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Non-Prog Interviews

Brain Surgeons

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Brain Surgeons' Deborah Frost
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but your role in the business seems to be pretty large: Vocalist, publicist, manager, label mogul. You seem to wear a lot of hats. Do you think that this is a unique place to be -- in general or as a woman in a generally male dominated business?
Well, you asked to be corrected. I'm not a publicist. We have a very small company and share whatever has to be done. I may oversee what goes out publicity-wise, simply because as a journalist who dealt with the best-- and the worst-- publicists in the biz for 25 years, I have some experience with how I'd like things to be. And Albert may supervise, more closely, those details with which he's had more expertise--- from mic placement in the studio to mixing specifics that I have a lot less patience with. But everything is a team effort, including writing and playing. I certainly wouldn't characterize myself primarily as a vocalist, as you do. I'm as much a songwriter, and I've been forced to become a much better musician. I could afford to get lazy about my guitar playing because I had these great guys to do it for me. That isn't the case any more. In fact, both Pete and Billy were around only sporadically for "Piece of Work", so I just had to do it. Live, I am the guitar player now. It's a challenge. I never felt that I could sing the way I sing and play at the same time. And I don't know if I've ever seen too many people do it-- Robert Plant doesn't try to play the guitar. And of course we don't notice Jimmy Page singing... This definitely is a challenge. And I'm also playing bass on some songs, which I never realized I would enjoy so much. The band is a trio now, and we're experimenting with a lot of different approaches. It will be different and I am sure there will be rocky moments, as there were when we put the band together after Albert and I recorded our debut, Eponymous. What is really unfortunate is that the Brain Surgeons had really developed as a killer live show just before Billy got sick and the momentum we had been building ground to a halt. During the long lay-off, Pete decided he was quitting music completely, sold all of his equipment, without even telling us. He also got married and had a child-- which, I suppose, in his mind, doesn't seem compatible with playing. It is really a shame, because he's an incredible musician, but it's his life, he has a lot of issues to work out, and he was never really that comfortable performing live, anyway. If he changes his mind or if Billy miraculously feels better, we would be thrilled to have them. But after two years, we have to get back out there, and Albert, David and myself, are really enjoying playing together in a way we didn't before.
And to get back to your original question about wearing a lot of hats-- most women I know wear even more. They juggle more children, more complicated households, inflexible careers or demanding bosses. What I do is not so atypical. But as to the music industry, it has more women now than certainly when I began...but reality is that it is still, like just about every other business, controlled by white men. During the years I have been involved, I have seen women who were once literally relegated--for years, despite doing ALL of the work for which their bosses got credit---to the receptionist and secretary desks (where they would also frequently be lunged at by the visiting "talent."). Now that they are VPS, they (and the many capable women who work for or with them) are no longer subject to the outright groping and in some ways, the workplace is a more civilized environment. However, the ultimate decisions (and the real bonuses) are made by the male CEOs, who control the huge corporations that have bought all their companies up.
MSJ: What kind of advice can you give to people trying to break into this business?
I think that the bottom line has to be that you have to have something to say and you must be driven by the sheer desire to express it, not some kind of glittery reward, You should not expect other people to pick up the tab and if you do, you should recognize that they will not necessarily have your best interests at stake, only their financial one. If you really have something to offer, build your own following. Educate yourself--both in the traditional sense and in terms of music history and business, which is more about total exploitation rather than shiny fortunes. If you're a writer, join ASCAP, an organization I heartily recommend. They have a lot of useful programs. If you're a woman, there are other organizations, like Women in Music, and magazines like ROCKRGRL, which offer motherlodes of support and information. Forget about "overnight success." There is no such thing.
MSJ: You seem to have a very versatile vocal presence -- among other things I have heard influences as far reaching as Patti Smith and Janis Joplin. Who would you consider to be your influences?
As a singer, I am not influenced at all by Patti Smith. The only thing that we may have in common is that we probably heard a lot of the same soul music and Rolling Stones. Janis Joplin probably had a much greater effect upon me at a very impressionable age but it was also the first time that I heard a white woman sing the blues and express that degree of pain, which I also identified very strongly with. People sort of assume that because one is a woman that your greatest models are women. I disagree but not because, like Patti Smith and others of that ilk, I don't consider myself a feminist. I'm proud to identify myself as a feminist-- but the rock vocalists who influenced me most are people who are much more versatile than either Patti Smith or Janis Joplin, people who could write and sing a lot of different kinds of songs-- like Lennon and McCartney. Mick Jagger, in his prime, used several different voices, so does Robert Plant. I love Joni Mitchell's songs and singing, although no one ever compares me to her. Instead, I get Chrissie Hynde-- I think it's more the hair do than the music, although again, obviously Chrissie