EQ Interview Extras: Charles Bradley and Tommy Brenneck
By Bill Murphy
The March 2011 issue of EQ profiles Daptone star Charles Bradley’s debut album, No Time For Dreaming. Here, read interview outtakes with Charles Bradley and producer Tommy Brenneck.
Can you tell me a little about the history of this project? I know you had a couple of singles out first.
TB: It was all recorded on Menahan Street [Brooklyn] in my bedroom. A couple of things were recorded here [at the studio in Williamsburg]. “Why Is It So Hard” was tracked here, and then we put some finishing touches on the album here, like the Gospel Queens on a couple of songs, and then I put some horns on maybe one or two songs. But more than 90 percent of the record was recorded between 2005 and 2008 at my old apartment.
What was the basic set-up?
It was so simple. An Otari half-inch 8-track machine, a TASCAM 12-track board—I don’t remember much about that because it broke when I moved into this space—and two microphones. I had a Shure SM54 and an SM57—that’s it. I had a really shitty reverb that I used for a few rough mixes, but other than that, no outboard gear whatsoever. We just went direct to tape.
So how would you have built up a song back then, from start to finish?
I’d usually cut—well, the Menahan Street Band’s Make the Road By Walking and [Charles Bradley’s] No Time For Dreaming were cut pretty simultaneously, with the idea that we’d decide which songs would be an instrumental track, and which ones were open enough to be vocal tracks. That was before me and Charles actually started writing and demo-ing songs, but otherwise I was just banging out these tracks.
I would always cut drums and rhythm guitar, or drums and bass, or drums and piano—basically drums and a rhythm instrument first, and then just layer it and bounce, because it was all on an 8-track. So it was like, I’d do the drums, guitar, bass, organ and second guitar, then have space open for the horns, Bradley and percussion, and any more than that, I’d have to start bouncing. So some of those tracks have the crunchiest organ sounds because they were getting bounced with the guitar, then you throw a tambourine in there and every time you just get another generation of tape compression. And that’s phenomenal, because you don’t really need outboard gear if you can bounce parts around and get some really tough-sounding shit.
That’s what I want to get to. Was there a degree of experimentation that you went through to find out which groups [of instruments] bounce together the best?
I wouldn’t do anything that I wanted to have control over later. Like, I wouldn’t bounce the drums and the bass together. I’d want to keep those two separate. But if I had a chank [rhythm] guitar track and an organ, I’d bounce them down together—something where I can get a good balance and that was enough. It was definitely trial and error, but it’s pretty easy to figure out as you go along. I’m not too scientific about this shit [laughs].
Well, let’s say you’re starting out recording drums and organ. You’d track those live together, right?
Yeah. I literally had the drum kit set up in the corner, the 8-track right next to my bed, a piano and an organ and a guitar amp—and maybe another keyboard at one point. I think I had a Fender Rhodes around for a minute. It was a small room just loaded with instruments, and everything would bleed [together when recording].
We did some of it backwards. On some of those tracks, I didn’t know what I was doing—like I had the guitar amp right next to the hi-hat, just because it was a small bedroom, and then trying to mix it later on, I realized I didn’t even need the guitar mic because it was all over the drums. So a lot of it has that, but the bleed is good. That’s the quality that we want.
You’re gonna get that, especially with just two mics, which I guess you basically have to use as room mics.
Totally. All the drums were recorded on one microphone, but it was usually just one [part] at a time because a lot of it was overdubbed. The bass was always direct, and the horns were overdubbed on this entire record. With Charles, we would just sit like we are now, with the tape machine right here, and just press record and work on a song over the course of a couple of hours.
How did the ideas flow between you and Charles when it came to putting the songs together?
We had worked in the past together before Daptone, with a band called Dirt Rifle that I had. Me and the drummer had always written the lyrics for Charles at that time, because if we left it up to him—at that time, the music was real fast and funky, so it was just straight James Brown shit coming out of his mouth. I mean, he did it helplessly, like, “People, people!” and shit like that [laughs].
