My introduction to the Gadjits came via the compilation album ‘Give Em the Boot’ which launched Hellcat Records in a glorious way. Hearing ‘Beautiful Girl’ for the first time was one of those magical experiences where it just clicked with me completely. How did you guys get connected with Hellcat?
We had no idea that Hellcat was something that was in the works but we did know that Rancid was going to come through our town on tour and we wanted that gig badly enough to lobby hard for it with everyone we could think of. When Tim saw us play, he invited us to come do another show with them in Omaha, which we did and at some point after that, we got the phone call that Tim wanted us to come make records with Hellcat. We were all really young so there was a whole courtship thing that had to happen in order to satisfy our parents that we weren’t getting into the proverbial bed with bad people – which we weren’t but, it was funny that Brett Gurewitz had to shlep all the way to Kansas City to eat dinner at my mom’s house just to make the whole thing feel legit.
Back then, there was obviously not the ease of finding out more about the band or albums, and I remember I started doing some hunting and tracked down the release date for ‘At Ease,’ which is one of my all time favorite albums and one that ends up in my heavy rotation at least a couple times per year. I ended up with two copies when it was released because I had ordered it through my main record store and then I found it a couple days before the release date at one of the other record stores I would visit weekly. You had released ‘Da Gravy on You’ Grits’ the year before (1996) which I found after the release of ‘At Ease.’ Take me back to those early days, the band started with you and your two brothers. When did you guys know you had something special together? Were your parents supportive at the time?
We came from a performing arts family so our parents were absolutely supportive. They understood that we had to do things while there were things to be done. The band was actually started by my brothers Zach and Adam with their school friend Justin, as a reaction to the bands I was trying to form with my own school friends. Like, “Fuck Brandon, he thinks he’s better than us, we’ll start our own band and show him.” So anyway, I wrote a couple of songs for their band because they didn’t have any originals and then at some point, Justin’s parents decided that they didn’t want him playing gigs. Bars and all ages clubs seemed dubious (and they are) and so I got to join Zach and Adam’s band. At this point we were playing elementary school carnivals but not long after we went looking for some real shows and when we found them, those very early shows really helped us shape how we played and performed and what we wanted to sound like. At some point we hit upon adding some ska to our punk and then at some point soon after that, we were figuring out how to record music in our parent’s basement – which led to both the original Gadjits 5 song demo tape and the Gravy record. I was just telling someone the other day that making that demo seems to me like the very first artistic act I ever committed.
I don’t remember too many other bands at the time being discovered in Kansas City, Missouri. I have the gift of at least being able to see some of your old live stuff thanks to YouTube. What was it like developing the band in Kansas City?
There was a bunch going on in KC around that time. There was Frogpond and Shiner and Season To Risk and Stick and a bunch more bands in that vein who were just in a different place on the alternative music spectrum than we were. The Get Up Kids were happening literally at the same time we were, just coming from a different place musically. Anyway, I digress. We didn’t know any home but KC so we just played as much as we could wherever people would have us. It was many years before we would have any sense of “developing a sound” or “saturating a market” or anything like that so we just went hard because it was fun. With the benefit of experience and hindsight, I can say now that we were lucky to have a place as un-jaded and un-monetized as Kansas City was then. It’s a lot easier to be a young band when there is no pressure to adultify your perspective on the music you’re making or the show you’re putting on or the kids who are coming to see you. Every time I see a sixteen year old go on American Idol or something, it just makes my heart hurt like, “Don’t do this! Keep it fun for a while!”
I had completely forgot about Season to Risk, but they were another band I enjoyed. For ‘At Ease,’ you only revisited ‘Corpse I Fell in Live With’ from your debut, did you consider others? What made that the one you wanted to redo?
I distinctly remember Tim Armstrong and Brett Gurewitz putting their foot down about re-recording previously released songs. My memory of that is very clear but I cannot for the life of me recall what was going on in our heads that we fought to re-record THAT song of all the fucking songs. It just makes no sense.
What are your thoughts on the album now? You were all young when you made it, which I think is people would not be able to recognize if they heard it.
I am absolutely miserable at nostalgia for whatever reason so I haven’t listened to any old Gadjits recordings in very long time. That said, my recollection of it is that there are parts of it that just sound very young and then parts that sound a little bit wise beyond our years. Everything is super urgent when you’re a kid and so I remember that Adam and Zach and I had all kind of pivoted into listening to lots of sixties soul music and lots of early Elvis Costello and the Attractions in the year or so before we made At Ease. And I remember that it seemed really important to us to get the vibes of those soul records and EC records into our new album. I think maybe Tim and the label were a little disappointed that we weren’t writing an album like the original demo or Gravy but we wanted our shit to reflect our idea of cool (which was an evolving thing obviously) and as Clash fans, Tim and Brett probably felt like they had to hold space for that.
