An Interview with Jesse Lacey of Brand New

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In February I stumbled across an intriguing interview from the UK. James Smith of Extraneous Terrain had nabbed some much coveted time with Jesse Lacey. My project seemed similar to James’ and I thought, ‘next time Brand New do a show near me I’m going for it.’ When the band announced a Canadian tour I frantically purchased tickets and got contact information from James. His response read; “Hey Luke. I was very lucky that they decided to talk to me. I believe that they have refused many interview requests in North America since before Deja Entendu. However you’re free to try. Try sending a message to (contact name). Good Luck!” Thus, I presented a semi-formal request to interview Brand New at their August 3rd show in Guelph. That email would go unanswered until August 2nd. On the morning of August 3rd I checked my inbox and a brief email held the subject title “Interview with Jesse Lacey”. The message asked if I could be at the venue at 4:00pm. 

Jesse came out of the venue sweating in the thick heat of that afternoon. He shook my hand and jetted off in front of us as we walked out toward the bus.

 “You’ve got half an hour,” Mike said politely. “Then the guys have to do sound check so I’ll just leave you to it here.”

Jesse nodded as he keyed the door lock to the bus. Two fans materialized asking for signatures on their tickets. Jesse kindly asked them to come back in half an hour after the interview but only if they promised not to tell anyone else (he said this in a joking manner with mild tones of seriousness). The fans thanked him graciously and promised not to say a word.

When the bus door closed behind us Jesse asked for my name again and completely aimed his attention at the conversation we were to have. We sat down at a small table and started to talk.

JL: Yeah sorry about that last minute notice (laughs). We’ve had so many press request and it’s been a super busy last four weeks and usually I go through them right when we get them every week and I’ll say ‘I’ll do this, or this and not do that’…

EN: I didn’t know that you were in charge of coordinating all of that.

JL: It’s not so much me, like our friend and manager receives them and sends them through to me but yeah…we do everything ourselves now.

EN: Is that mostly since you’ve left the label?

JL: Yeah…No, Yeah a little bit.

EN: Do you like it better that way? I mean it must be hectic but it gives you a bit more freedom to find the outlets you’d like to speak to.

JL: Well even when we were on the label and had a larger management company there were still things we kind of did day to day. Like this press stuff I would have done six years ago but now it’s only me so if I don’t do it there isn’t really many people asking me about it. So this time I slacked a bit on it and I went through the whole thing and your’s was one of the few we’re going to do so…

EN: Thank you very much, I appreciate it. I know you guys didn’t do a lot around Daisy and I wasn’t sure but I read the interview you did in the UK and spoke to him and I said ‘how did you get that interview!”

JL:  Did you talk to him?

EN: Yeah.

JL: He’s a good kid. That was a good talk. I think we still shy away from the really big stuff. All magazines and big websites are just so hard to do. They just kind of want to write what their idea is already. Actually talking is kind of like this after thought to the interview or the article. So they just need you to talk so they can get their talking point and that one sentence that will make a quote. With Internet and so many blogs and little zines going on it is cool so I sat down with [James] in the UK and we just talked for about an hour and it was rad.

I noticed early on that Jesse spoke very precisely and at first it seemed that he was choosing his words carefully but I realized there was more to it. First and foremost Jesse Lacey was genuine. When he spoke about things it was from his eyes almost. You could see that there was a calm confidence that sparked a true interest in engaging in discussion.

EN: So how’s Canada treating you? The past few nights, especially Toronto, must have been crazy.

JL:  Um yeah, I know everyone is going to freak out about this but it was actually one of my top three shows of all time.

EN: Wow!

JL:  I just walked off stage…I feel bad now because if we play tonight and it’s not as good…(laughs)

EN: Just kill it for us please, we’ve been waiting a long time! (laughs)

JL:  (laughs) I mean, there’s nothing really that you can do to make sure that happens, you know? There’s no way to prepare and say ‘Tonight is the night, we’re going to conquer all.” It is just kind of this chance thing and we went out last night and every song just felt so great. I had so much fun on stage and that doesn’t happen…all the time surprisingly. I was ecstatic when I got off stage and I just sat down and felt so fulfilled and happy, it was a nice feeling.

EN: The crowd was obviously into it.

JL: Yeah, that back and forth with the crowd is always really important and every bit that we gave last night they gave right back to us.

At this point Garrett walked in and Jesse showed off a new little bass amp he bought at a local shop. They chatted a bit and Garrett left quietly while Jesse apologized. I assured him it was fine.