So we would just write so the songs would be original at least. Then we stopped working together for a while, and when I brought him into this music, it was way far removed from the funky stuff that we’d been doing. It was laid-back and soulful, so the first time we worked together, I didn’t have anything—just an idea for the chorus, with “The World Going Up In Flames.” I had an idea of how the chorus should go, and we just hung out and bullshitted and drank some whiskey for like three hours, and then I played him the track and he instantly reacted. We just started from there and he just made it up on the spot—“The World Going Up in Flames.”
I mean, Bradley is amazing. When he hears a track and he feels it, ideas just come to him, and I play the role of editor. He’ll just sit there with no sense of structure or rhyming or story-telling and just sing. And these amazing lyrics will come out, and I’ll sit there with a piece of paper and let the song play over and over again and let him sing. I’ll take these little moments of genius that I hear and then arrange them to the song. It’s actually very common with the singers that I know. They have no sense of the actual structure, so you have to really help them. It sounds like a bad thing to say, but it’s the truth.
That’s what producing is all about.
Yeah, exactly. That’s my lucky role—but really, he’s just like fire, and I have to catch as much as I can and make it fit into the song. I might change a lyric here or there, because he’ll say some tough stuff sometimes, but it’s beautiful. He’s a poet through and through.
So when recording Charles, his vocals are the last element of the process?
Oh yeah. Sometimes we’d put the horns or the vibraphones on afterwards. There are certain instruments that I like to do once it’s all done. The backup vocals actually always went after Bradley because that’s how the girls know what to sing. There were a couple of times where the backup vocals had been written, but I always like to put them on after the lead vocal so they can really fill the spaces that Charles leaves open. It lets them do the response to the call too, because his phrasing is not always consistent. So it’s important to do that last so I can make it sound like it has a sensible arrangement.
Does he get a stereo pair when he records vocals on the 8-track?
No, it’s just the one track. On the engineering part, it was a lot of making decisions on the spot. The producer-engineer role is really squeezed into one when you’re working that intimately, and with the limitations of the 8-track, I have to get an amazing performance out of him, and I have to get it on one track. So I don’t want to go line-by-line, because you want to have a flow. I really don’t want to have him coming in on each line, with different volumes and everything, so really, once we have the song together, I’ll just let it roll and fix the spots that need fixing. Sometimes we’ll disagree on phrasing [laughs], but that’s really it. His voice is an amazing instrument, man. It’s sick.
I also hear what sounds like mic distortion on his voice, when he’s really belting it out.
Yeah. That’s actually tape distortion. The needles were just pinned, and when it’s magic, I’m not gonna do it again. That happens a lot too. You get the level, and then the singer or the performer gets excited—this happens with horn players all the time. You get the level, and you start rolling tape, and the needle is pinned, but they just did something beautiful and you can’t ask them to do it again. You might lose the power of that take, and trying to get it again is just not how it goes.
Well, that distorted sound reminds me of, for example, Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On—
Oh man, that’s like one of my favorite records of all time. That’s a bedroom record, and the vocals just have that vibe. I hope that kind of vibe gets across with this record. It’s deep.
Was there much that you had to do in the mixing phase, in terms of EQ-ing particular tracks or adjusting levels?
It was pretty different for every song because the album was recorded over a three-year period. I learned a lot from Gabe [Roth]. I hung by his side really hard for the making of Naturally, and every Budos record and anything I could be around for. My engineering skills were getting better too over that time period. Some of the songs from the beginning had really terrible sounds, and we had to pull them together with some EQ-ing, but for the most part, that room had a really specific sound.
