With artists like Fitz and the Tantrums, Mayer Hawthorne and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings delivering what critics are calling as indie soul, JC Brooks of Chicago’s JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound likes a comparison instead likening his band to Wilson Picket getting the Velvet Underground off heroin. Or perhaps he’ll also run with what the Washington Post described as – JC Brooks looks and performs like a cross between Chuck Berry and H.R. of Bad Brains in their primes, but his skintight R&B and post-punk soul upend expectations of a retro act.
All comparison aside, there’s no argument that there’s a lot of artists mixing rock and soul to audiences that expand to younger listeners, a refreshing escape from the more trendy electronic soul favored by the Coachella sect.
In May JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound released Howl, their third full-length album and second for Bloodshot Records. In December 2012, the band holed up at Hotel2Tango Studio in Montreal to work with producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and dove headfirst into previously unfamiliar sonic territories and tough-yet-transfixing lyrical matter. By approaching the new album with this direct and free outlook, what began with the raw soul of 2011’s Want More advances in new, exciting directions.
Throughout Howl the dark side of love and longing is explored by frontman JC Brooks’s starkly personal lyrics and the Uptown Sound’s willingness to bare all their influences and let the grooves fall where they may. A collective evolution has been made where influence meets experience, and this organic progression results in 11 songs that are more open than ever both in message and vibe. Glide recently chatted with the front-man about labels and bringing soul back aggressively.
Did you try and mix up the song themes on Howl? You have amazing dance floor numbers like “Before You Die” mixed with reflective tunes like “Not Alone. What type of recording were you going for? Were there any seminal albums in the back of your mind?
We weren’t shooting for a particular type of recording -we just wanted to do justice to all the eclectic new material we’d been writing. We always talk about influential albums but right now I can’t think of one that I could compare Howl to in terms of the shift in tone/genre variety/content from our first two albums.
You have two earlier albums that many may not be familiar with and 2009’s Beat of Our Own Drum & 2011’s Want More. How did the more nostalgic tone of those records set the course to what would become Howl?
I feel like they gave us a chance to work through that particular nostalgia while at the same time experimenting with new songwriting techniques and sounds: not that we’ve stopped experimenting by any measure.
After reading the reviews, what accolades are you most proud of for Howl?
This is a weird one for me because although I’m aware that the word is generally positive, I try not to read reviews. However, I am thrilled that people are picking up on the honesty of the lyrics and also that they aren’t put off by the decidedly un-“classic soul” sound of the new material.
When listening back to Howl what songs stand out to you the most as defining where you are right now as a band?
For me, it’s Security or Married. Those two are the most reflective of the sound that inspires me to write right now.
Previously having been an actor, how did that help translate into being a lead singer? What strengths on stage do you think would have been hard to achieve had you not been in theater?
I think that having spent a lot of time performing prior to this band allows me to be more comfortable in front of a crowd, and as an actor I’m able to externalize the emotional content of the songs with more nuance.
Its bit of a crowded scene with bands like your own (Fitz and the Tantrums, Raphael Saadiq) that draw to a younger audience but have soul as one of their main influences (indie soul is the term most widely used). How would you describe what sets apart JC Brooks from others?
We have a rawer sound live and on record, plus we adhere to more of a post-punk ethos: keeping it eclectic, and keeping it minimal (when possible…).
I personally liked your description as Otis Redding fronting the Stooges. What other descriptions have you heard that you would say are right on?
I dig the Chuck Berry meets H.R. quote, and someone once wrote (in the vein of the Redding/Stooges quote) that we were like Wilson Pickett getting the Velvet Underground off heroin.
How has the city of Chicago played a role in your sound and growth as a band?
Chicago’s a city with a huge musical legacy so even if we weren’t from here we couldn’t deny its influence, but there’s so much good, new, exciting music happening here all the time that it spurs me to test my creative boundaries and play with new sounds and abstract ways of expressing ideas through my (usually very direct) songwriting.
What Chicago bands would you consider your friends and contemporaries and what venues have granted you the most stage time?
Wild Belle, Mutts, Dance Floor Plans, Absolutely Not, Bailiff, Tracer Bullet, Jess Godwin, The Ragtones, Black Bear Combo, The Congregation…this list could go for a while. In the past few years Metro is the place we’ve played the most.
You’ve backed quite a few legends of soul in various configurations over the past few years. Can you share with our readers what some of the most memorable moments was? Was there any significant advice you received?
I never really got any advice from any of them but a definite highlight was getting to do an impromptu duet with Corey Glover last year at moe.down
What do you have going on this summer that you most looking forward to?
Hanging out with my friends, going camping…regular stuff. I’m plenty excited for the festivals we’re slated to play but summer in Chicago kicks much ass.
If you could curate your own festival who would be in it?
All the bands I mentioned prior plus Azealia Banks, Tuneyards, Electric Guest, Daft Punk, Tom Waits, Scissor Sisters, Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, Jaw Gems, Janis Ian, Tori Amos, The Bird And The Bee, Death Grips, Esperanza Spaulding, Steely Dan…this list could also stretch forever.