Living Music interview with Daniel Brummel - February 2008
Original article (archived by Wayback Machine): https://web.archive.org/web/20110803162303/http://sitemaker.umich.edu/livingmusic/browse_interviews&mode=single&recordID=000000000000000000000000000000000000000002295045&nextMode=list
Daniel Brummel gained notoriety as a bassist, co-lead vocalist, and songwriter in the Pasadena based pop-rock quintet Ozma. Ozma's music has been described as "quirky, SoCal indie pop" and also at times been labeled as "nerd rock." The band formed in 1995 and released their first album Rock and Roll Part Three in 1999. Ozma then released their follow up EP The Doubble Donkey Disc in 2001, and their third album Spending Time on the Borderline in 2003. Following a brief break-up of the band in 2004, Brummel released his first solo folk record Speak Easy. In 2006, Daniel graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Music Composition, and Ozma later reformed. The latest Ozma album, Pasadena, was released through Sony BMG in 2007.
Daniel is now currently working on his second solo folk release.
Daniel Brummel - "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" - traditional song, original arrangement
B: First off, I’d like to thank you for doing this. Throughout your career you’ve always made yourself very accessible to your fans and that’s something unique.
D: Yeah, I’m happy to do it for you.
B: Starting off, I’d like to ask you about your musical background and education, as well as when you learned the instruments you play?
D: My parents told me that I would sing at a very young age - 2, 3, 4 years old, they remarked that I was always singing. And my dad was a record collector. He had several thousand vinyl LP's when I was young, so some of my earliest musical memories are dance parties my parents would throw, I remember dancing around the living room listening to "We Built this City on Rock and Roll" by Jefferson Starship, and the other one I remember loving is "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This" by The Eurythmics. I remember being really into that stuff when I was like four years old, and staring at the album covers. And then they put me in piano lessons at age 6 with my first grade teacher; she also gave private piano lessons. So I started with her, and also a local piano teacher named Wanda Ostermann, and then through elementary school I took violin, trumpet, and voice lessons. I also was in a lot of musical theater productions in school… one of my earliest and greatest voice teachers was Frank Lee White. In middle school, I was in the chorus and the glee club. I did a lot of singing there, while learning about vocal harmony. In high school, I went to the LA County High School for the Arts, where I studied composition, voice, and guitar. I was there as a vocal major actually, but I studied a lot of composition with a guy named Michael Patterson. I studied guitar of all sorts, mainly electric guitar, jazz guitar with Barry Pohlmann,and voice with Thomas Miyake and Pat Bass, who taught me jazz vocal arranging. And then I did my Bachelor's in Composition at UCLA, where I studied composition, theory piano, guitar, voice, film scoring, and all sorts of things with David Lefkowitz, Paul Chihara, and Kenny Burrell, among others. That's about all my musical training. But I will say guitar and bass have always been my main instruments, and I've been pretty self-taught on them outside of the schoolwork. I never really took any kind of lessons.
B: One of the things I always wondered about is what music you were exposed to early on that you listened to that inspired you to get into music and if this is when you started learning about folk music and all the traditionals that you cover.
D: Well actually, when I was 10 years old we did this thing in elementary school where we had to pick a public figure or a famous person and emulate them, you know, give their biography and pretend to be them actually, dress up as them. So, I think I was ten years old and I actually chose Bob Dylan and learned a couple of his songs on guitar, and then went in and told about his life and played his songs for my class. So I think that was sort of my first experience with folk music. Actually, the first songs that I can remember writing on guitar, like songs with meaningful lyrics (pauses)…I had written songs on piano when I was 6 or 7, but when I was 10 and 11 and 12 I remember writing songs that were actually like political, sort of like protest songs. So that was sort of my earliest experience to what folk music meant, through Dylan I guess. It was a matter of always listening to songs that people around me are singing. My mom and my grandmother would sing a couple Dutch songs, you know, the Dutch Birthday Song “Lang Zullen Ze Leven,” and things like this. But, I think being in touch with folk music is basically about listening to all the people around you and growing up here in Los Angeles with Mariachi music all around, Mexican music being all around, that’s always been a big influence as well.
B: On the flip side, on the other half of your musical career, what inspired you to write rock music?