Now, whenever I pull out the reels and just put them up raw, it 75 or 80 percent of the way there. We did some compressing and EQ in the mix, but there weren’t that many tricks or studio magic going into those mixes. I can’t speak highly enough of Gabe’s ear, so just having him there to mix it, and then me being there just for the overall bigger picture, that to me was an amazing combination—and it was mixed at Daptone by me and Gabe years later. Except for “The World…” and “The Telephone Song,” we mixed the entire album last January, which is so absurd because we recorded it so long ago. It’s just crazy, man.
Topically, the album is pretty on point, even though you got started on it back in 2005.
Totally. It’s amazing how relevant these songs still are. That’s another thing to Bradley’s credit. That shows that he’s writing about real shit, man. He’s had a tough life so it’s not like bullshit stories, or there’s not really that much fantasy in the songwriting either—it’s pretty raw and pretty honest, which I think is kind of the difference today between rock and roll songwriting and straight soul songwriting. There’s not too much fantasy going on here. It’s like listening to a Joe Tex song. When you hear him talking about Vietnam, it’s like, “Fuck.” It’s real gut-wrenching.
[Charles comes in]
So Tommy and I were talking about the making of your record, and the main thing I wanted to ask you was how it feels for you to have all these songs come together into an album, and to be getting it out—because I know it’s been a long time that you’ve been working on this.
CB: Yeah, it’s like a broken record to me [laughs]. But here’s a guy that really inspired me to do this. He knows a lot of my past and the things I’ve been through. I met him in Staten Island—there was another band [Dirt Rifle] that came in one day to deal with me, and they asked me to sing with them. So I just made up a verse, and Tommy told me, he said, “We’re gonna do something.” And then all of a sudden I didn’t hear from Tommy for about a year, and then one day he called me and said, “Charles, I’m living in Brooklyn now—why don’t you come over?” So I came over, we sat down and started talking, and he fixed one of his famous hot toddies [laughs]. And he said a lot of key words that helped me to open up to him, you know? He said, “Charles, I think you should put all that in front of music,” and that’s how it came out of me.
So we sat there and got a tape going, and he got on the piano and started doing things, and he asked me to sing. A lot of the things didn’t tell a story, but some of the words he knew how to put in a unique way so they would come out more better than how I was singing it. Then I went away, and then he called me up and said, “Charles, you got to get over here and listen to this.” And he got the band and everything on that thing, and that was “Heartaches and Pain.” My God, when I heard that, I started crying. I didn’t know that he was gonna make it that dynamic. I had to get up and walk away. And from then on, Tommy had that extra little pull that just get me to open up. He shows me a lot of good qualities, and now I believe in him totally. I push the negative away and listen to what he got to say.
Can you talk a little bit about the subject matter of these songs? I was telling Tommy [that] with the recent economic meltdown, this album actually seems more relevant now than ever, even though you started working on it in 2005.
Ooh, I’ll tell you one thing: “The World Is Going Up In Flames,” that’s a true statement. If you look at the economy, if you look at the way peoples is losing they houses, the banks and the way the country is in trouble, people don’t know whether it’s up or down. Middle class peoples all across the land is losing they houses. I get on the subway and I see people sleeping on benches—I been there. And I’m saying, “My God, is this new age coming around again?” With “The World Is Going Up In Flames,” you actually really see it. That’s what really hit me off real deep—that I saw it. I think America need to really look at what they’re doing. So much good peoples is going down, and they just take their lick and say, “God will prevail,” but it’s time to stop all that.
That’s what I think is really cool about this album. Not only are you bearing witness to a lot of crazy shit that’s going on—
—but there’s also a lot of hope and looking forward in this too.
I’ll tell you, before I met Tommy, I was on my down lick. I was totally giving up. I prayed a lot because I believe in God totally, and I kept asking Him when things was gonna change, but my momma always told me, “You don’t question God. When He ready, He’ll show you the light.” And when I met Tommy, I was looking for people to help me create music and do things to give to the world, but everybody who takes me in, they used me up to their advantage. Tommy saw something different in me. He saw the honesty in me. And really it wasn’t in music at first. It was just a friendship, and I felt the trust and he got me to open up. Believe me, befire I met him, I was on the edge. I had got to the point where I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my brother and I felt like too much was happening to me. But this guy I can say is one of my best friends. I trust his judgment, even though I do get mad at him sometimes [laughs].
