Masked Kiwi chamber pop band leader Jonathan Bree (formerly of sub pop indie group the Brunettes) might be his own worst critic. He just performed at the Desert Daze festival in Southern California, but when asked about his appearance, he’s quick to point out its flaws.
“The audience witnessed a pretty compromised set,” he says in an email interview. He performs with Shilpa Ray and Istvan Medgyesi at 8 p.m. on Monday at the Beachland Tavern
. "I mean, it works fine enough in the middle of the afternoon in the desert, but ideally it’d be at night when every facet of the show can come across. Either way, it’s still good to play to people that probably have no idea who I am.”
Bree grew up in New Zealand and started playing music at a very young age. When he was only 12, he joined his cousin’s band, the Nudie Suits, as a drummer. He’d eventually start his own band, the Brunettes, in 1998.
“The biggest motivating factor was probably discovering the Beatles and other musical heroes like David Bowie,” he says when asked about his influences. “Idols are pretty important. It got me into reading as well. I was terrible at reading until I wanted to find out more about my heroes by reading biographies on them. Sixties British Invasion and ’80s pop were the two biggest genres I was obsessed with as a kid.”
In 2002, Bree started his own record label, Lil’ Chief Records. He still operates the imprint to this day.
“I guess I wanted to help create and be a part of something within New Zealand besides my own music project,” he says of the label. “Back then, a number of friends were involved in projects that I felt lacked the wider attention they deserved. On a selfish level, I also wanted a label for putting out my own work, so I’m not that charitable. If you put that amount of time and effort into any other business model, you’d probably be doing okay as a business. This is the music industry though. Despite a few breaks for our artists, [the label] is always run with a team of part-time volunteers for the love of it. It should probably come up with a religious ideology and become a tax-free charity.”
In 2013, he released his first solo album. He didn’t intend, however, to play the music live. That would happen years later.
“I only played my first solo performance in September 2017,” he says. “It was a slow transition. After the Brunettes, I felt pretty beat down and was just happy making music in my bedroom by myself or with my girlfriend. I had little desire to stomp around a stage anymore.”
He originally intended that his latest album, Sleepwalking, become a triple album dubbed Valentine. He wanted to release it on Valentine’s Day.
“I missed a couple of Valentine’s Day release deadlines, though, and then decided to just make a single album out of the songs that were the most finished, and that I felt went together well,” he says.
“Say You Love Me Too,” one of the album’s best tracks, features a thick bass riff and guest vocals courtesy of Clara Vinals, whose whisper-thick voice gives the song a sensual feel. The tune was the result of “mucking around” on an old Hofner bass that a friend gave Bree.
“I thought it sounded good, so I quickly recorded it before forgetting it,” he says. “The song grew from there. Lyrically, it’s just something I was going through at the time.”
For the live show, Bree and his band mates often don white suits, Beatles wigs and mod clothing. Masked band members are set against a backdrop of cinematic projections created specifically for each song, and two dancers perform choreographed routines along with the music.
“I’ve played in and toured with a lot of bands,” Bree says. “To me, they are all in theater. I’m just being honest about it. There’s no rehearsed lines about the city I am playing in or a story behind the song. So ironically, I believe it’s a pretty genuine performance. There’s many reasons for the costumes. One is it makes it easier for the audience to see what they want to see. [The choreography] is somewhat of a combination of ballet, folk and aerobics plus a little bit of live improvisation. The choreography helps give an element of interaction and appreciation of the audience.”
Given that his performance at the Beachland won’t take place in the daylight, you can bet the show’s atmosphere will be more to Bree’s liking.
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