn’t think about them for a couple of months.
But then, when we started working on this new album [Nothing], we were like, “Okay, we should actually come up with some kind of plan to promote ourselves here, because we’re not good at that.” [laughs] We were thinking, “What can we put out right now, to remind people post-pandemic that we’re still a band?” And then I remembered that I did these cover songs a couple months ago. I went in and tried to master them as best I could. It was kind of a mess-around thing, which you can obviously hear, since it’s very stripped-down.
It was just songs that I had taught myself recently. Especially during the early months of the pandemic, I wasn’t writing very much because I didn’t know when we’d be playing again. It was just a vague notion that we’d be a band again someday. I wasn’t writing as much, so teaching myself a couple of covers ended up being my outlet.
This is definitely the most collaborative thing we’ve done since the Dinny Bulca days. I really let go. I played drums on three or four tracks, but Kelly agreed that he would just rather I drum on the weirder ones that we hadn’t practiced as much, since it was just more in my head at the time. But other than that everybody played their own parts, and it was more of a collaborative thing. I think it freed me up to focus more on the production. I think everybody was just more enthusiastic about it, and that’s why I think it turned out, in my opinion, way better than the last album. There are still certain things where I’m like, “No, sorry, this is the law,” [laughs] but I try to gauge within myself which battles are worth picking. I’m not always right! In retrospect, there are things where I have a strong opinion, but in the end it doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s really fine.
Musically, I think Brat Sounds—as far as aggression, speed, loudness—have been mellowing out. It’s not like we’re James Taylor now or whatever, but we’re generally mellowing out. Over the last three or four years I’ve been getting more into country music, Tom Petty, and being okay with knowing what chord is coming next. In a lot of my early writing I was overcomplicating things, trying to be really clever and coming up with chord progressions where each new chord was like an M. Night Shyamalan twist. But it’s okay to know what chord is coming up next. Sometimes it’s nice! You just want to know what the next chord is going to be, and even if you expect it, it still sounds good. I think that made it easier to let everyone shine with their own parts. It’s not like, “No, no, no! You’re not doing a B seven-nine diminished!” Not every chord has to be insane.
As for the end of the band, it’s pretty simple. I’m moving to Chicago in 2023, and we don’t want to be a long-distance band. I feel like bands have to practice at least weekly, and nobody wants to commute to Chicago every week to do that. Also, between Dinny Bulca and [Dinny Bulca precursor] American Monroe, we’ve been playing together for more than 10 years. I think it’s just kind of time for something new. I think it’s time for a fresh start. It’s been good, but we all have different things we want out of the band. We’re all at different levels of commitment. I think just staying together for 10 years at all is a feat. And it’s only natural. Even what I wanted out of the band, from when I started to now, is totally different. I think that’s true for all of us. I think it’s a testament to how well we get along that we made it this far, despite all having different levels of commitment and wanting different things out of the band.
It’s all amicable. We’re still friends. There are no bad vibes or anything like that. It’s very bittersweet. Right now, we’re definitely in our Abbey Road era where everybody’s on their best behavior, putting in more effort. And it’s like, “Man, if you were this gung-ho about the band two years ago, who knows where we’d be right now!” [laughs] But I think it’s because everybody just wants to put it to bed in a nice way and leave on good terms. That seems to be what’s happening.
Brat Sounds will celebrate the release of their swan song, Nothing, Friday, October 14 at Cactus Club. The Unitaskers, Bunk Bed, and Pescatarian At Best will play in support.
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• Watch Brat Sounds turn on and turn up (ad infinitum) in “Every Worry Like A Pet” video
• Go ahead and cry while listening to Brat Sounds cover Mister Rogers’ “It’s You I Like”
• The woods have eyes in the ravenous video for Brat Sounds’ “Mona Lisa Frank”
• Brat Sounds wear their hearts on their sleeves on ‘Bad Luck’
• Watch Brat Sounds battle Beelzebub in less-than-sunny video for “Sunny D”
• Brat Sounds gets ready for (seizure-inducing) closeup in “Born Loser” video
• Stream the new Brat Sounds EP, ‘Gatorade’
• Stream Brat Sounds’ winning album, ‘Born Loser’