EN: I guess the first thing I wanted to talk about was the enigmatic presence Brand New established when The Devil and God came out. You pulled away a bit and it put some fans off but it gave you all a bit of liberation when Daisy came out. I mean, you always had the freedom to do what you wanted to do but I think it detached fans in a good way. They were so relentless after Deja Entendu so is that what you were trying to do? Detach yourself and did you feel that liberation?

JL: I don’t think that was the main goal…(pause) but then again it was. This is a really big conversation. There were so many things that happened in so many facets, individually in our lives and in the band and in the group that led to that whole movement, that shift. The paradigm changed for us and what we were doing as creative people. When you start playing in a band, especially where we came from and the way we went about it, there wasn’t ever a plan. The whole idea was to start playing music together because that’s what we had always done, we played in bands before this and our friends were in bands and it was just fun to do because Long Island was like that. There were shows every weekend and that was the whole point. But then you play New Jersey and Connecticut and Pennsylvania, then North Carolina and Ohio and suddenly you’re in California and England.

EN: And the tree just branches out while you’re on the growing limb.

JL: Exactly. So then it has picked up this momentum and we’re still in this mindset that we’re just this band from Long Island but all of a sudden we’re going to put an album out on a label and this person wants to do an interview with me and now we have to do a photo shoot (Jesse said this with a baffled, questioning tone)?

JL: And when you’re young there’s a lot of confusion. We weren’t sure if we should just be us or be some kind of “band” or other idea. We should have just been us (Jesse emphasizes in a very definite tone) it would have been better, but we looked at other people around us and got influenced by little things like people saying “don’t wear that t-shirt” or “you should dress up a bit for this photo shoot.”

EN: One thing I can say, where it counts…the music. Whether you felt pressured by the photo shoots or the interviews any fan would agree that the music you made was never compromised.

JL: Luckily, yes. I would agree with that. But then it went on like that for a while and there was an imbalance. There was the music that was really us and then there was all the other stuff that felt really strange. After those two records (Your Favorite Weapon and Deja Entendu) we all looked at the way we had developed personally as people and as a family, four people living together creating together, and we came to the decision that all of those peripheral things had nothing to do with the project we were working on. So there wasn’t a reason to try moving on with those things, it felt a lot more comfortable not worrying about them and saying “I don’t have to take a picture or I don’t have to do a music video.” Then it became, well we can just be a band that makes music then goes and plays it and we don’t ever have to be anyone different than Jesse, Vin, Garrett, Brian…people don’t have to know us to enjoy us. Like, I probably couldn’t pick the guys from Archers of Loaf or Built to Spill out of a crowd but I know every word to their songs and every note backward and forward it just never occurred to me to dig into their background. I understand fandom, and when you like art you want to be immersed in the world of the person who created it but people can only be involved as much as that person let’s them. We pulled back those borders closer to ourselves and it did kind of create this enigmatic presence but we weren’t trying to create mystery.

EN: And that showed up in something as little as the liner notes in Devil and God. Things were X’d out and crossed out and all across the internet people just went crazy for that.

JL: Exactly! And things like that…it was just me misspelling things and crossing them out! But if you look at the themes those records represent and what we were looking for we realized that maybe this whole thing should be more about a personal discovery for us as opposed to some kind of search for fame or recognition.

EN: Right and when you look at those albums the themes are there and tangible. They are present but the fandom generated from Deja Entendu and before that was almost dangerous because it built up such an expectation in fans that it almost shielded them from experiences what you were releasing.

JL: Yeah, that’s true. I mean I get expectation, I understand it. I’ve been let down by albums just like anyone else has the same way people may have been let down by me, but I never held it against them. I think the only thing you can ever expect from anyone is for them to be good and honest. I think those are two important things so when those fans from the first few records developed an expectation I think some of them made it into something more than what we were trying to do as a band trying to make the best music we could make.

JL:  (Jesse had a memory interruption and starts to laugh in disbelief as he recounts an eye opening moment). Sometimes people were talking more about my hair…like I used to have this kind of swooped up thing going on.

EN: I remember that.

JL: Yeah (laughing). I remember my friend was playing a show and it was right around the time of Devil and God. He asked if I wanted to come play some songs on stage so I said sure, and I had just cut my hair and maybe I had put on a couple pounds so I played some songs and I thought I would just check out on the internet and see if there had been any response or comment (pause, still shaking his head chuckling). Seriously, there were people saying things like “Hey some kid was on stage playing some Brand New songs” and another guy was like “I think that was Jesse” and the other guy just bashed him and was like “No way, that wasn’t Jesse.” That was a really profound moment. I mean I can’t imagine me being at, like, a David Bowie show and he’s not dressed as Ziggy Stardust so I don’t know who he is. I mean I’m not comparing myself to Bowie but it was definitely eye opening.

