What It Is
By Andy Langer, Fri., June 2, 2000
After the dramatic rise, fall, and eventual rebirth of Dallas' New Bohemians, Edie Brickell isn't nearly as innocent and unsophisticated as the 20-year-old who so sheepishly delivered "What I Am" to pop radio back in 1989. Then again, she still has relatively simple ideals; for Brickell, playing, writing, and recording music with friends is about as good as it gets. And when those are your only goals, and you're meeting 'em again, Brickell says there's little to regret or rethink in her past. Sure, in hindsight, she might have fought Geffen Records' decision to fire original drummer Brandon Aly and rename the band Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians. She might have also toured less extensively and shielded herself with a press blackout even earlier than she did. She might even have reworked that "choke me in the shallow water" line that makes her cringe every time she hears "What I Am" today. And she certainly wouldn't have recorded a cover of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" that still induces cold sweats.
"You can look back at anything and wish you'd done something differently," says Brickell. "But who cares? I can honestly look back and realize that everything happened for a reason. Everything that fell apart has fallen back into place beautifully and magically."
What's back in place prompting Brickell to grant her first extensive interview in nearly a decade is the original New Bohemians lineup: Brickell, guitarist Kenny Withrow, bassist Brad Houser, percussionist John Bush, and Aly on drums. After reuniting two summers ago to record a pair of bonus tracks for a greatest hits collection that never came out, the original New Bohemians have stayed together. Although they're spread across the country (Brickell lives in New York, and Bush and Aly live just outside Austin), they've been meeting every few months on Long Island or in Dallas to jam, record, and play live.
The first by-product of their reunion is a self-released live-to-tape collection, The Live Montauk Sessions. While Brickell admits it's mostly "jams we managed to lasso enough to call songs," Montauk's eight tracks are as loose, funky, and soulful as the last collection released under the New Bohemians moniker, 1985's It's Like This, the homemade cassette that put Deep Ellum back on the map and the New Bohemians on Geffen.
"It sounds real -- it sounds like we used to," enthuses Brickell. "It sounds like a band. There was nobody there to say, 'Record this, don't record that, and add a keyboard there.' We didn't rehearse or play the songs to death before we recorded them, and that let us catch a freshness and energy level we've never really felt while making records."
In truth, the band's latest effort isn't a fully-realized studio album, according to Brickell, mostly because the bulk of the regrouped Bohemians'time together has been spent jamming in the studios they booked to actually record in.
"It's my fault," she admits. "I'm the worst. I'm always like, 'Let's jam, let's jam.'It's just so funny to me to jam. To just express what you're feeling -- whatever lyrics or images you can narrate on the spot -- is more fun than anything for me. It's a big kick for us, because it's what we used to do in the garage. And when I worked with other musicians later I realized how spoiled I was. These other guys didn't know how to listen."
Just how Brickell eventually found herself working with other musicians has all the hallmark twists and turns of a Behind The Music installment. Yet as confusing and disappointing as their 1992 split may have been, Brickell believes the end of the real New Bohemians came with Aly's pre-debut departure. When Geffen signed the band in 1986, the New Bohemians were tie-dye wearin' Dead disciples. It took nearly a year for Geffen to assign producer Pat Moran (Robert Plant) to the project, a year when Brickell says the band grew even further away from becoming the radio-friendly pop band Geffen had hoped for. When Moran and Aly clashed over rhythmic approach and fluctuating tempos in preproduction, Aly was replaced by a hired gun.
Though everyone, including the singer, protested Geffen's forced dismissal of Aly, the rest of the New Bohemians grew increasingly angry that Brickell was siding with Moran. Geffen eventually claimed that rumors of the band's imminent breakup necessitated pressing Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars as an album by "Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians." Brickell maintains they told her in no uncertain terms they wouldn't release the album if they couldn't put her name out front. As it wound up, the name swap actually triggered the breakup Geffen feared. After the band questioned her loyalties, Brickell quit for a few weeks, then returned to tour in support of the debut.
"Geffen was never supportive of the band," Brickell claims. "They tried to be, but they weren't. From the very beginning they weren't enthusiastic. I don't think they realized that the sound they were hearing was more the band than me. I think they thought I could do that sound all by myself and I knew that I couldn't. They felt that they could just put me with anybody, only it takes me a very long time to get comfortable with people.
"And I was very comfortable with this band even when we disagreed. It takes a long time to feel comfortable enough to disagree with somebody. When everything happened, it just was really confusing. It's like our weaknesses were nurtured and brought out front by outsiders."
Internally, the New Bohemians were never the same without Aly. Brickell says that while they were relieved that Geffen allowed them to hire a friend, Dallas drummer Matt Chamberlin, the band's chemistry was immediately and fundamentally different.
"We didn't have a clue about chemistry," explains Brickell. "But when it came to jamming and writing songs like we used to, we realized Brandon was a huge spirit in the band. Who knew? It was just something we had to learn. It was no offense or anything against Matt, but if you take out sugar and add honey to recipe, it's gonna be different and a little strange."
As strange as it may have felt for Brickell, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars was an out-of-the-box smash. On the strength of "What I Am" alone, the band sold over 1.5 million albums and toured with Bob Dylan in Europe and Don Henley and the Grateful Dead stateside. A year of interviews, television appearances, and small club tours later, left Brickell exhausted and feeling overexposed; she believes Geffen kept them on the road too long trying to squeeze life out of an album that had already run its course.
