Jonathan Pretus of The Breton Sound (INTERVIEW)

A concert is supposed to be experienced. It’s not supposed to be sit-listen-clap-repeat. Not at a rock concert, at least. It’s an on your feet until they go numb, fist shaking, lungs bursting from screaming and singing experience. It’s supposed to be a moment in time when the kids aren’t whining in your ear, the car is not broken down on the corner, the pain of a fight rolling down your cheek. It’s the rhythms of tranquility via electric guitars and a melody that stays with you even when you walk out the door back into the daylight.

The Breton Sound is all about giving the people what they want. From an energetic live show to tunes popping out from the car speakers that have you bouncing in your seat, this New Orleans based rock band has found a way to fuse their influences of Weezer and Van Halen and come up with something that has a cool guitar sound with catchy lyrics. Their upcoming EP, volume one of a planned two EP package titled Don’t Be Afraid Of Rock & Roll, amalgamates everything they love about music. It’s kicking butt with a bounce.

Still fairly new to the music world, The Breton Sound – singer Jonathan Pretus, guitar player Stephen Turner and new rhythm section, Joe and John Bourgeois – dropped their new single, “Illuminate,” last week on St Patrick’s Day, giving the fans a taste of the new recorded music coming on May 19th. Bringing back Better Than Ezra bass player Tom Drummond to produce their third offering, the five tracks were laid down at three different, albeit legendary, studios, hoping to capture a little of the magic that some of the greats left behind. And it may have very well worked: from the guitar frenzy of “Rivers Cuomo” and “Walking Backwards” to the charm of “Love You More,” a duet with New Orleans vocalist Cherie LeJeune.

“This is longest interview I ever did,” Pretus tells me with a laugh about an hour into our interview. But when you put two people together who love music, and especially love talking about music, there is no finish line.

You are a New Orleans based band but you don’t just play in New Orleans.

Yeah, this is home base for us but we travel. New Orleans isn’t really known for being a rock town. It’s bread and butter has always been kind of the Jazz, funk, R&B thing. So historically, rock & roll in New Orleans has always been kind of the red-headed step-child, even though you could argue in some ways it was kind of born here; but that’s never been what it’s known for. So we try to get out of town as much as possible. We’ve played a lot around the South, the southeast, up to the Midwest. Our goal is to go everywhere we possibly can and play.

The Revivalists have broken out from New Orleans, especially on the festival circuit. Do you think you guys can do that too?

I think we’re the kind of band that can. We put on a really good, high energy show and that’s always been something that we’ve made a point to do from the beginning of the band. I think it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and putting yourself in the position to open a door when someone knocks on it. And those guys were working for, I think, three or four years before we started, and it took them that long to break out. It’s one of those things where we’ve only been a band in name for four years so sometimes we’re like, “Why aren’t we further along than we are?” But you can look at anybody who all of a sudden becomes an overnight success and realize that they were probably working for a long time before then. But yeah, I think that our music is accessible enough and our show is good enough.

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Your third EP is coming out in May. What do you think it says about the evolution of your band and your sound?

You know, it’s interesting, each EP that we’ve done so far has been done with a different group of people, a different line-up. The first one was just Stephen and myself. We wrote all the songs, we played almost all the parts ourselves. We brought in a couple of friends to help out on bass and drums but we still kind of wrote the parts and guided them through what we wanted. I played drums on one of those songs. It was very much OUR record.

Then our second one, when we finally had a band, it was great because it was more of a cohesive experience with the four of us putting ideas together and writing as a band. With this new one, we have a different rhythm section, a new drummer and a new bass player, and a lot of the songs were written before our bass player joined. He actually ended up joining, literally, like a week before we started recording the record. But all the songs for the most part were written.

We try to be very democratic and let everybody put up any idea that they have or any part they want to try, any changes they want to make; everybody puts their own stamp on it. So even with Joe Bourgeois, our bassist, who joined right before we started, he completely rewrote all the bass parts for all the songs. Our drummer, if I bring in the bones for a song, I may have it in my head with one kind of rhythm but he’ll come up with something that is much more nuanced and direct. He’ll find what the heartbeat of the song should be.

