Each Limb Playing Its Own Rhythm — A Q+A With Psychedelic Electro-Rockers Gentleman Brawlers

Photo provided by the artist

Gentleman Brawlers are a Brooklyn-based band that electrified the Javor Croatian National Hall at the 2019 Deutschtown Music Festival last month. Blending electronic, psychedelic, and afrobeat styles, the group whips up a frenetic cyclone of energy, palpable both in person and on record (but especially in person). Vocalist/keyboardist Becca Fox, guitarist Matt Walsh, and bassist Trevor Brown were kind enough to answer some questions for Bored In Pittsburgh; check it out below.

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Who are the Gentleman Brawlers? A tagline for the band, if you will.

Matt: Gentleman Brawlers are best described as Electronic Rock. (Or: Psychedelic Synth Rock). If you can imagine the vintage synth sounds of Stranger Things, played over the polyrhythmic African beats of Fela Kuti, that would get you close. It’s tricky to compare because the thing we hear most often from people who’ve just seen us is, “I don’t know what to call it exactly…I love it, but I’ve never heard anything quite like it.” Becca’s Korg MS-20 and MS2000 synth sounds give our music that outer-space psychedelic vibe, and I use a lot of wild effects on my guitar sound which contribute to the sound as well.

A visual representation of Gentleman Brawlers’ sound

Here’s the cliché question first: who are your influences, musical or otherwise?

M: We’re influenced by a lot of psychedelic music, from the Nuggets-era garage-psyche stuff from the 60’s and also the newer Psyche-Pop explosion that happened in the 2000’s, like Flaming Lips and Deerhunter. When we started out we were playing what could be described as psyche-pop. But I got a copy of a compilation called “World Psychedelic Classics,” which had a lot of African Garage Funk & Afro-Rock, and listened to it a lot on an extended camping trip in the Sequoia forest out West. This got me into wanting to learn African guitar styles, and I started bringing in Congolese guitar sounds into the rehearsals, and at the same time our drummer Jeremy was getting into the great Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, and that started a transition to funkier music. At this point, what sets us apart from a lot of other bands is that the rhythmic foundation is in Tony Allen style beats, which academics call “complex” rhythms, because unlike linear beats drummers play in the Western hemisphere these beats have each limb of your body playing what’s essentially it’s own rhythm.

The legendary Tony Allen, master of polyrhythms (photo from https://www.cnn.com/2013/12/09/world/africa/i-still-want-to-tony-allen/index.html)

Playing these beats is like a puzzle where you learn 4 patterns individually for the left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot—and then learn to coordinate both arms and both legs to play all 4 patterns at once. Tony developed this by trying to play African folk rhythms, normally played by several drummers playing different patterns, and adopted these to a drum kit by playing one of the patterns with each of his 4 limbs. It’s quite a challenge playing this way for a drummer.

How did you all start playing together?

Becca: Me and Matt are now married—we had just started dating at the time the band started. We’ve had some lineup changes since we started, but most of us know each other through our former drummer Ben Charnley, who was the Kevin Bacon figure in our lives—he was friends with our bassist Trev, and also Jeremy and Oskar — they all met at NYU. Also, it should be noted that we are a band that has a large extended family—because several of us play music professionally and are super busy, we have a 3-person “bench” for each instrument, kinda like a baseball team.  So our shows vary a lot depending upon who’s playing.

Gentleman Brawlers is a six-piece outfit. How does the creative process work with so many minds involved?

B: Well, the songwriting and recording process is mostly a Matt & Becca thing. Matt writes the basic chords & melody, and bounces the results off me for feedback. This happens on a daily basis, and we only end up using the best of the many songs we write. That’s why we can play 3 hours of original music without having to play anything that isn’t awesome! Once the basic chords, words and melody are solidified, we bring the songs to a rehearsal and the songs get shaped a lot by everyone’s input in that process. Our recordings are pretty tight and concise, you might say structured, but in a live setting there’s quite a bit of improvisation happening, so the tunes get elongated and change quite a bit from the original recordings. In addition to keeping us more on our toes, we also find the audience likes that onstage risk factor and definitely makes for a more exciting show.

