Louis Brennan writes smart, mature and cathartically bleak music pulled from the depths of the folk tradition and forged into tales of grey-suited, modern frustration. Even as his lyrics are diving into dark and poignant reflections, they are still laced with biting witticisms which never fail to prompt a wry smile.
As the sub-three minute studio slammers dominate the UK Pop charts, it’s comforting to know there are still artists representing the sprawling, contemplative side of music.
His considered narrative of Conservative Britain cuts through the dissonance of modern political discourse at a time where patience and rationality seems as common as unicorn sh*t.
I had the genuine pleasure of catching up with him to chat about Dead Capital, politics in music and his delayed, ‘very nearly’ forthcoming album…
You’re somewhat of an enigma, in that there’s very little of your musical history and back catalogue out there, then suddenly this fantastic and fully matured album seems to appear out of nowhere. Can you tell us a little about what you were up to before Dead Capital?
There was another record prior to that one which never saw the light of day. It got tangled up in some legal stuff and ultimately was shelved. It sort of left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, a bit of a cycle of negative association with making music and I didn’t do anything for a couple of years.
Had you been playing those songs for a while before you decided to record that album?
Well, after a couple of years of not really playing at all, at some point it was like, “Okay, well, I better do something now,” and I just started writing again.
I’d been playing the songs live on my own and just decided I should get them down onto tape. Dead Capital was the culmination of that, really. The album came out in 2018 and I would have been back in the studio now. However, the whole pandemic situation has postponed everything for several months. But you know, it’s given me a bit of time.
Dead Capital is a very well-rounded album in the traditional sense. Do you still place value in the format of the ‘album’? Is that how you prefer to consume your music?
Yeah, I’m a bit of a Luddite in that sense. Whereas it’s probably not the most pragmatic approach in terms of career development, I’m definitely stuck in an album frame of mind.
I like the idea of a body of work. You’re putting your head above the parapet a bit more with an album. It’s more of a statement. I like the way things fit together and there’s often a narrative thread. Not to say I don’t listen to playlists, I kinda make my own playlists and listen to them if I’m running or something like that, but I do like to listen to an album all the way through.
In fact, during lockdown I’ve found myself revisiting classic albums, start to finish, you know, like when I’m going out for a walk. It’s a nice thing.
What was your process for transforming your bare acoustic tracks into the arrangements we hear on Dead Capital? Was it a challenge to bring such lyric-centric songs to a band?
I mean, it’s quite spartan. There’s not a huge amount going on. The idea was to keep the lyrics as the central focus. Most of the preparation was done beforehand.
I originally recorded some demos at home and arranged them. I’d written some drum parts, bass parts and stuff like that, which I then brought to the band. We rehearsed for a week and kind of hammered them into shape. I went into the studio with the guy who plays bass on the record and A.S. Fanning, who was a songwriter originally from Dublin and based in Berlin. He was co-producer with me and was very helpful. Then the guy who played keys, an old friend of mine, came along, recorded and gave a bit of a curve ball to it. We recorded it in just over a week in Berlin.
It was quite a natural process and not necessarily over-thought. It was just a case of getting a good sound, concentrating on the ‘sonic’ aspects and capturing the performances. The guy who engineered it was very helpful; a guy called Ingo Krauss, an older German guy, quite eccentric who’d worked with a lot of noise bands. Quite an unusual chap, but he definitely facilitated the way that I wanted it to work.
I think I had quite a clear idea of what I wanted the end result to be. I didn’t want too many overdubs and there was sort of a subtractive approach to it. Most of it is recorded live with the vocal in the room, so choosing the takes was based on what we thought was the best vocal take.
Did you have any particular musical influences in mind, or was it more kind of an aesthetic you were after?
There was definitely certain sonic elements that inspired it. I might look at some songs and think, “Oh, I like the drum sound on that. I like the bass sound on that”. But on the whole, it was just about the general aesthetic and capturing a sort of warm sound.
There wasn’t a particular notion of, “Oh this song needs to be like this.” And obviously a few songs came off sounding very, ‘Leonard Cohen’ and that was probably relatively consciously done.
I guess you receive the vocal comparison to Leonard Cohen quite a bit. Would you consider him an influence for you?
Absolutely. I like his storytelling. I’m a big fan. I admire that he has this continuous journey as an artist. For him, the important thing was that journey and developing his work as a way of looking to gain a deeper understanding of himself and the world around him through that work.
