“In Rialto, the experience is different. I didn’t know I was Chicano until I came to L.A. They don’t have that sense of identity where I’m from; there is not that sense of community,” says Kevin Martin, guitarist and founder of Brainstory, contemplating his words slowly.
Brainstory is a three-piece band from the desert suburban sprawl of the Inland Empire and a town called Rialto, where the band members say there was nothing much to do. Kevin and his bassist brother Tony met future bandmate Eric Hagstrom at Riverside Community College, where they bonded over their love of jazz. They played whatever gigs they could find in their suburbanite town — mostly in coffee shops. Eventually, Hagstrom and the Martin brothers went their separate ways.
Later on, Kevin wrote and recorded what would become Brainstory's debut EP, Brainstory Presents: A Natural Phantasm, then roped in his brother Tony (who had played on the EP) and good friend Hagstrom (who had not) to come out and play his songs live at whatever shows they could find in East L.A. Within a couple years, they were performing their jazzy, surf rock–inspired tunes at clubs all over Los Angeles; their next show is at the Echo on May 9.
“My sister has a baby and they play her that first EP, and she tells my niece that’s her uncle playing, so now she thinks some other guy is her uncle,” says Hagstrom with a laugh, joking about not actually being on the first album. The band was never a plan, the drummer explains; it just kind of happened. “There was never really any huge calculation of what we were going to do. We just started doing shows and everything else came about.”
Brainstory’s new self-titled mini-album, out Friday, May 5, projects a glowing, Blue Note aura, highlighting the band's preference for improvising. Produced by Chicano Batman bassist Eduardo Arenas (who is also on the bill at Brainstory's Echo show), the album is an amalgam of Brainstory’s early jazz beginnings with a twist of surf rock. All three members point to Herbie Hancock's spacey jazz fusion explorations and the catchy pop tunes of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson as their biggest influences, but they also cite John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and many others.
The band all love jazz because, as Hagstrom puts it, “There’s no bullshit! When they play, they don’t even need words to say what they mean — it’s all in the music.”
This ethos of stripping down all the bullshit is heard in Brainstory’s new single, “Fruitless Trees,” an effervescent jazz-funk tune with dark undertones. Kevin, who wrote the song, says “Fruitless Trees” is about lust and how you can never pursue it to fulfill yourself. Lust is a fruitless endeavor, hence the title.
“The void can only be filled with real shit,” Kevin says. “We just want to write songs about the real stuff and strip away all the illusions of daily life.”
According to Kevin, “Fruitless Trees” is centered around three characters that symbolize different aspects of lust: how people look for love, how you’re attracted to a certain person, and how you might have sex with someone without feeling any real, fundamental connection.
“The song kind of just came out of me, I had these three characters written, and then I came back to the song, and I developed it further, and the song revealed itself to me,” Kevin says. “Music will definitely teach you things about yourself.”
The rest of the new mini-album is more of a collaborative effort than their first EP. This time around, Tony wrote many of the songs, a contrast from the first album, which was more centered on Kevin. Tony’s influences are more esoteric and include, he says, such things as “Impressionism and spacey colors.”
As for the sound of this particular album, the band cite Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and his lyrical wordplay, and gospel music. Tony and Kevin's father "was a gospel singer at an [Apostolic] church, so that speaks to me, because it is about invoking the spirit of God,” Kevin says.
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“My dad was hit up to sing all over,” Tony adds. “So we basically went to a bunch of churches, so we heard all the styles, but the main format was that Baptist style, improvising, holy rollers, fools speaking in tongue, and people singing that soulful style. Mexicans have a similar style that’s like the black Baptist churches."
When they play live, they like to break out and improvise; they see that their audience appreciates it. There are sections of songs they set aside for spontaneous jams, but sometimes they wing it on the spot and improvise where they usually don't.
“We like it spontaneous," Hagstrom says. "That's where the cool shit happens.”