In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“This memoir, crafted in beautiful, vivid prose, explores a life devoted to art, and an artist with many facets and branches to his talent. Music fans will adore the behind-the-scenes look at a drummer’s life, but anyone who has ever radically changed course will find connection in Brown’s words.”
In his own words, here is Nic Brown’s Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Bang Bang Crash:
In any case, in the ’90s, my high school band signed a record deal with Atlantic Records and scored a minor radio hit: the song “What I Didn’t Know,” which reached #14 on the Billboard Alternative Rock Charts in 1998. That band was called Athenaeum. I left that group after a few years and then went on to work as a session drummer in New York City, playing with Ben Lee, Eszter Balint, Skeleton Key, and Longwave, among many others. This went on for years. But then I quit working with all of those bands too and went to grad school and started writing instead, and then before long I quit even talking about drumming. It got to a point where new friends and neighbors and coworkers and students etc didn’t even know I had ever even played an instrument, let alone had a successful career doing so. Which is weird. And if something is weird, I’ve learned that it’s also usually a good topic to start writing about. So that was the genesis of the memoir.
The idea of making a playlist including songs on which I perform is a little embarrassing to me, but I did write a book about my life as a drummer, after all, so I guess I’ll get over myself and just share some of that drumming here. There are songs on this list that I played on, versions of songs recorded by others that I later performed as a touring drummer, and some that I didn’t play on at all but are otherwise important to the book.
“What I Didn’t Know,” by Athenaeum
This song was written by the band I formed to play the eighth grade dance at the Greensboro Day School in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was the first single from our 1998 major label debut, Radiance. It reached #14 on the Billboard alternative rock charts (and strangely became a hit in the Philippines – if you Google it, it seems like half the hits are Filipino cover bands playing the song…) I was 19 when I recorded it and 20 when it came out. I often get embarrassed when I listen to Athenaeum these days, something the band’s singer, Mark, blames on me acting like I’m looking at photos of myself from middle school. He might be right. It is the soundtrack of my younger self, after all, but this is also what’s so great about it too. In any case, the opening drum part here – the four on the snare quarter-note thump – I stole from the drummer Scott Carle of the band Dillon Fence*, who of course stole it from someone else before that and so on. Musicians are much less scared of stealing than writers, it seems to me, or at least of being explicit about it and owning up to it. But I stole lots of drum parts back then and still steal all the time as a writer. Sometimes, if I like a sentence, I’ll just plagiarize it word for word from memory and stick it in what I’m writing, telling myself that I’ll go back later and make it my own. But then when I do go back to fix it, I’m usually surprised to find that I didn’t plagiarize the sentence at all. That it changed completely in my mind before I even typed it. It’s like I have a secret translator inside of myself up there, changing all inspiration into my own words without me even knowing it.
* see track #3
“Can’t Forget,” by Yo La Tengo
This is the first song on the Yo La Tengo album Fakebook, which I got from the owner of our local Greensboro record store, Spins, after he received it as a promo and was throwing it away when I came into the shop. I was in ninth grade. It was the autumn of my fifteenth year. I listened to that tape endlessly, usually at night, after the lights had been turned off. I had no idea it was a collection of mostly cover songs. I thought Yo La Tengo had written them all. Ira Kaplan, the guitarist and singer, did write this one, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the weird magic trick it played on me. The sound of the song is autumnal, and it was autumn when I got that tape, and so listening to it somehow made me nostalgic for the autumns of years long past. But how could that be the case? I was only fifteen! What long ago autumns was I missing? Still, that’s how I felt. When I listen to that song now, though, it makes me nostalgic for autumns I actually did live through, like that one when I was fifteen and staying up all night just to listen to new music. The title is prescient in this way: “Can’t Forget,” it’s called, and I guess that I can’t. Seems I’ve lived enough years to miss real life by now.
“Living Room Scene,” by Dillon Fence
I moved to Chapel Hill when I was 19. It was the center of the musical world. At least for me. There were so many good bands there at the time, and so many drawing huge national attention. This was the period when people were calling it “the next Seattle” because of all the attention on local groups like Ben Folds Five, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Archers of Loaf, and Superchunk. But this song by Dillon Fence – who was popular, but a bit more under the radar than the rest of those acts – will always be the sound of that scene for me. I idolized those guys.
“Trampoline,” by Joe Henry
After Athenaeum got our first publishing deal, with EMI, we all quit our day jobs. Time stretched out endlessly now. I had the bedroom in the back of the junky house we rented – a big dark room with dingy wine-red carpet and knotty faux pine paneling – and I’d just lay there on the mattress on the floor for hours, watching the light fade through the pine trees out back. This Joe Henry record was what I was usually listening to.
“The Curse,” by Dwight Yoakam
I don’t know anything about Dwight Yoakam. The tight jeans, yeah, I guess I know that. And I he wears a big hat? I don’t know. I can’t name a single Dwight Yoakam song or album. Except for this one and the record it was on, 1998’s A Long Way Home. Some label rep gave it to me while we were on tour and I ended up listening to it often, spinning it on my Discman for hours while I’d walk around random towns after soundcheck. The fact that I knew nothing about Yoakam – and especially that no one I knew listened to him – was the main reason I listened to him at the time. I’d grown sick of the music of the bands we were touring with – and my own band too, for that matter – and so I just wanted to get away from the music of anyone I knew. And thus, Dwight Yoakam. Good record.
