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Sunday, Nov. 7, 2004
Brooks cuts through a lot of red tape
Special to The Japan Times
Andrew Brooks has the confident aplomb of a producer and musician with two highly lauded records. His first album, a house-inflected dance record titled "You, Me & Us," brought him jobs remixing songs of Outkast and Scissor Sisters. His second album, released on Soundslike, the label of influential producer Matthew Herbert, is poised for even greater acclaim.
And in his record company's office during his first promotional jaunt to Japan, he answers questions with the patient smoothness of a pro. It is easy to forget that Brooks, who records under his last name, is only 22 years old.
"I started out young, going out and being naughty," he says with a laugh. "I feel a lot older than I actually am. I feel like a veteran already of a lot of things. My friends will be ready to go out and there's me, being a miserable old man saying, 'Oh no, not tonight.' "
His taste in music is equally sophisticated. Joy Division, PJ Harvey and Steve Reich have been in high rotation on his turntable lately, a diverse group that share, Brooks says, "a certain passion" and "a willingness to explore the darker side of things." But his absolute favorites aren't the house legends that one would expect from a guy whose first album was a dance-floor hit, nor even Kraftwerk or the Detroit techno crew, the names electronica cognoscenti love to drop.
Brooks loves Fleetwood Mac.
"I am just completely and honestly taken with them," he says with a maniac's gleam in his eyes. "I think to do a record like 'Rumors,' which sold millions and millions of records and then to do a record, like 'Tusk,' which is quite experimental is a risk to take. I think that is where a lot of my respect comes from, making that sort of U-turn."
Brooks' own musical trajectory has followed a similarly idiosyncratic course. His new album, "Red Tape," is a dark, moody, soul-baring record with much greater ambitions than moving bodies on a dance floor. Its melancholic decadence comes close, in nuance if not actual sound, to the somberness of another iconoclastic electronic dance album, Massive Attack's "Blue Lines."
Recorded in Brooks' hometown of Derby, "Red Tape" is a sonic autobiography of growing up gay in rural Britain, and in Brooks' words, an example of "music as therapy."
"It would have been a lot different in London, but in Derby or the Midlands, you are still kind of viewed as an alien," says Brooks.
"The biggest confusion for me growing up was not understanding why it was such an issue for people, why one should be viewed any differently than anyone else. It happens to be what I do in bed and that is quite a small part of my life really. It is not the most important thing.
"And that turned into anger when you get into the big bad world and realize that people will actually physically attack you or verbally attack you.
"I was sort of like an angry young teenager, but this time it was for a reason so there was more force behind it. I knew why I was angry. Thank God I was able to make a record, or I'd probably be in prison by now for doing something that was really bad.
"There has been a hell of a lot of oppression through history and people still haven't learned."
That history is a greater influence on "Red Tape" than anything musical, though Brooks admits to hearing occasional "Roxy Music moments" another of his favorite bands.
"In scientific terms, I'm not convinced that sound disappears." he says. "Once you've made a sound, doesn't it exist forever? So the echoes of the past are all around us."
That attitude, plus a strong belief that anything can ultimately be musical, explains the unique array of sounds that Brooks uses to craft the tracks on "Red Tape." The title refers not just to stock idiom of "cutting through the red tape," but also to the literal red tape that was used to hold together legal documents in Britain. Derby was a center for the manufacture of this tape, so Brooks used samples from old factory machinery on "Accident" and "Tell Me Something," both on the new album.
Brooks also traveled to Germany to record sounds at Nuremberg's infamous Zeppelin Field, an amphitheater built by prisoners of war. The Nazi oppression and extermination of gay men, symbolized by the infamous inverted pink triangle that gay prisoners where forced to wear, was particularly elemental.
"At one point I was going to say the album was by Brooks and the Pink Triangles," he says, "but turn the triangle upward. It was originally pointed downward to portray a lesser man."
At the same time Germany's prewar cabaret scene, particularly in Berlin, positively reveled in its sexual freedom.
"They were singing songs that were political satires with a very strong message even back then," notes Brooks. "A lot of the songs were geared toward talking about sexuality or homosexuality. [In that era] to do that could be devastating, and they still did it. It makes you think that people just don't take those risks anymore, so as a person from small-town, rural England, in a very small way I felt quite brave to voice my opinions."
Signing to Soundslike, the label of Matthew Herbert, another musician with outspoken views, helped in that regard.
"Someone left a demo of the album on his dining room table," says Brooks. "I was mortified.
"But I don't think I would have gone so far with it without having spoken to Matthew and having him explain that [this sort of personal record] was something that can be done with electronic music. At first I was thinking that I was making this little electronic album and was it worth me saying these things if no one would take notice, would it make a difference. But he said, you have to try to make a difference however you can."
The album isn't all heaviness however. Brooks' cover of PJ Harvey's "Mansize" evinces a sense, even a silly sense, of humor.
"To me, her version is a comment on repressed female sexuality," says Brooks. "I thought for me to sing it would be about repressed male sexuality.
"I made all the sounds from tissue boxes being ripped up, because they are called mansize tissues in England. Then I began to see this link between tissues and male sexuality and it' s not very nice."
The wanking metaphor?
"Yeah," he replies. "Everybody is kind of asking about it and I always [answer] very seriously, but it is actually also kind of a joke."
Still most people will overlook the sly humor, song titles like "Enormous Members' Club" and "Burning Buxx," and the dark supple beats of "A Little Bit of Time," and focus more on Brooks decision to craft a record that deals so intimately with his sexual orientation. In the British music press this has led to an inevitable amount of pigeonholing.
"I worry about being called 'a gay artist' I guess in the same way one might worry about being labeled 'a black artist' or 'a female artist.' I mean, this album really deals with these issues, but the next album probably won't at all," he says.
In any case, as with Brooks age, looks can be deceiving. Brooks is far from either the old stereotype of the campy queen or the new one of the buff gay yuppie.
"[In general] in the media and on TV programs there is nothing that represents the gay person I am. It is this very easily digestible kind of camp thing which is fine as long as they don't have to deal with the bad things in life. I feel like no one has gone out and said it's not all good. It's not all about wearing sparkly hot pants and dancing until God knows what time," he says.
"Lots of people say to me, that they can't believe I'm gay when they meet me for the first time," he says. "But its not like I'm repressed in anyway, I just have subtle gay nuances that sometimes come to the surface. Sometimes I might decide to listen to Barbra Streisand all day and I think f**k it, I'm really gay."