Transcript of Alex's interview with Brick and Mortar frontman Brandon Asraf. Some words omitted for brevity and clarity.
Alex: Okie doke you are Brandon Asraf, you are the lead singer of Brick and Mortar, could you introduce yourself and kinda just give a little description about the band and what you do?
Brandon: Ok, as you said my name is Brandon Asraf, my middle name is Ruben actually by the way. I thought I’d list all the stuff that someone needs to steal your identity (laugh).
A: Yeah yeah, mother’s maiden name, (laugh) three digits on the back.
B: Yeah, right…My name is Brandon Asraf, I'm in a band called Brick and Mortar. We're basically a duo, based out of Asbury Park New Jersey, we’ve been a band for probably over 10 years and yeah. I’m the main songwriter, write all the lyrics, it’s basically about my life, even the figurative things that sound like they’re not about my life are about my life, and yeah we’ve been lucky enough to have a weird little trajectory, we were signed then dropped, kept going. Y’know we’re an independent band basically, and we’ve like a passionate fanbase so hopefully we keep it that way, but that’s me.
A: That’s preddy good, I’m gonna start you out with a silly question after that; you go to the deli, you get a sandwich, what’s the best sandwich you could be going with?
B: The best sandwich?
A: Yeah, if you could get any sandwich
B: Well I’m gonna get a roast beef with probably provolone, mixed greens, red onions, and extra oil and vinegar, tomatoes if they look fresh enough but if they’re like kinda greenish, fuck that, y’know what i mean? If they’re not …….
B: And really only roast beef if they make it in house, don’t give me thumans? Don’t give me processed,
A: Yeah, that good roast beef
B: Yeah, that house made shit, don’t come at me with, you know I don’t want you to unwrap it from plastic.
A: So I know when I was doing some research for this interview and getting some background information, you’ve talked about it, you’ve been based in Asbury park in new jersey, and you grew up playing in the coffee shop. How has that developed your musical style and general trajectory?
B: Well in the beginning when I was like 14 years old we played actually in a coffee shop called the java joint that was not in Asbury, it was a couple towns away, because Asbury now is a cool town that rich people live in, but when I moved here it was like the dilapidated town that musicians moved to. I didn’t move until I was in my 20s. When we first started we were playing this place in Tom’s River NJ which was a little south of here. And it was a coffee shop and all we would do is we would go there and I would play bass and John would play drums and we would just improv the whole time, so basically what that taught me was everything about how to write a song without even knowing it bc I would just rip all these bass lines and improv, I didn’t sing and I didn’t so other stuff, but the constant improvisation of ideas and playing in front of crowds and not knowing what you’re doing made it easier later when I did start singing to kind of not be nervous anymore, so basically we spent a bunch of years playing as an instrumental duo; we called ourself the black rhythm at that point, it was just like the myspace era time y’know what I mean? Yeah that’s how it started and there was a gap in the years where we became garbagemen and school picture guy, workers and shit, and around 24, I was like damn, maybe I should try and fake singing and see if I can do it. So I wrote these songs and all these kinda vocal parts and brought them to John and i was like we could make these songs, let’s try to do it and we did because we were already kind of performing some of these songs but they weren’t really put together, it was more like I had a singing part that I would sing and then we would play in between and I would sing again and that was the beginning of Brick and Mortar before it was recorded. Then we went in and made our first brick and mortar recording called seven years in the mystic room and that kinda solidified us as an actual “i guess we’re a band.” Because before that we were kind of 2 guys who played, but all the singing I was totally faking it, I didn’t start until I was 24-25 so that’s pretty old to start singing, y’know it’s probably older than you. (laugh)
A: It is yeah, (laugh) it’s a crazy journey for you bc weren’t you essentially booed off stage when you first started singing or did you stay up there as they were booing you?
B: Basically, alright the first time ever I sung ever at the java joint and all they wanted to hear was me doing instrumental bass and I sang and it sucked right, it was terrible.
A: That’s how it goes, that’s how it goes right.
B: But I knew if I did that, it would be the most embarrassing moment of my life and it would never be worse than that,
A: Oh definitely.
B: Therefore I subjected myself in a small way to that embarrassment, and it never mattered ever again, because I think the moment you are referring to is when we opened for jimmy eat world and we were already Brick and Mortar, and I remember I saw my first review and the review was that the drummer was really talented but that the singer sounded like a dead cat. That’s what it was, and I was like cool. But I don’t know; I’ve always taken criticism and stuff well,
B: Because of my childhood and traveling a lot when I was little and meeting all sorts of different characters, good guys and bad guys, criminals and stuff like that; I just knew that the world is full of human beings more than people realize
B: There’s so many people, and a bunch of people aren’t going to like you and that’s it, get over it.
A: That’s just how life goes.
B: That’s just how life goes, even if you go to a concert, most people on earth don’t go to concerts, a select group of people go, because if everybody went every show would be sold out, but it’s not. If you think about it, music is like food, y’know. Like I hate mustard, what if I’m someone’s mustard?
