“Vibe is a quintessential element in what I’m going for,” says Menahan Street Band co-founder, multi-instrumentalist and producer Thomas Brenneck. “Vibe, mood and emotion.”
Those three elements are all over The Crossing, the second full-length offering from The Menahan Street Band, and the follow-up to 2008’s oft-sampled Make The Road By Walking. From the opening drum roll of the ominous title track, through the final burst of wah-wah guitar on the closing “Ivory and Blue,” The Crossing takes you on a cinematic instrumental journey through a nocturnal landscape of moods and emotions, propelled by funky, hip-hop-influenced grooves and dream-like horn and keyboard melodies. Despite The Menahan Street Band’s deep connections to the Brooklyn soul scene — The MSB backed Charles Bradley on his acclaimed 2011 album No Time For Dreaming, and its members have played and recorded with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Antibalas, The El Michels Affair and The Budos Band, to name a few — The Crossing isn’t soul music per se… it’s more like “dark night of the soul” music.
“I recorded a lot of it from midnight until the sun came up, all the weird synthesizers and slide guitar,” says Brenneck, who crafted The Crossing at Dunham Sound Studios, the all-analog recording studio he built in Brooklyn with Menahan Street Band drummer and co-founder Homer Steinweiss. “For some of the songs, I would record the whole thing to a drum machine with bass, guitar and whatever weird instruments I could find, and have Homer come in and put drums to it afterwards. A lot of it was really moody, just me going slightly out of my head in the middle of the night. And that was the mood I wanted to evoke when people listen to it, to put them in deep thought — your mind should wander into some weird places when you’re listening to this. My mind was definitely wandering into some very strange places,” he laughs.
While the tracks on Make The Road By Walking tended to be short and punchy, The Crossing shows the band stretching out and weaving a hypnotic spell. “Most of the songs are four or five minutes,” Brenneck explains. “They’re much more thought-out, and really let the mood and the emotion develop over a four or five minute space. Whenever I work on instrumental music, I always like to have a climax for the song; when you have four or five minutes to do that, you can really take your time hitting the peak, and then come down from that peak. It’s great driving music!”
Recorded over a period of nearly two years, The Crossing is a sonic testament to the fruitful creative relationship that exists between Brenneck, Steinweiss, bassist Nick Movshon, trumpeter Dave Guy and tenor saxophonist Leon Michels, the five of whom have been playing together in one project or another since the early 2000s, when they were all members of The Dap-Kings. (Antibalas keyboardist Victor Axelrod, a former Dap-King himself, played organ on two of the album’s tracks, while The Budos Band’s Mike Deller contributed piano.)
“I feel like Tommy has a real vision for this stuff — it’s a personal project, kind of like his studio baby,” Steinweiss explains. “Sometimes Tom will just say to me, ‘Hey, play drums for four minutes,’ and then I’ll go off on tour, and he’ll take the drum track and cut it up a bit, and he’ll be in the studio ‘til five in the morning layering it with all these crazy guitars and organs. And then he’ll have Dave and Leon come in, and within a half hour they’ll have written the whole melodic thing. Tommy really oversees it from beginning to end — but as much as it’s his thing, it’s very collaborative. It’s not like, ‘This is the horn part, this is the drum part, this is the song.’ He’s letting us play what we want, and he’s capturing it.”
“Jared Tankel from The Budos Band plays baritone sax on ‘Sleight of Hand,’ and Cochemea Gastelum from The Dap-Kings is playing flute on that track as well,” says Brenneck. “But otherwise, it’s just Dave and Leon doing the horns — and they’re phenomenal, I can’t say enough about them. At this point, it’s so easy; I’ll just play them the rhythm track, sing them my ideas, and they’ll immediately have their own ideas. It’s just magic — the horn lines they write for Menahan are just so melodic!”
But there’s considerable experimentation at work in the grooves of The Crossing, as well. “The Crossing” and “Every Day A Dream” — the two tracks Brenneck considers to be “the twin pillars of the record” —both feature a ukulele as the lead instrument, with Brenneck plucking the strings instead of strumming them to create an ethereal, almost harp-like sound.
