Chris Brown chats about his lifelong adventures in Asbury Park, the second installment of the “Let’s Get Folked Up” songwriter rounds he is co-producing, and more.
Chris Brown has lived in Asbury Park most of his life, singing many a song and slinging many a drink there. The singer-songwriter and bartender-bar manager has a very busy summer schedule, but eventually, he will get back into the studio to record his follow-up to the 2016 EP, One More Night, his third release since 2011.
In the meantime, he’ll play July 19 outside CBGB in Newark Airport as part of a summer-long concert series presented by Asbury Park Music Foundation and Tito’s Vodka. On July 22 at Asbury Biergarten and Festhalle, he’ll present and perform at “Let’s Get Folked Up 2,” a songwriters round he co-founded and performs with Nashville singer-songwriter Jo Smith. They’ll share songs and stories in a circle with Cranston Dean, Colton Kayser, Joseph Alton Miller and Sal Boyd.
Brown also will play the Biergraten on July 20, Aug. 31 and Sept. 21 with his father Charlie, a frequent stage collaborator and early inspiration for his music.
The concert schedule also includes Anchor’s Bend on July 23 and 30; and two Makin Waves shows: July 28 at Asbury Park Brewery (with Hot Blood, Crazy & the Brains, Little Vicious and Doc Rotten) and Sept. 7 (with The Vansaders, The Cryptkeeper Five and Bobby Mahoney & the Seventh Son).
In the following interview I chatted about Brown’s sensational summer as well as his roots and plans.
Q: How did you end up in Asbury Park and when?
A: Asbury Park is where I grew up. I lived here from ’81 to ’91; and then again from 2010 to the fall of 2017. AP has always been home. We had a small house on Emory Street with no yard, so my parents took my brother, Matt, and me to “our yard,” which was the Sunset Lake Park of the footbridge and St. John’s Island.
Q: How has the city changed since then, and how has that impacted your music career?
A: I, as well as so many family, friends and peers, have seen so many changes in Asbury Park over the course of our lives. Before the gay community, artists and, eventually, developers got here, you couldn’t walk around the city and feel safe. Cops would tell you to look both ways at a red light, and then keep moving. Being 16 and going to the Pony and Casino Skatepark, I got dropped off right in front and never ventured out of sight of the door (laughs). There’s a lot of growth/gentrification that has polarized both transplants and long-term residents in regard to their relationship with old AP in the last 10 to 15 years, but I am hopeful a balance of the city’s legacy and future can be achieved.
Q: How has your simultaneous career as a bartender and bar manager influenced your music and lyrics?
A: I’ve always been a fan of storytelling songwriters. Whether it was Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Minor Threat or anything in between, anything sung with passion, thought and/or anecdotes has been an influence. Being a former teacher and then working in bars as a musician has allowed me to interact with thousands of people/personalities over the course of my post-academic life. As an historian/sociologist at heart, I can’t help but take the daily conversations and beyond close to heart and find a story that I can identify with, find a parallel in, or chronicle.
Q: My favorite song by you is the Bond Street Bar-inspired “Serve ‘Em All,” which was the single and closing track of your third and latest EP, 2016’s One More Night, which, like its predecessor, 2014’s Anchor, was produced by Pete Steinkopf of The Bouncing Souls at his Little Eden Studios in AP. What have you liked most about working with Pete and why?
A: That’s really awesome to hear — thanks, Bob! I helped “reopen” that bar in 2010 and I loved the role it’s played as a hang for artists and musicians. I loved working with Pete. He is the salt of the earth … one of the kindest, and most creative dudes I have ever met. Having grown up a fan of the Bouncing Souls, it was an honor and privilege to work with him on my own music. I still remember recording my fiend Vinnie’s copy of Maniacal Laughter onto cassette and recording other songs of theirs off of WMCX’s punk radio show in high school. Pete has an amazing way of pushing you both musically and vocally, as a producer, and you literally have no idea you’re even working.
Q: Are you recording your next record with him?
A: I’ve been semi-dormant with writing since my wife Maggie and I became parents, but I’ve recently been writing a lot of lyrics and can’t imagine not doing my next recordings with Pete at Little Eden. It just feels like home. Crazy enough, I was in the studio with Pete during the One More Night sessions when I found out I was going to be a dad. I remember talking to Mags when she found out and being really out of it, and Pete asked me if I was okay. He was one of the first people I told I was gonna be a dad … surreal but rad.
