Producer and musician Tommy Brenneck got his start as a member of New York's Dap-Kings. He has since made an impression on the east coast music scene as a band member and producer on projects with The Budos Band, Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, The Menahan Street Band, and many others. We sat down with Tommy to chat about coming up in the Staten Island music scene, his interesting career path, and how a broken console contributed to the recent Budos Band record, Long in the Tooth.

What made you want to be on both sides of the recording process?

It happened naturally. I wanted to record music, at first by myself, then I started bringing whatever band I had at the time into my parent's basement. But it started when I was a teenager with a 4-track cassette Fostex machine, which my parents got me for Christmas one year. I was 14 or 15. Music was always an escape for me; playing the guitar, writing songs, and playing with other people are all forms of escapism. Being able to record was another way to dive into that escapism; listening back, experimenting, and trying to figure out how to not have so much hiss on the 4-track cassette, which was impossible. I loved it. I never thought about it as engineering or producing, it was just something that stuck with me as my career began to take off. That 4-track cassette became an 8-track cassette, which became a 1/2-inch, 8-track tape deck that I still have to this day. Now my favorite is a 1-inch, 8-track, if I can get an artist to commit!

You said, "If I can convince an artist to commit." That's a huge part of Gabriel Roth's [Tape Op #59] and the Dap-Kings' world; minimal tools, not a lot of tracks, and getting it live. When you're working with someone else, I would assume that they know that that's your vibe.

They don't always know that's my vibe. Analog production is such a crazy, specific, outdated thing that nobody's used to it. It's like a fucking museum piece to people. "Wow, look at that tape machine. You record to that thing?" I try to tell people that it's the way that it makes you work that's so cool about it. If you're working on tape, your whole workflow has to change. If you're recording to a computer, you can be so lazy. You don't have to make any decisions until later. You don't have to get a great performance. You can record something and immediately manipulate it. If you're working on tape, you have to do a performance live to tape. I'm not trying to do tape edits. I'm happy to do it, but I'd much rather do a bunch of takes with the band, and then once the band gets cooking it's going to be in between those last two takes. Maybe you do some editing and some punching. People are blown away, "Oh you can punch and do normal shit?" I tell them, "Yeah, you can do it. It's just that you can't undo it." You have to execute it far better than a computer where you can Command-Z and undo until you do it right or pull this or shift that. I tell people all the time about the workflow of working to tape – whether it's 8 tracks, 16 tracks, or 24 tracks – it changes your entire workflow. If I can get a band or artist to work that way, I get something different out of them. It changes the whole creative process from where you're throwing everything into a computer and can spend hours going over it later. That's not what you do if you're cutting to tape. You sit around and demo the song, work on the arrangement, and figure out how you can record this thing to eight tracks and then you execute.

Do you find some people start that process with you and then find out, "Man, I'm not cut out for this?"

Most people's fear is before they start. It's committing to it in the beginning. Also, I'm happy to cut the rhythm track to tape, fly it into the computer, and finish it on Pro Tools if that's what it calls for. Like if somebody's not a stellar vocalist, and it's going to take some time. It depends on the talent you're working with, whether or not you can do a project like that. But I've never had anybody bail on it. People usually get pretty excited. Honestly, I've never heard anybody hear it back off of tape and not be blown away.

What initially drew you to that?

I mean, recording into a computer was never an option. First of all, Daptone [Records] is such a DIY organization. That includes the studios and the whole ethos, which is always an analog production. When I joined the Dap-Kings as a guitar player I was 19 years old and I immediately started spending as much time as I could with Gabe in the control room. Not just recording, touring, writing, and being a part of the band, of course. On Sharon Jones' Naturally I'm credited as assistant mix engineer; but really, I was sitting next to Gabe, watching and learning as much as I could. I was such a fan of Desco Records and the sound he had on The Daktaris' records, the early Lee Fields, and all that shit. I wanted to soak up as much as I could. That was my education in learning how to record music in an analog fashion. That was the only way I knew how to record. I don't think Pro Tools was even introduced into my world until 12 years after that. Then it was easy enough to apply what I knew.