So what I find between each of the three records is that, not only is the quality of the songs that we’ve put out growing but the performances and the overall output grows because each unit has worked better as the band has gone on. Each line-up has been a little bit better than the last one. And that’s not to take away from the previous ones but when our last drummer left the band, we kind of had that moment of like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” Then John joined and it was this breath of fresh air and everything was great. Then when our last bass player left, we kind of had that “What are we going to do?” and then Joe joined. You kind of get to that point and say, I love this lineup, we really don’t want to lose this, let’s just keep working as hard as we can and let’s be open with each other and be honest and make sure we work together as a group and everyone is on the same page. So I feel like with each record we get stronger as a band musically but also from a personal standpoint and then that comes across in the music.

Are John and Joe New Orleans guys?

They’re New Orleans guys and they are actually twin brothers. John was playing in a band with my brother, who was our old bass player, and when we needed a drummer, my brother suggested John and he was a perfect fit. Then I had known Joe kind of through mutual friends but also from a band he used to play in. When it came time to find a new bass player, he was the first person I thought of cause when Stephen and I started the band, Joe said, “Hey, if you’re looking for a bass player, I’d love to play with you. I’ve just got to work it around my schedule with the band I’m in now and they’re very busy.” So it just never worked out but when the time came again, he was the first person I thought of and he really is a great fit.

So it feels solid to you now?

It does. It’s a great situation where we are all on the same page, we’re all working towards the same goal, and it feels more like family now than it ever has. And that’s always been the goal that we’ve tried to push the band towards since we started. This is a family, it’s not just the four of us; it’s the four of us and our wives and girlfriends, all of us as a group. We’re a very close group of people and it’s a wonderful situation to be in.

Why are you doing this EP in two parts? Did you just want to split it up or is it more like two different sides of the same coin?

It’s kind of a double-edged sword in that nowadays it’s so hard to get someone to listen to a full-length album. People just don’t seem to have the time or the desire to sit down and turn off the TV, put the phone down and just listen to twelve or fourteen songs and absorb what is going on in that music. So the EP has kind of become the standard for the most amount of music that you can put out at one time that people will digest willingly.

It’s kind of going back to a singles market where you put out one song and then you wait a couple of months and put out another song. With the EPs, we looked at it like, we want to make a record so we’re looking at it as maybe sides one and two of a record. And that’s actually the end goal with the two EPs. The first one is available on CD and digitally, and volume two is just going to be digital. But then we’re going to take both of them and put them together on one full-length vinyl album. The track listing will be different from what’s on the two EPs. We’ll sit and look at the ten or twelve or however many songs it ends up being, and say, what is the best order for this, what makes it cohesive and fit together as an album. Personally, that’s the way I still like to listen to music so that’s kind of how we want to put it out as a full-length but how can we do it in a way that’s interesting and different from the norm, aside from just saying, “Here’s a ten song album, hope you like it.” Then four months later you’ve got to start thinking about what your next thing is because the life cycle for music is so short nowadays. Unless you’ve got that sort of major push, you’ve really got to sit there and look five steps ahead. So this is our way to look five steps ahead while still putting out something that we think is viable.

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Why did you record in different studios instead of just hunkering down at your favorite?

Our favorite one closed (laughs). It was a bummer. We’ve done our last two records at a place here in New Orleans called Fudge, which is Tom Drummond from Better Than Ezra who produced our records and that was his studio. So when we first started talking about, hey, we want to start working on the next record, he said, “Well, we should consider what we’re going to do cause I’m selling the studio.” So that was a bummer because we all just loved working in that studio, it had such a great vibe.

At the time when this conversation was happening, I had just watched the documentary on Big Star, Nothing Can Hurt Me, and this was January of last year and we had a show in Memphis. So we drove up there and then the next day out of curiosity, I wondered if we could take a tour of the studio, just cause the band and the studio were on my mind from just having watched the documentary. We called up Ardent Studios and they told us to come on by and we went in and took a tour of the studio and we walked out of there thinking, how great would it be to record here. What a great room. And it’s only a few hours away.

So we went back home and like a week later, I watched a documentary on Muscle Shoals in Alabama. I started thinking, how far is Muscle Shoals? (laughs) I looked it up on the map and was like, it’s not far either. So I started thinking, what if we went to different studios around the south, one, just to get out of our own head cause when we’re here and you’re recording, you’re thinking to yourself, I got to finish this up cause I’ve got to get home and do this. So if we can kind of get out of town and block out the distractions, that will be beneficial but also it would be great to kind of go to these rooms that have historical significance and soak up some of that vibe and that magic and see how it affects the music.

