If you’ve been around Missoula’s music scene any time during the past three decades, you’ve probably come across a John Brownell band. The singer-songwriter/guitarist fronted the Oblio Joes, a beloved band that went through a couple of lineups and produced a great tape, split 7-inch with hardcore heroes Humpy, and a handful of excellent CDs.
Oblio Joes were one of the few groups not really inspired by the punk and metal bands that regularly played Missoula’s famous underground rock venue, Jay’s Upstairs, and they helped broaden that audience’s tastes beyond hard, fast and loud sounds. Between Brownell’s calm-but-paranoid lyrics and Dan Strachan’s powerful, animated drumming, it was hard not to love them. The Oblio Joes split up somewhere in the mid-aughts. They later drifted almost en masse into Secret Powers, a frenetic, ELO-inspired, keyboard-fronted group with Ryan “Shmedly” Maynes at the helm.
Protest Kids are Brownell’s latest group featuring Strachan, guitarist Ryan Farley and bassist John Fleming. The band’s decades together allow them to play seamlessly, and Brownell’s lyrical themes, including escape, the apocalypse, relationships and booze, run reliably through the songs. Past musical devices like full stops and quiet parts juxtaposed to jauntier stuff are still abundant, as well as cheeky rhymes and amazing pop hooks. The music’s a little more buttoned-down than most pop or rock and roll, but not so cerebral or earnest it hurts either.
In the 1990s I was positive that the Oblios were trying to channel the Flaming Lips (something about the Oblio Joes’ super hit “In Love and Insane” made me think of the Lips’ Hit To Death In the Future Head LP), but now I see they were just a young band working out their sound. The remaining similarity seems to be that both Wayne Coyne and John Brownell live in their own distinct musical worlds, and we’re better off for it. Since April, they’ve released three EPs on Bandcamp as part of a series called We Are the Technology. “Joy,” off of We Are the Technology II, evokes some of Oblio Joes’ best material. We Are the Technology I’s standout track is the hooky “Vodka Sunrise.” That Brownell is still here making great music is a testament that Missoula is a place where friendships and original rock and roll can thrive. On the occasion of Protest Kids’ most recent release, We Are the Technology III, I asked Brownell a few questions.
You write about themes like escape, impending doom, booze, Detroit and women, and those have been your go-tos for the past 25 or so years. What am I missing?
John Brownell: I mean, what else is there? I suppose you are onto something. Several years back, my therapist asked me to bring him printouts of all of my lyrics. It felt pretty awkward to me, but we spent several sessions in a row where he’d make me read them out loud and he’d raise his eyebrows or murmur or chuckle. Imagine his reaction to shit like “It’s a very short list of the people I hate: the whole fucking human race!” But in the past I never really thought about lyrics much beyond the surface of, I don’t know, the words sound cool together and are fun to sing. I also used to read Fortean Times obsessively and it affected my writing more than it should. So anyway, what were we talking about?
What do you draw inspiration from?
JB: Strange science. The psychedelic experience. Tape Op magazine. The kids these days. Heart surgery. Cancer. Honestly, watching family and friends struggle. That shit is hard and I’ve seen a lot of it recently. I guess that is another function of getting old.
Talk a little about playing with Dan, Fleming and Ryan. In the case of Dan, you’ve had a musical partnership for 25 or so years, correct?
JB: I met Dan in fall of 1992 so, yeah, we are hitting 25 years since we started playing music together. We met Fleming back around that same time and the three of us have been like brothers ever since.
Farley has a great voice, an ear for harmonies, and it seems like our vocals just fit really well together. He was also a big Oblio Joes fan. Making music with these guys is just so uncomplicated and fun. We all come from similar places musically and we have all played together in the past. There are no hard creative differences, no unrealistic expectations, no dictatorship. When I bring in a song in its raw form, generally everyone else gets it right away and jumps in. It just works and I have a lot of fun.
What do you hope to get done, musically or otherwise with this band. Is it goal-oriented, or a continuation?
JB: Honestly, for me—and I think to some extent the other guys—this band is about being determined to not stop making music. After Secret Powers stopped playing, we took a short break and I decided I wanted to start an old person’s “jam club.” It’s kind of like book club, but you play music with other aging hipsters. My thought was that this would likely be kept to the garage or basement or wherever. Instead, I started writing a bunch of songs and “jam club” turned into band rehearsal.
So, I would say there is no specific goal other than having a no-drama, supportive and fun place to hang, make music and ignore the fact that we are getting old. Being able to put out records that I am proud of is a huge bonus. Also, I’m really excited to finally put out a vinyl LP. That is like a 25-year goal finally being realized!
Check out Protest Kids at protestkids.com.