Jason Brewer’s phone is buzzing, as if it were on a timer.
He glances at the number on his caller ID. “I’m popular today because ‘my thing’ came out,” he says. “His thing” — as he humbly refers to it — is the release of the first single (“Do You Love Me?”) from his band The Explorers Club debut CD Freedom Wind.
It’s Tuesday, a celebrated day in the music industry. Tuesday is when new music is released and Brewer is experiencing his first-ever Tuesday as a recording artist in the industry. You would think this Tuesday in early April would be full of fanfare for the 26-year old, but for Brewer, its business as usual. It’s just Tuesday, which means worship team meetings at Ashley River Baptist Church, where he serves as the contemporary service worship leader.
Again, the phone vibrates. Brewer looks at the number just in case it’s Brian Wilson calling. Yes, the Brian Wilson, former lead singer of the Beach Boys.
While driving his girlfriend Krista home after a recent dinner-date his cell phone started buzzing, of all things. Not recognizing the number, he didn’t pick up, letting the call go straight to voicemail.
Later, Brewer checked his voicemail. At first he was sure what he was listening to was a phone prank from a friend. But as he listened, his face went blank. “At the end (of the voice message), a friend of mine who plays guitar for him (Brian Wilson), came on the line and said that was Brian (Wilson) telling you how much he liked the songs.”
Seeing his expression, Krista asked about the voice message.
It was Brian Wilson, the Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys calling to pay the band a compliment. The call is more personal, and has much deeper significance to Brewer. See, by the third grade Brewer was “sitting in the back of the car, going to the grocery store with my Mom, wearing a yellow Walkman, with headphones on and listening to the Beach Boys 20 Greatest Hits cassette. It was kinda weird for an eight-year old kid, I guess?”
One listen to the debut CD from The Explorers Club and the link between Brewer, Wilson and the Beach Boys emerges. Freedom Wind, the 12-song pop compilation released in May, is a throwback to the 60’s, complete with feel-good lyrics and made-for-summer vocal harmonies reminiscent and oft-compared to the Beach Boys and Beatles, a comparison Brewer doesn’t resist.
“I don’t mind that comparison at all,” he said. “Obviously I have that vocal style that they invented back in the early 60’s. Back then, it was like a style of music. Nobody’s doing this kind of music anymore. I found that I’m fairly gifted at writing that 60’s, early 70’s ‘happy’ sound.
“When I read reviews they say, ‘it’s as good as the stuff back then, it’s more of a continuation than a reprocessing. That’s how I look at it: it’s a continuation. I don’t mind being compared to legendary artists, it’s better than being compared to not-so-legendary artists. It’s a compliment.”
Freedom Wind is not a Beach Boys rip-off. The influences are deep – and evident. “There’s stuff on there that’s influenced by country songs, doo-wop, Gershwin, even Broadway stuff I picked up from my Mom,” said Brewer. “My brain attaches everything I’ve been surrounded with my whole life and everything ends up being in that music.”
His brain began creating musical attachments at age seven when he his father bought Jason his first cassette tape: a recording of The Beatles first album Please, Please Me. Born 20 years after the release of the first Beatles single “Love Me Do” and the Beach Boys debut CD Surfin’ Safari, Brewer was hooked by the sound.
Then everything changed when he saw the film Back to the Future. “I wanted to be Chuck Berry. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s the music that got me excited,” he said. Then, in 1987, Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, a tribute to Chuck Berry was released. Brewer was mesmerized.
Soon he was dragging his dad to the video store to rent The Complete Beatles documentary. “I would rent it all the time,” he said. “I would wear it out and my favorite part of the movie was the beginning because they would talk about Chuck Berry.”
It wasn’t long after he picked up his first guitar at 11, Brewer set off on a more serious musical exploration and education that began — like most teenagers with a musical instrument – with a no-name garage band. That continued through high school and college, all the while he was compiling musical knowledge and clocking experience.
“What really stuck with me, and always has, is really good songwriting,” said Brewer. “If I’m going to be a musician, and I want it to be really good and timeless … I want to get to the point where I can incorporate all the great aspects that make a popular song. I want to be musically good but really accessible. I found the best way to do that, for me, is to really study these great, truly gifted individuals and just surround myself so it comes out in my songwriting.”