Well, that’s what friendship is all about, right? [laughs] Where does the inspiration for singing come from for you? How far back does that go?
When you couldn’t say what’s on your mind, you sing it—that’s where it comes from. Now, I can take you way back to segregation days, when we couldn’t go across that fence, and a lot of things was happening, and I had to just sing it. And peoples as they hear it more, I sing it, and when you get mad they saying they don’t want to hear it. When you’re singing about love and the truth, they listen to it. And that’s where the rhythm and blues outta me come from. And then I came from a background of churches in Florida, and I was raised mostly in what they call “Macoma” church, and I learned a lot of things from that. It was like experience, past pretense.
TB: Did you grow up in segregation? Really?
Oh yes, Tommy. This is a true story, like you see, right here: This was the side where the blacks could stay at, and over here, you couldn’t cross that fence. Only whites could go over there.
Oh yeah, you told me something about that. You had a friend on the other side.
Yeah. He used to pick me up and get me ice cream [laughs]. That’s the first time I ever saw a TV. The TV was a big round thing, and I’d never seen one in my life, and I wondered how they get in that TV! I was about six or seven years old.
I can relate to that [laughs].
Yeah. It took me a long time to understand that. He told me they come in through the back, and I said, “Through that cord? How do they fit in that?” You see, back in those days, I ain’t never had that animosity or racism because no one ever knew that man was picking me up. I’d come over there about six o’clock, standing right by that fence. They had these fishing poles with rose-colored things on them. It was great. I used to stand right there, and he would reach over, pick me up, bring me into his trailer, and I used to sit there and watch TV and eat ice cream. My mother learned of it when I was grown. I was about 13 when I told her, and she said, “What?!” I remember that.
Were there particular singers you were into as a kid?
My favorite singers in my life and time—I always loved James Brown, I always loved Diana Ross, I always loved Aretha Franklin, and I always loved Barbra Streisand, because she’s the one who originally made “Memories,” and the lyrics to that always touched my heart. So those was like my embraced, and I liked them. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, I used to love him—those was the person I followed in my days. Now, my sister one time took me to see James Brown, and I didn’t know who he was, and I said, “I ain’t gonna see nobody singing shit about pay your ass and let’s go,” so we went and when I saw James Brown on stage and the things he does, I said, “Wow! I wanna be like that!” And when I’m not doing Charles Bradley, I normally end up doing James Brown, but thanks to Tommy, he pulled me away from doing that. He ain’t stopping me, but he want me to be me, and I respect that.
How did you guys first meet? Do you remember that?
CB: That was Staten Island, at a rehearsal.
TB: Oh yeah. It was at a Dirt Rifle rehearsal on Staten Island, and Gabe brought Charles out there first. Gabe and Neal had just finally accepted a demo from me and the guys from Staten Island—Daptone had maybe just got the house, but first they had to tear it down and rebuild it. That’s probably why they said they would make a record with us, so that we would help them [laughs].
So we just started shuttling out to Brooklyn every day, helping them tear the house down. And then they were like, “We Like your band, but we don’t need another instrumental band,” because they had the Mighty Imperials record that never came out on Desco, and that was planned to be the first Daptone thing—they were gonna reissue that. I think they had found Charles and recorded him over a track with the Sugarman 3, and they said, “We have this singer but we don’t have a band for him.” So Gabe brought Charles down to our rehearsal, and that was the first time we met.
And we started playing gigs as that unit. We made a couple of singles, and we played a bunch of shows. Those were wild shows on Staten Island, back in the day. I mean, there’s a bunch of white suburban kids seeing Bradley for the first time, which was pretty fuckin’ special. We all loved Wu-Tang, but hip-hop is a lot different from what this is about.