Then an old buddy of mine worked for the Zac Brown Band and when I was talking to him about it, he said, “Well, why don’t you come to their place here in Atlanta. It’s a great studio.” And then we did a session here at the Music Shed in New Orleans. We’re talking about going to a place called Dockside, which I think is outside of Lafayette. We haven’t gone to Muscle Shoals yet. I think that’s going to be the first session we do for the second EP. We’ll probably go back to Ardent in Memphis too cause we had such a great time there.

So Volume Two hasn’t been recorded yet?

Volume Two has not been recorded yet. We’re going to start on that in the next couple of months.

Do you have the songs written?

We’ve got a handful of songs written for it but we’re always writing and working on different things and we just want to put the absolute best songs that we can on there. Like there’s a song on Volume One that was written probably two weeks before we went to the studio. It’s called “Love You More” and it’s a duet. I had done a demo of it and I wasn’t sure what the guys were going to think of it so I sent it over to our producer and he was like, “This is really good. We’re doing this.” So we’ve got a handful of songs that may make it on there and they may not. We’ve got stuff that is still being worked on and written and different pieces we’re always working with.

Who did you sing with on the duet?

Her name is Cherie LeJeune. She plays in a band here called the Wooden Wings. They’re good friends of ours and she is engaged to our friend Sam McCabe, who is in the band Bantam Foxes. And she’s got a fantastic voice. When I’d written that song, I had done a show here with a woman named Susan Cowsill and a guy named Paul Sanchez and for the show they were covering an album by Gram Parsons and the bulk of that material is duet between him and Emmylou Harris. So I sang a couple of these songs with Susan and I loved having a partner to sing with and I hadn’t done that kind of one-on-one duet thing in a long time.

So when I started writing that song the idea of a duet came into my head and Cherie was the first person I thought of cause her voice is so wonderful and we get along so well. She knows my wife and they’re very good friends and it’s the first thing I’d really ever written about my life. I felt like there was never a lot of songs about like, man, this domestic life thing is pretty great, I love being with the same person every day, this is awesome. So that’s the idea behind the song and I knew Cherie could pick up on that. She came in and learned it and just knocked it out of the park and did a wonderful job on it.

I bet your wife was happy about that song.

(laughs) She loved it, oh my God, and she’ll hate me for saying it but the first time I played her my demo of it, we were sitting on the couch and she was listening and she kind of did that thing like where she turned her head to the side a little bit and put her hand up cause she was getting a little watery-eyed. It was really cute.

“Illuminate” came out on St Patrick’s Day. Why did you choose that one to be the first release off the EP?

We chose that one probably because it’s the oldest song in the batch. We’ve been playing it live for a good while and it’s always gotten the best response so it was kind of the early front runner. And the track just came out so well, it just kind of made it the obvious choice of what we wanted to put out first.

The backstory on it, it came out of just a jam session in rehearsal, just playing the two chords that make up the bulk of the song. I actually a few weeks ago found a recording in my iPhone where we had just been working on this idea for about fifteen minutes and, “Hey, somebody record this so we don’t forget it,” and it’s just this horrible, tinny sounding recording of us banging away on these two chords and me singing gibberish over it. But it was one of those things where it just kind of came out of the sky out of nowhere. The melody was there pretty much instantly. The vocal melody came out at the same time we were kind of messing with it in the rehearsal space. It was just one of those things where it came out 80% fully formed probably in about a half hour and we all kind of went, “That’s a pretty cool song.” (laughs)

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You know I have to ask about the “Rivers Cuomo” song. Are you like one of those Weezer nerds?

(laughs) No, no, well, maybe kind of. I love that band. I’ve always been a huge fan of theirs and it’s kind of a two prong story. I had read this article about how as you get older, you’re not able to make the same connections with music that you can when you’re younger. I had been noticing that cause I started realizing that, “God, there is not a lot of new music that comes out that moves me or makes me really feel anything like it did when I was fifteen or sixteen.” Like when The Blue Album and Pinkerton came out, I totally related to that awkward kid lyric, where he comes from. As I got older, not just Weezer but a lot of other bands that I have always liked, I just wasn’t connecting to what they were putting out. So apparently as you get older there’s a chemical in your brain that as the chemical reduces, it causes you to stop having these connections with auditory senses. And I found that really interesting.