Hynde and I grew up loving a lot of the same music. A lot of R&B artists had a tremendous influence on me-- in terms of singing and writing--most of the Motown artists, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. As a singer, Aretha Franklin is probably my favorite of all time. Albert likes to tease me that my major influence was Fanny, who he considers total musical lightweights. They were simply the first group of women I saw doing what I'd wanted to do since I first saw the Beatles when I was 9 or 10 and none of my little girl friends had the slightest interest in having a band. But I also shared a youthful affinity for the Blues Project, which had a huge influence on Albert and Buck Dharma--in college, they were a Blues Project cover band. The kid who sat next to me in sixth grade and taught me how to play "Wipe Out" on the desk took piano lessons from Danny Kalb's mother. The Blues Project were our heroes for awhile, and a Rascal went out with another classmate's big sister. So those are just other ingredients that go into the main stew and simmer, and after a long while it comes out with a unique and hopefully tasty flavor of its own.
MSJ: Are there any musicians with whom you would like to work?
I'm working with one of the greatest musicians-- Albert is not only a phenomenal drummer, who's always improving, he knows more about arranging, certainly, writing, and most aspects of playing and recording than almost anyone I've ever met, and that includes some of the so-called biggest stars in the business. The depth of his knowledge constantly amazes me. And anyone who works with him would agree. If things present themselves in a natural way, there are certainly people with whom I'd like to work. But if the situation is forced-- just like when you're set up for a date, even when your best friend is doing the introducing-- it never works. Things have to develop naturally.
MSJ: When you play live, do you do any of the old BOC songs?
If you are referring to songs that Albert wrote earlier in his career, of course we play them. A better question might be why the band that tours as BOC irregardless of who's playing on any given night so heavily relies on the material and contributions of someone who's been gone for almost 2 decades. But why shouldn't Albert play songs that meant enough to him to write them? His fans love to hear him perform them because it's something they've really missed. In some cases, "Death Valley Nights," for instance, these are really special songs for very dedicated and knowledgeable fans who appreciate hearing something that was never or rarely performed live ever. In some cases, Albert feels that the songs were never done justice on record-- which may be due to a poor choice of producer or a rushed recording schedule or compromises that were made to appease colleagues at the time. It's a chance to get it right now or to re-interpret them. Bob Dylan never does anything the same way twice. It's not that extreme. But there's a unique opportunity to fix something that really might have been broke. Then there are songs, like "Cities on Flame" or "Dominance and Submission," that are just too much fun not to play. And people just really love hearing Albert play and sing them. And he does them better than ever. He's the rare rock musician who's really increased his chops and expanded his vocabulary, rather than so many performers who rely on the oldies are essentially going through the motions, and whose core audience has dwindled down to the faithful few who are basically there out of some nostalgia for their youth rather than to be challenged by anything new or demanding. These songs are just the icing, rather than the meat of the show. Times have changed, and the Brain Surgeons don't have the kind of corporate marketing muscle behind them that Albert's previous band was the beneficiary of, but those who have followed his career or find his new music the good old fashioned way, through word of mouth, appreciate that he's writing great stuff that continues to push the envelope. It makes for an unusually interesting audience.
MSJ: How is the new album being received?
It is being received well. It's a great album--actually two albums, so it's a lot of material. It takes a long time to digest. But anyone of any intelligence and taste who listens to it agrees it is great.
MSJ: What is next on the agenda -- tour, etc?
We've been rehearsing as a trio. Of course, if Billy is feeling better, we hope he will join us. Perhaps we will have other guests, like original Cult member Joe Bouchard, who's joined the Brain Surgeons live and on record in the past. We're in the process of putting together some dates now. Albert will be doing a one-off thing with Joe and Leslie West at the end of July. We're planning to go to Seattle and maybe do some other West Coast dates in the fall.
MSJ: Any spin-off projects in the works?
We are working on an album and a concert to honor the memory and music of Helen Wheels, who collaborated on many songs with both Albert and Joe Bouchard for Blue Oyster Cult and the Brain Surgeons. She passed away tragically and unexpectedly on January 17. Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser and his wife Sandy, who were close to Helen "back in the day" plan to participate in these projects, and hopefully Eric Bloom and Alan Lanier will, too. The Dictators, who were Helen's first back-up band, are on also on board already. Albert has discussed some other things with Donald Roeser, who's already contributed some guitar work to the next album of David Roter, who co-wrote songs like "Joan Crawford" and "Unknown Tongue" with Albert. Donald Roeser is an awesomely talented musician whose creativity and potential should not be untapped for so long.
MSJ: Where did the name for the band come from?
It's a little bit of a play on Patti Smith's brilliant lyrics for "Baby Ice Dog." And we thought my mother might be happier with a son-in-law who's a brain surgeon -- even if he does wear earrings.
MSJ: What is the last CD you bought/what are you listening to these days?
Everything
MSJ: What was the last concert that you attended?
Blue Oyster Cult at the Bottom Line
 
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