Songs from a Bushwick Room
Jackson Katz’s frontman project Brutus VIII is making waves bicoastally, with raucous live shows and a growing community of devotees. I sat down to chat with Jackson, aka Brutus himself, to discuss music, art, persona, and the counterculture.
After interviewing, and knowing, plenty of 20-something-punk-musicians in New York, I was prepared for the usual scene: a hungover face only vaguely remembering that they have an interview scheduled, a musty windowless apartment adorned in spray-paint, and a tour of the space culminating in a “studio” that amounts to a couple unplugged pedals and a knocked over bong. Imagine my surprise, when what greeted me, instead, was a neat and tidy home, a polite professional young artist, and a studio fit for a king… or at least one fit for Thom Yorke when he was 24.
I should have known. Despite Brutus VIII’s pageantry and chaotic energy, the music is organized and well-produced. Even while crowd surfing and moshing and spraying his writhing front row with champaign, Brutus is adorned in a crisp white suit, maintaining an illusion of both being in total control and having given in to total abandon, simultaneously.
“Can we start with a game?” I asked, sitting on his couch, and sipping from the glass of water he had offered me. “Let me guess some of your biggest influences.”
“Sure,” he said, positioning himself at the chair across from me.
“So, I’m pretty sure David Byrne, I think Arcade Fire, and a weird one that really came to mind, but I wasn’t sure about, is Jonathan Richman?”
“That’s so funny you said that!” he said, darting up and running towards his room. “I just saw Johnathan Richmond in LA!” Coming back in, he held out a Modern Lovers record adorned with a sloppily and droopily pretty signature that matched Mr. Richmond’s voice perfectly. “I got him to sign this! This is literally everything I’ve ever wanted.”
When not in Brutus VIII mode, Jackson is sweet and thoughtful, almost giddy as he discusses things he’s passionate about.
“I love David Byrne!” he continued, after very carefully placing the record on a nearby table. “I love Arcade Fire, but I don’t necessarily think of them when I’m making music.”
“How’d you get into music, originally?” I asked.
“I was a fat kid and not good at sports,” he explained, laughing. “Bad at school. I had a temper, and my mom was like, ‘here are some drums.’ I toured playing drums in both Slow Hollows and Current Joys… I started releasing stuff [under Brutus VIII] in 2018. I love [being on tour], [and] I’m trying to do an East Coast tour [for Brutus soon].”
“I was a fat kid and not good at sports.” “Bad at school. I had a temper, and my mom was like, ‘here are some drums.’”
“It seems like Brutus, as a band, is in flux, with different people joining in with you, depending on the set,” I said.
“I do a lot of solo sets, but have a full band set as well,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to figure out an in-between; a drummer, a kit, and myself.”
“How do you find people to play with?” I asked.
“Almost everybody I know is a musician. So, it’s never really difficult. It’s great to find some music-school-rippers… who can [do some of the technical lifting]. A lot of the people I like playing with—you’d never know because they’re charming and nice—but, they have a lot of rage. It’s repressed but [shines through during performing]. That’s what I do too.”
“Do you think Brutus serves as a kinda healthy outlet for that repressed anger?” I asked.
“I don’t know how intentional that was,” he said. “But it’s definitely what it’s become. As I do this, the shows get more and more cathartic and aggressive. I’m not any angrier than I was before, but I’ve gotten more comfortable going into full primitive mode.”
“Do audiences respond more, the more intense and emotional the performances get?” I asked.
“The performance is kind of polarizing,” he said. “I can tell the difference between someone who is super vibing and someone who’s just not that into it. Not to toot my own horn, but no matter what you think, it’s definitely not boring.”
The performance is kind of polarizing.
As I finished my water, this on-stage-monster, was quick to ask if I needed a refill.
“What are some ways to keep people engrossed?” I asked. “To make sure you keep them invested with you, instead of just being like, ‘what the f*!K?’”
“I don’t want to just stand there. Engagement is easy, you just have to move. Honesty [is key], people respond to things that are truly genuine.”
