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.