Tommy TNT Brenneck: Budos Band, Menahan Street and the Missing Link Between Sharon Jones and Jay-Z
Whether you are aware of it or not, you’ve probably heard Tommy “TNT” Brenneck play guitar. Back when the twenty-something multi-instrumentalist was still a teenager, he would frequently travel from his native Staten Island, NY into Manhattan to see Antibalas play downtown clubs like No Moore and gradually aged from fan to friend to fulltime member of the Afrobeat collective. Though primarily a guitarist, Brenneck would also occasionally fill in on organ in Antibalas’ sister band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and, eventually, left Antibalas to play guitar full time in the soul-funk band. As the Dap-Kings profile has risen, Brenneck has found himself in the studio with noted celebrity producer Mark Ronson, recording on Amy Winehouse’s smash record Back to Black and even co-writing with hip-hop luminary Nas. In addition, along with several of his Antibalas/Dap-King collogues, Brenneck continues to tour in the dark, instrumental afro-soul group the Budos Band.
Most recently, Brenneck released the first album from his pet project the Menahan Street Band, Make The Road by Walking. Recorded entirely in his bedroom studio, the album features contributions from a handful of Brenneck’s Daptone collaborators, as well as extended members of his Brooklyn community. Before the group even played its first gig, the song “Make the Road by Walking” was even sampled by Jay-Z on his hit “Roc Boys (and the Winner is).” Recently, the guitarist invited Jambands.com/Relix into his home studio to talk about the Menahan Street Band’s first record, his long history with the Dap-Kings and what it is like to play a private party for Mark Ronson.
You are currently involved in a number of bands on the Daptone label, including Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and the Budos Band. How did you first get involved with the whole Daptone community?
I joined the Dap-Kings when I about 19, so six years ago. Me and a bunch of the guys in Staten Island, who are in the Budos Band now, used to have bands called Dirt Rifle and The Funky Bullets and the Fast Breakin’ Classics, and we used to go to the Antibalas shows at No Moore back in the day. We’d go every Friday, so we were always into funk and soul. Some of the guys got it from hip-hop, and I got it from Hendrix and The Isley Brothersshit like that. We’d go to these No Moore shows and hang out with Antibalas, and we got to know the whole [Daptone records predecessor] Desco records crew, and we were huge Desco records fans.
We knew Desco went under but we would give [label founders] Neil Sugarman and Gabe [Roth] demos all the time. We knew they were starting the Daptone label. They liked the music, not enough to make a record with us but enough to let us open for them. So we actually brought them out to Staten Island a couple of times, and we’d open for these big parties. It was fuckin’ awesome. Dirt Rifle was the first demo they liked. It was like a four-piece Meters type of group. So we made a couple of singles and around one summer and Daptone records
How did you age from fan to eventual band member of both Antibalas and the Dap-Kings?
When the first Dap-Kings first record was released they started to tour and Victor Axelrod, the organ player, was playing with Antibalas at the time. You know, we had all become friends at that point from us going to No Moore all the time and from us showing up everywhere. We just kept making demos until something struck. So I got a call from Gabe one day saying, “Victor can’t come on tour do you want to play organ?” I was like, “ok, but why?” I had played trombone in a band and guitar in a band and I was just like, “what makes you think I can play the organ?” And he was like, “can’t you play the organ?” and I said, “yeah.” So I went to like two rehearsals and then I went on tour with them.
I did that for a while and I got involved with Antibalas and I’d sub in for Gabe because he was the original guitar player when he was out with the Dap-Kings. I would play guitar for him and a little organ for Victor. Then eventually they invited me into the band, which didn’t take too long, maybe six months or whatever. If I started touring in August 01 or 02 and by January of the next year we would start to go to London and shit and I was like in the band. Eventually I switched to guitar in the Dap-Kings and stopped playing organ and eventually stopped playing with Antibalas. I’ve been in the band since then.
Everyone in the Brooklyn community has kind of passed through those bands [Antibalas and the Dap-Kings]like you’ve go to pay your dues because they were touring so much. There are so many bands connected with them [including TV on the Radio, the El Michels Affair and Sugarman 3]. I was really young when I jumped on. I was really young—-like 20—-and I did Bonnaroo with Antibalas in 2003, and I remember that movie they made about it [Danny Clinch’s 270 Miles From Graceland: Bonnaroo 2003. I remember learning about Bonnaroo and the whole jamband world. And now TV on the Radio has fucking blown up.
I remember the first time I saw TV on the Radio is when they sat in with Antibalas at Tonic. It must have been around 2005, and the Antibalas guys introduced them as “their neighbors from Brooklyn.” TV on the Radio played a few songs with Antibalas and now they released what many magazines consider to be the best album of 2008, Dear Science.
Yeah they’re all still really good friends. The community is still strong.
Besides the Dap-Kings your other major project now is Budos Band, which also features several prominent members of the Daptone family. How did that group first come together?
