So What

Drummer Brannen Temple

by Andy Langer "It's not like I'm trying to win any popularity contests," says Brannen Temple. It's a good thing too, because he's not likely to win any blue ribbons in the immediate future. To be popular, one must be known and liked, and, perhaps undeservedly, Temple's not much of either in this town. Yet at 25, Temple may already be Austin's finest across-the-board drummer, with a long list of accomplishments, including stints with acts like Sheena Easton, Jody Watley, and Chaka Kahn. Two years ago, he was even hired and fired by Janet Jackson. In Austin, he's involved himself with everyone from Chris Duarte, Mitch Watkins, and Stephen Bruton to his own bands, the Uglies and Atomic Soul. Still, for a guy that may hold Austin's record for the most Vegas and network late show appearances, Temple's relatively unknown locally as anything other than a drummer's drummer. Political spin doctors might say Brannen Temple is a musician much in need of a good public relations campaign. Temple probably doesn't give a fuck what the spin doctors say.

In fact, he says he doesn't care if you read this story. To date, Temple's not even sure why he granted this interview. A few inches in the Chronicle isn't going to get him any better gigs or allow him to work with a better caliber of players. If anything, Temple believes this story can only provide annoying chit-chit ammunition for the people that insist on stopping him in the grocery store for small talk. "Hey man, I saw the article," they'll say. It's an article Temple himself won't likely see because he doesn't read the Chronicle. And in the worst-case scenario, he contends, he'll likely be misquoted or taken out of context. So why should anyone even bother with Brannen Temple? Because he's one of Austin's native sons, and is the kind of artist this town doesn't typically breed, support, or glorify - though he continues to live and gig here perhaps to the detriment of his career and sanity.

Temple's drumming skills are such that it might not be arrogant for him to say there's virtually nobody in town that can inspire him. And he does indeed say that. He also says he'd rather not spend his time bullshitting with fans or other musicians he doesn't know personally. Tough way to meet people and make friends. But when you consider that Temple's main territory is jazz - historically a genre of music that spawns notoriously difficult personalities like Charles Mingus, Buddy Rich, and Miles Davis - it's easy to believe that Temple may simply be motivated by pride, not ego, and is perhaps more interested in balancing his art and commerce rather than making superficial acquaintances or suffering fools gladly.

"I don't like bullshit," says Temple. "Anybody that found me difficult to work with is putting out some bullshit themselves. Whether it's their vibe, the business aspects, or something else. I've never gone into a situation with my nose turned up, because I'm too careful picking my situations. If I do go into it with my nose turned up, it's because of other reasons, perhaps financial. A working musician is going to run into that. You may have to do some shit you may not want to... And if I don't feel cool about something I'm not going to hold it back."

Temple may be in the rare position of being able to speak his mind, and then speak so casually about doing so, simply because he has the talent to back up the attitude. Even if drumming isn't a competitive sport, especially in Austin, Temple's grasp of both textbook and emotional drumming makes him a heavyweight; so natural is his flow and so precise is his control that his abilities appear almost robotic. And what ultimately makes Temple so attractive to so many musicians in so many genres is that he's a classical workhorse who's able to find style and grace in old-fashioned notes and harmony without becoming the mastubatory star he's easily got the chops to be. As a result, Temple's been able to apply his classical and jazz outlook to everything from blues and funk to Top 40 schmaltz.

"I think I'm open-minded and a musical snob at the same time," he says. "I can definitely turn my nose up at some shit I don't think is worth it. But I'm neither a traditionalist nor avant-garde. People probably find it weird that I'll play one night with Mitch Watkins and the next with Atomic Soul, but I like challenges and that's what is going to round me out. I know jazz cats my age and younger, and these jokers are like 19 and know the path they're going down and know the style and sound they'll stick with for a career. How do they know that? They don't. It's not necessarily healthy."

Then again, who says keeping Austin as one's home base is "healthy" either? Although he says he's usually called out to the road just before he reaches the personal and musical depression that'll have him permanently packing his bags for either coast, Temple is frank in admitting that Austin doesn't hold much in the way of music inspiration or opportunities for him. Especially in the jazz circles. "Not that many young people are into jazz here," he says. "Last night I played with Elias Haslanger, and he's basically it in terms of people my age that I'd want to play with. We had a good gig, but as much as I like playing with him, it's even limiting within that situation because he's not getting the input and inspiration from anyone around here either."