Photo provided by the artist

The band is based out of Brooklyn; do you feel like your music is at all tied to a sense of place?

M: Yes and no. I think what we’re doing musically is an extension of our day-to-day experience in the world, and that’s very much tied to where we live. Especially the lyrics—I write about what happens in real life. However, we probably aren’t the first thing people think of when they think of “Brooklyn Music.”  We don’t go out of our way to be an Indie band, and we’re not scenesters really. I think in a lot of ways, the connectivity of our digital world makes it so we are all having a pretty similar experience no matter where we live.

This question is directed at Becca; has your dancing always been a part of your performance?

Photo provided by the artist

B: Yes! Dance for me has always been a visual extension of what we do musically. On stage, I always feel this infectious energy I can’t quite contain (or want to!). As our sound has evolved, I always try to take more risks, while also playing more dynamically with the styles of dance I’ve been influenced by. Our songs lyrically are very storyteller-driven—having a background in theater, I love the chance to merge my worlds a bit so to speak. It’s also been a cool way to bring the audience more into what we do and I LIVE to make others dance too!

Tell us a bit about your experience with the Deutschtown Music Festival and with Pittsburgh in general.

Plug for Levity Brewing (photo taken from the company’s website)

B: Well, we got a gig sort of randomly an hour outside of Pittsburgh in Indiana, PA at a place called Levity Brewing Company, and the crowd was so lively and into our music, that we’ve now played several shows there and in other towns in PA.

I think people pretty much now know, or I hope they do, that Pittsburgh isn’t the grungy steel mill town like the reputation used to be, it’s like a really clean & green city that’s super livable and friendly with a great vibe. Deutschtown Festival was our first time playing in Pittsburgh, and it was super fun so we hope to come back and do it again. 

Is there anything I forgot to ask or anything else that you’d want people to know about yourselves or your music?

B: Something we hear a lot from people after shows is, “What is this music you’re playing? I’ve never heard anything quite like it.” And we like to hear that because we’re always trying something new, and I think that goes against the current trend. You know, there’s something really cool about a bunch of kids who are just starting out, and can only really do one thing on their instrument— When we create music, we are trying to do something we’ve never heard before, and that we’ve never ourselves played before either. As someone who listens to a wide spectrum of musical styles, I love to discover new sounds and melodies that surprise me and I feel like I’m not the only one who feels that way either. We never want someone to say, “Ok, I already know how this song is going to go, I’ve heard these same chords a million times.”

M: Who’s your ideal audience? We appeal to people on different levels, it seems. Musicians, music snobs and music writers generally love us, because they listen to tons of music and therefore recognize when they’re hearing something new and different. But then soccer moms & dads, regular Joes and Janes, and others who perhaps aren’t listening that critically tend to get into us too, and say things like “it’s peppy and fun, we like your beat.” There are certain types who don’t like us, of course — super trendy people who only like music that some blog told them would make them cool, those people often dismiss us, and we can live with that. Also, very shy & serious beard strokers and shoe gazers, who are startled by sudden movements and wish to stand still without being jostled, say things like “believe me, you wouldn’t want to see me dance”—sometimes people like that seem unsure of what to do with their arms, but may give a steady head nod. 

Finally, I have to ask, does Trevor get the Steve Harrington comparison a lot? (Trevor is the left-most band member in the photo at the top of the page, for those who care to see for themselves.)

Trevor: Ha! Yes, whenever the newest “Stranger Things” season comes out. 

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Thanks to Becca, Matt, and Trevor for contributing to this piece. Make sure to check out the Gentleman Brawlers’ Youtube channel for some live performance videos and to give them a like/follow on the various social medias.

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