A: I agree, mustard is terrible.
B: Like what can I do about it if I’m someone’s mustard?
A: Yeah that’s a really good outlook. Thank you, next question we have; your father was banned from the US for being a blood diamond smuggler right, and kind of a general con man,
B: Well supposedly he ran a diamond smuggling operation from what I’ve been privy to,
B: He also did other cons, escaped the country when I was ten because they were going to arrest him, he basically got tipped off by someone in the police force because there was some deal set up or something, jumped in a trunk, left the country, didn’t come back, ever. But when I was in high school his mother started dying; and this is why my dad is an interesting character right, because he is a sweet person that was also a criminal. But there’s some redeeming qualities about this human because what kind of a bad guy knows that if he goes to visit his mom there’s a 99.9% chance that he’ll be caught, his mom is dying and he goes to visit her knowing he’ll get caught, says goodbye, goes to leave Israel and gets caught by the facial recognition software and gets sent back to America. So he knew he would get caught, but still went to go visit her. What an interesting storyline,
B: Because ‘bad guy selfish, bad guy etc.’ but then you think, how many people who did that and got away with it would then voluntarily get caught? He gets caught, brought back to America, sits in jail, they question him, he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t say anything, and they decide it makes sense just for us to deport him since he was an immigrant anyway, and we’ll just have him never be allowed to come back; so that’s what they did instead of putting him in jail. So that’s the story, and now he can’t come back.
A: Now he can’t come back. You were touring in Germany right, for your first international show, and he didn’t show up, and that was a mindset change for you right? On kinda who you’re playing your music for?
B: Well it was definitely a hard thing because, y’know I had my first European tour and I put him on my list every night actually, for every single show, and he didn’t come to any of them. And I was really upset, because I guess psychologically the whole reason I did what I did wasn’t to get girls or the traditional reasons, the whole reason I did what I did was to make my own story, like my dad wasn’t an outlaw. I wanted to have my own story, but I also wanted him to somehow see it, right? Which is a different relationship now, and since then I have went to go visit him and all this stuff and I realized that the reason he didn’t come is that he wasn’t doing too well. Like he didn’t have shit, as an end of criminal guy they got nothing, y’know. So obviously I could be mean and say I’ll never forgive him, but I kind of forgave my dad for me. Because that was like the first time I talked to my family in like a decade, I pretty much kept to myself; that wasn’t very mentally healthy for me. So yeah it was tragic, if it was a movie you would be pissed watching seeing this guy put a name on the list every night and crying in the back of the fuckin’ venue. But life is tough sometimes, that is funny though, not funny but tragic.
A: Yeah, I was curious what you meant by funny.
B: I mean in the sense like it happened to me, but it’s more sad when I think about it as an outside story. Because I’m an empathetic person, and I guess I’m forgiving. So since that story happened and I’ve gone to visit my dad and just have a different outlook on some things. He’s still wrong for not doing it, but I don’t know. I think he’s a genuinely good person to a degree if that makes sense.
A: Yeah I know; you kinda have to look at him as a whole person and not just as certain actions people take.
B: Yes, exactly.
A: On a completely different tone, the person who was going to do the interview with me, I know he does a lot of musical stuff but he wasn’t able to make it today, he wanted to know how often you change your bass strings?
B: Um, not often. Probably like if I’m going to go on a tour I’ll change them, if not probably every five months.
A: Five months, ok.
B: I’m not like a believer in that.
A: Don’t think it will do enough?
B: I mean, how bright do you need it to sound? It’s a bass though, y’know what I mean.
A: I know, yeah.
B: Y’know I play bass, but I’m not like writing on bass all the time so more of when I’m playing bass is when I’m on tour. I’ve been playing bass at my house, but it’s not where the majority of the songs have been written from. Some are written from guitar, some are written on computer, y’know there’s so many different ways. Yeah, so with bass strings I know dudes who don’t change their bass strings unless they have to. Like unless they’re fucked up. So basically, some people don’t change their bass strings and they’ll be like ‘I like the warm sound,’ and another guy who plays bass will be like ‘they sound dead.’ Y’know what I mean? Some people like the thumpiness of it being kinda dead and some people want the bass strings to sound like it’s Rush, very clear and tinny.
A: Yeah yeah; ok so since I’ve been watching your Instagram stories and such, I know social media marketing is so important for so many different metrics now in kind of a way that it hasn't been in the past and it’s a difficult world to manage as an independent artist. How do you work through that? Is it like an annoyance, do you enjoy some parts of it or would you wish you didn’t even have to think about it?
B: uumm, I love it and I hate it at the same time. When I’m not mentally healthy I don't enjoy it so much, but I do love that I feel actively engaged with the fans that I have and everything like that, and I’m able to actually communicate with people. Also, y’know, you live in modern society so that’s how you meet people.
A: That’s true.
