If It Ain't Bruch, Don't Fix It

Just a drummer from Iowa? Just a culinary badass? Hold his beer.

Jeremy Bruch: Maybe best known in these parts as the drumming component of the Golden Arm Trio, the band that’s the epicenter of all things Graham Reynolds.

Yeah, that’s the way to refer to a human being, right?
As a component?

Photo illustration courtesy of Stevan Alcala

But it’s not Reynolds referring to his friend and bandmate Bruch that way. That’s me, your reporter – supposedly a seasoned journalist who’s pretty much unflappable, right? But is now a bit rattled and grasping at nouns that are less than optimum.

Because whoa, is why.

Because I’d figured, okay, Bruch garnered a "Best of Austin 2017" citation which noted that, in addition to his percussion skills and the high-profile gigs those skills get him, he’s also a culinary guy. He impressively dabbles, at the very least, in the realms of fermentation and smoking and so on – thus the “Tastiest Pickles From a Drummer” award.

And so I was going to do a brief little interview here, generate a minor blogpost about the man’s occasional food-based endeavors. Just a little human interest thing, right? Just a tiny piece for the Chronicle’s online section. Nothing too deep, maybe half a step up from another damned listicle?

But, Jeremy Bruch.

Tell you what.

Turns out the wiry welterweight fucker has impressive bona fides all over the place, in music and food and beyond – and a pallet of stories that would improve the best end-caps in anyone’s creative Aisles of Memory. And the only thing that’s going to begin to do justice to any journalistic profiling of Jeremy Bruch … is something that requires a lot of work.

Guh, you know?

Because I was really looking forward to a couple days on the beach in Cancun right about now.

But to hell with that, and shame on me, because a lot of work is something that Bruch himself engages in at an almost astonishing level and frequency.

Which is how the Iowa native can do all those Golden Arm Trio gigs. And so often batch up tasty plethoras of smoked and pickled goods for friends and family. And bring in the big tech bucks by professionally editing videos. And bend wires, literally, to create sound systems and music compositions different from what he usually gets by furiously assaulting tightly stretched goatskins or whatever. And have a recent past that includes touring with Grupo Fantasma and What Made Milwaukee Famous, and catering private parties, and holding down chef and kitchen-manager jobs at places like Z Tejas and Drink.Well and so on and on.

And even working his sinewy talents as a landscape designer, FFS.

Hell of a nice guy, too.

But, yeah, Jeremy Bruch: Scratch a drummer, uncover another Austin-based Renaissance Man.

But, hey, let’s let him tell you about it …



JEREMY BRUCH, ON STARTING OUT IN THE NATION'S CORN BELT & HIDING HIS DRUMMING:

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. Out in the country, not a lot to do. I think we got, like, three channels on the TV at the time. So I needed a hobby, and I was trying to get into music – junior high, pre-junior high – to start seeing what I have an aptitude for. And of course all the drummer spots in band were taken, so I got pushed to saxophone. Which was my first instrument, which I did for a couple of years and got pretty good at, but I was still waiting for that drumming opportunity. And my best friend’s older brother was kind of the hot-shit drummer at school at the time. And he’d bring home the high-school drum kit over the summer, have it set up in the garage. And then, when he would leave, my buddy and I would go and sit behind it and try to play. I remember trying to play, like, ZZ Top’s “Under Pressure.” Trying to play consistent eighth notes that fast? Impossible. Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”? Im-possible! So we just took turns trying to mess around on the kit. And then, once I got into junior high, I auditioned for the pep band – they played for basketball games. And that was in seventh grade, and I actually got the spot. But I didn’t tell anybody in my family, because they all thought I was still playing saxophone – and saxophone was very expensive, so I knew my mom would be pissed if I didn’t keep playing it.

So I just kept practicing drums in private. And my mom would go to work super early in the morning – she worked at the post office, so she’d get up at 4am – and I would just go in with her, and she’d drop me off at school. And the band director gave me my own key to the band room. So, from 5 o’clock until school started at 8:30 – and then, after school, until the activity bus showed up – that’s all I did, every day. And then I finally had an uncle show up at a basketball game, one of the pep-band gigs, and he filmed it. And at Christmas that year, I showed it to my family, like, “Okay, this is what I’ve been doing. Now who wants to co-sign a loan for me so I can get a real drum kit?” I was – 14? 13? And that’s how I got my first drum kit – and I paid for it by sorting cans in the basement of my granny’s bar, the only bar in Eddyville, Iowa.

