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Mary Chain’s Michael Brennan: Jim and William are like two parts of the same brain

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FIFE – SCOTLAND | Front of House sound engineer Michael Brennan (49) has a mindblowing resumé. Before hooking up with The Jesus and Mary Chain he worked with, among others, Primal Scream, The Ramones, Faith No More, Snow Patrol, My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai and The Cure. Under his directions, The Disciples of Mary, a band consisting solely of Mary Chain crew members, created three brilliant JAMC-covers. And there’s more to come.

Hester Aalberts | Photographs by Mark Crozer and by the courtesy of Michael Brennan

How have you been holding up in this COVID madness?

Pretty well. Luckily I have a small studio in my bedroom where I can get some work done. Also, I very much like to cook for my family. I am a pretty good cook, if I may say so.

 How did you end up in the music business?

My father had a PA company. Ever since the seventies he was on tour with Manfred Mann, Nazareth and other rock bands from back then. This was before mobile phones and the internet, so twice a week he would call my mum and me from a pay phone. I remember he always ran out of coins! I told myself I’d never do a job like that, being away all the time.

My father was involved with Tennents Live Tours, the precursor to the Scottish music festival T In The Park. As we supplied the equipment I met a lot of indie bands. When I was seventeen, one of the bands asked me to come along on their European tour. From one thing came the other and I have been on tour virtually ever since.

Tell me about Sub Station, your recording studio.

That all started about twenty five years ago. After touring I would come home and be bored. The production of music always had my interest and I had already recorded some albums for bands I worked with. But gradually my bedroom studio work took over the whole house, so I eventually moved to a place that now has six rehearsal rooms and two recording studios! However, due to COVID I am temporarily back in my old bedroom.

 You are away from home a lot, just like your father used to be …

Correct. My three sons are older now (16, 19, 24). However, before I go on tour, I always get stressed and anxious about leaving. I actually feel ill. Luckily, after a day or two I am fine. And my family is okay with it too; my sons can pretty much do whatever they want when I am away, and my wife gets some peace and quiet. But before COVID brought down the Darklands tour, I dreaded the thought of being away for nine whole months. However, I could never have imagined we wouldn’t be touring for over a year. So I learned to be careful what I wish for.

 What is your main responsibility as Front of House sound engineer?

I have to make sure that – sound wise – the audience experiences a perfectly balanced show which does the band justice in the best possible way. It is a huge responsibility, because I have to translate the band’s story sonically to the people. I am constantly monitoring everything during a show and in my brain it’s like [speaks really fast]: ‘Snare drum, hi-hat, cymbal, bass drum, bass, rhythm guitar, William’s guitar, digidigidigidig …’

 How do you figure out what a band wants sound wise?

I talk in depth with them about their desired sound. Otherwise, I’d have to keep guessing all the time. There’s usually one person in charge. Robert Smith, for example, is the undisputed leader of The Cure. In The Mary Chain there are obviously two leaders. But the Reids are like complementary parts of the same brain, if you wish. That exceptional feature, of the Reids being one, might well be the determining factor of their unique sound.

I find it much harder to work with bands where there is a total democracy. That usually doesn’t work, because it’s often too much of a compromise while making a record. Or a decision for that matter.

Do you have a preference for certain bands?

Most certainly! It is important for me to relate to the bands I work with. More so than making money or being with a famous band. Mutual respect and loyalty are crucial in a working relationship. I don’t mind being told how it should be. Neither do I feel restricted in any way to reply how I think it should be. The result is all that counts.

I can take a lot of shit from musicians, provided that we are pulling the same rope and that when the show is over they become normal people again. I can usually indulge in their stage persona. After all, it’s a performance. But if they remain assholes after coming off stage, that is a problem for me. Luckily that seldom happens.

How did you end up with Reids?

Through the tour manager of Primal Scream. He had covered some shows for The Mary Chain but they didn’t have a crew. So he asked some of the Primal Scream crew members. That was about ten years ago. After that I worked for The Mary Chain on and off. It’s rather a small world, almost incestuous. I also know Alan McGee for example, their manager back then, because of my Creation connection. And I was on the Mogwai tour with Simon Smith, their current tour manager and former drummer of The Wedding Present. So all pieces organically fell into place. Serendipity, I guess.

The Wedding Present – Simon Smith with glasses

In what way did The Jesus and Mary Chain differ from other indie bands?

The majority of bands I worked with considered success to be uncool and they resented the main stream pop scene. None of them wanted to be on Top of the Pops for example … except The Jesus and Mary Chain; they wanted to be genuine rock stars!

 It’s said instructions given by the Reids to band members are minimal.

I am not surprised! As of day one, Jim and William have always been in charge of their own music. When I recorded with them in the studio recently, I witnessed at first hand that they are the producers of their own records. So I would see why band members aren’t told what to do; they have to play what’s on the record.

Both Jim and William are always extremely stressed before a gig. Is that stress contagious?

No, it isn’t. But the fact they’re both so nervous amazes me. After all, they are fantastic artists with brilliant songs. Why can’t they focus on that? Maybe it’s a Scottish thing, I don’t know. But the members of the crew try to make them feel as comfortable as possible before a show, by popping into their dressing room to say hi or bringing them a cup of tea or coffee. William drinks tea and Jim drinks coffee. They both like Scottish Tunnock’s Teacakes to go with it.

