Interview: The Clydes frontman Brent Johnson talks songwriting and new LP 'So the Story Goes'
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Brent and Brian Johnson fostered a lifetime love of music by growing up in a house filled with stacks of records and CDS. Their dad was a DJ who loved to spout music trivia and he spent hours with his sons watching documentaries on iconic bands like The Beatles. The New-Jersey based brothers began writing songs at the age of 10 and performed “concerts” in their living room, as their love of listening to music quickly evolved into a passionate drive to make their own.

The Johnsons attended Rutgers University together, along with their long-time friend Andrew Lord Chandler, where they bonded musically over a mutual love of David Bowie and Prince. The talented New Brunswick native brothers played during those early college years as a band called Rest Assured. Post-college, they formed The Clydes (named after NBA star Walt “Clyde” Frazier) with Brent (lead vox, rhythm guitars, keys), Brian (lead guitars, keyboards, effects), Chandler (bass, keys, backing vox) and drummer and backing vocalist MadMardigan.

Drawing influences from artists like The Beatles, Prince, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Elvis Costello, and more, The Clydes released their debut EP The Cindy Bannon Sessions in 2010. The dynamic, indie-pop band has performed all over New Jersey and New York on famed stages like The Court Tavern in New Brunswick and The Bitter End in New York (Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan, Norah Jones and more music giants have played at this landmark Greenwich Village venue). The Clydes’ most complete collection of songs to date, So the Story Goes from Mint 400 Records, is a vocally-rich, sonically sweet, 10-track alt-pop blend of songs about love, doubt, defeat, finding hope and more

The album’s title is found as a lyric line in track No. 7 “Melody,” which boasts a heavy Beatles influence and some cool instruments including a Mellotron, electric guitar and trumpet. Two tracks have Spanish titles “Jueves,” meaning Thursday and “Que” meaning what. Track No. 6, “The Vampire of Hanover,” is a fun, fantasy-driven tune about a German serial killer. (Watch The Clydes perform an acoustic three-track set from the album in the video embedded above).

AXS recently connected with The Clydes co-founder and front man Brent Johnson to talk about songwriting, So the Story Goes, and more in the following exclusive Q & A interview.

AXS: How did you eventually break into gigging and what was it like early on, catching the vibe of your first live crowds?

BRENT JOHNSON: We made our first EP — The Cindy Bannon Sessions — at home in 2010. Within a few months, we were regulars at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, back when the great Andy Diamond — an enthusiastic promoter who always wore a baseball cap and hugged everybody — put us on a few bills. It was always a cool place to play. People packed into the dark basement where the stage is, with the sound throbbing.

One time, a beer machine broke on the top floor, and dirty beer literally leaked through to the basement. We kept playing. Andrew also proposed to his wife there. New Brunswick has always been a place that fosters good original music. We were lucky to be from there.

AXS: What bands and artists were you most influenced by growing up? What are some of your favorite songs to cover?

BJ: We all loved The Beatles and David Bowie and Prince. The Smiths, Roxy Music, and Radiohead are also big influences. So were Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder. As for covers? We do mean renditions of “Dirty Diana” by Michael Jackson and “A Well-Respected Man” by The Kinks.

AXS: Who, in terms of songwriting style, really grabbed you and why?

BJ: All the above, really. Songwriting is the key to all great music. Even the groups with the most style and most original sound had great songs first and foremost. The Beatles did it better than anyone, of course. But after that, Morrissey & Marr from The Smiths, who had an incredible knack for mixing the pretty with the morose. That's tough to do.

AXS: What was the name of the first song you wrote together and what inspired it?

BJ: We wrote a bunch of songs when we were younger that we’d rather forget. But the first one we kept and loved is a song that was on our first EP. It's called 'Cellophane Lights.' It's Smiths-like — somber but pretty. I had these really sad lyrics about a bit of heartbreak I just went through set to a really sad chord progression, and Brian put the most beautiful, flittering guitar riffs on top of it. It's still one of our favorite songs, actually.