Eddyville, yeah: Population, 1200. It’s got one four-way stop sign, no cop.

… ON LEARNING TO READ MUSIC AFTER JOINING THE BAND & THEN KISSING IOWA GOODBYE:

During high school I did a touring big-band program, it was kind of an Up With Kids sort of thing, called the Iowa State Fair Singers & Jazz Band, something like that. A 15-piece big band and a 20-piece group of singers and dancers. We’d rehearse eight hours a day for two weeks – run through 80 charts just as a big band alone, and we got to know them so well that we could literally turn them upside down and play ‘em. Which is so much fun. And we’d spend two months of the summer touring the entire state of Iowa. And when we backed the singing-and-dancing group, we had, like, a Little Mermaid set, and a Music Man set. West Side Story, all of those. Tons and tons of fun. And the funny thing was, when I first joined that group – I was the first member to be let in who couldn’t read music.

So I learned to read music in the next two weeks, by having the director just – this was a guy, he was like Buddy Rich. His name was Tony Garma, and he was just this red-faced, mean guy who, when he realized I couldn’t read music, he took the lead trumpet player’s part and put that in front of me. Because all I really needed to be doing was playing the beat and filling in, kicking the horns. So he would make the horns run phrases over and over, just blowing their chops out, while I’m trying full-metal-jacket-style to pull my shit together. And the horn players’d be getting mad at me, because their chops are just blown – and that’s how it was crammed in my head to read music.

And then, I was supposed to go on scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa, which had a great jazz program. And this touring program I was in, it filled their jazz band every year: All the top players did the touring big band, then went to Northern Iowa, that’s just the way it went. But there was a new dean of music that year, and the State Fair overlapped the first two days of class at UNI – so we were gonna be two days late. And me and my buddy were on scholarship, and the new dean was like, “No, that’s not gonna work out. You’re gonna lose your scholarships and you’re not gonna get anything better than a C if you miss the first two days of class.” So, that late in the game, the director of our touring big band made some phone calls and instead got us scholarships to the University of North Texas music program. So on the last day of the Iowa State Fair, I packed my drums into my car and literally drove overnight to make the first day of classes at the University of North Texas.

… ON THE HARSHNESS OF UNT:

So I went from being, potentially, king of the tiny little hill at the University of Northern Iowa … to bottom-of-the-pond at North Texas, with, ah, I don’t know how many freshman and transferred drummers there were every single semester – but hundreds. And fifty percent of them would be gone after the first semester, every time. I don’t know if the statistic has changed since then – but fifty percent of the drummers couldn’t make it past the first semester. It was brutal. I mean, I watched the movie Whiplash, and I was like, “What’s the big deal? I don’t understand why people are crying and bleeding, that’s completely normal.”

… ON WHY NON-COLLEGE GIGS ARE ESSENTIAL FOR, WELL, FOR MUSIC'S SOUL:

I did college for a couple of years, ended up joining a few bands – and realized that I was learning more from the bands that I was playing with outside of class, because school was just so, I don’t know, reading-heavy. And I was afraid that, if I got so tied up in reading, I’d lose my creative edge. It seems like a lot of drummers who focus on that, they end up back-pedaling way later, to try and, ah – there’s a certain proficiency or virtuosity, that you get to. There’s a certain level, and then it kind of stops being creative. There’s a grit to it that’s lost. You think of, maybe, like, Steve Vai – or just anybody that’s crazy talented. You get them to try and jam and be simple with it, and it just doesn’t come out the same way, it comes out … sideways, or … soulless. Empty, a little bit, you know? So I started playing in blues bands. There was this old blues musician named Pops Carter, from the Denton scene. I think he was in his 70s when I joined the band. He was married to Minnie HopkinsLightning’s, uh … cousin, I think?

So I was playing in a blues band, and I was playing in what was kind of a brother band to MC 900 Ft. Jesus at the time, called Busta Groove. And I was doing a lot of LSD and just jamming the hell out. There was this whole collective of musicians in Denton, guys from Goodfoot and a bunch of other bands, and we played all the time – just barbecues, jam sessions, all that stuff.

… ON WHAT BROUGHT HIM TO AUSTIN:

And then a girl that I fell in love with in Denton moved to Austin. And I’d gone home for a summer, and then came down to Austin to visit her – and didn’t take the return flight back. And that was in ’96.

