BRAZIL'S JONATHON NEWBY
Interview by Night Watchman
Illustration by Erik Rose

ONE OF THE BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR CAME FROM A BAND NAMED AFTER ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER. THE BAND IS BRAZIL, AND THEY ARE JUST AS CHALLENGING AND ORIGINAL AS THE TERRY GILLIAM MOVIE THAT INSPIRED THEIR NAME. SINCE THE RELEASE OF A HOSTAGE AND THE MEANING OF LIFE, BRAZIL HAS BEEN CRISSCROSSING THE COUNTRY, WOOING AUDIENCES AND EXPANDING THEIR FAN BASE. NIGHT WATCHMAN INTERRUPTED FRONTMAN JONATHON NEWBY HAVING COFFEE WITH HIS WIFE ON THE EVE OF A NEW NATIONAL TOUR TO FIND OUT HOW SUCH AN AMAZING BAND COULD HAVE COME OUT OF MUNCIE, INDIANA.

Night Watchman: I've been listening to the album a lot; it's really amazing, and I wanted to talk to you about some of the lyrical imagery that you touch on.

Jonathon Newby: Right.

NW: You have a dystopic, futuristic feeling in many of the songs.

JN: Yeah. Almost like an expressionistic view of the future. My favorite future as it appears through the 1930s.

NW: When you're writing, are you deliberately cryptic, or are you just trying to create an impression... creating an overall mood?

JN: I'm doing both, actually. I like to encrypt things. I like lyrics to have many different layers so you can peel back and see how things connect. But, at the same time, there are lines in our songs that are merely there because they have a certain cadence when you say them, or they look really interesting on paper; for no other reason than that. So there's a little of both.

NW: I noticed many places where you use French phrases. Is that an example of that?

JN: Yeah. I use that to create atmosphere. The funny thing is a lot of people feel that is kind of pretentious, and I suppose maybe it could come across that way. But that line in "Hostage" is from the movie Fire Walk With Me, which is a David Lynch film.

NW: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that.

JN: One of the things I do when I write lyrics is I draw from all sorts of things: literature, pop culture, that sort of thing. I mean, I can see how throwing in a couple of foreign phrases would seem like I'm a smart-ass or something, but I'm really just drawing from other sources.

NW: I think it was the second or third time I was listening to the album and really paying attention to the lyrics when I heard you use the word "garmonbozia", and I thought, "Oh, man. He's a David Lynch fan!"

Both: (laugh)

JN: That's cool you picked up on that, because I've gotten a lot of emails from people asking what that is.

NW: Between that and when I was reading the band's bio and found out that you named the band after the Terry Gilliam movie, which is one of my favorites--

JN: Oh, cool. Yeah!

NW: What other things, apart from Gilliam and Lynch, affect your world view?

JN: I like surrealism a lot. As far as painting goes, I'm not a real big Dali fan, but I am a big Magritte fan. Stuff that, on the surface, is realistic looking, but when you look at it closely there is that other layer to it. Like I said, I draw a lot from the darker aspects of film, other music, and literature. I'm a big Terry Gilliam fan. I also like a lot of Tim Burton's stuff. I don't know if you've seen our video, but you can kind of see that morbidity playing out through that.

NW: Yeah, I was just watching the video yesterday-- very cool stuff.

JN: Thank you.

NW: Going along with what you said about people sometimes thinking that the foreign passages were pretentious, are you ever worried that the band might be too technical or too intelligent for some people?

JN: Well, I try to put a lot of thought into our lyrics and the meanings, like I mentioned before about the layer effect. But, at the same time, I also try to make the things I'm singing or talking about universal themes. So that even if you don't really care to dig that deep into the songs, you still get something out of it. I'm not trying to be one of those lyricists that completely tries to obscure what I'm trying to get at. Or hide the fact that I have absolutely nothing to say by using a bunch of long words that don't really mean anything but sound cool because they look scientific. I will say that there are a lot of things in the record that are hidden deep down. If somebody was to take an hour and dissect and really put some things together, they could really have some new insight into what I'm getting at. But not a lot of people have done that so far. I've got a few questions about what garmonbozia is, but there are a lot of mysteries that I've implanted in this record that, as of now, remain mysteries.

NW: One of the first things I really noticed about the music, as well as the vocals, is that it's a really nice balance between the technical and the passionate. It seems like really technical bands lose a lot of that emotion.

JN: Yeah, they do. And that's a big problem with music right now. I think what a lot of writers miss out on is the fact that what gives a certain passage of music or lyrics value is what comes before or after it. So if your album is completely all just tech, or if it's just all raw emotion, then you're completely devaluing everything that's in it. But if you have nice, big fields of contrast that are like bookendings-- high points and low points-- your album is going to be a lot more memorable or a lot more striking.

NW: It seems that most bands stay with the same thing throughout. If it's a heavy album, it's heavy from beginning to end. But they fail to realize that if you precede that really heavy riff with something that contrasts it, a quiet passage, it would make it that much more powerful.

