Taking it to the streets: Homer Steinweiss (far left), Mike Deller, Leon Michels, Dave Guy, Thomas Brenneck
Photo: Parsley Steinweiss
Being the guitarist for Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and The Budos Band, Thomas Brenneck doesn't get much down time. Although on the days in recent years when he wasn't touring/recording with the aforementioned acts, Brenneck was actually home at his Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment fulfilling his production desires and developing a group of his own. That act is the instrumental soul providers known as the Menahan Street Band.
Long before this group's debut album, Make the Road by Walking (Daptone/Dunham, 2008), was even a wrap, their 2006 single of the same name unexpectedly thrust them into the spotlight. “Make the Road by Walking,” which features a balance of lively horns and cool vibraphone sounds, proved to be timeless enough for Diddy's production team The Hitmen to sample the song. In turn, the Menahan loop made its way onto one of the biggest songs of 2007: Jay-Z's “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).”
“It's like a needle in a haystack that the record got sampled,” Brenneck says. “It had been out only for a year, only on vinyl — it wasn't even on iTunes, any kind of CD or any other format but vinyl, so it was pretty insane. All of a sudden we had some credential behind the name.”
But amid the excitement, the jolt in exposure hardly affected the direction of the record; the core of the Menahan Street Band remained about the freedom of songwriting and experimenting with instruments that Brenneck would normally never get a chance to record. He summoned the assistance of friends from some of the groups that he's a part of (The Dap-Kings, Budos Band) as well as others (Antibalas and El Michels Affair). But as he wrote the record with assistance from organist Mike Deller (Budos Band), he wasn't trying to completely depart from the bands he plays with.
“This was a chance for me to keep the same integrity of soul music, 'cause that's a love of mine,” Brenneck says, “but [also to] push the boundaries a little bit and experiment and record something that I wasn't even concerned about doing live, whether it was adding vibraphones or just coming up with some weird sounds that we wouldn't have to worry about duplicating.”
One technique Brenneck implemented for the first time on Make the Road by Walking was doubling instruments, such as coupling a Musser vibraphone with a mini glockenspiel to create psychedelic layers under the music. The trick he's most proud of, though, is how he took a vintage Harmony H74 guitar and learned to strum it unconventionally.
“The bridge is wood, so when you pluck the strings below where you're supposed to strum it, there's maybe four inches of space, and on most electric guitars you wouldn't even hear a sound — it would just sound like out-of-tune nonsense,” Brenneck says. “But because the guitar is completely made out of wood, the sound resonates. I don't know what inspired me, but I was always messing with that. And then I started to tune the guitar so that section of the guitar was actually being tuned and I would use it as an underlying element in the song.”
While the aforementioned technique was used on about a fourth of LP's tracks, one element Brenneck kept consistent was recording in analog. With songs like the dub-leaning “Montego Sunset,” you can hear the raw, lo-fi resonance that he was shooting for by recording straight to an Otari MX-5050 ½-inch 8-track without any compressors.
“I just crunched the shit out of the tape,” Brenneck explains of the process. “That's another reason why I didn't want to record it at Daptone or somewhere [else], to just kind of fuck with the sound and actually record to tape and really crunch it up and see how far I can take it before it sounded terrible, but where it sounded really cool.”
In addition to making Menahan Street Band's debut a true bedroom project full of experiments, Brenneck's goal was to pay respect to the rare groove tunes released under labels like Desco and Soul Fire — ones that carried that “cracked-out” soul sound: “I love that aesthetic of recording where just hitting the tape really hard sounds amazing.”