… ON HOW ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER:

That girl was the one who introduced me to all my Laredo friends – because she was from Laredo – and that’s how I met everybody that eventually formed Blue Noise Band and Grupo Fantasma and Brownout and all that stuff. Blue Noise Band was originally Adrian Quesada and Dave Lobell, Tom Benton on bass, and me. And the Blimp Trio was Greg Gonzalez, Beto Martinez, and Johnny Lopez. And we smashed them together. It was originally called The Young Silly Bitches before it became Grupo Fantasma – they were just playing keg parties and stuff – and then they played their first gig at Empanada Parlor, and I thought Johnny was dragging a little bit, so I picked up the cowbell and got behind him and just kind of – [makes cowbell-thumping motion] – and they were like, “You’re in, you’re in!” So my first gig with Grupo Fantasma, I just sat in and basically joined. And those same gigs with Blue Noise Band, playing Empanada Parlor, that’s where I met Graham [Reynolds] for the first time. And he asked me to sit in, and I sat in with him once, and – he never played drums in his own band again.

… ON LEARNING TO BE A COOK & BEING BRIEFLY (NEVER AGAIN!) VEGETARIAN:

The girl that I moved here for was a vegetarian, so I became vegetarian in ’96 in Austin. Am I a vegetarian now? Noooooooo. But, back then, it wasn’t easy to be a vegetarian in this town. It was beans & rice at Les Amis or Mother’s. And Mother’s was the first meal that I ever had that made me angry. It was a new experience at the time, like “Food can make you … mad?” I wasn’t much of a foodie back then, I couldn’t even really cook, but trying to be vegetarian, what I realized was: If I don’t learn how to cook, I’m gonna die. And so I was learning how to make black beans, a lot of tofu tacos – because I was poor – and I learned that turmeric is not the only spice you can use for tacos. I have a very distinct memory of living in a house on 45th and Red River with a bunch of vegans – I lived with six girls – so I started experimenting with cooking. Started calling my mom, like, “Uh, can I get your chicken-and-rice recipe, but I’m gonna have to make it without the chicken?”

And I was working at an infant care center at the time, St. Luke’s at 12th and West Lynn, worked there for a couple of years. And then my next job was at Dolce Vita, slinging coffee and stuff. Actually, I started out at Dolce as a janitor – and worked my way up to head barista. Concetta [Mastroianni], who was the owner at the time, started giving me little cooking duties – how to make the zabaglione, how to make a waffle cone, stuff like that. And I did a couple years there, then waited tables at Manga – which was a kind of Asian-fusion diner – which is now Asti? That was my first waiting tables job, and I started hanging around with the cooks, just messing around in the kitchen. And I was still doing a lot of experimenting with food at home – terrible. Terrible, terrible.

And I was still gigging all the time. Or as much as I could. Grupo Fantasma still hadn’t really taken off. And I was doing a lot of jazz stuff.

So the next big step was, I got my second table-waiting job at Romeo’s. And by then I was getting pretty skilled as a home cook, I was getting confident. And Romeo’s was where I started transitioning into the kitchen. And the head chef would let me make up the daily specials and the sauces of the day, because the cooks were lazy, and finally I decided: I’m done waiting tables. And then Tom Benton and I started our own catering company. We were personal chefs, catering, even had a primitive online-ordering service where we’d do specials-of-the-week. And the beautiful thing was, if nobody ordered it, we didn’t have to make it – so it’s not like you’re just sitting around on inventory. Because – I read a story about Mario Batali going to a dinner party. This was in Rolling Stone years ago. And Batali’s at this party, and somebody brings out this huge loaf of foie gras – but they didn’t have any sauce or anything to go with it. So Batali melts down some cherry Jolly Ranchers and balsamic vinegar … and I was like, “I fuckin’ love that.” So I started doing these weird things with food. I did the same thing with green-apple Jolly Ranchers and made green-apple-jalapeño pork chops, they were grilled with this, like, candy-jalapeño crust on them. And one week, someone ordered it! And that didn’t take off too much, but we kept working – we’d do weddings for up to 175 people, just me and Tom. It was called Two Straight Guys Cookworks.

My friend Denise Salle came up with the name – she’s the wife of John-Luc Salle, who owned John-Luc’s Bistro downtown, back in the day? – he was my French mentor.

… ON GETTING LEGIT HIRED & SURVIVING HIS TRIAL-BY-KITCHEN:

And so Tom and I were catering, and then I took my first legitimate cooking job – at Portabla. And that was an amazing job. My first actual production experience – identifying food-cost, waste, that kind of stuff. And that’s where I had a real knack – managing food cost. So I cut my teeth there. And around that time, Grupo Fantasma was getting busy, going on the road for extended periods of time, and it was harder to keep a regular job. And then I joined the kitchen at Z Tejas.