Then I had read a review around the same time of a Weezer record and the guy just tore it to shreds and I started thinking to myself, that the combination of things where as a listener you change but also the writer changes. You can’t really expect a forty-five year old Rivers Cuomo to write from the same perspective of a twenty-five year old Rivers Cuomo. Is it right to fault the songwriter or an artist for growing up and finding some kind of happiness in their life at the expense of you using their art to find comfort in whatever unhappiness you’re dealing with?

It makes it sound like a really heavy, philosophical song (laughs) and it’s really not. The end product is not anywhere near that complicated. But that was kind of the idea behind it. I just sat there and felt bad for the guy cause it’s like he’s making the music he wants to do and what makes him happy and he’s getting bashed by some guy that doesn’t connect to what he’s singing about anymore. And why is that his fault? I had that melody in my head for a long time, the chorus melody on it, and it just fell into place.

I like the guitars on it too. Was that yours or Stephen’s?

I think it was Stephen’s riff and that whole middle section is completely Stephen’s creation, where it goes into this spacey, dual guitar leads thing. That’s totally right up his alley right there.

So you have Stephen who is like the rock guy and we have you who is kind of a Weezer guy. How do you put those two different influences and blend them together and make them work?

Stephen kind of grew up listening to a lot of Prog rock and metal and stuff like Rush and Dream Theater, Van Halen, Metallica, things like that. That’s the stuff he sat in his bedroom and learned when he was fifteen. When I was learning stuff in my bedroom at fifteen, I was listening to The Beatles and Weezer and Oasis and Better Than Ezra and things like that. Stephen and I played together in college and we never thought about how we’d actually ever make this work. We’re able to look at what each other brings to the table and it made itself apparent pretty quickly when we started writing together a few years ago. I would bring in a little simple three chord pop song that would be almost overly annoyingly pop-y and he would say, “Let’s toughen this up a little bit, give it some brains, some brawn. Make it something different.”

So it’s really a lot of opening yourself up to each other’s suggestions. A prime example is the song “Walking Backwards.” That song is based around a riff that he had for a long time. His original demo of it was literally like fifteen minutes long. And his lyrics, he writes very much like just a page of prose. So what we do is I’ll sit there and take the prose and kind of edit it and start fishing for things like one line that sums up four lines, and find a way to make it more lyric based. Then we find what the catchier parts are in his longer-form demo and condense it and then kind of chop it up and make it into something that is more easily digested. Whereas with my stuff, he’ll take something that doesn’t deviate from the same two chords and put a really cool riff that changes the feel of it over it. Or he’ll take a vocal line that might be a little too simple and think of a way to compensate it but still retain it’s catchiness to it.

So we have to be open to collaborating with each other for it to work. We can always tell, if someone’s in a bad mood and we’re trying to write together and you’re just shut down about something, we almost inevitably end up calling the session early. It’s like, alright, we’re not going to get anything done today cause I’m in a shitty mood or you’re in a shitty mood so let’s just try it later. Let’s go have a beer, screw it.

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What did you latch onto first –singing or playing an instrument?

Probably an instrument. I actually started out as a drummer. I started playing drums when I was in fourth grade and my uncle gave me my first guitar when I was probably thirteen. I continued playing drums all the way through high school and then when I went to college I had nowhere to keep a drum set in my dorm so guitar kind of became the focus. But I joined the choir in high school and I had always sang on my own before that. I’d almost in some aspects consider myself more of a singer than a guitar player cause I still think I’m pretty rudimentary in what I do on guitar. I’m a good rhythm player, I’m an atrocious lead player (laughs). So that’s another benefit to Stephen and mine’s relationship, that he is a great lead player and I’m garbage (laughs).

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I would not call him a rock star but the first real rock star I ever met was BB King. He is one of my all-time heroes. Somehow when I was really young, like four or five, somewhere around there, just going into my parents’ record collection, I got into BB King. He was like the first musician I was ever obsessed with. He played in New Orleans at the Blue Room, which is in the Roosevelt Hotel, on my sixth birthday so my parents got us tickets for it and we went to the show and my dad somehow bribed a maître d to let us back into the green room area to meet BB King after the show. And I am the only child at this show. This was like an 11:00 show and I am a six year old child in like a blazer and a tie (laughs).