EN: So that kind of just further cemented the course you were taking with Devil and God. I’ve read a lot about Daisy and how Brand New wanted to write something that would be fun or exciting to play on stage night after night but it seems like there is a lot more going on with that record. Now that the record’s had a few years to age the themes seem more aligned to a vicious shedding of sorts.

JL: See, Daisy was kind of like an end of a road or tangent for us. I can’t listen to that album now, it is exhausting.

EN: And it doesn’t flow (laughing).

JL: Right (Jesse admitted with raised eyebrows, laughing) there is NO flow to that album. But if Devil and God was a course correction for us Daisy was the anxiety of doing the right thing and being on course with who we wanted to be. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to be a nut or to not answer to your decisions. It’s much easier to just do things and not care about the consequences. Doing the right thing is really hard.

EN: That’s interesting to see Daisy in that frame. It was a polarizing album I think because of how raw and ferocious it was. Something you mentioned earlier was an expectation for a band to be honest and I think that’s something Brand New have always been. With the distancing from media and the themes of the albums you’ve never been anything but honest even if it was hard for the band or hard for fans to accept.

JL: (Jesse nodded his head with veritable thankfulness and pride) Thank you very much. It hasn’t been easy. I mean some of us grew up with this all going on, like Vin. I think for Vin it was the hardest and I give him the most credit. He was like, 17 when he started in the band and that time between 17 and, say, 22, is one of the most important for a person. It is when you truly develop your social skills and start to define who you want to be and with everything I mentioned going on it would have been really easy for him to get lost in that but he manned right up and I give him a lot of credit for that.

EN: It’s always special to see a band with its original members evolve and push through the machine to stay, or in some cases, get back to exactly what they want to be. You must be proud of Brand New for that.

JL: I am, I am proud that Brand New has lasted because there are times when factors could have lead elsewhere, and I’ve always said if one person left the band that was it, this would be done.

EN: So did Daisy save Brand New?

JL: No, I think The Devil and God saved Brand New. Daisy was just the venting of anxiety, of letting go and doing the right thing for us personally and as a band. It’s a very hard way to do something but it is the best way. There’s a lot of pent up emotion that goes into owning up to who you are, what you are doing and the choices you are making so Daisy was us rejoicing in that (Jesse chuckles), a burning rejoice.

And suddenly most of that album clicked for me. Listeners have often questioned the lyrics and themes of that record, the repetition of things burning and maybe what Jesse had told me was a big part of solving that record, or at least listening to it in a different way.

EN: Clearly Brand New have matured across the span of your albums. Do you think you’ve challenged your listeners to mature with you or to mature in a way that is honest?

JL: I don’t know, maybe that’s somewhat of a goal but people mature naturally because they are human. If someone has listened from the start and matured alongside us it isn’t the same relationship that we (the band) have but it is something close to it.

EN: You mentioned that you weren’t exactly excited to get back into the studio because you wanted to experiment with how to record music a little bit.

JL: I think I may have misspoken on that a bit. We want to experiment with the craft of recording music and how to structure it. I think we’re interested in the layering and the technical components that might make new music interesting from a different perspective.

EN: So what happens next? I know you had time in the studio in April.

JL: Well nothing really came of that. Vin’s brother and Brian are working on a project so that was mostly them. It sounds so good. Vin’s brother is inspiring creatively. He’s just an endless well of creative ideas that are out there…his approach to recording and writing a song are outside the box but so refreshing.

EN: You’ve mentioned that some writing is taking place though. What would you say are the main factors that affect the progress either positively or negatively?

JL: I think there’s still a little bit of that venting from Daisy, it kind of explodes out every now and then but rarely. And I think we’re done exploring that road. Most of my writing is realizations. A record is like a complex problem and the themes and ideas we want to explore are part of the equation to solving that problem. It’s about righting a great problem with a lens that is constantly zooming in on possible solutions. Daisy was the hardest to record because for every problem we solved ten more would pop up. I think we’re searching for the theme of the album right now and that will help bring the “problem” we’re trying to solve into focus.

EN: Is it frustrating trying to explain to fans that you’re not just sitting around being vague and unproductive?

JL:  You know I’ve never been asked that but thank you! Sometimes I want people to know there is something going on here. We want to present something that is good and honest and we have to do that in our own way but it is sometimes hard to convey that to people who are waiting.