D: Well, like I said, I knew I was into rock and roll at age 4. I can remember really loving those two songs, “Sweet Dreams” and “We Built This City.” But then later on, I would have been like 12-13-14 when Nirvana happened. So I remember Green Day, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins being my first major influences. And then when the Weezer records came out it really hit home with me and that was a huge influence. So those four bands, the Pumpkins, Nirvana, Green Day, and Weezer...they really defined the world I wanted to get into in terms of melodic alternative rock.
B: You’ve put out a lot music in a lot of different genres – your pop rock, your folk, your electronic, your orchestral music, you recently went on tour with the band Gowns. How do you choose which project or current thing you want to focus on?
D: I mean, really, it’s not even a choice. It’s just an organic route that brings me to whatever I’m doing at the time. I just listen to everything that is happening around me. I was maybe 23 years old and I lived with Ezra Buchla, who I formed Monstro with, who led the band Mae Shi, and who is now the band Gowns, and he really turned me on to folk music. He was the one who really got me to start listening to the Harry Smith Folk Anthology and other folk anthologies and to pay attention to older recordings of “People Music”...not public, commercial music, popular music necessarily, but “People Music.” So, at that time, folk to me felt like 180 degrees away from pop music, from pop rock specifically, and I loved that about it… that it felt like everything that was missing from the type of rock that I was playing. So that’s why doing a folk record to me was sort of like a breath of fresh air. But that’s not really a conscious choice, its just, you do a certain thing for a while and it leaves you with a certain desire to do something else. I was in Ozma for so many years that I just had the need for a music that had more staying power sort of, more longevity.
The cool thing about folk music, I think, is that it’s highly evolved. You’ll remember a melody, and the best folk songs have really catchy melodies or modes that you sing in, because otherwise the song would have been lost in the ages… it's an oral tradition. And you have this melody but then verses and lyrics are sometimes forgotten and will be substituted with something where you remember a couple phrases but then you have to fill in the rest yourself. So the song is continuously re-written over the ages, over the generations. And so you wind up with this archetype of a song that has really been rounded and evolved into something that is really meaningful with a lot of pathos and carries an archetype with it in terms of its meaning, and that was something that I had never really encountered in pop rock. Pop rock to me seems to be more individualistic, emotive, expressed in form. But in terms of drifting around in the other styles, it's just sort of whatever place I’ve been in my life.
I started writing for orchestra and choir and chamber ensembles through my studies in high school and at UCLA with my professors there, and I love writing for those ensembles… Electronic music is just sort of a fun way to amuse yourself when you don’t have collaborators to work with and you just want to mess around on your computer and that’s how that type of stuff comes about. It’s all very organic, I don’t really make any conscious choices in determining the types of music I want to work on.
B: That being said, I wanted to ask you about the main differences for you, working individually vs. in a group.
D: As far as writing for classical ensembles -- chamber and chorus and orchestra -- that requires a lot of foresight and you have to premeditate all your parts and really be completely prepared before you even step into the sessions because when they see your parts they are giving you twenty minutes of their time to record a piece of yours. Whereas in the band setting, you are working with others and you are sort of trying to pinpoint a locus between the members of the band… come to some denominator that you can all really thrive on together. And that was always sort of the approach in Ozma. We always used to say it was a “rock democracy,” which then started to get used as a pejorative term because you can’t always have a complete democracy in a setting like that, because not everybody is going to be writing songs. Drummers quite often don’t bring in songs… actually the last drummer Ozma had, Kenn Shane, he writes tons of songs… but different members contribute in different ways. It’s much more of a social, collaborative environment to work in a rock band than it is to work as a composer writing for orchestra where you are basically dictating to everyone what you want, helping them understand how you want to get it, and then performing or recording it. They’re your instruments and they understand that and they are truly cool with that. Whereas in rock band settings, there’s always more personal ego happening, people wanting to give their personal contribution… and that’s great. That’s the outlet for that kind of thing, but you definitely need to understand the difference between the two.
