It’s a normal Saturday night on the ground level of New York’s longest standing jam/jazz/rock incubator, the Knitting Factory. A calm, spring evening, a sense of exploration fills the air; the type weather just right for converting a crowd of new fans or, more accurately, convincing veteran concertgoers to lend an open ear. Over the years countless bands have worked their way through the Knitting Factory’s multi-level hierarchy, playing to many of the same faces which now stand before the Brakes. In certain ways, the Philadelphia-quintet is the quintessential jamband band: a hard working, harder touring ensemble which changes its live show nightly. But, in actually, what separates The Brakes from its brethren, are its songs.
A decade ago, songwriting was a seemingly dirty word around these parts, but, recently, a new generation of bands have come through the ranks, firmly rooted in the art of improvisation, yet grounded in strong, sturdy songwriting. In the past five years, The Brakes have emerged the new face of the City of Brother Love’s underground music community. A sharp departure for a city known for its dark, textures and ambient electronica, the young, quintet offers a classic guitar sound, fleshed out with tight vocal harmonies and slight, jazz undertones.Formed in 2001, while High School students around Philadelphia, the group—-Zach Djanikian (bass, acoustic guitar, tenor saxophone), Matt Kass (guitars, bass), Derek Feinberg (guitars, bass), Adam Flicker (keyboards, trumpet) and Josh Sack (drums)—-first cut its teeth playing Philadelphia rooms like The Point. Soon after graduation, the quintet matriculated to various colleges around the northeast, pulling weekend warrior duty to make Friday and Saturday gigs. As The Brakes’ sound tightened, its homework fell by the wayside.
“There was a point when we were all in different parts of the country, but would somehow meet every weekend,” Djanikian says. “We didn’t rush into it fulltime touring, it grew naturally. Our parents were mostly supportive. They realized this wasn’t just some wild dream.”
Emphasizing Djanikian’s tight, bright songwriting, The Brakes erected a unique halfway house between Traffic and Tea Leaf Green. While its chorus remain tightly bound by the ensemble’s three-guitar frontline, the band inserts enough instrumental breaks, no pun intended, to show off its jazzy origins (Djanikian has also proved his worth on saxophone).Putting college on the backburner, The Brakes hit the road full-time in 2003 earning coveted support spots for such acts Robert Randolph, Soulive, Chris Robinson & New Earth Mud, Derek Trucks Band, the Disco Biscuits, MOFRO, The Wailers and moe. Fellow Lower Merion High School alumnus Aron Magner even joined the group onstage for a series of songs at a Katrina benefit last fall. Closer to home, the quintet established more permanent residencies at lauded Philadelphia clubs like the Theater of the Living Arts.
“All of our TLA shows have been special—-we can actually see our growth every time we play there,” Kass says. “We’ll go on the road, work on some new songs and come back and play them for the hometown crowd.”
As it turns out Philadelphia wasn’t a bad epicenter for the band to choose. In 2005, WXPN, a popular Philadelphia radio station, placed The Brakes on its website. As luck would have it, H & R Block was “cruising” local music sites like WXPN to find a band to act as the face for its national “taxcut" advertising campaign. After an executive stumbled upon the group’s song “Special” by accident, The Brakes found themselves competing against 900 different acts for national exposure. The quintet quickly rose to the forefront of the competition and, finally, received top honors. Within weeks, H&R’s advertisement had made it to the back cover of Entertainment Weekly, simultaneously placing the group in Rolling Stone and US Weekly. H & R Block also nabbed “Special” for its television campaign; the song received airplay on a number of popular network and cable channels, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Fox and WB.
“People heard our song on TV and would Google the lyrics to find out who we were,” Djanikian says. “We kept getting all these kids, from places we’d ever played, asking about on our My Space page.”
Riding high off their hype, The Brakes returned to the studio to record an EP of original material. In addition to Adam Winokur, who produced to the group’s first EP in 2004, The Brakes recruited two very different, but very well known, names to mix the collection: Billy Joel/Santana/John Lennon helmsman Phil Nicolo and moe.’s Al Schnier.
“We went up to Al’s house in upstate New York to mix the EP,” Kass says. “His wife would make us dinner and we’d all sit around mix the tracks together. It was just a great family vibe.” The results show tremendous growth in the group’s songwriting: “We’re continuing to write in the vein we always have been, but our [stylistic leanings] get wider and more expansive, introducing new influences,” Djanikian says. “We have a classic rock’ song and a country-tune in our last batch. One song starts very soft and gradually turns into a rocker.”
Embracing modern technically, The Brakes decided to release a song from its EP every two weeks through its homepage and its My Space portal, which has received over 11,000 views. Continuing to balance headlining club dates with more high-profile opening spots, The Brakes have recently bonded with a variety of credible rock-acts: Dickey Betts, the Duo and, even, the Gin Blossoms.
In the coming months, the group will appear at festivals across the country, from High Sierra to Summer Camp, Wakarusa to All Good. And, by the summer’s close one thing will be clear: The Brakes have no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
Mike Greenhaus saw The Brakes at the Knitting Factory on May 13, 2006. For proof checkout the annotated concert list on his blog (www.greenhauseffect.com)