EN: So how do you know when you’re done?

JL: Well before people would tell us we were done (laughs). Now it is more a matter of exhaustion. When we’ve sequenced the album in every possible way forty times and just can’t do it anymore then we’ll have to hand it over to the listeners and their combined effort will continue to shape what it is.

EN: And shows must be a good way to let the problem continue to be explored. Are instrumental songs a little easier in that respect because the structure can be shaped differently a little easier? Is that why Devil and God had two instrumental tracks?

JL: Exactly. Playing the songs live lets us keep attacking the problem from new angles. A lot of the time that problem becomes executing the song because we record in sort of a piecemeal fashion. I think the instrumental tracks are something I want to do more of. I used to love those little connecting songs on albums.  And when we jam as a band sometimes those instrumental jams are the most special. We’ve gotten together for hours and just jammed an instrumental song with the lights low.

EN: That must be a reassuring thing, being able to play like that with your band and no one is rolling their eyes checking the clock.

JL: Exactly! We’re just all on the same vibe enjoying making music together. It is a reminder of the strengths in the bonds of Brand New.

EN: Do you think you have the theme somewhat honed for the new material now or is it still quite vague?

JL: It’s funny…I joked a while ago that Brand New was going to make happy music. I mean I said it on stage one night and everyone ran with it. I don’t think we’re going to write happy music though. We do sad bastard quite well (laughs).  But we want our music to answer questions and the thing is that sometimes those questions are sad ones. We want to make new music with new answers but sometimes the questions are still sad ones and sometimes that is just a reality. Life is about accepting the hard parts like loss, and succeeding in society.

EN: Is there a way to judge the merit of an album in progress or an album that has recently been released? Is there a way that the band judges it outside of critical or fan reaction?

JL: That’s tough because art is often unquantifiable I think. A song can mean so much more to one person than another, and it might even mean more depending on a point in life that a person hears it so that gets to me sometimes. I come from a family of seven and it is easy to quantify what my parents have done, raising us. My family is very hard working and I wonder if what I’m doing, my career, if it is fulfilling or if I am doing enough. My dad is a nurse and he saves lives. That is quantifiable and good. He is helping.

EN: But if it makes you happy than I’m sure your family would agree that you are being successful.

JL: Sure, but it still gets to me sometimes. I know what I’ve chosen fulfills me creatively but I sometimes wonder if I am doing enough. People measure their success. Say you build a house, there is something tangible. You have each block in the right place and a roof on top and as long as that house can contain people and withstand the elements you can say you’ve done your job. Sometimes I wonder how I can do that.

As Jesse mimicked the shape of a house with his hands, the weight of questioning the effect of his music was evident in his voice. These are layers that can universally be stripped from all of us. Who hasn’t wondered at their effect on those around them and how to truly measure fulfillment?

At this point I realized that Mike, the band’s tour manager, had been sitting there for quite some time and had been politely trying to tell Jesse that the band needed to do sound check. My half hour with Jesse was pushing 56 minutes. As Mike left and Jesse promised to be in soon, he pointed to the retreating body.

JL: That is a quantifiable job (laughs). We aren’t the most punctual people and he’s been going non-stop because he is our sound guy too. He’s been amazing so far and we really appreciate Mike.

EN: Well I appreciate the time you’ve given me Jesse. I just wanted to leave you with something that made a lot of fans happy and I’ll just dovetail back to the interview you did in the UK. When asked what your greatest achievement was you said that as individuals you were all very content. I think that means a lot to your fans and hopefully even more so now with some of the things we’ve spoken about.

JL: Thank you very much. I think, you know what feels amazing? Out of all the lyrics I’ve written sometimes there is one sentence or one section or stanza that comes out EXACTLY the way I heard it in my head. Everything I wanted to say gets summed up perfectly. And I think, out of all the people listening, if even one other person hears that and hears it exactly the way I heard it in my head…if they connect with it exactly the same way then that’s the roof on my house. That’s my job done.

As we exited the bus Jesse shook my hand and thanked me for the discussion. We go through our lives respecting artists, musicians and their crafts. We rarely get the chance to meet these people on a level for discussion. Thankfully I can only say good things about the enlightening conversation I had with Jesse Lacey. While the topics were obviously anchored in Brand New’s body of work, bigger ideas were exchanged. The qualities of humility and honesty, both inherent in Jesse and Brand New’s music, are universal and something we can all strive for.

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    interview, is often...“favorite band” question.
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