“A lot of the venues you play at, and at the level you’re at right now, the burden of promotion really falls on you,” I said. “How do you promote your shows?”
“I gotta be better about it,” he confessed. “I try posting on Instagram a lot. I hate it, it’s the most embarrassing part of it. Instagram’s a f#@!ing trash can. In LA there are promoters who will champion certain musicians, and that’s really helpful to dip into.”
“When you’re promoting your own shows, there’s so much pressure,” I said. “I’m sure there are nights where you only make $20 for a full set.”
“It sucks,” he said, shaking his head. “I would love to make a lot of money from this, but I don’t expect it….I’ve got a day job too.”
“It seems like you are growing in New York and Los Angeles kind of simultaneously,” I said. “Do you have a preference?”
“My LA shows [go the hardest],” he said, even though he clearly prefers New York as a city. “More on the ground response, more give and take, the full band. Right before I moved from LA I formed the perfect Brutus band, but then I left. I’ve been in [New York City] for two years and I don’t ever want to live in LA again. We have a mutual resentment towards LA and have a little huddle before the show and talk about it. We dedicate the show to everyone who shakes your hand [disingenuously]. The music scene there across all genres is pretty lame—it’s had some cool moments, but the vast majority of it is really boring. I feel like I can offer something exciting. [In New York] there’s so much good music to compete with.”
“We started our conversation talking about what I assumed your influences are,” I said. “Do you have any I couldn’t have expected?”
“Getting older is funny,” he said. “I was a punk angsty rebel kid, and I still am, but it’s funny catching myself loving a Kesha song. In the Spotify internet age, there aren’t the same tribes anymore…. Punk, in the mohawk kind of way, is so dead, and hip-hop has succeeded in a way it never could.”
“Who are your main songwriting influences?” I asked.
“Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Bjork,” he said, wracking his brain. “Once a year, for four months, I go through a Leonard Cohen period, and eventually I start to write like him. He’s such a horn-dog, but not in a way that’s super creepy or pervy.”
“And what’s your writing process?” I asked.
“I go [into my studio here] and work on beats and little tunes and throw lyrics on them after,” he said. “I end up with produced demos and take them to a producer or sound mixer to make them sound better. [I collect fragments of lyrics and songs and compile them into a large notebook for later use].”
“For a lot of people, it’s the social aspect and collaboration that draws them to music,” I said. “But it sounds like you’re a bit of a hermit.”
“I don’t enjoy the social aspect, in regards to my work. I like [creating in solitude]. Socializing is hard for me. The social aspect of this business is frustrating to me. I resent it.”
“Is that what draws you to performing?” I asked. “That you can interact with lots of people, but on your terms?”
“Yea, I get to share something about myself with very clear-cut boundaries and rules. This Brutus VIII project started as a character. This Iggy Pop kind of frontman, super confrontational, who so wasn’t me. A post-punk diva. What I’ve learned is that I can be more honest through the lie of this ‘character.’”
“What I’ve learned is that I can be more honest through the lie of this ‘character.’”
“Is it a lie?” I asked. “Or is it just a part of you that’s hidden?”
“It’s just a side of me I don’t usually present. But it is slightly more honest in the sense that I get to be an asshole—I get to be the true misanthrope that I am… or at least feel like I am. I’ve grown closer with friends, showing this side of myself. They get a new perspective on me, and I get one on them—whether good or bad. I want to create the illusion of a non-safe space but in an actually safe space.”
“In the past decade or so, we have gotten access to more people’s stories and, in some ways, the stakes in the world just seem so much higher than usual,” I said. “Is there still room in art for melancholic ponderings and existential dread?”
“All the art I love is about existential dread,” he said emphatically. “I want my art to be honest, and I can only speak on my existential dread. I don’t have any interest in being [overtly] political. If something like climate change were to come up, it would deal more with my fear about it, then a ‘we need to do something.’ It feels too out of my control and [cheesy]. It wouldn’t feel genuine to me.”