And you know, I’ve always liked the sound he gets. Songs of Love and Hate, that record just has a really cool vibe. It’s seemingly very minimal, but what interjections there are, are very important. They add a light and shade to it, without being overbearing.
I felt the same listening to Dead Capital. On first listen, the arrangements are seemingly bare, but there’s a lot of delicately structured lines interacting in there and maintaining that space.
For me, the song and the lyrics are the important thing, so it’s serving that, more than anything… I also knew from a practical point of view that I wouldn’t be playing or touring necessarily with a band all the time, once the record was out. I didn’t want it to be too divorced from [the album] if I were to just perform with an acoustic guitar. That being said, I think the next record I do will be a bit more elaborate in terms of arrangements.
Are the songs already written for the next record?
I’ve got about 15 songs written and in the arrangement stage. Some are more developed than others. I’ve been remotely working with a couple of people during lockdown, with a drummer and keys and stuff, adding parts. It’s an interesting way of doing things, if not necessarily the most natural. It can be frustrating, given the limitations.
I’m aiming to record it in January, so I think by that time it’ll just be a case of going into a studio and capturing it. Otherwise, there’s a tendency to go too far down the rabbit hole. I think it’s important just to document something and then move on to the next thing. You’ll never make something that you’re a hundred percent happy with. It’s an unusual one, as well, as not having played live for six of seven months, you’re just in your own little bubble.
Your lyrics are often heavily politically motivated. Do you hope your lyrics will affect people’s opinions or attitudes?
I don’t know that I’m that ‘outcomes based’ in my writing, but there’s definitely a sort of reactive element, in that you’re trying to get people to reflect on themselves and their own humanity. I’m not sure that I inspire people to act, or anything like that, but perhaps, have conversations or thoughts? Maybe if I say something in the song that someone thinks but can’t articulate, it might help them to articulate that further in their own life.
In the next record, there’s quite a few songs that are written from perspectives that are not my own by any stretch of the imagination. But I think the idea behind writing those characters and trying to get into that mindset is to humanize all points of view. So people are able to reflect on their own view of the world. There’s also that kind of idea of presenting different points of view but trying to find a sort of unifying kernel within them.
Do you think the idea of the ‘protest song’ still holds relevance today?
It’s a tough one. I’m no Billy Bragg, I’m not out there singing for Trade Union rallies. It’s not my angle, you know? In a lot of ways I’d love to be able to do that, but I’m kind of conflicted on most things in the world.
Also, the idea of a song that galvanizes people to do things is maybe a bit of a fantasy on the part of the artists who write that sort of music, you know? You see all those talking heads documentaries of all the people in the sixties and they’re like: ”We changed the world! We did all this!” and it’s like, “Did you? Really?”
Politics aside, there’s some quite emotionally raw material within your lyrics. How much of what you write about is personal experience and how much of it is storytelling, in the classic folk tradition?
It’s a combination. The lines are blurred, but I’m happy enough for that to be the case. You’re likely to relate other people’s experiences to your own, so a lot of it’s putting myself into other people’s shoes and telling stories, but you need to experience the emotions in order to write about them.
I think sometimes it’s easier to communicate your own emotions through somebody else’s story. It gives it a framework to work within. I guess people watch movies and cry because, that amplifies something within us? Its laid out there in a black and white, structured manner, whereas throughout life, it’s maybe just chaos.
But I think even when I talk about me, it’s often a projected version of myself, an amplified version. There’s maybe an element of me saying things I wouldn’t necessarily say face to face or in real life, but through music.
You played in Camden quite a bit, right?
I played at the Green Note quite a bit. You know, those guys are friends and it’s a really good music community around there. I always enjoy playing there, there’s always a good crowd. Immy and Risa who run the place, you know, they really love music and so does everybody who goes there. It’s nice, supportive place to play. That’s my own little slice of Camden.
What’s one of the most memorable gigs that you’ve played?
This time last year I was involved in a show at Wilton’s Music Hall, with a sort of a ‘collective’ for want of a better word that I’m kind of part of. We played a show which was a sort of tribute to Heartworn Highways, a documentary from 1976 about underground musicians in Texas and that area; Steve Earl, Townes Van Zandt, all those guys.
We each performed a song from the movie as well as some originals. There was about 12 singer-songwriters on stage and a band as well. That was definitely one of my best musical memories in terms of gigs. It was a really magical evening. So many elements that it could have been a disaster but it all coalesced quite beautifully on the night.