Worse yet, there was noticeable backlash in and around their hometown of Dallas. It would be years before the Toadies directed their song "I Hope You Die" Brickell's way, but the singer says she could feel a once-friendly local scene and its press turning on her. More often than not, she says, any effort made to explain herself wound up with things she didn't say surrounded by quotes. Nonetheless, Brickell and co. rushed into the studio with producer Tony Berg to record Rubberband's follow-up -- sessions in which Brickell turned the bulk of the creative decisions over to the band in an effort to make the studio experience more fulfilling than Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars.
Less than six months after coming off the road, Geffen put out Ghost of a Dog. It was generally regarded by critics as a stronger effort than their debut, but it was also considered a commercial disappointment. Both Brickell and the band were ultimately happy with the album, but Brickell says the subsequent tours were significantly less fulfilling.
"It just wasn't fun on the tour bus," she says. "There were certain friendships that endured, but there was this overall feeling of separateness. I felt more and more alone and it was like, 'Wow, we're doing this and every other band wants to do this. We're lucky, but this should feel better than it does.'"
In April of 1991, on the final leg of the tour, the band announced they'd be taking an indefinite hiatus.
"For me, it wasn't just the band or the record," says Brickell. "It was the lifestyle. I was so aware that this wasn't going to sustain me for years to come. A huge part of this was knowing I had to make life happen for me on a real level. I didn't want to be old and alone doing this. And that's tough on a tour bus. Who are you gonna meet? Where are you going to live? Are you gonna be a very famous lonely person?
"I was seeing people that were older who didn't create any kind of foundation in their lives, and it scared me to death. No matter how famous and established they were or however blessed they were with great songs or long careers, if they lived alone, they lived alone. That's not the way I wanted to live prior to the tour or after. A lot of it had to do with that dissatisfaction with life."
Brickell's solution to said problem was marrying Paul Simon in 1992. Two years later, Geffen began pressuring Brickell to record a solo album. After two false starts with other producers, Simon and Roy Halee agreed to co-produce 1994's Picture Perfect Morning, featuring thoughtful and compelling adult contemporary pop, R&B, and singer-songwriter fare Brickell says she couldn't have imagined recording with the New Bohemians. Like Ghost of a Dog, it was well-received by critics, but less so commercially. When Brickell declined a slate of magazine interviews and insisted on staying home with her infant son rather than tour, Geffen pulled the promotional plug.
"It was a record they were really frustrated with and I was really happy with," says Brickell. "And I had finally said, 'No.' I think the New Bohemians' inability to say no was a big part of our problem. We were young and had people in our face saying, 'This is what you must do. Go!' We were too young to know better, and none of us were very aggressive people. It would have helped a lot if just one of us had been aggressive enough to say no."
Soon enough, Brickell learned that while she could say "No!," what comes around goes around. Even after the New Bohemians broke up, Brickell continued to write occasionally with Bush, Houser, and Withrow -- all three of whom played on Picture Perfect Morning. In 1997, Geffen advanced money to record Brickell's reunion with Bush and Withrow. Although Geffen was displeased with Brickell's idea to name the band the Slip and the first album Give 'em the Slip, Brickell says each visit the label made to the studio led to more positive feedback. When the record was turned in, it was soundly rejected.
"I told them that if they didn't understand it and didn't like it, they could let me go," Brickell says. "They agreed, and it was like, 'Huh? You're letting me go?'"
Less than a year later, Geffen returned with the proposal for a greatest hits album and funded two songs with the original lineup -- a pair of tunes that Brickell believes lies in a post-merger Universal storage space alongside the Slip album. Of course, the upside was that the unreleased greatest hits collection laid the foundation for today's full-on reunion.
"Immediately, it was just so comfortable and fun," says Brickell. "We decided we'd get together every few months and maybe play down in Dallas every once in a while. The pressure is off, and it's more fun than we ever had because now we can really appreciate it."
Although a new deal with Island/Palm Pictures fell through when the label said it didn't hear any hits, by all accounts, the string of Dallas shows the New Bohemians have played over the past year have been nothing short of a return to original form, i.e., lots of noodling and improvisation. Brickell says there's also been strong live response for the new material Palm rejected. In fact, a recent Dallas Morning News review offered this assessment of the new songs: "Good enough to make you wonder where these guys have been the last 10 years. Good enough that there was never a sense of, 'When are they gonna play "What I Am" emanating from the crowd.'"
And what of "What I Am"? Withrow's wah-wah guitar line has become a popular hip-hop sample, while covers of the song have popped up as singles of late from both R&B diva Sy Smith and Spice Girl Emma Bunton. Better yet, it still gets steady play on Top 40, AAA, and mix stations. Brickell says the new New Bohemians still play the song live, not because it's a hit, but because it's a groove they all enjoy.
Of course, Brickell's also smart enough to know it's the New Bohemians' single best calling card. It's why fans were drawn in originally and why some people might check out the new album hoping for something similarly memorable. And if it's a song that makes the Edie Brickell, the New Bohemians, or any combination of names and lineups bona fide "one-hit-wonders," Brickell says that's all right too.
"It keeps flowing out there to the point where it makes me feel like it was a little bit stronger than just a one-hit-wonder single," posits Brickell. "But even if you are just a one-hit wonder, it doesn't stop you from making music. You're still gonna make songs, whether they're going to be hits or not. If you enjoy singing, and singing frees you up physically somehow and you love writing and the turn of the phrase, that's what it's about.
"If it turns out to be a hit, well, good luck dealing with fame. And if it's not a hit and you can still survive and make music you believe in, well, then you're truly blessed. I think that's where we are now."
The New Bohemians play Stubb's Friday, June 9.