A Fond Farewell: Michael O. Brandt, 1962 – 2020

I’ve had a week now to think about the life and soloing of my bassist, keyboardist, Chapman stick-ist, rehearsal host, occasional chef, gourmet solder-er, fellow musical traveler, and old friend Mike Brandt, who left us way too soon this past October 30th. Like a few in our circle have done this week, I wanted to commit some thoughts to web-memory of our friendship and music these past 23 years.

The non-musical part of his obituary (PDF) sums up Mike beautifully, for which I can only offer more examples. He lived much like he worked – way, way away from the busy-ness of everyone’s day-to-day activities. In the Department of Chemistry at Syracuse University, his office was deep, deep down in the elbow of a hallway with NMRs to his north, a chemical stockpile to his west, and dear Sally's flanking glass shop and office. Cats, plants, pinball machines, electronic and mechanical do-hickeys from across the history of modern science on the campus, and mercy repairs from people and departments splayed out on workbenches all filled a room large enough to have been turned into its own narrow, meditative walking path. The first rehearsals of the “then” Free Radicals (a chemistry nod to the collective location of Mike, myself, and our fearless leader Sean Kelly) started with a 35 minute drive out to Moon Hill Road – an absolutely treacherous ascent for a VW Beetle or any other low-clearance car in anything but the most pleasant weather (cancellations were less about the weather and more about the condition of the road, with the alternate routes taking as long as the rehearsal itself). By foot or by car, both trips were just long enough that you planned to stay just a bit longer to let the hang happen as it did.

Of course, no distance is completely safe. On campus, the many repair projects on his workbench brought in by people made that clear. Even Moon Hill ended up being just “up the road,” from which the story of my then-drums (and Sean’s guitars) being stolen from Mike’s place by an antiquities-stealing-crack-addict-who-was-part-of-a-police-sting-operation-to-catch-a-west-side-drug-kingpin story originates (because Mike’s ONE CLOSE NEIGHBOR was an antique shop at the bottom of Moon Hill Road).

Genius? Perfect SAT? All-around whiz? You’d have never guessed if you only met him once or twice, but you’d have not been at all surprised after knowing him for just a short time. Maybe he just preferred to quietly watch what the world was doing, maybe he was busy playing 4D chess with the world while the rest of us were snacking on paste, maybe he was running a million miles an hour upstairs but was blessed with a pedal board filled with filters that separated his mind from his vocal cords when he would have otherwise pounced on a topic. The world may never know. But there was a certain look – when he was thinking about something that needed some depth, there was a brow rumpling and quick dash of the eyes that prepared you to be ready for the imparting of the heavy wisdom.

Onto the music – you just weren’t ready for what Mike was capable of by key or string. I have had the good fortune of playing with a bunch of very good players in my time, but Michael Brandt was not only the best and my personal favorite bass player (period.), but also one of the most melodic and complex soloists I’ve ever had the good fortune to groove behind. He dragged a keyboard to a rehearsal to fill out an instrumental tune we’d been working on and my jaw just dropped on the first pass of his intro – then he ran double-duty mid-way, driving keys with his right and his trusty Steinberger with his left. If he weren’t the kind and friendly human being he was, you’d have been really annoyed that someone had that kind of facility on any instrument, much less (at least) three.

In all, we played in three bands over 18 years. Two gigs were for Chemistry Department events with Dr. (“smokin’) Joe (what’s”) Chaiken(“?”), where the drumset was twice a donated Dell shipping box. We had a short but wonderful run (with Sean) as the backup band for Jolie Rickman during her loud-punk phase (and were part of the musical backup on Sublime Detonation). And, of course, an 18-year run as a trio playing around various locations in Syracuse (The Inn Complete, The Buzz Cafe, The Metro, Happy Endings, the campus Funk and Waffle, and other fine dining locations), with the band having outlasted a few of those locations we played and, in one case, two changes of ownership for a single location). Musically, Sean and I now have fond memories of lousy pizzas, caustic hot pepper flakes, 6:30 Simpsons reruns, scratchy videos of Austin City Limits or Rush videos, and (more than) a hundred hours of rehearsal recordings and performances to revisit (as the re-named “Funktion Key 3”), a tiny sampling of which has been sitting on youtube for several years.

