By: Ryan Mannix
The music of Bubbles Brown is a modern, gritty take on old American forms -- blues, country, and ragtime are just the beginning of the genre lines that this duo straddles. While the bare instrumentation recalls the past, the soulful melodies and whip-smart arrangements place Bubbles Brown firmly in the present.
Bubbles Brown, the group, works in the mold of the Odd Couple. Bubbles (the person) tends to go more with his gut, without too much analysis or plotting, his plain-spoken manner providing quite the contrast from his counterpart. Washboard Ben, on the other hand, is very articulate and philosophical, almost a music historian.
They may disagree on many things, but more often than not their perspectives are two sides of the same coin. Their contrasting personalities and approaches to music definitely make Bubbles Brown The Band something greater than the sum of its parts.
What first turned you onto roots music?
Washboard Ben: My dad first turned me onto the blues when I was ten or eleven, and I didn’t get it at all. I thought it was boring as shit. Then it started clicking. My parents played Grateful Dead for me, The Beatles, Buckwheat Zydeco. I kind of fell into it ass backwards.
Bubbles Brown: Well I moved to Chicago, and my influences were The Beatles and Neil Young, but I didn’t really know the deep cuts, or what was influenced by who. But I met a girl from Shreveport, LA, the town were Leadbelly came from. And she got me into that, and I just dug in.
Its interesting because those bands -- The Dead, Neil or Zeppelin -- were around at the time when those older musicians were still around and making music, but you guys are kind of second or third generation
WB: That rock stuff is great, and it’s hard not to love it, but the old blues really just has this mystique to it. Like my dad was a great storyteller, and when I listen to old blues I get that same feeling. There’s this entire universe that you’re not really attuned to, whether its the south, or sharecropping history, or whatever. With rock, it’s great but doesn't have that same depth.
BB: It's haunting.
Do you feel like you're revivalists, or have an obligation to keep this music going?
WB: I’d say neither. I wouldn't say an obligation, because it’s so good, it will always be alive. But I enjoy keeping it alive. If people want to find it they’ll find it. I don't feel like a revivalist because its just the music that I want to make.
BB: I think he’s doing it sub-consciously and I’m doing it consciously, because I think we’re doing a service. I definitely want to revive it and for it to be popular.
WB: I think we’re saying the same thing just from a different side.
BB: Yeah its the two headed monster (laughs). That should be the name of the next record.
WB: We definitely started with a more modern and grungier sound, and the further we dig the more we go back to that old sound. I think that’s the way with a lot of music where you start with something a little more complicated and then you simplify. Kind of an odd example is Mickey Hart, a legendary rock drummer who is way into African drumming. The further out you get, the more you can take back.
How has the response been for Mt. Gilead?
BB: It’s been great. We’re selling it internationally and people really like it. It’s been getting write-ups and all that. It’s not a huge success, but its allowing us to keep going forward.
Does anything influence you that people wouldn’t expect?
BB: I really like Sublime, and Talking Heads. Devo is really cool, too.
WB: I think Animal Collective is doing great work. I love Lynard Skynyrd and I get a lot of shit for that (laughs).
BB: They’re great!
Lets talk about “Oh Sure”, the covers EP, those are some great tunes
BB: Yeah, it’s the music that influenced everyone -- from Led Zeppelin to Dr. John to Bob Dylan.
WB: We wanted to show that we’re students of this music, and show that we can absorb it into our original music.
I had never even heard “Lovesick Blues”
BB: That’s one of the greatest pop tunes of all time.
WB: Hank Williams didn’t even write that, I don’t think.
That’s the thing with a lot of this music, is that its interpretations of other peoples interpretations and nobody really owns it. Like when Bob Dylan started, he wasn’t doing anything new.
BB: And he lied about his entire life! He created a whole character for himself. Like he lived on a ranch in Arizona and it wasn't true. But it was brilliant.
How do you approach the live show?
BB: We keep it stripped down, because there's not much you can do to manipulate the sound.
WB: We try to do the songs the same, but I don’t think we usually can (laughs). Sometimes things happen that aren’t so good, but sometimes it works out.
BB: Our live strategy is to to grip it and rip it.
WB: We have this non-verbal rapport, and because it’s in this genre, you can have an idea of where it’s going to go. We can do a lot of impromptu stuff. Like Mt. Gilead is basically live with not a lot of stitching.
BB: There’s basically no stitching. Like one or two things, but we recorded live to tape.
What does Chicago mean to you?
BB: I moved up here to play music, and it’s taken me nine years to make it to this point, knowing nobody but my sister. It’s helped me tremendously find people and culture. It’s my second home, it’s the Mecca of blues so I love it here.
WB: I’ve always wanted to play music, and I did a bit in Indiana, but nobody really wanted to do it. So I moved up here and found people who want to do this for real. These people want to do this really obscure kind of music and also want to make a career out of it, which is so far-fetched, but that’s whats great about it. It's more of a compulsion.
Will roots music live forever?
BB: It's already outlasted so much other music.
WB: I was just listening to a radio show where they were talking about the Voyager, and that has music from Blind Willie McTell on it, and that’s on a satellite traveling through space. It’s linked to man in general now.
Locally, what bands are you excited about?
BB: There’s a group called Scott William and The Family Band, he’s a great songwriter. There’s a guy named Elijah Burlow, he plays the banjo and resonator and writes these progressive folk songs. I’ve gotta shoutout to Mississippi Gabe Carter as well.
WB: Well, another group that I play in, who I think is great, is Woodrow Hart and the Haymakers. The Modern Sounds are fantastic. The Western Elstons are an amazing band, and the Flat Five. Fat Babies are great, they play in the swing scene. Best washboard player in town for my money is Rick Sherry.
Drink of choice?
BB & WB: Beer and whiskey.
Lennon or McCartney?
WB: There’s no answer for that. They’re both so great. I’d say Lennon, But my real answer is Ringo.
Bubbles Brown is one of my favorite groups happening in Chicago, as well some genuinely great people. They’re going places so check them out while they’re still local and playing places as small as Tonic Room (Feb 16th). Also check out “Mt. Gilead”, and “Oh, Sure Vol.1” .