Q: What details and expectations can you share about that next record?
A: It’s still a work in progress, but it’ll be story-driven, as my lyrics tend to be. I hope to improve as a songwriter and write some songs that resonate with people. Music is the universal language, whether it’s a melody, a riff or a hook. That’s what personally draws me in as a listener. Ultimately, I want to be better and hope my songs make you smile, laugh or feel something good.
Q: Are you playing any unreleased tracks live?
A: Yes. When I found out we were having a boy, I was so stoked! Having a child in general is a blessing, as you know, but being a dude, I hoped to have a little bud. I wrote “Son” the day I found out.
Q: One of the things that all five bands playing July 28 at Asbury Park Brewery have in common is that they’ve all worked with Pete. What do you think of that lineup, and what does it say about Pete’s stable?
A: I am so stoked to play with all of these bands! I’m a big fan of Hot Blood and Little Vicious having seen them several times before and am excited to finally see Crazy & the Brains and Doc Rotten, whom I’ve heard great things about. So many of my friends and peers and bands I respect/admire, have worked with Pete because he’s great at what he does in the studio and is easy to work with … the fact that so many choose to work with him is a testament to that.
Q: You also have a Makin Waves show coming up on Sept. 7 at APYC called “A Celebration of the Jersey Sound” with The Vansaders, The Cryptkeeper Five, and Bobby Mahoney and the Seventh Son. What all of you, along with The Gaslight Anthem, Matty Carlock, Sammy Kay and Jared Hart and his bands, The Scandals and Mercy Union, have in common is that sound that combines the rootsy lyricism of Bruce Springsteen with the edgy anthems of The Clash. What do you think of that show as a nod to their influence or, in your case, Bob Dylan more than Bruce?
A: Well, I think it’s kind of you to toss me into a conversation with all of those acts … giving me some big shoes to fill! I think that bill is another great lineup and am honored to share the stage with those guys! I think it’s a blessing and a curse to be a songwriter from NJ because inevitably people assume everyone’s a huge Bruce fan or that’s what inspired you to write. I think he’s a great lyricist, but I’ve never been a fanboy about his music. The Clash are phenomenal in how they crossed so many genres, made political statements, and did it seamlessly with a punk-rock attitude. I think our APYC show is gonna be a big ol’ singalong party, and I can’t wait.
Q: How and why did The Clash influence you?
A: I’d say the attitude and music of The Clash and other punk bands influenced me. The raw energy, the fusion of melody/dissonance, and perfect imperfections of that genre have had a lasting effect on me as a person and songwriter. Even though I’ve been an acoustic performer my whole life, I’ve always been a punk rocker at heart.
Q: You have a bunch of other great shows coming up too, including the second in a series of “Folked Up” songwriters circles on July 22 at Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten. How and why did the circles come together and what impact do you think they’re having?
A:“Let’s Get Folked Up” is a punny phrase stemmed from a conversation with Steve Reilly years ago. I’ve always loved it and thought it would be appropriate for a mildly irreverent take on the songwriters circle format. Not to discredit the listening room experience, but I wanted the vibe of these shows to be more light-hearted, like friends talking shit over a couple drinks and singin’ some songs. More “Revival” tour and less pageantry.
I met Jo Smith playing a holiday show with my dad this past Christmas. She splits time between Nashville and NJ and suggested we collaborate on some dates and do a songwriters round. We both are friends with Megan O’Shea, so I asked her to help us coordinate booking and promo. We got a great response from people wanting to perform and are currently mapping out the next few months’ worth of showcases.
Q: Did you see that Clancy’s in Neptune has a monthly songwriters circle now?
A: I just saw that. My bud Jonathan Tea is putting that on, which is rad. I am actually slated to play one in December.
Q: Jo Smith of Nashville is on the July 22 bill with two local fave singer-songwriters, Cranston Dean and Colton Kayser, as well as two cats with whom I am not familiar: Sal Boyd, also of Nashville, and Asbury-based Woody Guthrie disciple and devotee Joseph Alton Miller. Tell me a little about them and any other “Folked Up” details you’d like to share, including whatever’s cookin’ with a third one.