Building on from that ‘Give Em the Boot’ compilation, it had also introduced me to the Slackers and Vic Ruggerio. How was it working with him in the studio? I know he is credited as an additional player but don’t know how much he did since Heidi was in the band doing keys.
Vic is just an outstanding guy and a fabulous musician so it’s always great to be around him and soak up some of that vibe. Honest to God, I was so wound up with unspeakable anxiety making that album with him and Tim in this huge studio that I’m sure I missed lots of great stuff just for being somewhat disassociated and stuck in my own head. So the story about Vic playing on the album … I’m certain that Heidi will not be pissed at me for telling this story since so much time has gone by. So anyway, we were struggling to get the song “Need Yo ‘ Love” in the can and Tim really wanted Heidi to do a Jerry Lee Lewis style rock-and-roll piano part. Heidi busted her ass trying to make that part happen and we pushed and pushed and finally Heidi was just like, “I CAN’T FUCKING PLAY LIKE JERRY LEE LEWIS GODDAMMIT!” So, Heidi went to get some air and Vic stepped in and did the part. It bears mentioning that at the time, this was a massively uncomfortable situation for me – in my mind, bands made records together and your band was your tightest friends, not some guy you just met – no matter how hard he rips. I mention this to illustrate how young we were and how young our perspectives were. These days, if I can’t do something, I call in the person who can and I understand that is the only way to do justice to a song and a recording.
I love that piano part in the song as I am a huge Jerry Lee Lewis fan. What artists inspired your own writing?
At that time, I’d digested a lot of The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy and I’d just started to take in the first few Elvis Costello albums. I think I wanted to sound like Toots Hibbert or Wilson Picket doing EC and The Attractions type songs – specifically the style on Get Happy!! At the time of At Ease, there was not really a formal process for writing either alone or as a band so things tended to get thrown in a blender. Nowadays, I focus on one kind of song or style at a time or I get very intentional about mixing two styles but back then, the process was still a blank slate.
The lyrics on the album seem to be largely drawn from experience or stories you heard around you. The exception to that might be ‘Bullet in the Mattress’ but maybe not. Lyrically, what songs do you feel the strongest about?
I feel like Beautiful Girl is charming enough that it’s easy to forgive some cheap rhymes or a trite phrase or two. Bullet In The Mattress – Jesus – I wish someone would have sat me down and coached me through writing another draft of those lyrics because I really almost had the story I wanted and the playful tone that I wanted in balance. That same person should also have made me shitcan the entire lyrical idea on Traffic Tickets and start over. Solid music beshitted by an absolutely inane lyric. I won’t spend all night ripping my teenage self a new asshole for being an amateur songwriter but I will pull back the curtain just a little about how I think those songs got to be what they are on that album. Like I mentioned, I was pretty much gripped by colossal anxiety at all times back then but I wasn’t aware of it. That anxiety was good for writing music because it had me playing with sharpness and urgency and playing itself felt really good. But when it came to lyrics, I was puking alphabet soup because I had no idea how to externalize how I felt without some clever bullshit to hide behind. Now, surely at eighteen or nineteen, I wasn’t going to have some deep vein of experiences to write from and that’s maybe part of it but the anxiety is really, to me, the big influence on those early records.
You have a couple of covers on the album, but I have to ask how ‘Mustang Sally’ was selected. Was it just one that you had constantly played when the band first started? Obviously, it seems to have just become a standard karaoke song over the years.
Yeah, the changing times totally fucked us on that one. What mattered about Mustang Sally at the time we made At Ease was that a version of it was rehearsed over and over and over in the movie The Commitments and that was a movie that Adam and Zach and Heidi and I bonded over in a major way. The movie probably didn’t age that well either but holy mother of fuck did that song take on a patina of every despicable blues brunch, baby boomer cliché. I regret that song being on the record more than I regret trying heroin.
Most of us obviously have a lot of personal growth as we move from our teens to our twenties. How did those changes impact the band over the next couple of albums?
Honestly I think about this a lot because the time span between the beginning of At Ease and the end of Today Is My Day was such a wild ride. I can say with absolute honesty that we really thought we were doing what The Clash and Elvis Costello did, which is to say, we would incorporate anything we thought was good into what we were playing. What we missed however, was that NO ONE WAS DOING THAT ANYMORE. Mostly, bands and artists were doubling down and sticking to one lane or another. Audiences were also tending to only pay attention to the lanes they’d decided to be interested in. So for about seven years, The Gadjits were just pissing everyone off all the time because we insisted that we were a lane unto ourselves. We (and me especially) still had that old “alternative scene” mentality that cool people liked a lot of stuff because there was a lot of stuff worth liking. And that went over like a balloon full of shit in the punk scene and it sank like a stone in the ska scene and the more time we spent on the road, the less we gave a fuck about what any scene thought. There’s a fantasy version of these years that exists in my head where someone takes the time to help us figure out how to do what it was we wanted to do without seeming to veer around as much as we did, but that is, as I said, a fantasy.