The sous chef who interviewed me, he just couldn’t believe what he was looking at. He was this gravelly voiced, thick-necked, ex-rugby-player from Oklahoma, big red face, had a voice like [makes sound like Grottu, The Living Mountain]. And he sat down and looked at me with my résumé – which didn’t have much actual cooking experience on it – and the first thing he said to me was, “You’re not one of these Food Network-watching, twinkle-toed faggots, are you?”

That’s verbatim – the first thing he said. And then he just crossed his arms and looked at me and said, “White boys don’t do well here. You’re not gonna last two weeks.” And I was the only white guy there, except for the executive chef – who was Jack Allen, at the time – great dude – and Kirk Doyle was the head chef, one of the most respected – he certainly has my respect – and then the sous chef, Blake.

And they threw me in the very bottom of the bottom: I worked at the annex kitchen in the basement. By myself. No stereo, no music allowed. And I’d get there at 6:30 in the morning, and by 7am I’d have, like, eight pots going. I’d do 12-hour days, I never called in sick, always came in on my day off – that’s how it’s been for my entire culinary career: I’ve never called in sick at a job and, if they call me, I’ve always come in on my day off. I’m that guy. But I was getting to the point at Z Tejas where I’d done about 12 13-hour days in a row, and I couldn’t figure out the puzzle of how – because you have to time how you do things, or you’re gonna have a very long day. If you can’t multitask properly, know how long this thing’s gonna take and how many things you can get done in the meantime until it’s finished, it’s – it’s crazy. So I went to the chef, and I was like, “These are supposed to be eight-hour shifts, but I’m in here for at least 12 hours every day. What am I missing? There’s some piece of the puzzle that I’m not seeing, and if you can point it out – because I’m staring at it too hard – lemme know.”

And all he said was, “You gonna cry?”

And I was like, “No.”

And he said, “Do your job or go home.”

Which is the way kitchens used to be. So, about six months of that went by. Brutal. I have one picture of me, on the Fourth of July, when eight cooks called in – on the Fourth of July. So I ran the prep station, they put me on the line, I was washing dishes, I was just bouncing everywhere. And I was like, “You can’t break me.” I was like, “More shit? Yeah? Whattaya got? Bring it.”

And the very next day, I was doing all my usual stuff in the basement annex, I had it all under control. And that same sous chef comes down. And he’s looking in pots, stirring shit, and going, like, “Why isn’t this done? Why isn’t this done?” And I just wheeled on him, and I said, “Unless you’ve got suggestions, you need to get the fuck out of my kitchen – because you’re slowing me down.”

And he just smirked at me, “Fine,” and walked off.

And I was like, “Oh, fuck.”

And at the end of my shift, he and the head chef took me out to the storage shed and told me that I’d been promoted to the upstairs kitchen.

… ON TOURING LIKE A GODDAMN ROCK STAR & COOKING FOR EVERYBODY ON THE ROAD:

I did about a year and a half at Z Tejas, and then I got into What Made Milwaukee Famous – and that was 250 days a year on the road. So I stayed out of a commercial kitchen during those years. But when I was on the road with Grupo Fantasma and What Made Milwaukee Famous, and we were staying at somebody’s house? And had a couple days off? I’d collect everyone’s per-diems – and any bands touring with us, collect their per-diems – and I’d spend the whole two days just cooking for everybody. Meeting everybody’s dietary needs – like, John Farmer, the bassist, was vegetarian, he was the only vegetarian, so I made him a tater-tot casserole with mushrooms – and Funyuns on top. And in the Grupo Fantasma days, I made breakfast tacos for everybody. And while I was with What Made Milwaukee Famous, I did a video blog for Food Network, on what it’s like to eat on the road. And then after I did that for a while, I created my own cooking show on YouTube, did about 10 episodes of that. It was like a cooking show for Adult Swim, about 10 minutes long, lots of profanity, partial nudity. I started doing green screen stuff, split screen, pulling characters out of cartoons and video games. I’d stay up for two days on no sleep, editing things, so it’d get weirder and weirder as the end comes along. Which is how I taught myself to do video editing.