JN: Right. And that's why so many bands have such a short half-life. They get on this theme or thing that they do, like, "Oh, we're a real aggressive, technical band, and we're only going to do that." And that lasts maybe two or three records, and then you've done all you can do with it. We kind of took the approach, and I don't want to sound too grand here, but like Pink Floyd or someone like that. They're a band that can do pretty much anything. They can write a pop song like "Money", and they can write a long, conceptual, flat-out noise thing like Ummagumma, or they can do a big theatrical thing like The Wall. They're a band that could really do anything. We kind of want to go in that direction. I'm not saying that we're trying to be Pink Floyd or anything, but I'm saying we don't want to limit ourselves; we want to take full advantage of musicality, and we think about those sort of things when we're writing so we don't limit ourselves.

NW: That makes sense. Did you guys start out with a battle plan for Brazil? Did you know what you wanted the band to be specifically or a direction you wanted to go?

JN: Everything that we've done since our inception has been very planned, very thought out. I have lists of things, like labels that I was going to send our demo out to two or three years ago before we got signed, and the title of the file is "Planning the Attack". So everything has been very planned and methodical, as far as that goes. As far as four years ago us thinking we'd like our songs to sound like "Escape" and "IO" and that sort of thing, not really. Basically, that came about by knowing what we don't want to sound like and taking the sum of our influences, putting them together, and trying to make something new and creative out of it. Not try to ride any artist's or genre's coattails as far as whatever is popular now, but try to make music that we think is good. We feel like our tastes are pretty legitimate; if we think it's good, hopefully somebody else will, too.

NW: That was one of the things I liked about the album, is that I would hear little bits and pieces of things that reminded me of bands that I liked, but it was never a specific imitation. And it was never big popular bands that I heard mixed up in your songs; it was the more obscure bands, and the rest of it seemed so fresh.

JN: We really tried to make sure there is a song in there. No matter how many effect pedals or how many different unorthodox instruments we used, like strings or whatever, that there is some sort of song that you can latch onto at the bottom of it all. If you take all the extra stuff away, there's still a good song there. Back to bands only wanting to be one thing, if bands are only going to be tech, they're going to do a song that's going to be four minutes of just a bunch of time changes, rather than making some reoccurring themes so that people can anchor themselves in the song and feel like it's going somewhere. We pay attention to that, and I think maybe the fact that we have song structures in a lot of our stuff is a sense of familiarity.

NW: How do you feel about who you've been compared to, and the genre of music people put you in?

JN: As far as the genre, we're on a punk label, so we're being promoted to a lot of the punk audience. Punk as it stands in the year 2004, you know-- Warped Tour, skate and surf kinds of crowds-- that was just fine. I really don't consider us a punk band at all. Some of the guys in the band come from the punk scene, and they consider part of what we do punk. I guess maybe it has more to do with our attitude towards doing things. We have a very strong getting-things-done-ourselves work ethic. As far as specifics, you probably already know that musically we get the At The Drive-In comparison a lot.

NW: Right.

JN: From the very beginning, before we even started getting that comparison, we made a decision to do whatever we want to do, what we feel passionate about playing. It just so happens that there are certain things-- like we're on the same label they were on-- so we're being marketed to that same crowd. We're the oddball band on that label; we're not a punk band or whatever, we're kind of weird. We've got some weird stuff going on in our music, and that's what they were four or five years ago, so a lot of people are making that connection, however absurd it may be. Honestly, I don't mind being compared to bands. I think that it gives people a starting point. It's not always bad if they say we sound like a certain band. If they happen to like that band, they're going to check us out. But some people have really off-base premises for comparing us. I think over time it's just going to wear off, and people will just realize that we're Brazil, and that's it.

NW: But you feel that comparisons to bands like At The Drive-In have been positive, as far as bringing people to the band?

JN: Half and half. The guy that runs our label had an interesting point: a band can go out and try to sound like blink-182 and in their promo they can say they kind of sound like blink-182, and nobody really has a problem with that. But then you take a band like At The Drive-In, and a band accidentally has some sort of similar sound or whatever-- I'm not saying that we do-- and suddenly it's not allowed. Which I think is great for them because their fan base is so, I don't know what the word is... protective and solid. I think that's awesome. But it almost gets ridiculous to a point. I don't know. Like I said, we'll wait it out and keep doing what we've always been doing-- writing songs, writing music that we like-- and those people will get the idea after a while.

NW: You guys are from Muncie, Indiana, right?

JN: Yeah. We still are.

NW: Did everyone meet up in college?

JN: Yeah, most of us did. The keyboardist, Nick, and I are brothers. Most of the rest of the guys we met through the small scene here. The only person we really put out an ad for or had a real audition for was for James, our drummer, and he's been in the band for about a year. He moved here from New Jersey to be in this band. Everybody else kind of knew each other or was a friend of a friend of somebody, but James was, I don't want to say strictly business, but he came here with the sole purpose of being in our band. He's a great friend now, but maybe it wouldn't have been that way if it hadn't been for that audition.

NW: So did you go to college for something else and music was a sideline? I know you grew up in a musical family, right?

