Brasstracks welcomes a new era of independence, experimentation, and most importantly, working with their friends.
Stream: ‘Welcome Back’ – Brasstracks
It was only last year that the duo Brasstracks released their major label debut — a riotous celebration of sound called Golden Ticket, and trumpeter Ivan Jackson and drummer Conor Rayne thought of it as such. Over their years of playing and producing together, the duo’s infectious sound had garnered the admiration of big names in the music industry, like Mark Ronson, Anderson .Paak, and Chance the Rapper, the latter of whom has them playing on a Grammy-winning track. Golden Ticket was supposed to be the big push into the mainstream. But just a year later, they’ve departed from their former label.
After bonding at the Manhattan School of Music over a shared dislike of traditional jazz pedagogy, Jackson and Rayne started working together in their spare time. What has always made Brasstracks special was specifically their deviation from the norm. They were a drumming, trumpet playing duo who produced music — far from the traditional pop structure.
And yet they made work what many people have often tried and failed to do. Collaborating with singers and rappers, Rayne and Jackson have created a strong identity that comes through even with a different person in the lead — Jackson’s horn arrangements are instantly recognizable, and the pair’s production skills have only gotten tighter as time’s gone on.
So when their former label began to demand a certain kind of sound, Jackson and Rayne found themselves at an impasse: try and provide the kind of “hit” sound their label was looking for, or strike out on their own. Their new EP Welcome Back (out July 9, 2021) marks the new, independent era of Brasstracks. The three song EP, which features singers Cait Harris and COOKIE. on the second and third songs, is a joyful summer treat. The title track is a bouncy cover of Mase’s “Welcome Back,” which remixes John Sebastian’s theme for the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
The chain of influence parallels Brasstrack’s music-making philosophy: using “the records that work in our world at that time for us” as influence. In other words, Brasstracks may be looking to the past or looking to the future of music, but whatever it is, it belongs to them and no one else. Welcome back, Brasstracks. Atwood spoke to Ivan about the duo’s new era and independence.
A CONVERSATION WITH BRASSTRACKS
Atwood Magazine: Your new EP Welcome Back signifies a return to music and also a new era following your departure from your former label. Can you talk about this transition?
Ivan Jackson: This is kind of what happened: we turned in our album Golden Ticket in February/early March of 2020. COVID immediately hit, and obviously no one knew what to do, especially the major labels. All of our plans, like everyone else’s, were put in limbo. All we could think to do was make more things. And we knew that we had other things that were supposed to be on Golden Ticket that just didn’t make the cut, but we still wanted to release them. So we came up with a plan with our label to release these things after Golden Ticket, new and old, instead of immediately going off to make album two. Seems like a win, win, right? We’re basically giving them a bunch more “master recordings” without them having to do a whole complicated deal around it; things don’t die on my hard drive, I still get to create stuff, and release it through the music.
We didn’t even ask for a lot of money, just pay for the cost of creating it, and on the other side pay us for the time it took. Turns out nothing I made in this “transitionary” period was really good enough. I had this amazing handful of songs that I was being blocked from putting out until I could deliver something that sounded like a “hit.” Months later, we finally hit the mark it seemed with one of the songs we had delivered, and everything seemed like it was going great… until it randomly wasn’t, and one day we suddenly parted ways.
I was angry. I had lots of songs, but a strange feeling of inadequacy, having been told so many times that they weren’t good enough. Random people that don’t make music trying to tell me when “a vocal feels like it’s the ONE”… took me some time to remember that’s MY job, not theirs. I made the “Welcome Back” cover with a chip on my shoulder, took a look at the music we had, and came up with an idea. We’ll kick the door down with this cover, reveal it as an EP a week later, and continue the spirit of “Welcome Back” all summer long. Fuck it, all year long. It’s an ERA, not an EP, and I’m happy again.
The term “indie” has come to mean so little in today’s music, but you guys are now actively independent musicians. What kind of attitude shift accompanies this, if any? Is there ever a sense of worry or is it one of freedom?
Ivan Jackson: The sense of worry is there as a musician on a label or off a label. We’ve been completely independent, done publishing deals, done distribution deals, major label deals, back to independence. The label was doing so little for us for a year and a half, it felt like we were independent back then with none of the perks of being independent, like being able to put out music when you want, or whatever content. We couldn’t make videos without a branch at the label telling us to take a random brand logo out. Now we’re flying as fast as we want. That sense of worry is not worth it without a sense of freedom. Now we have both.
Many of the artists you feature as singers on your songs are underground or lesser known. How do you pick your features?
Ivan Jackson: I try to keep it to this — good people that are good at music. Thinking harder than that takes the fun out of it. I’m doubling down on working with my friends, because they’re my friends and I truly think they’re the best at what they do.
On Welcome Back, you feature Cait Harris and COOKIE. What about them drew you to working with them?
Ivan Jackson: Well, we’ll start off with my rule of thumb — they are good people that are good at music. Actually, great. They both had these ideas for “After A While” and “Kool Aid” before I came into the fold and brought them into the Brasstracks world. I also help them with their own projects. I love both of them dearly. Collaboration shouldn’t be more complicated than this.
What makes a good collaborator?
Ivan Jackson: I’m sensing a pattern coming on. Good people that make good music. I want both. I don’t want one or the other. I would add, people that are also good at listening, that are good at taking criticism and giving criticism. But most of the time that just goes into the “good people” thing.
“Summertime 1, 2” feels somewhat different from your typical style. How did that song come about?
Ivan Jackson: I can’t lie, we were pushed to make that one. That was when the label was pushing us for a hit. Rothstein and I had a chip on our shoulders writing it. We had already delivered many records. But when we finished it, we were thankful, funny enough. Thankful that we had gotten mad enough to write a hit sounding song that worked in the Brasstracks world.
Your music has always pulled from classic sensibilities as well as modern ones – it seems that much of popular music is now also pulling much from the past. Silk Sonic has brought back a 70s Philly soul sound, while Victoria Monet also frequently employs the use of horns in her own 70s-tinged R&B. Where do you situate yourselves now that this is becoming such a popular sound again?
Ivan Jackson: This is a really difficult question for me! I just couldn’t care less what is popular when it comes to Brasstracks in particular. And I loooove pop music!!! It just doesn’t work to try to think about what’s “cool now” with this project that is so close to my heart.
When I’m producing for other people, especially more pop acts, I certainly try to think about that more… but with Brasstracks, it’s just kind of the records that work in our world at that time for us. I try to make and release all my music with Brasstracks chronologically, because it marks where I was at at the time. What is going on in the Billboard charts can’t have anything to do with that.
Where do you see your sound going in the future? What are some paths you’d like to explore?
Ivan Jackson: Whatever I’m enjoying at the time. Right now I’m enjoying the sound of analog drum machines, weird-yet-classic sounding reverbs, horns that can live in records like part of the sonics and not just the cilantro on top. I’m boxing a lot. Afterwards I enjoy getting a smoothie and walking to my favorite vintage furniture spot in Greenpoint, because I just moved apartments. On my walk I try to catch up on new music, and make phone calls to friends and family, who thankfully are all healthy at this time. I have a weekly writing session with my close friends; we call our little writing troop “Pastel Grey,” and I am very excited about it. All of this stuff will inform the next batch of music, for sure. But I’m living in today, every day. Trying not to think about what our sound will be in the future. I can tell you this — I will probably work with more of my friends.
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📸 © Shawn Jordan
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