© WoNo Magazine 2017
Following the show Gunther Brown gave at the Q-Bus in Leiden this spring, Wo. reached out to Pete Dubuc, singer and principle songwriter of Gunther Brown to do an interview. You find the result here.
As not all readers may be familiar with Gunther Brown, how would you like to introduce yourself?
- Gunther Brown is a largely unknown and equally unimportant americana/roots rock band from the northeasternmost United States. I write songs and sing and passably play rhythm guitar for the band. That’s my best sales pitch, right there.
Hearing about the band for the first time I’d expected that someone called Gunther Brown put a record out. That wasn’t the case. What is the inspiration or the idea behind the band’s name?
- I stole the name from my wife, actually. It’s her middle and last name. I always liked the sound of it, felt it suited the music we play and so we used it. We tried to think of something better but nothing ever came. It has resulted in a fair bit of confusion which has been humorous.
All members are of a certain age. How did you come together?
- Quite randomly, really. Derek, who plays drums, and I used to work together a long time ago along the way we picked up Chris (guitarist), having seen him play with someone else and then he was playing with Mark (bass) on another project and it all kind of came together at various points. Our newest guy, Joe, who plays harp and can do a bunch of other stuff, was known to us as well and we were glad he agreed to join us.
Your ages also suggest that there is musical past. What went on before Gunther Brown came about?
- I’ve only ever done Gunther Brown music. I came to playing pretty late, compared to most. I was 27 before finding the nerve to play and sing in front of someone. From there, I just started writing my own songs rather than learning to play popular songs. I think, right now, if I had to, I could play less than 3 cover songs. That just never interested me. I started right out trying to write. Derek has really just been in this band, also. The other guys have years of playing with various projects under their belts. Writing, playing … they’ve put in some work.
Your music finds itself somewhere between rock, country and alternative. Is this the music you like the best and in how far is it different from the music you grew up with?
- I think it’s the music I relate to the most. I’m not sure if it’s the music I like the most or not .. but it makes sense to me in terms of who I am and where I’m from. These were the sounds around me, most certainly. I grew up in a very religious situation and wasn’t allowed music outside of the religious realm until I was a teenager so I missed a lot of music in those early years. Once I could explore a little, I went with the popular rock stuff of the day that my peers were listening to. Guns n’ Roses .. bands like that. But when I heard the Beach Boys, I felt like there might be more out there I should be listening to. Living relatively close to Canada, Canadian bands like Blue Rodeo and Tragically Hip became big favourites as soon as I heard them. I think some of what we do in Gunther Brown is rooted there.
- When I’m writing music, I tend not to be listening to much music. It sort of becomes a dry spell and I’m just left with what’s in my head. I really don’t get locked in to listening to something or feeling influenced by something. It’s almost like you have to shut all the outside sounds off to let your inside voices do their work. In the year before North Wind, I was probably listening mostly to Jason Isbell, James McMurtry, Tragically Hip .. but a lot of other stuff, too. I listen to soul and hip-hop. I listen to everything but modern country, really.
On the (back)cover of your album ‘North Wind’ there is a monument. What is the band’s message as you are all standing in front of it in a deliberate way?
- That’s the monument that marks the spot of where the Battle of Norridgewock took place and so it was important to the album from that perspective. We went there to shoot for the Norridgewock video and it was a pretty moving moment to stand there. I think in some way, standing there with it was capturing that moment. That place is alive. Not because of the monument, the monument just tells us where we’re standing, it’s alive because of the memory of those who died there. It’s somber. But it’s also powerful and important. I want my standing there to be interpreted as “I know what happened here”. Prior to writing the song, I knew nothing of the story. Had never been taught about it. Standing there is a bit of saying, “ah-ha! I found you out. You didn’t pull one over on me.” The descendants of those murdered there still face issues of discrimination and inequality, today. It’s institutionalized. It permeates our culture. This story from so long ago was far from the end. It goes on today and we need to do better.
In Norridgewock you tell about a massacre to an Indian tribe that happened in the 1720s. An all but forgotten crime. What makes it so important to you to sing and tell about it now in the 20 tens?
- Well, it’s important to tell the story today because we still haven’t fixed it. Things aren’t magically better for Native Peoples. It doesn’t just go away. The more years we put between us and this event, the more willing we are to let it slide from memory. As the saying goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I could really go on forever about Norridgewock. I’m thankful the song came my way, and I have no idea why it did, but it has meant a lot to me and I’ve talked with people who’ve expressed their appreciation for it. That means so much to me.
- For a simple country song with sarcastic lyrics, I’d like to think there’s some good substance there. With the religious upbringing I had, the song really puts it all together. There’s this thing, when you’re an unwitting child participant of religion, where you’re half in and half out. You don’t really believe it, but if you get in a rough spot, you think well, it couldn’t hurt, let’s say a prayer! Like a get out of jail free card. Then, when it doesn’t come out the way you want, you can tell yourself that Jesus ain’t listenin’. And then to carry it all the way to today, as an atheist, the refrain is just what I believe. I really did want to add the choir and the gospel feel at the end, not out of disrespect or mocking but as a juxtaposition between the arrangement and the lyrics.
There is another side to ‘Jesus’. The song, together with ‘Old Man’, comes across as extremely personal to me as well. Both hold a story about breaking free from the (religious) past. It seems intentional that they are placed back to back on ‘North Wind’. How do I have to look at the lyrics? More as settling the score or as making an inventory of where you are now?