JN: Yeah. My parents are musicians; they're in a band right now. It's in my blood; I always wanted to do it. I kind of got sidetracked early on in college. I actually majored in journalism, so I have a degree in journalism, which I'm not using right now, but I don't care. Yeah, it's always been something I knew I wanted to push really hard and try to do while I was in my twenties, you know? And I feel like we've made a good shot at it so far. It's worth it to me to keep going, keep trying.

NW: Didn't you have some other experience as a tour manager for The Juliana Theory?

JN: I was sort of a pseudo-tour manager; I was like a glorified roadie for The Juliana Theory. I sold the merch, but I also had a couple tour manager responsibilities. I don't want to say I was one of those hard-ass tour managers that books the hotels and all that, but, yeah, I went out with them and had a pretty good time with those guys.

NW: That's got to help, being behind the scenes like that and seeing how it all works.

JN: Definitely.

NW: It seems like the approach of the band is really smart and very planned out. You set goals and knew where you wanted to go.

JN: Well, for a band in our circumstances you kind of have to do that. We're from Indiana, and opportunities never come by here for bands to make much of themselves, so you have to really put your name out there and work hard to get out. If you want to be one of those bands that just gets trashed every night and goofs around, maybe you can luck into a situation if you live in L.A. or New York. But in Indiana, you're just going to end up in the unemployment line. If you want to do something you have to have a plan, and you have to be willing to put a lot on the line to execute it.

NW: You're big into reading. What should people be reading and what movies should they be going to see? What stuff do you recommend?

JN: I'm not sure. As far as movies go... (to his wife) what was the last movie we saw? The last movie we saw together was Resident Evil, which was horrible. We have a copy of Lost In Translation at home that we're probably going to watch tonight-- I hear it's pretty good. You know, I'm horrible at recommending stuff to people because, number one, whenever I get asked this question I can never remember what the last book or CD or novel was that really affected me. And number two, even if I could, it's like, maybe it affected me, but maybe nobody really cares what I like. So, I don't know... dammit. I'm reading the Gunslinger septology or whatever it is, The Dark Tower series, and that's pretty good. It's not real deep, but it's a good story. (laughs) I read Atlas Shrugged a couple months ago, and that was a pretty good story that I thought about a long time afterwards.

NW: It seems like when I was researching your band I saw something on a postboard where someone was talking about you guys in correlation with Atlas Shrugged.

JN: Oh, really?

NW: Yeah. I can't remember what it was they were saying about it, though.

JN: Like our stuff correlating with that book, or...?

NW: Yes. Something about themes.

JN: Oh, that's interesting. See, that's what I want, is for people to make connections like that. Maybe I did make a connection there, maybe I didn't. But I want our lyrics to provoke some abstract thought. That's cool that that happened.

NW: You're going back out on tour again, and you guys have been touring a ton.

JN: We've basically been on tour since the end of March. We're leaving tomorrow actually, and doing a full U.S. six week tour with the band Emery. Our label is pulling out all the stops to help make it a really successful tour. We're hoping it helps take things up few notches. I mean, we're hitting everywhere. We're hitting all the usual places, and then we're hitting places in Iowa and tiny places. It's going to be cool, but it's also going to be really grueling and thorough.

NW: Do you get much of a chance to write out on the road, or is it too difficult to get into that frame of mind?

JN: Not as a group. On my own I'm constantly filtering out all kinds of ideas, things that inspire me, that I listen to on the road. But as far as getting to sit down as a group and trying to connect on some of these ideas, we rarely have time for that. We've had time for that once since we've been out on tour for this record. What I'd like to see happen is, when we sit down to write the next record I'd like to have a good couple of months off to chill out and reconnect. But I don't know when that will be. Hopefully next summer, or something like that.

NW: So what's the next step in the Brazil attack plan?

JN: There is the thought of Europe. That's probably the next big thing. In 2005 we might hit Europe; I'm not sure exactly when, but we'll probably do some more touring in the States. No recording plans set in stone or anything, but I'm kind of looking forward to a new Brazil record soon.

NW: Me, too. It seems like you would go over well in Europe, and you'd probably be huge in Japan.

JN: Yeah, I hope so. My brother really hopes so. He lived in Japan for a while. He knows the language and everything, so he's real excited to go over there. We've been getting some pretty decent press in both places, so we're pretty excited.

NW: I hope everything goes really well for you guys. The album is really amazing. I haven't been able to stop playing it.

JN: Thanks.

NW: Is there anything else you'd like to plug before the final question?

JN: I don't know if this is going to be published before the Emery tour, but everybody should go to our website and check out our tour dates and come out to the shows. We need all the support we can get.

NW: Absolutely. Okay, last question. This is the one we like to ask everyone we interview: in your professional opinion, do you think dogs have lips?

JN: Uh... let me confer with my cohort.

NW: Okay.

JN: (to his wife) Do dogs have lips? It's those black and pink things around the teeth, right? Yeah? (to Watchman) My answer is yes.

[JONATHAN'S WIFE IS LAUGHING IN THE BACKGROUND]

JN: Because it's those little fleshy black and pink spotted things that they pull back when they bare their teeth.

NW: Okay.

JN: That's my answer.

NW: That makes sense to me.

JN: Alright. I hope that enlightens people.

Both: (laugh)

NW: I'm sure it will.