Mike was a one-man/three-instrument college degree for a drummer. You learned how to – and the reason to – lock in as a rhythm section behind someone with a varied musical pallet. You learned the value of knowing the melody of a song and re-iterating it as a soloist to keep all players of all capabilities anchored and comfortable. You learned how to contribute as a drummer to the bottom end when the bassist left the ground on some unreal musical exploration. You experienced the joy of becoming familiar enough with someone else’s playing style and variations that sub-conversations became second-nature. You could throw some subtle additions in the background behind a soloist like two school kids in the back row talking about the lunch menu while the teacher was doing math at the chalkboard (if they still have those). And, given the time doing it, we got to the point where no forethought was necessary – once the music started, you could just focus on the music knowing anyone could take it anywhere and all would not only follow, but provide commentary. It’s tough to get nervous at a gig when the tightrope is wider than a six-lane highway. He changed and greatly improved how I played, for which I will be forever thankful.

I last saw him this past February on a brief visit to the SU campus (before COVID ended such visits for the year) and am happy to have a view of his labyrinth-of-a-workspace and a last bear hug of a send-off to remember him by (my instigating, of course).

And trains. Big-time trains, on which both he and my kiddo now agree.

For your listening pleasure, I refer you, to start, to our Reverb Nation page and selection of curated youtube videos – including the embed below – most of a "But be quiet – the owner doesn't really like drummers" gig from The Buzz Cafe on September 26th of 2014, which now feels like ages ago.

The Methodist Bells – "Esso" – World Famous Moletrax Studios, 19-20 March 2016

Posted in its entirety for your listening pleasure at bandcamp.com and embedded below. For additional context, check out the other, later-later studio session – Sub Rosa Session #32 at Subcat Studios on 21 August 2016, as well as the interview Clem did with the Daily Orange, which goes into some of the details of the history of the session (and the origin of the name, Esso). From the article:

The title of the album, "Esso," is a reference to the Exxon Mobil Corporation. Besides just liking the way the word sounds, Coleman says that he also likes the way that gas stations have a nostalgic feel to them, especially the way they look in old photographs.

"I like the thought that there's an old liter of gasoline out there in some rusting tractor that was sold as Esso gasoline but that it still might power up and engine and make it run for a few minutes." – Clem Coleman

* Recorded at the World Famous Moletrax Studios in Syracuse, NY. For the record (no pun intended), Jeff Moleski made Grove Havener at the Liverpool Limp Lizard sound like Pink Floyd at Pompeii. Twice.

* Find The Methodist Bells on Facebook, Myspace (no kidding!), and Bandcamp. Then, when in Syracuse, go see'em.

* Like it? Go ahead and buy it. All proceeds go to reminding musicians that their efforts matter.

Pearls Of Wisdom

As a random aside, a few things I learned from nearly two full days of recording 12 tracks in, mostly, one take:

1. Tune For Attack – Long, pure tones may be great at the gig when you want them heard beyond the bandstand – and jazzers know that the higher tuning gets your out of the register of the main melodic/harmonic instruments (think piccolo in Stars & Stripes Forever). When the mic is "right there," tone and sustain can be overkill, esp. when you intend on playing a lot of notes. Get yourself a sharp attack and let the mic pick up the rest, else keep those fills simple.

First day at the office.

2. Limit The Variables By Limiting Your Choices – There is one obvious spot in one song where I wanted a different sound and, in a mad hurry, hit a flat ride where a crash would have been more appropriate – and I didn't use the flat ride in that particular tune otherwise. You're welcome to listen intently to see if you can pick it out.

Photographing the reporting of the recording.

3. Got Limited Time? Percussion = Later-Later – Every sound source above and beyond what the song needs is another chance to butcher the smooth consistency of the other drums and cymbals. Shooting for 1st or 2nd take? Keep it simple.

Mole is out of his mind – and knows what he's doing.

4. Limit Your Range Of Dynamics – I was happy to have this validated by Matt Johnson in his drumeo lesson recently (If good enough for Jeff Buckley…). You get more tone – and more control over what you hear – when you play to the tuning of the drum (and more so the cymbal).

Adam about to get punched by Mole.

5. Play The Song, Stupid – Have a good idea that might make something sound really new and spiffy? If you've got two days to track, four other people playing, and haven't played it before, then try it at the next gig instead. See #2 above.

Clem sez it's good.

6. Don't Forget The Songs – Other instruments can be punched in later if wrong notes and the like happen. Drumming? In this kind of a recording environment, not so much. The solution is simple – know how to play the entire song from memory and be ready to do so as if no one else is playing with you. If all else fails, there are far worse things than just laying down a drum track and moving on.

One day there…

7. Washy Cymbals – In retrospect, I would have left the A Customs at home and picked something with a sharper attack and less sustain. My mistake for not having spent more time listening to how they record with close mics and warm drums.

…the next day gone.