And that kind of brings me to now. But, okay, after I got out of What Made Milwaukee Famous, I worked at a liquor store for a little while – King Liquor, at the corner of Burnet and Lamar – which felt like a step back, y’know? Because, before that, I took a year off where I didn’t date, I didn’t gig, and I didn’t drink. And I taught myself micro-electronics – because I needed something to keep my brain busy. So I was doing that in the meantime, to pick up a new skill, doing circuit-bending and stuff like that. My place is under 400 square feet, and it’s got an electronic music station, a video-editing bay, electronics wood bench – with all the LEDs and transistors and stuff – and then a kitchen with seven different burners and two ovens. And my bed is in the middle of all this, so I wake up and it’s like, “Okay, which lab am I working at today?”

… ON WHAT SORT OF CREATURE HE ACTUALLY IS, MAYBE, AND HOW THAT SUSTAINS HIM:

Primarily, I’m a drummer. Secondly, a chef. Third, video editor. Fourth, amateur electronics, ah, mangler – whatever you wanna call me. So, like, the Pancho Villa opera that Graham is doing, here’s how that comes together for me: I get paid to rehearse, I get paid to do the show. But I’ve also become the person who sets up the rehearsals, who prints and distributes the parts and edits the score as needed. Who packs up the van, sets up the stage, tears it all down and packs it back up. And I get paid separately for that. And sometimes I even cater the shows. And, if there’s video footage of the show that needs to be edited … So sometimes I end up making money watching myself make money between making money. Which is a beautiful thing. Plus, I’m also Graham’s studio tech, so if something breaks on-site, I’m there with a screwdriver and soldering iron to fix it. I’m irreplaceable now. I can do all five of my jobs just inside the world of Graham Reynolds. It’s taken a long time and a lot of frustration, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work – do I need to go back to school, do I need to go back to a regular kitchen? – but now it’s finally … my condo’s paid off, I live alone, and because I was so poor and vegetarian when I first moved here, I’ve kind of followed the principles of James Beard – who was a master of living a gluttonous life on pennies. And I love being able to do that.

AND, OKAY, THERE'S STILL A LOT MORE UNTRANSCRIBED IN THE RECORDING DEVICE, BUT HERE'S A FINAL ANECDOTE … ABOUT HOW, IF YOU'RE WORKING IN HIS KITCHEN, THIS BRUCH, HE'S GONNA BUST YOUR BALLS:

There was this one cook, when I was running a kitchen … Right before service, I’d come in and flip open their station, and just dump out one of the pans – like, all the sliced cucumbers for the salads. And I’d look at the slices of cucumbers. And I’d be like, “Okay, there’s one that’s that thick, and there’s one that’s that thick, and there’s one that’s that thick.” And I’d point to the sign that I had taped up – Don’t Let Your Mistakes Leave the Kitchen – and I’d point back to the cucumbers, and I’m like, “Why the fuck did you do this?” And the guy’s like, “Whut?” And I’m like, “You could have eaten it or you could have thrown it away. But you’re sending it out, and if someone’s ordering a salad, the first thing they’re gonna see is your uneven knife cut on my fucking food?”

Because that’s the way I judge restaurants. The first thing I get at a new place, I look at the knife cuts. Because if that’s what they’re willing to show you, imagine the corners they’re cutting that you don’t get to see. That’s indicative to me, because the key, the key to every single kitchen is consistency. And it boils all the way down to are the cucumbers sliced the same size? Consistency! Because then everything cooks evenly, the texture of everything – it permeates every aspect of a successful kitchen, it’s the cornerstone that applies to everything: People showing up on time, and asking if they can do extra shit, you know? A desire to work and do it right. And there’s a lack of that. I’ve been to so many restaurants in town where the menu read like – like someone was stealing my fucking dreams. But what came out on the plate was a complete fucking lie.

NO, WAIT, JUST ONE MORE THING – ABOUT GUITAR PLAYER REDD VOLKAERT:

I love musicians where you can hear humor in their playing. It’s a hard thing to explain. And it happens to me every time I watch Redd Volkaert. Every fucking time, I just laugh my ass off. I’ve laughed at him more than any other musician. And my friends are like, “You’re not applauding?” And I’m like, “Hey, this is way above applauding.” It’s like I got an inside joke that only he and I know or something. And I finally got to play with him at one of the Dive Bar gigs. He sat down next to me, and I was like, “I’m so sorry if I blow your ears off tonight.” And he was, “Aaah, don’t worry about it.” And then we destroy the set, it’s just amazing. And I looked at him after the set, and I shook his hand, and I was like “Oh man, I’ve been waiting so fucking long to play with you, thank you so much.” And he just goes, “Huh-huh – fuck you!” And that’s all I wanted – the best possible thing Redd Volkaert could say to me.


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