- The sequencing is definitely intentional. Jesus/Old Man is the most autobiographical section of the album. Old Man is entirely making an inventory of the current situation. I don’t usually agonize over lyrics all that much … what comes out, I usually feel, is what I was intended to say. On this one, I was far more deliberate about phrasing. I wanted to be very careful. I believe I ended up with a factual, unbiased picture of the relationship I have with my father. The song doesn’t place blame. There’s nothing about you messed this up or I messed this up .. it’s just, regardless of the blame, here’s where we are. I do believe it comes from us having differing religious views as I indicate in there lyrically but whose fault is that? There’s no blame pinned here. It’s just where we are.
We discussed politics after the show in Leiden for a while. A song like ‘Jesus Ain’t Listening Tonight’ could cause your career harm in the polarised world the U.S. has become. What makes you tell this story, this somewhat mocking tale, despite of this possibility?
- My cynical answer is - there are still more of us than there are of them! I’m joking, of course … (but it’s true) … no, I don’t like the us/them thing. I think you have to be honest in your work. If you lose some people, so be it. But I have to say, people give you some creative freedom and even if they don’t agree with you, they can often get past it. I think delivery is everything. The song isn’t mean spirited, it’s very tongue in cheek. Lots of people can see that. So, first, I try to give the listener credit to be able to accept it as art and not as something they have to agree with. We had a show in Doetinchem where there was a very disapproving older lady in the crowd at the beginning of that song. By the end, everyone was clapping and singing along, and she couldn’t help herself from joining in. She didn’t lose her faith … she didn’t renounce her god in that moment, she accepted it for what it was and we’re all better for it. I loved that moment. I want her to have her faith if that works for her. That’s great. But I want her to have fun with us, too!
- Man, everyone is so different. Some people may have business things in mind, wanting to toe the line and not turn away listeners. Others maybe don’t think it’s their place or might even be afraid to be challenged on their opinions. I think the biggest reason is probably because it’s difficult. It’s difficult to write about current events and have it be able to be timeless at the same time. You could write some songs and have them be outdated by the time the record comes out. It’s a fine balance and it is really hard to do. To keep your art intact and stay true to the quality you demand from your music while also speaking literally about current events is an extremely challenging proposition. I think I have the nerve to try. I’m not too worried about what people think. I’ve got a few songs in the works that speak to where we are today. I hope I can finish them in a way that makes it good music in addition to an important statement. It might not happen, but I’ll be making an attempt.
In the chorus of the opening song ‘What’s Left’ you present someone with a(n ethical) choice: either run or do the right thing and make it whole. What or who are you addressing here?
- Talking to myself for sure. I like to do that. Some of the songs I write are just me beating up myself. It’s really about not quitting. We’re given so many opportunities to either quit or to move forward. Maybe daily, we have to make that decision internally. The verses here are set up as the excuses and the chorus is the admonition. The song (Don’t Forget To) Don’t Go is really from the same genre. Chiding myself for not really giving it everything I’ve got. Trying to teach myself how to ditch the excuses.
There are several distinct moods and musical styles between the songs. Do the lyrics determine this or is the music there first?
- It’s always music first. The music dictates the mood and the mood dictates the lyrics. A lot of times I’ll have the melody and just play with that over and over until lyrics start coming. On North Wind, Mark brought some musical pieces which became For A Night and Swampland, and that was the first time I’ve done any co-writes. It was a whole new way of getting into it but it worked out okay because I’m always music first anyway. It felt very natural.
When it comes to songwriting and arranging, what are the roles within Gunther Brown and is the end result sometimes surprising to what was started off with?
- Things have been changing a bit here. Typically, I would bring a finished song to the rest of the guys .. finished as in lyrics and melody .. and then everyone would start to develop their parts. At that point it’s very collaborative. Now, with other guys starting to bring in some bits of music, unfinished ideas, the collaboration starts earlier in the process. It’s still the same general idea though, everyone spends time with it and we work it out in a group setting and get parts locked in. It’s a true band, nobody tells anyone else what to play. You parts are your own. That’s important to me. That’s what gives a group its “sound”.
The band is from Portland, Maine. In what way, if at all, does your environment influence your music?
- I’m not sure how environment influences work. It’s impossible to isolate that, I think. Harsh winters take their toll on you in a number of ways. The drudgery of them, the promise of spring, the rush to do the work or recreation you need to do before winter’s return. Winter has been my arch nemesis. Seasonal depression is a real thing. Other than climate, Maine is a very blue collar place, lots of fishing and working in the woods. I think everything is just subconsciously influenced by these things.
On stage you were with five on record with four. What is the story here?
- We bumped up to five players for some added versatility. The New Guy, Joe, can do a lot of different things and gives us the ability to diversify sounds from song to song. Have a little more going on and fill out the sound. Joe has been with us for a year or so now. He’s a writer, singer, player and energetic performer. Has been a great fit. After our return from The Netherlands, our guitarist Chris retired from the band and we’re currently working as a four piece.
You toured The Netherlands for the first time this spring. How did the country agree with you?
- We had a great time on stage and off and other than one or two of the shows, they were well attended, we met a lot of nice folks and were well received. The cost and logistics of bringing a full band overseas to play small shows are big challenges, but if those things can be worked out, we would love to return. We were in love with the polite, listening audiences. Sometimes over here you get used to being background music or a side note to alcohol consumption. It’s always wonderful to play and be heard. I’m really hopeful to return.
What are Gunther Brown’s plans for the coming period?
- We’ll be spending some time working on new material. We’ve got some ideas to start hammering out. It has been a while since we’ve been able to hunker down on that creative side of things so it will be exciting to see what comes out of that. From there, we’re likely to start on making a new record. A band of our stature never really knows if there will be another opportunity to make another record so when you start heading in that direction again it feels pretty good. It’s both exciting and terrifying. Like life.