Brewer became increasingly passionate about the process and began studying those who were inspiring him. “I was listening to tons and tons of bootlegs of session tapes from my favorite musicians,” he said. “I think what I do is, listen to every little thing … I listen to the tone of it.”
His attention to detail has paid off professionally but the jury is still out on whether or not it will damage his personal relationships. “Krista puts on a song she really likes and she’ll be playing it and …” That’s when the question comes: Do you like it?
“I can’t really pay attention to how good the lyrics are because all I hear is all the stuff in it that I wouldn’t do,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I’m all about the sound and she’s all about the words.”
That drives Krista crazy. “I try not to do it too much,” he added. “That’s why when we drive in the car we’ll either listen to classical music or sports scores, something simple.”
More good vibrations (excuse the pun) are coming from Brewer’s mobile device now. It’s fascinating to see what a recording contract, a couple of national television appearances and a handful of critically-acclaimed reviews can do for a band that began as an experimental project.
Following college graduation in 2004, and a seven-month hiatus from life in a band, Brewer started getting restless. During this down time, he had been writing three songs and was ready to record them. “I didn’t want this to be a rock and roll band, I wanted it to be a singing group … that was a rock and roll band,” he said.
One-by-one Brewer cherry-picked local musicians to help with the “experiment,” that included David Ellis, Stefan Rogenmoser and James Faust. He then added drummer Neil Thomas and bassist/vocalist Wally Reddington.
The “experiment” went so well the band put together a live show and performed through most of 2005. By the summer of 2006 the band had performed in New York and was on their way to Los Angeles. That’s when things started happening.
The band hired a lawyer, then a licensing agent for film and television and finally a record contract with Dead Oceans. In January 2007, the first of the three “experimental” songs (Forever) appeared on the Fox television show the O.C. and later on the CBS television comedy How I Met Your Mother.
Described as “psychedelic pop” (Pitchfork Media), “bohemian beach-bums” (Spin Magazine) and “jangle pop” (Download.com), the question is: Where do The Explorers Club fit in? Today’s music industry has never been more fragmented. Every artist is labeled by category, like it or not. It’s all part of a larger global marketing plan designed to saturate today’s music providers (radio, iTunes, XM and Sirius satellite) with format-specific music.
Brewer is aware, yet comfortable, with his band’s place in today’s music world saying, “We knew we were going to be outcasts, but that’s OK,” he said. “The music industry goes where the excitement is. If you’re not the hippest, coolest thing than you’re not a thing.”
But this band has a secret weapon. With a live show oozing with “feel good” lyrics and energy, the band is defying the odds. “What makes The Explorers Club successful is people really like the songs and they come to see the live show and we give them a blast of energy and fun and we’re really starting to earn a reputation of being a really fun experience.
“When I was a little guy what got me dancing, what got me excited about the song on the radio was that it was fun, it was singing about something I could relate too. The Beach Boys are singing about going surfing and The Beatles are singing about a girl in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” That stuff. There’s no innocence in today’s music, it’s so direct.”
Being a Christian and being in the music industry is a challenging position. It comes with its own set of risks. From ethics to morality, Brewer is faced with daily, frontal attacks in an industry known – and sometimes celebrated – for its provocative “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle.
Brewer’s phone vibrates, but this time he doesn’t seem to notice it, probably because the conversation has landed on his two passions: faith and music.
“There are not a lot of Christian folks on that side of the music industry,” said Brewer. “In my music, I definitely want to be a roaring lamb among a pack of wolves,” Brewer confessed in a recent conversation with Krista. “(I want to) make enough noise to where people can hear you. That is what that ‘roaring lambs’ thing is about — about being successful but being successful with what God gives you and honoring God through your success. I want to be successful and what success to me is the impact I can make on other people through what I do, not through man’s rules.
“I don’t have a problem telling anyone about it (his faith). I’m a music leader at my church. God created music. God gave me ability to play music. I do feel called to use my music to glorify God. I’m using the things that God has given me to spread the gospel. This (music) is just a vehicle to invite me into your home, to get to know me and you’re going to know everything about me and my spiritual life is me. I think it’s a good vehicle and I’m glad I have the keys to it.”
The phone vibrates a third time. Interview over.