AXS: One of your songs is about a German serial killer. Tell us the story behind it and how you developed it into a song.

BJ: Indeed. Brian loves to read about murder. It's kinda creepy, but he's a curious chap. So, he read about this early 20th century serial killer known as the Vampire of Hanover. He told me to write some lyrics about it overtop this great music he wrote. So, I did — telling the story from the killer's point of view. It’s scary but alluring. The original version was on our first EP. But we re-recorded it for our most recent album.

AXS: Who are some of your favorite current artists-songwriters?

BJ: We love this Sirius station called XMU, where they play all this great indie rock that's not really played on Top 40 radio. There are some great acts making very different, intriguing music right now. St. Vincent is our favorite, by far. She’s incredible — amazing guitar player, killer songs, great style. Janelle Monae, Alvvays, and Mac DeMarco are also cool. They all realize what those classic rock acts did: It's all about the song. A bit more mainstream, it doesn't get much better than Arcade Fire or LCD Soundsystem.

AXS: Please tell us about your songwriting process. Do you both write music and lyrics? What is the shortest amount of time it ever took you to write a song?

BJ: We write together a lot of different ways. Sometimes, Brian comes up with a riff, and he and I expand it into a song together. Sometimes, I’ll come up with a kernel of an idea that Brian helps finish. Sometimes, we sit in the same room and play until something comes out. I then work on the lyrics, although Brian often throws in lines or ideas. Then, we present it to Andrew and Mad to flesh out an arrangement.

As for the shortest time? We knocked out our most recent single, 'Broken Boy,' in about 20 minutes. Sometimes, songs just jump out fully formed. But that's more rare than not.

AXS: You’ve got a fantastic three-song acoustic set featured in the video above. These tracks are from your album So the Story Goes. What was the most exciting thing about the creative process for this album? How did you connect with Mint 400 records?

BJ: This was an album where it felt like we were really clicking all over the place in the songwriting. We love every track on it. We think it's the album that represents us the most. We had sent our music to a few labels who showed interest. But Neil Sabatino, the owner of Mint 400, paid the most attention. He wanted to work hands-on with us and produce our music himself. He pushes us in new directions. And he directs our music videos.

AXS: What is your favorite track on the album?

BJ: “The Vampire Of Hanover” is a long-time favorite— it's maybe the richest song, musically and lyrically, that we have, and it’s always a blast live. But the single “Holly Speaks” is also a proud moment. It sprung from Brian’s love of Britpop. And I focused the story on someone who feels bogged down by the monotony of their life but vows to make something different happen.

AXS: The “Broken Boy” video is great! How did you come up with the concept for it?

BJ: That was Neil's idea. The song is about someone who feels broken after a bad romantic relationship but is looking to bounce back. So Neil thought about having this person who is literally broken — he can’t drive, he can’t keep his dog from running away. So he appears on a QVC-style show for a product that can magically fix him. And yes, Dr. Sheboygan is Brian’s real name.

AXS: You’ve played a bunch of epic “artist-focused” clubs around New York, including a recent show at The Bitter End. What is your favorite thing about that place?

BJ: It was our third time playing The Bitter End, and each time has been an honor. So many great acts have played there over the years — including a young Billy Joel, who was a big hero for me and Andrew growing up. It's the kind of place where you feel the history when you step on stage. Same for The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, where we've played a few times.

AXS: Where are some of your next upcoming shows?

BJ: We're playing a cool charity show for Rent Party Pantry, a group that fights hunger, in Maplewood, NJ, on May 18. We'll also be playing more in New York City, Philadelphia, and other East Coast region cities this summer. We also plan on recording another album later this year.

AXS: What do you most hope listeners will take away from your latest collection of songs on So the Story Goes?

BJ: This is our favorite Clydes album. It has some of our best songs. And a lot of them are about finding hope at the most hopeless times. Hopefully, listeners can relate to that.

Watch The Clydes video for "Broken Boy" below. Stream and download So the Story Goes on Spotify. Follow The Clydes on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud and YouTube.