And then electronic music, like I said, is something that is more personal and meditative for me. You can vibe out on an electronic piece for hours and hours and continue to sculpt it until it sounds through composed to you, until it sounds like the right thing. I never really collaborated with anyone on any electronic music except when Ryen (Lead Guitar/Vocals in Ozma) and I did some of the “Commuter Music” stuff. He was the one who really created that method and introduced me to a slow-speed improvisation, which you can then speed it up so you can sort of condense your ideas, which was a really powerful idea for me. It’s like, "Oh, ok, I’m learning all this jazz in high school and they are trying to get me to play super fast and do these great chops on the guitar, and I can’t really do it, but I still want to create, I still want to create melodies,"...so… slow it down. Make the tempo super slow, you know…1…………… and.…………… 2…………… and.…………..3 and like think of ideas in that form. Give yourself as much space as you need to let your imagination come through onto the page or onto the recording, and that’s a powerful idea I think.
B: Definitely. And there’s been at least three Ozma songs that I know of that have come out of that method.
D: Yeah and Ryen Slegr should of course be given 100% credit for influencing me to think in that way.
B: This leads nicely to my Ozma-ish related questions. I was wondering how Ozma as an up-and-coming band quote/end-quote “made it.” I know one of your big breaks was the tour in 2001 (where Ozma opened on a World Tour for Weezer as an unsigned band), but how did you create enough buzz around your band in the rock scene in Pasadena before that?
D: Well, basically what we did was take any show we could get through our friends, our contacts in high school; cause when you are in high school you can play high school talent shows, birthday parties, record store openings, all sorts of shit like that… and it's going great, everybody loves us because we were the band that they could get to come in. And we would even do a couple cover songs… you know just to get yourself in front of people and then once we did that enough, we saved up enough money doing smaller shows like that to record our first album Rock and Roll Part Three in November of 1999 over a 12-day period. Basically, we were just taking any good club show we could find in the Southern California area, you know Orange County, we played Hollywood, we played Pasadena, all around, any shows we could get with our friends.
And we had good songs, people started loving our songs and all of a sudden we were playing to 200 people instead of 20 to 40 people at a party. And as soon as we had a record to sell people loved it and started sharing it. We sold around three to four thousand of our independently released first album Rock and Roll Part Three [before being signed to their first record label Kung Fu Records] and it was at that point that Jose (Galvez, rhythm guitarist of Ozma) passed one on to Rivers (Cuomo of Weezer). He heard it and loved it, which was of course a huge jump start. If that hadn’t have happened, I think we would’ve had a much harder time breaking over to the next level -- the national level. As a result, I can’t really give a whole lot of suggestions as to how to break over to that national level except that you have to have a good booking agent and a good publicist; those I think are more important actually than the label or maybe even your management. As long as you are getting good shows and have people talking about you; [the jobs of] your booking agent and your publicist. The rest is sort of ambiguous actually today with downloading and piracy taking over the music industry. The actual physical copy of the release means nothing. Management doesn’t really know how to deal with that. Radio isn’t really that viable of a medium anymore. So mainly I just think playing shows and having good publicity about yourself are the most important parts of getting your band off the ground.
B: I was wondering, that being said, are you satisfied with the level of success you have reached with Ozma and your personal work has achieved and what being successful as an artist means to you? Is there a certain balance between being successful and being an artist that you face?
D: Yeah…that’s an important question. I am totally satisfied with how far Ozma got in our releases. I had such an amazing time. We were basically touring for 7 years, you know, which was an amazing time, seeing the country and seeing the world. We went to Canada and Japan and all over the US and we met a lot of fans who had really integrated our music into their lives and had really taken our songs and the meanings of our songs to heart. And that’s a great feeling. I think that feeling is the same whether its 2 people telling you that they’ve taken your songs to heart or 2 million people. It’s just orders of magnitude after that. And we had a lot. I probably had two thousand people tell me “that song has really meant something to me” or ten thousand, or however many it was. We had a lot of really great letters. But those years were also very hard for me too, physically on my body. We weren’t treating ourselves the best. We had long drives where you get seven hours of sleep, six hours of sleep, having to sleep in a van. Maybe if you are into partying, you have too many glasses of wine or smoke too many cigarettes and you wake up, your exhausted. Just traveling, sleeping in a vehicle is very difficult; you are constantly moving and shaking. You can’t sustain that kind of lifestyle. People who do it at our level are actually a little bit crazy. You need a whole lot of money to make sure you can treat yourself right when you are on the road. So, it’s a mixed bag, success. I’m sort of actually glad that we didn’t explode to superstar status, because it would have just taken over my life completely and I’ve had the opportunity to do so many awesome things since then and during that time. But, as far as success goes, I’m lucky enough to be in a place now where it’s really irrelevant to me. I’m happy just working at the art, without any commercial pressures on me at all. I don’t care if it sells one copy or a million copies, as long as I am completely satisfied with the work and I think that I’m working at the highest level that I can; that’s the only goal for me and I feel like any real artist will probably tell you something very similar. You can be a performer or a musician and make tons of money, way more money than I’ll ever make in my life, and love it, but I wouldn’t necessarily call you an artist unless you are focused on making something the best you can possibly make it apart from any commercial concerns. You want people to respond...the point is to get people to connect with you, but to fuse that with getting someone to purchase it is something completely different. There’s actually a lot of stuff written on musicians and economics and this whole topic by Virgil Thomson, you should look him up. He has this whole theory on economics and how they affect what type of composer you are by what bracket you are born into economically.