How did Thick Records differ from Hellcat Records?
In every possible way, excepting the word “records.” Hellcat was very well resourced but very lonely. Thick was never lonely and bare bones resources. I’m not talking shit, I’m grateful for having worked with both labels and to have friends I care about from both places. No one ever hustled harder on my behalf than Thick though.
I have read that the Gadjits were preparing to record a record for RCA, but there was a merger with another label that essentially purged the label’s roster. Did any of those songs get recorded or used in any other projects?
We upcycled a few of those songs into Architects songs. I think we had to. We’d busted our asses for years on some of those tunes and fuck if Clive Davis was going to put the kibosh on that.
You went on to form the Architects, Brandon Phillips & the Condition, and Mensa Deathsquad. All of these have their own feel. What would you like people to know about each of them? I also recently caught that you are connected with the band Other Americans who are spectacularly and from my present research accurately described as ‘opulent splendor-core, Electro-alternative, trip-pop.’ What can you tell us about Other Americans?
Well, I’d point out that I am still very clearly in that “alternative scene” mentality – I do what I want because I know that’s what Strummer, Jones and Costello would do. I have, however, learned my lesson about diluting the brand in an era of brand primacy. So, everything gets its own project and name and lineup and sometimes there’s overlap but we make it work. The Architects was basically just The Gadjits forming a rock band. In doing so, we started from absolute square one in terms of touring and getting our records in front of anyone and I mention that because I am very proud of what we accomplished. Brandon Phillips and The Condition was formed so that we’d have a means of playing and recording songs that were much more in the Elvis Costello and sixties soul vein. We wanted to do that one right – full band, backup singers, wardrobe, the whole lot. It’s a constantly rotating lineup of players because I don’t want that band to be some big, heavy commitment for anyone. It has to stay fun. Other Americans has some personnel overlap with BP+C and some musical overlap with Mensa Deathsquad but it’s really supposed to be a dance band with a fairly alternative presentation and a lot of versatility. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to house show where a punk-adjacent dance band lays absolute waste to every living soul with song after song that sound like Top 40 bangers from an alternate universe, but that’s sort of what I aspire to with OA. Mensa Deathsquad is a solo project so I answer to no one but my own sensibilities about what can or cannot work as electro-alternative music. Mensa Deathsquad is also really high-stakes stuff for me for the same reasons. Going all the way back to The Gadjits, I had developed some really unhealthy patterns and relationships and behaviors around my writing process and that stuff had started to strangle me. MDS gives me a fresh start at refiguring my entire process of creation but it’s also a test of whatever it is I think I know about songwriting and music and production. The fact that it’s all electronic means I have to start from absolute zero and climb the learning curve again the same way that I did when I was a kid in my mom’s basement with a mixer and an 8-track cassette machine trying to figure out how to make a snare drum sound like a snare drum.
With the ability for so many bands to make records now and not focus on getting a record deal, what artists are you listening to that the rest of us need to hear?
Man, ever since COVID hit my music consumption has resembled the old cliché about pregnant ladies’ having urgent, insatiable cravings for odd foods. There are days where I don’t want to hear anything that isn’t the same four Jesus and Mary Chain songs and then suddenly at four PM I’m like, “I MUST HEAR GUSTAV MAHLER NOW!” I still go on rabbit hole adventures, deep-diving bansuri players or something which is really what I’d recommend – go to YouTube, plug in “bansur” or some other instrument and start with whatever concert video has the most views. Have an adventure. The world is not setting you up for adventure, it’s setting you up to make very predictable purchases from very well groomed rows of entertainment products. Fuck up the algo.
Politically, you are not shy on social media. We are obviously living in a very tumultuous time. How do we discover some unity and make this world better?
Honestly, if where we want to end up in fifty or a hundred years is “unity”, we need to start by detoxifying conflict. Conflict is not only the price you pay for a diverse, pluralistic democracy it’s the process by which all human intelligence and most human art is refined. Conflict informs and tests the most erudite opinions on policy, conflict is the forge of scientific knowledge, conflict is the dissonance in Birth of The Cool and the heart of Monday Night Football. It needs to be okay to disagree or to change your mind. The affliction of this age is not disunity, it’s festering insecurity that has become so malignant and so brittle that it cannot help but make every conflict into World War III and so it remains lost in its own misunderstanding of the world outside of it. Give the world insight and unity will seem significantly less important.
Thank you so much Brandon!
Interviewer: Gerald Stansbury