Against the grain -- The ultra-weirdness of Montreal's Bran Van 3000
by C.J. O'Connor
in eye, 12 juin 1997
Just another day up in the heights of eye Manor: crack the jewel case open; cackle evilly at its contents. Seven Mary Three? A decorative potholder ye shall be. Matchbox 20? Me thinks we're low on ale coasters. And oh, how merrily we chortled at this one -- at the airbrushed-van grade graphics (briefly, a naked woman on a tree stump surrounded by a lizard, a deer and a bunny rabbit), at the name (Bran Van 3000??!) and at the thought of anyone covering "Cum On Feel The Noize" this late in the 20th century. But then we did an unusual thing. We played the album...
Imagine an explosion in Play De Record. Picture wailing soulstresses, banging breakbeats, lo-fi Beckness and country weirdness. You can't begin to comprehend the way these Montrealers recorded our cosmos. The servants were feeding us laudanum for days, we tell you.
Bran Man! That's one wigged-out record you've got there!
"Well, it was summer and it was in my living room," says the head Bran of the recording sessions, "so it was an open door policy and word kinda spread around. Whatever instrument you played, whatever style you were into, you could just drop in on us. Maybe we'd started a jungle track and say, Jayne [Hill, a country singer] came by that day. Well, we'd toss in some funny country lines and turn it into Jungle & Western. There was absolutely no agenda at all."
Bran Van 3000 dilated out of control to engulf 20 different artists -- producers, rappers, soul divas, clodhoppers, ambulatory schizophrenics. Martha Wainwright dropped by, John Kastner put in his two bits and nobody -- hosanna! -- informed that dude in Men Without Hats. The end result of all this was Glee, an album utterly unlike anything anyone (least of all Bran Man) could've envisioned.
"This osmosis of stuff I love ended up sounding nothing like how I'd expected it to. But really, every single element on that album is from something I love. I love country, I love glam, I love hip-hop and I love storytelling. I mean, I'm a huge Tom Waits fan and I know that any time I'm feeling a little dry creatively, I just listen to Curtis Mayfield. So if James Brown gets his thing from God, then I get mine from James Brown thru Curtis."
Evidently, James, Curtis, the Deity or some configuration of the Trinity was listening. Curtis/James/ God shuffled his feet, gave a heartfelt 'WAAAIIEE!!' and suddenly Bran Van's "Drinking In L.A." started charting in Montreal and Toronto. And not on the K-ROQ knockoffs, either. No, these three-and-a-half minutes of high weirdness with a breakbeat went Top 20 on Energy 108. This state of affairs may change, however, once the inflatable shoe set gets a load of the live show. "It'd be great to take this thing live and make it a great spectacle," Bran Man enthuses. "Right now there's nine of us onstage, but hopefully in a year we can blow it up into Parliament Meets The Pixies. So far, we've just got a collection of Mexican carpets we thumbtack to the wall..."
Mexican carpets? "Yeah, you find 'em in gas stations in L.A. You know: deer, women with panthers, Elvis. And since our video we've gotten these great orange jumpsuit uniforms we might use..."
Like the ones guys on death row wear?
Bran Man starts, awestruck: "They wear those?"
He emits a small sound of dismay: "Man, I can't see Mumia Abu Jamal in one of those things..."
Orange jumpsuits or no, Bran Van 3000 are headed this way with their video, their weird little radio hit, their black velvet deer portraits and their Moulinex appreciation of musical history and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. This summer, the reigning equation is: a man... a bran... a van... pandemonium!
Bran Van 3000 play the El Mo upstairs Friday, June 13, 9 p.m.
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