Your job is pretty scary: if a concert fails sound wise, all eyes are on you!

Absolutely! But I do anything to make the band sound the best way possible. I used to play football and my excitement right before a concert is to be compared to what I felt when a game was about to start. The moment that the band comes on stage I want everything to be perfect. But as soon as they start, I am on a roll … And I can get completely immersed in a gig. Sometimes I am so focussed on the sound that I can’t see! That may be hard to believe, but it’s true. All energy goes to my ears.

Did you ever ‘fuck up’?

Yes, with Primal Scream. I never told this to anyone before. We toured Screamadelica Live about seven or so years ago, and we needed the original recordings to reproduce the authentic sound of the record. But nobody could find the bloody tapes! They were lost. Still are. It took us months to reproduce all the sounds, including – for example – samples of cartoons from the sixties. A hell of a job. The stage manager and I went to the studio. Primal Scream had only six musicians on stage; an insufficient number to reproduce the record properly. So earlier, during rehearsals, I secretely taped the backing vocals, knowing it would be good for the production. I am actually telling you the tricks of the trade here! Anyway, one month into the tour and – unknown to me – the band had told the stage manager to rearrange ‘Movin’on Up’ and he cut out certain sections. So during the gig all of a sudden these chorus backing vocals come out of the PA! And the band was like ‘What the fuck is that?’ For a minute I was afraid they would fire me on the spot!

Primal Scream – Movin’ on Up – Glastonbury 2011

Are there particular challenges for a sound engineer working with The Mary Chain?

Well, there is a thirty two year time gap between Psychocandy and Damage and Joy. A concert consists of songs derived from that complete timespan and it’s my job to blend them together into one coherent sound experience. So, although I do need to preserve that eighties sound, I also have to modernise certain elements to make them match with more contemporary tracks from – for example – Damage and Joy.

During the upcoming tour, Brian Young faces the inhuman challenge of reproducing the drum machine used on Darklands. Is there any way in which you can help him?

[Starts laughing] I am pretty amazed you come up with this subject, because we already did! I hope I am not spilling secrets here, but we got the original recordings of Darklands and reproduced them sounding as close to the original as possible, but now in a humanly feasible manner.

April Skies – Barrowland Ballroom – Glasgow 2017

Are you a fan of The Mary Chain?

Absolutely! The rhythm guitarist Scott von Ryper is also a massive fan. We regularly go for a drink together and have endless conversations about -for example- the correct guitar sound. Not like the guitarist and the sound engineer, but as genuine fans of The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Sound wise, are some venues more challenging than others?

Yes. But it has become second nature to me, tuning the PA system to a particular venue and taking the sound of the band into consideration while doing so. On big tours we have technical experts – so called system techs – that are worth their weight in gold! They particularly focus on the acoustics of a room and – with the help of modern PA’s – they’re capable of tuning every single element of the PA system to make the room sound differently. They record the sounds in the room, the ambiance, and adjust each speaker accordingly. You can even send the PA company a program of what you want upfront, so 90% of the work is already done before the band arrives. The technology nowadays is incredible.

Amputation – Damage and Joy – 2017

What is your favorite and your most challenging JAMC-song?

All the songs from Psychocandy are a challenge, because I have to find that delicate balance between the eighties heritage sound and modern age. My favorite songs to mix in the current set are Reverence and Amputation. In Amputation I can put delays and effects on the vocals and there are also noises popping in and out the track. Also, Brian’s groovy beats remind me of The Happy Mondays. I also very much like April Skies and Darklands. Darklands is like a classic. It could well be fucking Frank Sinatra singing that song. And William’s lyrics are absolutely incredible. I don’t think he gets enough credit for them: the poppiness, the twistedness, his grasp of the language is amazing. The tunes are influenced by the sixties sound and completely bastardized and fucked up by the Reids in a great way. That is what William does with the language as well. He screws these poppy sentiments up and turns them into something incredibly dark. And it’s never ever contrived.

Reverence – 1992

The band’s post-show action seems pretty tame. Does the crew get plastered every night?

No, we don’t. After every four or five shows we get a day off and then we usually go out for a meal, grab a couple of beers and hang out. But we never get hammered or anything. Our lives are not as glamorous as people sometimes think they are. We get up early, work hard all day and get to bed late … Besides, we’re all getting a bit older. It’s the same with Jim, William and the rest of the band. We all have to look after ourselves, because it’s a tough, hard life. But we love it and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Note from the author:

Right now the crew members of The Jesus and Mary Chain are devoid of any income. The 2020 Darklands Tour would last over a hunderd days, but due to COVID the band only performed once. There are three ways in which the fans are able to help them out a bit:

By ordering the online EP by the crew band DISCIPLES OF MARY with an ever growing number of brilliant Jesus and Mary Chain covers http://bit.ly/3ohZc9J

By ordering the limited edition crew T-shirt, including the above mentioned EP
UK/EU http://bit.ly/2LoBo5y | Rest of the world http://bit.ly/38iuisa

By making a donation http://bit.ly/3ome9aW
100% of the income goes directly to the JAMC Touring Crew. Thank you all!