Atomic Soul, a funky jazz quartet Temple dreamed up the last time he was a few Samsonites from leaving, is his attempt at finding an inspirational solution within Austin's jazz scene. Not necessarily fusion but still a far improvisational cry from either typical funk or jazz, Atomic Soul applies a rock & roll ethic to swing - with Temple's rhythmic lead unmistakably setting the tone. In a way, it takes witnessing Temple's forceful leads with Atomic Soul to be truly impressed by the understated finesse he applies to a gig with somebody like Watkins or Bruton. Nevertheless, Atomic Soul is the reminder to jazz and rock fans alike that jazz drummers most often possess the nail-you-to-the-wall impact that even rock drummers like John Bonham could only hint at.

"The idea was to find something I could feel creative in," Temple says of Atomic Soul. "It even has its limits, but in a place where I really don't find that many situations inspiring, it's gratifying just in that I can assemble a situation that has the vibe, chemistry, and energy that'll make us all want to work towards pushing past the points that hold us back here [Austin]."

While the original concept of Atomic Soul - now on hiatus as Temple tours with Sheena Easton - was in showing rock & roll fans that raw power is also a part of jazz, such aspirations might not have been possible were it not for the fact that both Temple and Atomic Soul bassist Yoggie Musgrove were in the drummer's last serious hometown project, the Uglies. Quickly attracting major-label interest in late 1992 before an abrupt breakup, the Uglies masterfully mixed clever rock hooks with groove-based R&B. Today, despite a nostalgic notion amongst the Steamboat crowd that the Uglies were clearly a better band than crowd favorites Joe Rockhead, Temple says the Uglies were an ill-conceived disaster originally meant to briefly gig, seal a deal, and leave town.

"Is this story about the Uglies?" Temple asks, threatening to stop. The story is not just about the Uglies, but threatens to be because Temple is so vague about his pre-Uglies background. Other than a high school band or two, and a year spent with Toulouse house (cover) band the Bizness, Temple's personal history is a closed book. What is known, however, is that by the time Temple had formed the Uglies, he'd already bounced around the country in the sideman role. And how did he make the jump from cover band to sideman for national acts? He'll only say that it happened when he "got better." Faced with reconstructing a resume, Temple decides the Uglies may not be such a bad thing to talk about.

"That band was more about my personal life than my career," says Temple. "It was a time of personal development, but very much a musical disappointment in that what we were doing wouldn't let us grow, and was wrong from the beginning. The biggest lessons came in continuing, because it was a band I never had fun in. If people think we were better than Rockhead or something, let them think that. To be honest, it actually makes me cringe when people say they saw me with the Uglies."

Temple also cringes at the mention of Janet Jackson, a touring gig that in session circles is impressive simply for having been a possibility. Temple admits to being excited when he and Uglies singer Ameerah Tatum were both hired for Jackson's 1993 tour, but says he quickly soured on the gig after a few pre-tour rehearsals - a period he calls the longest five weeks of his life. Temple was fired just before the tour's launch, and says he signed a disclaimer stopping him from talking about his experiences within the Jackson organization even before he started rehearsals.

"To make a really long story short," says Temple, "it was full of very sensitive and very paranoid vibes. I could give a fuck about their words on the disclaimer, but it's my word and my honor that really stops me from talking about the situation." And yet, even with the Jackson failure, Temple's national work as a session player and mercenary tour drummer is a luxury that serves not only to round out his musical experiences, but also provides him a perspective from which to view his own scene and his own career plan.

"Aside from the Janet thing, the session and tour work is another whole level of professionalism, which isn't to say there's not bullshit there as well. There's aspects of Cedar St. I like more than playing MGM with Sheena though, 'cause the club thing can be so much more spontaneous. But I couldn't do either Bruton or Easton alone. Or even my band for that matter. The need to get inspiration from other places and outlets is what killed me about the Uglies taking up so much of my energy. I just can't do one thing, it doesn't work."

But while Temple's rapidly expanding résumé provides little for the casual local observer to grab onto and follow, Temple is clearly a hot national commodity who, true-to-form, will not reveal anything about three upcoming, high-profile gigs that will round out his year. Just leave Temple to his playing, and don't bother him if you see him in HEB. After that, let the tongues wag as they may.

"I think a lot of the time people have misunderstood where I'm coming from because I don't have that regular shine of a smile or bullshit glaze that people have in Austin," says Temple. "People have misread that and think something's wrong or I'm a certain way. They don't know me and can't possibly make that judgment. Those that I work with still don't know me, and if they do they should be sensitive enough to understand why I'm this way. I try to be as open, supportive, and positive as I can, but I'm not going to support something that ain't right or doesn't feel right. When I was younger I put up with a lot more. A lot of people are that way until they figure out they're point of tolerance. I just don't have time anymore for bullshit." n

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