B: Actually that would be very relevant to our class. We talk about this whole match up of music and economics. One of the things we focused on was how people in the profession of music do not usually focus on one function per se. You might compose and perform, but also teach on the side or like you for instance you had that Coptic Records label that you were starting a couple years ago.
D: Yeah and I’m teaching now too actually. I’m teaching guitar lessons and bass lessons, piano, and theory.
B: That’s awesome. I guess based on this whole idea of success and economics, I was wondering where you pictured yourself five years down the road or even twenty years down the road in music?
D: Well, it’s hard to say exactly what types of projects I’ll be involved in. The main things that I’m interested in right now are…well I decided that I don’t really want to tour anymore mainly because of the aspect that it removes me from my social networks. I can’t build on any social connections when I’m gone 6 to 8 to 10 months of the year. I want to stay in one place and have an awesome home studio, which I’m building now and I want to be able to make an in house production studio that can turn music around immediately. Like if someone in Hollywood needed a film scored and they needed it in 72 hours or three days or something, I want to be able to do that for them. Another aspect I see in my future is a lot of teaching. I think teaching is a great way to sort of codify your own knowledge about music. When one person teaches, two people learn; the student and the teacher. The teacher is learning the whole time also. So I feel like those are really healthy paradigms to work in, teaching and recording, so these are the things I want to devote my life to from now on.
B: Excellent. Well, I know you are still playing shows in California. How are those received in California? Is your audience mostly Ozma fanatics following you around or have you found a folk niche in the scene in the Los Angeles area?
D: Really I don’t feel like there is too much of a scene for acoustic music or folk music in LA right now. There’s this one band called Lavender Diamond that’s probably my favorite band in town that’s playing acoustic folk inspired music and being really successful at it. They are signed to Matador [Records]. But LA is still Hollywood for folk music, so it’s like, you gotta be sort of known and buzzing through Hollywood to get people attracted to your shows here, there really isn’t a close knit group of folk aficionados who come out to hear acoustic music. It just doesn’t exist here. And as a result I’ve found it really hard actually to find appropriate venues to play acoustic music or electrified folk style music. It’s just really hard to get people’s attention and to get them to stop talking actually in a lot of places, because it’s a much softer music. To get people’s attention for something that’s not like blasting over their conversational volume is actually very difficult. If you give people the option to talk during your set, they are going to, which is really distressing. But it seems like you are asking about the audience at my shows, and it seems like, yeah, a lot of the times it would be the same people I would have at Ozma shows but right now the shows aren’t super well attended. It’s just not a pop form that everybody is going to be into, but that doesn’t deter me at all because the people who are there like it and really respond to it in this deep, important way.
B: You should come to Ann Arbor man.
D: Yeah? Is there a lot of folk happening there?
B: Oh yeah. Actually just the other week I went to the 31st Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival and when I was there I was thinking, damn…Daniel Brummel would fit perfectly in this.
D: Awesome. Yeah I’d love to do stuff like that. I’m sure there are places I don’t know about too where there are people getting together around folk music, but….I do want to make it into some sort of group thing, something for young people to be into. But it’s hard to get people excited for something that isn’t a rock band or a DJ.
B: Some of your new songs on the album you are working on now, though, such as “Lost” and “Song for Frida Kahlo” seem more, I guess, poppier…still folk…but I guess more…accessible maybe.