CB: What was that first song we made, Tommy?
TB: We had a couple, man. We had “This Love Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”—
CB: That’s right. That’s what I was thinking about.
TB: —and we had “Can’t Stop Thinking About You Baby.” These were Daptone 45s. The most memorable thing that I remember from that [first] night actually is really funny. We were a small band, with drums, bass, guitar and percussion—our friend Dane played percussion—and none of us had ever played with a singer before. We had, but it wasn’t a good singer. It was like hearing your friends rap, and then being in a room with Raekwon and he starts to rap. It’s like, “Oh my God.” So we’re playing our funky music, which we’re working hard at, and we really want to play this style—this Meters, James Brown, Dyke & the Blazers kind of stuff—and so when Charles showed up, we all felt a little nervous. His reaction was important to us. For me anyway, I was like, “Man, I hope he’s feeling this.”
And I just remember seeing Bradley just gradually getting comfortable. First his legs started moving, and then his hips started moving, and he just started doing the Bradley dance—it’s not strictly dancing, because he’s listening to the music but his hips are swaying. And that for me was this immediate sense of credibility. Suddenly the three of us actually have a little bit of credibility playing this music if Charles is feeling it.
I wanted to ask you specifically about a few songs. “Golden Rule” is definitely one. How did that come together, instrumentally and lyrically?
TB: I remember musically we needed a fast song on the record, right? The whole record is mid-tempo and slow, which is the whole point of this music for me, and why I started making it. It’s kind of a rejection of the fast Budos songs and fast Sharon songs—just chilled out music. But we needed a fast song, so me and Homer and Nick wrote that together. There’s nothing really special, but it does go through a bunch of cool changes. Within the two minutes and thirty seconds, there’s a heavy BREAKdown with the horns that’s influenced by the Superlatives—it’s a nod to this record that I really love called “I Don’t Know How To Say I Love You.” And then when Bradley came in, lyrically he had the whole thing.
CB: It’s like, when they say everybody’s going scatter-brained, they don’t know what the heck they’re doing and they’re hurtin’ one another, and you tell them to go back to the Golden Rule. Go back to the Golden Rule to find the truth, and then live life, you understand? That’s the way I feel it when I sing that song.
TB: Only Bradley could say that, man. I do remember working on it and having no idea what the words were gonna be, and we would spend hours—we would spend a whole day, just me and Bradley, working on these songs. We’d listen to it, we’d fuck around and throw ideas around, and then we would just talk—just to get into something and find some content and substance for the song. And I remember at one point he said, “Go back to the Golden Rule,” and I stopped the tape and was like, “What did you just say?” And after a beat I was like, “Oh my God, that’s fuckin’ sick.” I’m just running around in my little apartment telling my roommates, and I knew that was it [laughs]. It’s the baddest lyric.
That just reminded me of something too, because the horns on the whole album—I don’t know if you may have been influenced by this or not, but there’s a Jamaican studio sound to the horns, like a Studio One sound.
TB: I was gonna say that. It’s definitely not a—it’s more because of the lo-fi-ness of the recording more than anything else, and maybe Leon’s melodies. They’re pretty mixed up in terms of influences, like Derrick Harriott and Alton Ellis—I mean, I could name a ton of them—but it’s never a thoughtful thing with us. It just comes across like that.
It’s the same thing with the tape, where Charles’ voice is all distorted because the needle is pinned—the horns are completely distorted sometimes because of that too. And that tape distortion adds a lot of that flavor. The horn lines on that song in particular are awesome, man. I was kind of pushing them in an Ethiopian direction because I was heavy into Mulatu Astatqe. It’s tenor [sax] and trumpet, and him and Dave will sometimes flip the harmonies where the trumpet will take the low part and the tenor will be on top, and that gives it more of a reggae feel, because it will usually be an alto playing something really high on a reggae song—or two tenors.