The Dirt Rifle band was pretty burnt. We had been doing that funky-soul shit for a while. We were like heavy James Brown fanatics, and I mean that’s just what we were schooled in. And we were trying to get Daptones’ attention so we formed that small band because Fast Breaking Classics had a couple MCs and was kinda hip-hoppy with lots of percussion, and we just wanted to make a band that could get their attention. We definitely worked hard but the music just wasn’t that great. So then that band just kind of turned into the Budos Band.
We brought our friends back playing percussion, and we kind of studied Afrobeat for awhile. Antibalas was holding it down so we didn’t want to be another Fela Kuti tribute band or just another Afrobeat band. So it took a couple years, but we definitely developed this awesome style of music that you can hear our soul influence you can hear all the James Brown, you can hear Fela and you can hear the Ethiopian and Nigerian and the American sounds. We called it Afrosoul on our second record, but I don’t know what you want to call it now. I’m really proud of that music, and I think Budos is one of the baddest bands around.
I think one of the defining characteristics of the whole Anitbalas/Daptone scene is that all the bands are part of such a community and everyone chips in and stays involved with each other’s projects.
I recently played drums with Budos Band at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. Our drummer was stuck in San Francisco. I’d flown in from Austin a half an hour before the gig and Luke O'Malley, the old Antibalas guitar player, had been subbing in for me on guitar when I’m away with the Dap-Kings. So that was the second show I played drums on for the Budos because there’s no one else who can play the drums and everyone else in the band is comfortable with me playing the drums because I can do it. That was awesome for me though. We played Mark Ronson’s birthday in August. It was a private party that was like a full-blown show with thousands of kids dancing, and I played drums at that gig. I was like this is awesome! I’m the drummer!
So exactly how many instruments do you play professionally [laughter]?
What needs to be played in the band, I’ll play it. I’m pretty much self-taught, and I’m pretty proficient on any rhythm section instrument: guitar, piano, bass or drums. My horn skills have gone down the drain. I used to play trombone, but since I came into this community there are so many amazing horn players that I just like to focus on the rhythm section shit.
Let’s shift to your most recent project, Menahan Street Band. Obviously the group’s sound is rooted in the Budos Band and touches upon some of the Dap-King’s trademark soul-revue as well. Can you tell us both how this project developed and how it differs sonically from your other bands?
The Menahan Street Project started since I had always loved recording, and I had always made all the demos for the bands on Staten Island. At first I was doing it on the cassette, 8-tracks and shit and when I first moved here and got involved with Daptone Gabe said if I made something cool enough they would put it out. Then my 8-track cassette deck broke, which was a blessing because that’s no way to cut music. Neil and Gabe bought me this Atari MX 50/50, which is a inch 8-track retail machine and Gabe had used this to make a bunch of Desco records. The whole idea is that since Gabe has one of these at the Daptone studios, if I have one of these at my place they would compatible with the records here and I could bring the to Daptone studio to mix, so I didn’t have to bring the whole machine.
So as far as it went for writing the music for the Menahan Street Band it was like I wouldwell, first of all, Budos and Sharon Jones are two extremely specific bands, stylistically. So it’s like if you’re writing a Dap-Kings song it needs to suit Sharon Jones it needs to be filtered through Gabe and the rest of the band and it needs to be classic funk sounds.
With Sharon Jones, there is even a dress code, correct?
Yeah, and you know the Budos is also very specific it needs to be dark, pounding and aggressive. I mean we have a couple slow songs, and we can take it there every once in a while. Sometimes I would have these songs and they would get rejected mainly because they would be like a really good song but a little too pretty. Mainly because I have this love for instruments because finding a good singer is just so fucking hard. So I would take these songs that were like too pretty for the Dap-Kings and bring them to a group of musicians that I would think would be more suited for the songs. And that is how I began producing music in here. I would demo out a song and bring in the guys who I thought would be amazing and like bring out the guys who I thought would be the best horn players. I played with the El Michels Affair for years, and me and Homer Latham were session musicians for Truth & Soul, which is run by Leon Michaels and Jeff Silverman and Leon was one of the best musicians I know.
Is it true that the entire Menahan Street Band album was recorded right here in your bedroom studio?
The album was recorded a true home studio. To make it better than that, almost everything in here was given to me from people. People knew I was going to start my own studio so everyone pitched in and helped out. The only I bought was those guitars and these amps. Like that organ is from my friend Leon from the band Truth & Soul. They owed me some money, so they bought me that organ. The drums were donated by my friends Sean and Homer. So the entire studio was pieced together over the past few years.
Do your neighbors ever complain?
They’re cool. Sometimes the community center complains. They haven’t been complaining much since I helped blow up the name on the song “Make the Road by Walking” [laughter].
_For more on The Menahan Street Band please read the February/March issue of Relix. For more of Mike Greenhaus’ typos please visit www.greenhauseffect.com