D: Well, yeah. One thing as I’m learning more about recording, I’m getting better at getting good tones from the acoustic instruments, and so the quality of the actual recording is getting higher and that gives it a more “pop” feel as opposed to these old folk recordings that you hear from the 30’s and 40’s, which I was sort of trying to emulate with my first solo release, Speak Easy. That’s why I didn’t care about having perfect quality production, because compared to these old field recordings or old studio recordings, it sounded similar and really cool. But, I’m definitely trying to fuse the genres…I mean, not consciously, but letting it happening subconsciously. You know, I studied Mexican music in school at UCLA during my last year there with one of the best Mariachis in Los Angeles, this guy named Jesus Guzman, and so that strumming style of the guitar has really affected me. It’s just like playing the biggest chord you can play all the time and keeping a perfectly steady rhythm. I’m incorporating elements like that but then I’m writing structures and harmony and harmonic progressions that might be closer to the pop realm. But I’m definitely thinking about fusing those worlds.
B: Oh yeah, and we’ve seen it even going in the other direction too (in your work in Ozma) with that strumming pattern that you’ve talked about such as in “Heartache vs. Heartbreak (another example could have been “I Wonder”); that fast strumming moment was something that I always thought was really cool.
D: Oh yeah. There’s a little Spanish strum in there too, I forgot about that one. That’s just an acoustic guitar style that I’ve adopted by being around tons of Mariachis. Actually, my ex's sister is a really talented Mariachi singer… Stephanie Amaro. I saw her sing and play dozens of times over a seven-year period, just always around it at family gatherings and stuff, so I just started playing that way, it was just natural.
B: You wrote when you announced that you were working on your solo record that you were looking for creative ways to release music in today’s day and age. I was wondering what ideas you’ve had in mind or if anybody has given you any good ones?
D: What’s happening is that the CD is just becoming obsolete and basically you just need a way to transfer your file, your song onto somebody else’s computer. So downloading is the quickest and easiest way to distribute music. I actually kind of believe in what Radiohead did, just putting your music up for free and asking people to donate whatever they think it’s worth to them. There’s some issues with that approach too, but it puts the karmic financial responsibility in the hand of the listener. But you also run into this thing nowadays where the packaging becomes really important, because if somebody is going to pay for the music, when they can just get it for free then if the packaging becomes something that is really cool or personable, then its actually worth more in that respect. So I think with my new record I’m going to start with a smaller run, but do really neat artwork. I’m thinking about letterpress or wood engraving artwork and have them be all handmade and just start out with three to five hundred copies and sell those for the normal price of a CD. But then at least when the listener gets one they get a real cool package and can feel more connected to the artist. It’s a real simple idea, everybody’s doing it that way now, just releasing records in handmade packaging, but I want to do it right. Do you have any ideas as far as that goes?
B: I was thinking that maybe you could release some sort of making of video or video enhanced thing that only comes with the CD.
D: Yeah you could always throw in incentives like that to push the CD. That stuff always helps for sure. Another thing about that too, doing a little brief documentary or promo about what I’m doing now…I think I’ll do that eventually.
B: So I guess, in closing, are there any other imminent projects or works that we should look forward to from you besides your folk album?
D: Yeah. Well, I don’t really think of it as a “folk” album necessarily, but rather I’m moving into a phase in my writing where I’m just recording everything that I think is good no matter what style it is. So the way it’s looking now, I have like 25 songs demoed out now and I’m selecting groups of them, finding which ones fit together thematically to group them together for albums. I have one or maybe two acoustic albums and then I’m also working on a more electronic themed album, with lots of delays being used on it. One of my closest friends, this woman Laura Steenberge, she is my bass player, she was in the group Monstro that I was playing folk music with for a while…she wrote this song called “Lullaby” and I’m doing an electronic version of that, which I recorded vocals for last night. So, again, I’m thinking a lot in my work now about that diametric opposition between the people’s music and sort of the computer’s music. The inner music and the outer music. The most soul-based music from the earth and also the complete most modern, technological form of music. That’s sort of what I’m grappling with; reaching around both sides of music, the modern and the traditional.
B: Well, it sounds great. I can’t wait to hear it.
D: Thanks man.