So after the show they take us into this kitchen area and BB King is sitting there in a folding chair drinking a Budweiser. His tour manager brings us over and says, “This is Jonathan, it’s his sixth birthday and he’s a huge fan.” And BB King picks me up and puts me on his lap and starts asking, “What songs of mine do you like? Do you have a favorite song? Do you play any music?” I can remember it as plain as day. He was as nice as could be and he gave my entire family guitar picks and lapel pins with his name on it. My dad had a friend who was a photographer who had this great black & white 8×10 of BB King that he’d given to me earlier that week cause he knew I was a huge BB King fan, and he autographed it for me and we took pictures and it was just an amazing, amazing moment for me at such a young age.

But I will tell you who I met who was super nice and that was Davy Jones from the Monkees. Disclosure: I’m a huge Monkees fan, like an unabashedly huge Monkees fan. He played at a festival here a few years ago when I was in my last band and we played the day before so we had like passes for the festival. So I came out the next day to watch his show and I was like, you know what, I want to meet Davy Jones. I have a pass, I can be in the artist area, I’m going to bring a record and I’m going to meet Davy Jones. So I was sitting around backstage having a beer and he came out of his trailer like fifteen minutes before his show and I walked over, “Hey Davy, I’m Jonathan. I played with my band yesterday and I’m a huge fan of your work.” And we started chatting for a while and he was just as friendly as could be. And I said, “I hate to be that guy but I brought a record. Would you sign it?” And he was like, “Of course.” So I pulled out my record and he was like, “This is my favorite record that we did,” and starts talking about the different songs on the record and about recording the songs and it was incredible. He was super nice. And he was like 5’2, the shortest guy, so tiny.

When he passed, I immediately thought back to when I got to meet him and I was glad I got to meet him. I was watching the Monkees on MTV when I was five. Then when I got older, I realized some of that music is some of the best sixties pop music ever done. It’s all the guys that played on the Brian Wilson records and all that stuff, like the best musicians that California had to offer at the time. They’re completely underrated and deserve way more credit and respect than they get. They’re a phenomenal group and I love that band.

What is the Desert Island Discs concert series you guys are doing?

The Desert Island Discs series is a series of four shows that we do throughout the course of a year where we each pick an album that we love and would love to play. Then we put the four albums up on a poll and people vote on it and then we perform that album at a show.

Weezer was the first one. We did The Blue Album and our next one is going to be in May and we’re playing Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American. And that actually is going to be a fun show because that is doubling as our EP release show. So we’ll play our whole new EP, then we’ll play the Jimmy Eat World album and then we’ll play some older Breton Sound stuff after that. So the series keeps things fun and it puts new people in front of us who haven’t seen us before. Like, there were people that came to the Weezer show cause they liked Weezer and then they walked out of that with a Breton Sound record in their hand. It’s a way to have fun but also to get new ears to hear what we’re doing.

What is the craziest thing to happen to you onstage?

I haven’t had any crazy things happen with the Breton Sound but in my previous band, the first time I went out to LA we were playing at the Roxy Theatre and I was excited to be in LA, we had a bunch of friends that were coming out and the Roxy is just an amazing room with a great history. So first song of the show, we’re playing and I’m going hard, we’re playing our little butts off, and I’m kind of jumping around doing my thing and as I come down off of a sweet rock jump, I step on the cable of my guitar and I start to fall. So I try to catch myself and I step on the cable a second time and I proceed to fall straight on my back right into an amplifier (laughs). Looked like a big ole idiot. Super embarrassed and spent the rest of the show nursing a horrible headache and a sore knee and feeling like a jackass.

What is coming up for you guys in the next couple of months?

The EP comes out May 19th and we’ll probably release another song before that comes out. We’re going to shoot a video in June but I don’t know what song it will be for. We’re just going to be touring a lot and starting work on the second EP. On Friday, I’m playing here at a show that is a tribute to George Harrison. I’ve been involved with the same group that is doing this show and we’ve done a Lennon/McCartney one but for this one I kind of ended up taking on the responsibility of being the Musical Director and running the show. So I’ve been having to learn those twenty-five songs and try to set up rehearsal for twenty different musicians.

Where can people keep up with what you guys are doing?

Everything is on www.thebretonsound.com. Tour dates, music, news, merch, all that good stuff; everything lives there. We’re also very active on social media through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

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