Tommy Brenneck

How did you end up joining that band?

Before we formed the Budos me and a few other guys had a group, and the drummer and bass player and some of the other percussion players had a different group. Staten Island's pretty small, so all the bands knew each other. It was a rich musical scene. It was pretty amazing to grow up there. Dave Chappelle is not wrong, Staten Island's a fucking terrible place. But the music scene was incredible, and my parents are great. I'm not trying to throw Staten Island under the bridge. Shaolin forever! But the music scene there was incredible. It made it special for me as a teenager, without a doubt. It was some Battle of the Bands where I saw the guys from the Budos band, their old band. I was blown away. They had a horn section, everybody was dancing, and I was like, "Oh my god." Nobody was dancing to my classic rock wannabe band. So, we started hanging out. We were all pretty hip to Desco. Gabe Roth and Philip Lehman had this radio show, and we'd tune in and got turned on to heavy, heavy funk. James Brown funk. We got super into that music. We started a band together, before the Budos, called Dirt Rifle and The Funky Bullets. It was with the intention of getting the attention of Gabe Roth and Neal Sugarman from Daptone to try to make a record with Gabe, because we were such a fan of his productions. We wanted to be The Meters or Dyke & the Blazers. We were playing that music passionately. We would go to Antibalas shows and give our demos to Gabe and Neal. Eventually we got Sharon Jones and The Sugarman 3 to come out to Staten Island to play this tiny, tiny bar that was half-run by the mob; a lot of shady illegal shit was going on there. We got Sharon to come, and our band opened for them. That was when I met Leon Michels [Tape Op #143] from the Mighty Imperials and the El Michels Affair, as well as Homer Steinweiss and Nick Movshon. We all became friends instantly; we were passionate about the same music. It wasn't too long after that that Gabe was calling me up to sub for him as a guitar player in Antibalas, around 2001. I was honored to get that phone call. That eventually led me to subbing in the Dap-Kings for their organist, Victor Axelrod. I wasn't really an organ player, but they saw me play organ with another band in Staten Island and were like, "You can play the organ, right?" I said, "No, but I'll try!" Victor showed me the parts, and I was able to fake it enough to get into the group. Once I was touring with them, I thought, "We should have two guitar players. I'm such a better guitar player than I am an organ player." I started playing more guitar on the shows. I joined them after they made the first record, Dap Dippin' [with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings]. I jumped on, toured that record, and then I joined the band full-time and became more involved, playing on all of Sharon's records until I left the group. At some point I had to make a decision and leave, but it's a classic story. I was on one of the first recording sessions at Dap-Tone when they built House of Soul. Me and the guys in Dirt Rifle and The Funky Bullets were part of the wrecking crew, helping them tear up the walls and tear it down before they built it up into a recording studio. One of the first sessions I did was with Sharon and The Dap-Kings; a cover of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." It was a good 45 for Sharon. Once I was in, then we were off to the races. Dirt Rifle fell off, and Budos became the main focus. Then I rekindled my friendship and working and creative relationship with Charles Bradley a couple years later, when I was forming Menahan Street Band, and that's a whole other chapter in my life.

You had a small studio where you started to work and produce with Charles Bradley.