This is some weird shit. I found this CD in the discard bin of a radio station when Athenaeum was doing an interview and I took it along with me after we left and then once I heard it I fell in love. Later, on a visit to New York, I ran into a friend and was shocked to learn he was playing guitar for the group. “We do need a drummer,” he said. Within months I’d quit Athenaeum and moved to New York and was playing with them. I love this band. When I first auditioned, though, I didn’t know that they had previously used two drummers – one on a traditional drum kit and another on a crazy set of collected trash and scrap metal – so I prepared both parts as one, and when the members first saw me playing them together like that, which was sort of a crazy drumming freak show, they laughed. They told me to stop but then we quickly realized that it actually sounded pretty good, so I got the gig, and from then on, while I was their drummer, we didn’t use two people for the drums: I performed both parts at once. The “normal” drums I kept on the floor – bass drum, snare drum, floor toms – and everything else was up on stands – assorted trash, brake drums, cooking pots, scrap metal, that sort of thing. It was fun. The band was nominated for a Grammy once, but that was for best artwork, not music. This seems about right, though, because to me, Skeleton Key always felt like more of an art project than just a band.
“Rudderless,” by the Lemonheads
I had nothing to do with writing or recording this song, of course, but I did perform it with my high school band at a pep rally once. I was a big Lemonheads fan. But then later on, during the stretch when I was working with Ben Lee, a songwriter from Australia, we did a show at the Fez in New York one night and Evan Dando, the singer of the Lemonheads, came and sat in with us. He was friends with Ben. I was flipping out. It was like my high school dream come true! One of the songs we played with Evan that night was “Rudderless,” from the Lemonheads’ album It’s a Shame About Ray. When we got to the end of the song, though, I totally plowed right through a big break in the final chorus where I was supposed to stop. Just played right through it, all by myself. It was mortifying. The worst mistake a sideman can make. Backstage, I found Evan in the dressing room. This was only minutes after we’d finished. “Hey man,” I said. “I’m really sorry for missing that break.” When he looked up at me, though, his eyes were totally blank. He had no idea who I was. I’d just been sitting like two feet away from him, playing his song, but still he didn’t know who I was. It was one of those nights where the role of a session drummer just became clear to me. Because the best session musicians are invisible. They disappear into the song. They don’t draw attention to themselves at all. And that’s what I had aspired to do. But maybe I did it too well. Because, I mean, Evan didn’t even know who I was, even though I was the guy who had just screwed up his song like five minutes before. And yeah, I do think he was also maybe a little fucked up on some drugs too. But that’s not the real issue.
There was a time when a major record label would spend half a million dollars to send you to live in a mansion on top of a mountain for a summer with a famous producer and let you record a song this weird and then actually release it. That time was 2004. In my mind, it was the last window in which any part of the music industry might spend money like that on an album by a band that wasn’t super famous. We had a private chef! Maybe I sensed that I wouldn’t be spoiled like that forever, because I proposed to my wife up there on that mountain. I think I understood that I had it good at the time and was going to capitalize on it. The guy playing sax on this song was in the Mercury Rev and lived nearby and was hanging out at the studio that day. When we learned that he played sax, we were like, you’re on.
“So Wat’Cha Want,” by the Beastie Boys
I can’t hear the lyrics to songs. People call this “lyric deafness.” I mean, I can hear them, yes, but it’s like the instrumental accompaniment just scrambles my brain when I try to focus on them. I can’t tell what’s being said. Which sounds weird enough as it is, but when you consider the fact that I’m a writer, it perhaps becomes even more strange. So for one chapter of my book, I tried to learn to the lyrics to a song, just to see if I could. I picked this one, by the Beastie Boys, because I listen to it all the time while I run: it’s 85 bpm, which I like to match my stride to, pairing each footstep to an eighth note as if they are drumsticks and I’m playing along. Once I got into learning the lyrics to the song, though, the words revealed themselves to be so stupid (“Well just plug me in just like I was Eddie Harris/I’m eating crazy cheese like you would think I’m from Paris…”) that in relation to the amount of work I was putting in to learn them, I didn’t feel it was worth it. I gave up after a verse. I was afraid I might ruin the song for myself permanently. Now I still listen to it all the time. And I know no more than a verse.
“Dry Land,” by Falcon!
Falcon! We used to just be “Falcon,” but that was before the internet and us realizing there were a million groups named Falcon. (Also we got a cease and desist letter from one of them.) So now we have the exclamation point. (It’s impossible to find a name that works on the Spotify algorithm these days.) Anyway, this was my favorite band that I ever worked with. We were a “side group,” which meant that it was just a project made up of members of other bands coming together for fun. But then once we did come together, we ended up being really good! I wrote a bio for us once, for our first show, and it was a fake story about us forming only to play the newly discovered songs of a dead child songwriting prodigy named Jared Falcon. Totally not true at all. I thought the story was hilarious, and that everyone else would too, but then quickly we discovered that most people thought the story was true. The New Yorker ended up calling me to do a Talk of the Town article about it, NPR did a piece, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice... It was a sort of horrible. That bio was the first thing I ever wrote that enjoyed any type of success, though. I mean, people really responded to that story, and so, because of it, I found the inspiration to keep writing more stories, just hoping another might work too. In this way, I guess Falcon brought about the end my career as a drummer because of it all. But it did the exact opposite too. Because even though I haven’t pursued new music in years, I did end up flying out to California last year and recording a batch of new songs with the Falcon! members, and it’s the best. We’re total geniuses. It’s called Thank You Enough and comes out in late February. I can’t believe I’m plugging a new album. What has the world come to.
Nic Brown is the author of the novels In Every Way, Doubles, and Floodmarkers, which was selected as an Editors’ Choice by The New York Times Book Review. He is the fiction editor of the South Carolina Review, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times and the Harvard Review, among many other publications. As a drummer, he has worked with Athenaeum, Ben Lee, Longwave, Skeleton Key, and Eszter Balint. A graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has served as the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi and is now an associate professor of creative writing at Clemson University.