Getting Engaged; An interview with Keith Xenos of Brother Reverend

Conceived in Atlanta, Georgia, and executed in New York City, Brother Reverend is a musical group founded by Keith Xenos with drummer Fletcher Liegerot (Cat Power) and comprised of various derelict musician friends. The band cites the chords of Ray Davies, the commitment of Dylan and the arrangements of Curtis Mayfield as an influence. They love bouncy up-tempo music like the Beach Boys, but with an element of darkness and ruin underneath it all.
Imagine the Motown house-band playing behind Ian McCulloch from Echo & the Bunnymen with lyrics by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, executive produced by William Burroughs, and with on-site security provided by Phil Spector and you’re in the ballpark.The sentiments of John Cassavetes, the speeches of Malcolm X, and the style of Sergio Leone share equal import with the Bee Gees, Link Wray, and Desmond Dekker for Brother Reverend.
Ghettoblaster caught up with Xenos to discuss the evolution of the record, working with J.B. Flatt (A.C. Newman) and how he digests music.
When did you first begin writing the material for The Tables Turn Too Often?
Well, this record is sort of a hodge-podge of different sessions, with the earliest dating back to 2012. “Off Off Track Betting” was the B-side on the Louse Trap EP, which was released in 2012, so that’s the earliest recorded track on the record. I distinctly remember writing “OOTB” in my apartment in Bushwick one night after a date canceled on me at the last minute. We were supposed to go to the museum. But the song’s not about that at all. It’s about petty thievery, sex, and cowardice.
“North by Sunset” refers to an intersection in Atlanta and was actually written earlier, but it sat around for a while until I was ready to record it. I love Yona’s guitar parts on that one.
“Carry The Difference” was originally recorded as a more upbeat number, but at the last minute I decided to slow it down so the lyrics could breathe. The song started with me trying to rip-off the intro to “Say You” by The Temptations, and then I just built it up from there. The title is slang for “carrying a weapon”—the only difference between you and the other guy. It’s basically about a gang of extremely well-mannered prostitutes.
“Family Housing” was also recorded around this time. Alex’s “Smooth Criminal” bass line on the verses really makes the whole song. I ran out of time to finish writing satisfactory lyrics for the chorus, so “woo woo woo” is what ya get.
That iteration of the band eventually split up around 2014, but I was determined to finish the record on my own. I was working in a liquor store at the time, and for the next three years I would just write, rehearse, and save up enough dough to record in the studio a few days a month… over and over again. I would write a new song, make a demo, and rehearse it with Fletcher. When a song was ready to record, I’d bring in friends to come play it with us. I like to record live with minimal overdubs, so that required more rehearsals. Everything was also tracked directly to 16-track tape, which can take longer than recording on the computer. Working on the record was the only thing that kept me sane at the time, because the rest of my life was kind of a drag.
It was during this later period that the newer songs were written. “Tables” was written in a more “modern” style as an overture or introduction to the rest of the album. I also wanted to see how many chord changes I could cram into one song. I was listening to a lot of George Jones around this time, and “Anything New” was an attempt to write a country song that didn’t sound like a country song, but more like “Candy Says” by the Velvet Underground. The rest of the songs were written pretty quickly, but it took a lot of time to figure out the best way to arrange and record them.
Tell us a little about yourselves. Keith, you’re from Atlanta, and Fletcher fromm NYC. How did you meet?
Oh, we’re actually both from Atlanta, but we never crossed paths down there. We met in NYC through a mutual friend who used to play guitar with us. Fletcher is prone to violence, missing one tooth, and has t-shirts of bands I’ve never heard of. I would describe myself as severely out of my element.
We’re big fans of “Monkee” around here. It might not even be our favorite song. But that chorus is just so catchy. We can’t get it out of our heads. That said, we don’t know what it’s about.
“Monkee” is a song about a person checking themself into the hospital for what celebrities commonly refer to as “exhaustion.” The first part is the intake dialogue between the nurse and patient, but it’s intentionally unclear who is addressing whom at times. It switches back and forth and some of the lines are just the narrator’s own mutterings. I like to play around with tense, speaker, and recipient. Then the instrumental outro section of the song begins with a prolonged period of chaos and noise, but eventually breaks and ends with a quiet lullaby. I’m curious to hear what YOU thought it was about!
What was JB Flatt’s involvement with the record? There’s definite hints to Carl Newman here.
JB is an incredibly versatile musician who is most certainly possessed by genius. I would send him rough mixes of what I wanted him to play on, and he would come to the recording session with the handwritten score for the entire song! It was the first time I’d ever seen the actual music notation for one my songs written out on manuscript paper, and not just scribbled in my notebook with chords and numbers. So I’d tell him the vibe I was looking for on a particular song, and if it wasn’t exactly right, it was easy to get there because we share the same musical language.
For example, on “North by Sunset,” I think he had originally played it in a more gospel style. It wasn’t quite working, so I said to try something “less Aretha” and more “Nicky Hopkins circa ’68 Beggar’s Banquet.” And he nailed it! He also had the cool idea of putting the “Hendrix chord” (in this case a B7#9) over the Bm chord in the verses. Basically, the guy’s a total pro, he’s got a ton of soul, and he’s a friend I wish I saw more of.
We know you’re grounded in many of the classics. But what artists are you listening to these days? Any artists we should be aware of?
I don’t really get around to listening to much current stuff because I’m usually traveling on my own back roads that lead me to different things. I always love whatever my friends are doing.
My buddy Turner Cody is a great songwriter. I haven’t even listened to music lately because the air conditioner in my apartment is so loud that it ruins it for me. When I listen to music it’s kind of a special event. It’s not something I usually just put on in the background. I like to sit in front of the stereo and really pay attention and feel emotionally engaged with what is playing. It’s a magical feeling that I can’t get from listening through earbuds on my phone. I’m usually wearing earplugs anyway when I’m outside or on the train. There’s music playing everywhere you go now- every store, every lobby, every coffee shop, the subway platform, in the park. It’s too much. It’s enough to make you hate music and forget how wonderful it can make you feel. So I’m waiting for the temperature to drop so I can start listening to music again.
What’s next in the world of Brother Reverend? Any possibility of touring? With teases of light shows, DJs and films, it seems like you put on quite a show.
Right now we’re playing locally and figuring out a possible tour next year. I’m always working on new songs and the next record is about 80 percent written. Our live show is pretty stripped down at the moment. Our old organ player had the 16mm projector that we’d use to show movies behind us. I would borrow the actual film reels from the NYC library. I’m not sure if they still let you do that.
Website | Facebook