Ed Said: Mike Brenner's Novel Approach to Country Heartache

Ed Said: Ramblings About Music, Arts, and Entertainment

Mike Brenner is a cynic at heart; at least when it comes to the music business.

"It’s hard not to be cynical about the music business," explains Brenner, talking about one of his former bands, The Low Road, that deserved national recognition but never got there, and explaining part of the impetus for his new project, Slo-Mo. "I told a friend of mine that I could get a good drum loop and a simple riff on my lap steel, with goofy lyrics like, ‘She’s a countr’, She’s a countr’, She’s a country girl’ and make it to radio."

As ludicrous as that might sound, that’s exactly what Brenner has done. Under the moniker Slo-Mo, Brenner’s newest project,Novelty, is a masterfully elegant techno-hootenanny that morphs dobro, lap steel, drum loops, and samples into something that appeals to club hoppers and back porch beer drinkers equally.

The concept for Slo-Mo, an unflattering nickname Brenner originally acquired during his high school basketball days, initially surfaced when Brenner’s band The Low Road was coming to an end in 1995, and he decided to really learn how to play the dobro. "I could see The Low Road was coming to an end, and picking up the dobro shifted my energies," say Brenner. "In some ways it was therapy."

"I was already playing a little dobro in a duo with John Train," explains Brenner. "I think I could have almost done Novelty immediately, with no skills whatsoever, because I really had the concept in mind. However, I knew that if I committed a certain amount of time to get really good at it this album concept would be worlds better. So I put the idea on the back burner and immersed myself in dobro, bluegrass, and all that stuff."

As Brenner continued to work on his chops, he found himself working with more bands eager for his slide skills — John Train grew into a full band featuring Brenner, and he also recorded or toured with Y’all, former Sun 60 singer Joan Jones and Marah. On top of playing, Brenner was busty producing records for John Train and The Kinfe and Fork Band, all the while letting Novelty simmer.

In the Fall of 1998, Brenner was asked to join Marah as the unofficial fifth member of the band, and at the same time he decided to start demo work on what would become Novelty. "I worked up three songs and started shopping around the demo," say Brenner. "Ironically, the same person who signed The Low Road to Caroline Records contacted me and said he was working for a group of producers, and that Mike Rothrock was interested in talking to me."

Best known for his work with Beck and R.L. Burnside, Rothrock was a perfect match for Brenner’s project. "I flew out to L.A., and just recorded lap steel and dobro for about three days with Mike and Beale Dabbs," explains Brenner.

With the initial Novelty sessions completed, Brenner began a cross-country correspondence with Rothrock and Dabbs, where they would flesh song ideas from Brenner’s recording and the mesh them with samples and drum loops. "It might sound strange, but it was a great way to work," say Brenner. "They would send me tapes, I would make recommendations. Then they would send the changes, and I would start writing songs around the music. The whole process took about a year, but the final product is a really good mix. There is one song that stayed exactly as it was on the original demo, other songs that were totally created from their sessions and some that are a mixture."

With Novelty completed, Brenner is getting ready to take the record out on the road, but that will have to wait for a while. Marah has been opening for Steve Earle most of the summer, and the band will soon be heading to Europe for five more weeks of shows. However, once Slo Mo hits the road, there will be a variety of options for Brenner. "The few shows we’ve played have been a traditional lineup with drums, bass, guitar and vocals from Johnny Irion who is on the record," says Brenner. "But when I go out on full tour, I’m thinking about just going out with just a DJ. The cool thing is the record gives me a lot of flexibility for live shows."

This feature originally appeared in MODE Magazine, September 14, 2000.
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Last modified on Sunday, August 30, 2015 • 6:44 pm

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