A: I’ve known Sal and his family for almost 30 years. Our parents are best friends. His Dad, Sammy Boyd, has been a concert promoter of big shows for a long time. He’s an awesome songwriter-musician who splits his time between Nashville and NJ these days, performing with Glen Burtnik and his amazing tribute shows from time to time. Joe Miller is an awesome songwriter-musician who has a blend of hip hop/beat poetry to his performing. Great harp player, too. Working on the third lineup to possibly do it at Langosta.
Q: Why the switch to the Biergarten from the Watermark and will the venue rotate with each circle?
A: Russell, owner of Watermark, was gracious to host the first one, and it sounded awesome. Megan and I thought it would be fun to rotate it around AP and eventually bring it elsewhere. Jo also hopes to bring more Nashville acts up and AP area acts to Nashville down the line.
“Let’s Get Folked Up” can have a hike anywhere, I suppose. Jen, owner of Biergarten, is a musician herself and loved the idea and okayed me booking one on the roof, which I think will be such a cool vibe on the third-deck stage. My friends Mike and Amy Leslie will also be setting up their vintage trailer photo shop, The Little Detour, out front of Biergarten for guests to have a commemorative photo of the day.
Q: You often perform with your dad, Charlie, including a monthly residency at the Biergarten. What do you love most about performing with him, and how, when and why did you come realize that it would be cool to play with your Dad?
A: I grew up watching my dad play at church and parties. He’s a talented prose writer but never ventured into songwriting. That said, he’s an amazing interpreter of songs, great guitarist and vocalist. I used to play his breaks at various gigs, and he’d throw me some money, eventually growing to playing Fourth of July parties at the Allenhurst Beach Club, and then Thanksgiving Night at Bond Street. My friend Joe Chyb approached us about playing Father’s Day at Anchor’s Bend five years ago, and it’s been a tradition since. That prompted us to work on more material together, including him playing and singing on my own songs, which he sings on the recordings as well. It’s a blessing and gift to get to play with my dad, for sure.
Q: How did he influence you as a musician?
A: I wanted to sing onstage like he did and get people to sing along. I would hole up in my room playing along to punk records and Bob Dylan, and when I had trouble with a chord, I would ask him for help on a transition. He’d try to show me more, but I was stubborn so I’d run back upstairs to work it out on my own. He taught me you can always be better and work at it.
Q: Are there any signs that your wee bern will take to music, too?
A: (Laughs) While my wife Maggie was pregnant, we played everything around the house. He totally bops his head and moshes to everything from The Menzingers, Minor Threat and Toothgrinder to Elmo. He’s fascinated by the guitar when I play at home or he comes to see my dad and I play. I think he may be a drummer, but time will tell.
Q: How do your Irish roots influence you as a musician and beyond that?
A: I love Celtic folk music. When Dropkick Murphys’ Do or Die came out, I thought, “How rad! Punk rock and trad meet?!” From there, I dove into The Pogues, Flogging Molly etc. My Irish ancestry goes back to Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) from Virginia, and his family coming over in the 1600s. I’ve always been proud of that. I also love the barroom singalong nature of Irish music.
Q: It’s good to see that the Biergarten, where you used to be assistant general manager, is still working with you as a musician. Why did you leave for Langosta Lounge, and how and why have you maintained that relationship with your former employer as a performer?
A: When I started at Biergarten, Jen gave me an opportunity to be assistant general manager and handle booking: I learned a lot from that job, which was rewarding and also very challenging. Eventually, I decided I missed being behind the bar, and Langosta was looking for a bar manager, so I reached out to see about making a change. While also a challenge, it has narrowed and focused my scope of responsibility. Marilyn and Scott, owners of Langosta, and the whole team have been very welcoming, and I love it there. Great music scene too! I still have been freelance booking at Biergarten and am still friends with everyone there.
Q: What else is going on and coming up with you that you want to share with readers?
A: I’m playing at CBGB in Newark Airport as part of the Asbury Park Music Foundation showcase sponsored by Tito’s (Vodka), kind of a unique, weird gig playing in an airport for travelers representing AP’s music scene. That said, I had a residency a few years back busking for NJ Transit at Hoboken, Secaucus and NY Penn stations. As a married, full-time employee, it was cool to be able to play for people from all over without touring per se. I feel this Newark airport gig will be similar for me and the other acts taking part.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
A: Thanks for having me be a part of these Makin Waves shows and taking the time to ask me about my music. Thanks for all you do for the local music scene!
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.