“I went to a music store, picked up a ukulele — never played a ukulele before — got in the back of a van, drove from Portland to wherever the hell the next Dap-Kings gig was, sat in the back of the van and wrote three songs on the ukulele,” Brenneck remembers. “And it was just like, ‘Man, this fucking instrument’s amazing — and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in this context before!’ I could totally hear a Wu-Tang song — and to me, that’s what ‘The Crossing’ is, with a ukulele completely out of context. I didn’t know what kind of chords I was playing; it was a new instrument to me, but that freedom allowed me to write. That’s just the freedom of the whole band: ‘I wrote a bunch of songs on the ukulele!’ ‘Okay!’ Everybody’s down, because we’re trying to challenge ourselves to do different kinds of music.
“Originally MSB was just about us wanting to make some music for ourselves that was outside of the tight-knit formula of the music we were playing in the Dap-Kings and Antibalas, and wanting to embrace the fact that we grew up on hip-hop and classic rock,” he continues. “There’s a discipline that goes into playing Fela’s music, and that goes into playing James Brown music; we love that to death, and we studied it hard in order to be able to play it with any sort of authenticity. But I love Neil Young, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, and we all love Wu-Tang and the early RZA productions as much as we all love Stax and Motown. With MSB, we can get outside that tight-knit box of soul, and really let all these influences show.”
“Lights Out,” which features an autoharp and strings, is another result of Brenneck’s desire to push the musical envelope. “I was dating a girl who played the autoharp,” he says. “She left her autoharp at the studio one day, and I picked it up. It’s an amazing freedom to have an instrument that’s simple to play, but you don’t really know what you’re doing with it. I strummed a couple chords, and Homer was like, ‘That’s the shit — let’s record it!’ That song is also the only one on the record that has strings on it, which really adds a cinematic flavor to it. That was the first time I’ve ever hired a three-piece string section and recorded it; we’ve played on records where someone else put strings on after the fact, but it was really cool for Homer and I to be able to do that for one of our songs, especially because it’s so different from a soul song that you would hear strings on, like an Al Green song. This song was just an autoharp and a drum beat — and we put some strings on top of it!”
The Crossing’s more mature and expansive sound is also the result of the place where it was recorded. Brenneck and Steinweiss built Dunham Sound Studios four years ago, funded by a royalty check they received after Jay-Z sampled the title track of Make The Road By Walking for his 2007 hit, “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)”. While Make The Road’s funky beats caught the ear of more than a few prominent members of the hip-hop community — 50 Cent and Kid Cudi sampled the song “The Traitor,” and Cee-Lo Green subsequently enlisted MSB for assistance with his single “Georgia” — it was the Jay-Z sample that allowed Brenneck and Steinweiss to create a studio space where they could fully chase their muse 24/7.
“Homer and I made the first Menahan record together, and when it got sampled by so many people, it just reinforced what we were doing,” Brenneck explains. “And so we were like, ‘Let’s take the next step and build a studio — we already have an incredible house band!’ We started Dunham Records, with Menahan Street Band being the house band for it. The beauty of Dunham is that we’re never on the clock; it’s never like, ‘Oh, we’re spending so much money in here!’ There’s a looseness to it that opens up all the creative doors. If we have a night and it’s a bust, and we don’t get a song out of it, it’s really no big deal; we’ll be hard on ourselves, like, ‘Oh man, what’s up with that?’ But it’s not like, ‘Oh man, we just cost ourselves a thousand dollars!’ We never have to worry about that.”
“Mark Ronson uses our studio a lot,” adds Steinweiss. “The Rufus Wainwright record, Out of the Game, all the rhythm tracks were done here, and Mark’s Record Collection album was done here, and a bunch of random outside projects were done here. But The Crossing is the first full-length album that was all recorded here by us, for us, and we’re really proud of that. It kind of defines our studio sound.”
“It’s such a talented group of people,” Brenneck reflects. “Everybody in MSB can play multiple instruments, so we have a ton of fun swapping instruments. Homer can play guitar, he can play the bass, he can play the banjo. Nick is like the best bass player around town, but the first thing he does when he walks into a room where there’s instruments set up is jump on the drum kit. I’m the same way with a piano; and though Leon’s a phenomenal saxophone player, if there’s an organ in the room, he’ll be playing that first. And the cool thing about it being a studio band is that, if we find the magic while we’re all on different instruments, we just press record.
“There’s a freedom to that that you sometimes lose when you get too formulaic, or too locked into everybody playing what they’re ‘supposed’ to play,” he concludes. “And that freedom is so vital to the sound of Menahan, to the songwriting, and everything else.”