So sometimes we play around with the harmonies to get that feeling, but really, that’s just going for what the song needs. If it sounds like another influence, it’s definitely there, but at this point we’re just trying to make it sound sweet. It doesn’t come from intention. It’s just whatever suits the groove, and in this case [“Golden Rule”] the groove was simple and kind of dark mood, and at the time was trying to put an Ethiopian flavor on everything.
When it came to recording your vocals, did you have a preference for a particular microphone?
CB: Tommy just set me up and he’d say, “Sounds good.” He always set me with a good mic. See, he got a ear for quality. When he hear something that’s good, he say “Wow!” and called me in to listen to it. One time I was in the room while he was recording me, and I didn’t like what I was singing. He’d say, “Sing it!” and I was saying, “Nah, I just don’t like that.” But I’d do it and finish it, and then he’d say, “Come in here,” and I’d say, “Wow!” I didn’t like the way—I was mad because he wanted me to do it that way, and I was stubborn about it. Finally I said, “Okay, I’m a do it your way,” and after I heard it I said, “Tommy, you’re right.”
Was it the 57 [mic] that you might have used?
TB: Probably the 58. I don’t think we used the 57—I don’t know. I mean, there’s not really any difference at all between the two. It’s just whatever’s laying around. And we still do [use those mics]. Even if people loan me fancy microphones, I just prefer the way Charles’ voice sounds on a 57 or a 58. Gear is just there to get the job done. We spend so much more [energy] on the songwriting and getting the performance and all that, I really don’t believe in the gear helping too much. As long as there’s a tape machine, it’s cool.
One more thing on “Golden Rule,” just to round it up: the last thing we put on that was the backup vocals, which are pretty cool—it was the Gospel Queens. Unfortunately one of them had throat surgery, so I called in Sharon and she sang the middle voice on “Golden Rule” and “Why Is It So Hard?” And that was also with the absence of Cliff Driver, who did lots of the arranging on the backup vocals for the entire record. He couldn’t make it to that session because he was having knee surgery, so I had to do my best. But I think they sound cool. There’s a little bit of an Impressions influence in there.
Can you tell me too about the title song, “No Time For Dreaming”?
CB: It’s time to wake up. That’s all it’s telling you. Like myself, I’m a dreamer. I know I’m a dreamer. And now I see reality in front of me unfolding. And so I’m telling peoples that who dreams a lot, and a chance come in front of you, it’s unfolding. So it’s not no time to keep dreaming. Bring it to reality, open it up and let’s just keep going. That’s where “No Time For Dreaming” is coming from—that’s my part of it and how I feel about it.
TB: That song has an awesome story though because it’s an unreleased Joe Quarterman song. That’s the guy who did “I Got So Much Trouble On My Mind,” you know? A friend of mine named Dave Griffiths is a DJ and he goes way above and beyond the call of DJ duty. He hunts down old musicians and old records and just tries to dig up unreleased music, which Daptone puts out. The Bob & Gene stuff is a Dave Griffiths discovery. DJs have so much to do with all the music we listen to, and they’re such a big influence on us. And that song is from a reel that Dave brought us that was too wobbly to release. It never came out, so it was Dave’s idea for us to do it with Charles. Me and Homer and Leon knocked that out on drums, guitar and organ live, and I think I overdubbed the bass.
We changed the original version a little bit. His version was actually kind of ’70s, and our intention was to take it back a few years and make it a late ’60s kind of thing in our imagination.
CB: The part I like is “Dream while you’re sleeping / Time slowly creeping / Wake up / Open up your eyes before it’s too late.” That’s [what] really stuck. Yes.
TB: Yeah, that’s an awesome song. And it was great, I got to talk to Joe Quarterman years later when it was about to come out, and we asked him for approval. We played it for him and he loved it and he thought Bradley sounded great singing it, and he was happy to have the song see the light of day. He wrote it back in 1974 or something crazy like that, and here it is. It’s really cool, man.