Gabe drove Charles out to Staten Island and introduced him to me and the guys. We did a couple of recordings, and the early stuff we did that's credited to Charles Bradley and the Bullets was very funk and James Brown derivative. We weren't breaking any new ground. Charles wasn't really telling any of his stories. It was good music, but nothing happened with that. Then it was Sharon Jones' 50th birthday party at Irving Plaza, and Daptone asked all the bands that had ever recorded for the label to perform. Budos backed up Charles that night, and that rekindled our friendship. When I first met him, I was still living in Staten Island, and now – some years later – I'd moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, and had been living in an apartment that was close enough that I could walk to Daptone every day. I invited them over to my apartment where I'd set up a 1/2-inch, 8-track Otari [tape deck] in my bedroom, with a drum set, a piano, and an organ. I don't think I even had any amps in there. I was recording the bass and guitar direct through a little Tascam 12-channel mixer that Homer's dad had loaned me. Neil and Gabe bought me that Otari 8-track when I was on tour with Sharon. I had this very minimal amount of gear donated to me, and I was recording what would become the Menahan Street Band. I had a bunch of tracks, and I played it for Charles. I played him the instrumental of "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)" and he wrote the vocal on the spot, in that bedroom, sitting right next to me. When I pull up those reels and play the a cappella, you can hear me pressing record on the tape machine, because it's in the middle of the room. You can hear me counting him in quietly, like, "two, three, four." It's pretty intimate. Immediately I knew that Charles singing on top of Menahan Street Band was destiny. It was magic, right from the beginning. Our friendship blossomed. He had these crazy stories. I didn't have to do too much to get him to open up and tell these stories. They were personal and brutal, but he shared them with me. We would turn some of them into songs, like "Heartaches and Pain" was exactly the story he told me about his brother getting murdered. He sat at my little piano and played this piano lick that was somewhat reminiscent of "Rainbow" by Gene Chandler, and it was the only thing he could play, just C and F on the piano. Sometimes the simplest musical idea is the best thing to run with, and I made a whole song out of his little piano ditty. Next time he came back I showed him the music and he loved it. So, our songwriting process changed, and we started writing songs that were very autobiographical for Charles. I feel like all the work we did on the first record [No Time for Dreaming] in that apartment on Menahan Street is some of the best work Charles and I did together.

That's an amazing story, and it's one of those meant-to-be scenarios.

One hundred percent. I tell people all the time that we were soul mates. It's incredible we found each other, and it's incredible what happened in the few years we knew each other. It's profoundly sad that he's not with us anymore.

The Menahan Street Band and Budos are both instrumental music. How do you approach the storytelling without lyrics?

I think it's possible to get an emotion across through instrumental music. I'm not going to say it's easy but trying to put lyrics to a feeling is incredibly challenging. For me, playing – whether it's piano, the guitar, or however the musical idea – it's always an expression of a feeling. For a group like Menahan Street Band, it's not jazz music. It's not about the solos. It's not about a single person. It's about the mood that we can strike with some chords and some rhythm, and then where we can take that mood. It's pretty raw music; it's recorded raw. I think that quality is what makes people want to listen to it and feel something from it, because it's pretty unfiltered. There's not a lot of smoke and mirrors. It's not a story for us to tell; it's more for the listener to go on a journey of their own. I always imagine that the coolest place to listen to Budos or Menahan is driving in a car on a highway at night, maybe a little bit stoned. There is no story of mine I'm telling through a Menahan Street Band song. It's the feeling and where the song takes you emotionally. That's why I'm doing it, is to translate that.

Do you ever have any visualizations when you have a track going down? Does that ever play into it for you?

Not really. It's not a visual thing for me. It's more of letting the sound pull on your emotions. Chords and melodies can do that. I do love instrumental music, but it's not something that I listen to. It's not something that I set out to do. When I was a kid, I picked up the guitar and started writing songs with my friends pretty young. It was done out of pure fun. The instrumental part came when getting into a band with Sharon Jones and hearing singers like Charles; it was like, "Okay, I'm never going to try to sing ever again." It was always an incredible feeling to hear Charles sing back an idea that I had. I'm blown away by how incredible it was. It transformed my idea into something way better. There's a ton of freedom in having a group without a singer. It has its own challenges, but Budos figured out a way to put on great, highly entertaining shows without a singular person that you're looking at. I wish that Quentin Tarantino would hire us to do a soundtrack, but he hasn't called yet. [laughter] I don't know what makes me think of this, but a lot of the music that I love –'60s and '70s soul music – has been sampled in hip-hop music. Menahan has been sampled by hip-hop producers so many times that it's like the best compliment that we can get. It's pretty amazing to be putting out music now that gets sampled. It's a way that the music crosses over from our indie Daptone world into the mainstream, by having Travis Scott, Jay-Z, or Kid Cudi use our samples. The fact that it can be used for hip-hop is something that that I'm proud of.

You've worked with, or played on, recordings for Lady Gaga, Josh Tillman [Father John Misty], Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Miley Cyrus. How are these collaborations happening, and what are your contributions?

Each one has its own story. The first big sample that I ever got was when Jay-Z sampled a song called "Make the Road by Walking" for a song of his called "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)." It was produced by The Hitmen, which was Sean C and LV (of Grind Music). They picked up the record in a record store in New York City, thought it was an old record and sampled it. It was in a batch of 11 songs they played for Jay-Z. He picked that one song, and then a week later we get a phone call at Daptone, "Hey, we need you to come clear this sample for Jay-Z." We got to go to Roc-A-Fella Records, Jay-Z played us the track, and the business was incredibly professional. It was like a dream scenario of getting sampled. We've been sampled for a lot of other tracks as well. You're not in the room. A producer samples it, somebody raps on it, and you have nothing to do with it. You just clear the sample. That's how it happened for Eminem and Kid Cudi as well. As years went by, I went on to meet a lot of these producers who'd sampled the music, and that's led to some incredible relationships, like with my friend Adam Feeney [aka Frank Dukes], who is a top-tier pop producer now. When I first met him, he had sampled a song called "The Traitor" by the Menahan Street Band, and he'd used it on a 50 Cent song called "Talking in Codes." I remember Dave Guy, the trumpet player, called me up and said, "Yo, fucking 50 Cent is on Hot 97 right now over 'The Traitor.'" A couple days later I get an email from Adam saying, "Hey, it was for a mixtape, but I want you to know I'm a big fan. I'd like to link up." He ended up coming down from Toronto to Brooklyn and hung out at Homer's and my studio at the time, Dunham Records. We ended up collaborating a bunch. He ended up writing some Charles Bradley songs for Victim of Love with me. We produced a record for Ghostface with a band called BadBadNotGood. I played guitar on a couple of those songs. That relationship still goes on, and we're still working together. That's one example of how the producer who sampled the track reached out and then we got in a room together. When The Dap-Kings got hired by Mark Ronson [Tape Op #105] to play on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black record that was just the beginning of a relationship I would have with Ronson. It's 15 years later, and I'm sitting in the control room of the Sound Factory in L.A. – a studio I've been partners with Mark for the last three years – and it all started with him hiring the Dap-Kings to play on Amy's record. After that, he started using me and Homer, Nick, Leon, and Victor as session musicians for all the projects he was working on. We played on a lot of songs that Mark produced, from Adele to Lady Gaga. The way that I met Josh Tillman was that we were on a session for Lady Gaga, and she didn't show up. He had a song that he was working on for her – this was at my studio in Queens called Diamond Mine. For almost 20 years I've been making this soul music with different singers, or instrumental music. I've been working with the same people. That's what I love to do. I'm happy to keep doing it. Classic music will come in and out of fashion in pop music. I'm on the sidelines, doing my own thing the whole time, being able to survive and make money for my family, as well as staying true to the music that I love and not feeling like I'm selling my soul. When I am in the room with those singers that we're talking about, my goal is to try to make something timeless, and I know that's Mark's goal too. That's the quality I'm trying to bring into a session, at any time.

But relevance and timelessness are not mutually exclusive. Songs that stand the test of time usually don't have lot of smoke and mirrors, not a lot of timestamp. Music where the human comes through and there's some common universality in the content, lyrically or sonically.

Well sonically I would say is as important. What you're talking about is an honest recording, or raw talent being recorded without tons of interference by the producer. A real recording that is always timeless. There will always be incredible, talented songwriters writing amazing songs. The challenge is how do you get that? Nowadays it's so easy to do it yourself, but, at the same time, it's hard to make something classic sitting by yourself in a room recording to a computer.

But you've gotta have some basic skills and a vision in order to capture that in a way that translates.

I would agree with what you're saying too, that it is the producer's job to have a vision. You want to get the best performance of that song from that artist, and that's what you're trying to create the environment to be right for in the studio. But yeah, if you're going to do something great you need to have that vision first, even if the vision is minimal. Honestly, I can't imagine recording music any other way than the way that we've done it for so long. I wouldn't want to. The quarantine has been strange because, first of all, there are no gigs and all the bands that I'm in, we refuse to play some digital streaming bullshit. We need to be in the room together playing music. That is the thing. But being alone for six months in a room and recording music has made me appreciate how other people do record music, as well as the benefits of recording to a computer. I'm not trying to be an old curmudgeon, like it's my way or the highway.

How did you guys track Long in the Tooth?

It was fun and easy to make. The Budos Band is now kind of scattered, where half the guys live in New York, and me and Jared [Tankel], the baritone saxophone player, both live in L.A. Anything we do now takes a flight, whether it's rehearsing, playing a gig, or doing a recording session. In a way, it makes it easy, because we plan out these trips. "We're going to New York, hitting the studio for three days, and we'll record as much music as we can and be as productive as we can and see how it goes." Long in the Tooth was pretty easy. I gotta tell you, a brewery called Fifth Hammer opened up around the corner from the Diamond Mine, and since that brewery opened up, it is so much easier to get the Budos dudes to come out from Queens for recording sessions! [laughter] The in-house engineer at Diamond Mine is Jens Jungkurth, who is an incredible human being and amazing engineer. He recorded Budos V with us, so he knew exactly what he had to deal with; the challenges of recording a loud rhythm section in a small studio. He had some ideas for that. I've been in L.A. three years now, and we recorded that record a year or two ago. My right-hand man out here is another understudy of Gabe Roth, a guy named Simón Guzmán. I brought Simón with me from L.A. to New York to assist Jens. I had two of my favorite engineers in the control room, which freed me up to focus on music, the band, and the performances. We wrote the song, we recorded the song, we took a break. We wrote another song and recorded the song. It wasn't like our earlier records, where we rehearsed every Thursday and would go on tour, play these songs live, show up to Daptone and cut the records live that had already been well-written and rehearsed. There's a natural excitement there that we get because we don't get to play music as much as we used to. We're all grown and have families now, and all of our lives are way busier than they ever were as young men. When we get together, I tell people it's a celebration. We're so happy, and the music pours out of us. We can sit around and write riffs all day, then sit around and sing melodies, and put horns on it all day. The process was that we cut the rhythm tracks like that, which would have been drums, bass, guitar, Farfisa, and percussion. I'd say we did the whole 11 songs in two or three days. Then the horns came in, and we did all the horns in about two nights. We wrote the melodies to the songs on the spot and recorded the horns. It was Dave Guy and Andrew Greene on the trumpets and Jared on the baritone sax. The trick to it is that the trumpets are always an octave apart, so it gives a large, buzzy sound, even though there's only three horns. I gotta say, it was an easy record to make. I took the reels back to L.A., I mixed it with Gabe in Riverside at his Penrose Studios. We tracked it on an MCI 1-inch, and we mixed it on an Ampex 440; super classic tape machines. That is an honest record if there ever was one.


I do have one side note about that record that's pretty awesome. The master fader on the Trident we were mixing the record on was broken. Every ending on at least the first side of the album fades out with tons of echo. Not only are we obsessed with echo and reverb, but the master fader's broken. It's only eight tracks, and we're fading out all the faders, but all the reverbs are still blasting and going. Every song ends with about 20 seconds of the echo fading out because we couldn't pull the master fader down. What started out as this pain in the ass – like, "We've gotta fix this master fader before we can make the record" – ended up being a crucial sound for the album, because every song starts and ends with crazy feedbacking echo loops. I love it. The flow of the first side of the album, every song starts out with this cloud of echo.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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