B: You don’t meet people from walking down the street. Like you can, but you can only meet the people who already live by you. And amazingly, you can talk to people from everywhere; so I do like it in that sense. But let me tell you I have a theory that we’re about to all the streaming and all the artists that you think are popular become exposed, and you’re going to see that record labels are buying fake streams, and that things are being hyped up, and they’re smoke and mirrors. Because right now I’m even seeing promotional companies make posts about how they think that’s happening.
B: I feel like, how do you know that somebody’s Instagram followers are all real, or they;re real humans? You don’t really know,
A: Yeah, it’s so easy to buy bots and just buy fake influence on your social media accounts.
B: Yes. And we never did that, so it’s like y’know the thing that’s frustrating for me is that, social media wise, we have like 12,000 followers Instagram which isn’t shit but we have 70,000 followers that listen to us pretty much every day on spotify; so there’s like a disconnect between people who listen us and people who follow us. But then I see other bands where it’s reversed. They have 100,000 followers, and then you look at who’s listening and there’s not as many people really listening all the time.
A: That consistency is really impressive, that you got those listeners there for you.
B: What I’m saying is that we don’t have our listeners connected to our social media, which makes us less valuable as a band, to the labels.
B: That’s what I don’t like. It’s that you’re really not judged on how many people want to listen to you, you’re judged on how many watches you can sell if you get a brand deal. So what they really want…They don’t really care if anybody listens to you, which that’s the thing that I don’t like about it.
A: Oh, yeah.
B: When these record labels are telling you ‘we want you to do social media more,’ what they’re really saying to you young artists out there is they’re saying ‘we want you to do advertising for yourself so we don’t have to fuckin’ pay for it, and we want you to do it every day, and if one of your videos goes viral we can claim it’s a win for us, even though you did it.’
B: So that’s the part of it that I find to be interesting, is that we’re all doing the job labels used to do.
A: Yeah so they’ve kind of pushed it onto you.
B: Yes! But we all still want to get signed, and when your shit pops off and you win, the record label takes credit for that, but when it doesn’t it’s your fault (laugh)
B: That’s the weird part about the business, I notice.
A: It’s definitely kind of this weird world you’re living in where it’s all your fault if everything, but you’re not responsible if everything goes right.
B: Yeah if everything goes right it was ‘everybody did it.’
A: So we were talking about Spotify listeners and you have a pretty good solid base that’s behind you. Do you get data about where in the world people are listening to you on Spotify? B: Yeah I do.
A: Where is most surprising that you’re seeing a lot of listens?
B: Russia, Eastern Europe, like Kazakhstan and stuff like that. Like basically all over the world. ‘Cause right now we’re like half United States and half the rest of the whole world.
A: That’s kind of crazy.
B: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It’s actually more than that, we have about 800,000 monthly listeners, and 320-350 thousand of them are from America, and the rest are all over.
A: That’s a pretty big amount not in the US as a US based band; that’s wild.
B: Which makes it very hard to get those people, think about this, everybody in each one of those places, they have different websites for social media.
A: Yeah, is that maybe one of the reasons you have a disconnect between your social media and your following music wise?
B: I mean it could be. But also as far as touring and everything, we do pretty good. But if you’re being listened to all over the world, that’s a bunch of separate places, you can’t go to all of them. As opposed to if you had the same amount of listeners in the US, they’re all kinda contained in a tangible place.
A: Yeah definitely; that was actually really surprising, thank you for that. You’ve talked about how a lot of your music is about you and working through your feelings, do you kind of use it as like therapy or as a way to process how you’re feeling or is it more kinda you’ve thought about it beforehand and want to process it for others to feel about it in that way?
B: I think it’s like a simultaneous thing, I’m saying things and they’re things that I like to say or things that make me feel, and they make me feel because there’s something behind them. But I don’t really know what’s behind them until I’m reciting it for the tenth time and then crying because it’s so emotional. I’m a very sensitive person in that sense, I will therapeutically just sing five or six different vocal lines over and over again and they’ll kind of work their way together to be one continuous thought. Y’know what I mean?
B: Words are interesting like that, let’s say I was to say “I don’t have shit and my life is a lie, wake up everyday, person in disguise, try to be a hero and didn’t know what to do, look into the mirror and see the villain is you.” That would make me feel something but if I say “I don’t have shit, my life is a lie, wake up everyday, put on a person disguise, but who am I standing in it, who am I, just wait one minute.” That will also make me have a feeling, y’know, but which one is better? I don’t know which one is better, I don't know which one I should sing. But things when you put them together start to develop a feeling, and then if I say another thing, that next thing could be the thing that pushes you emotionally over the edge to actually really feel for it. So my process is like vomiting out these emotional phrases, and then they kinda string themselves together into a song. It’s never very much like ‘I know what song I’m going to write, I know what it’s going to be about.’ It’s more like word vomit that then let show me the song in front of me, and then it feels therapeutic when I string the words together, and I only pick the things that make me tear up or feel some type of way, those are the ones I usually go with. It’s a real long process that sucks; so it’s definitely therapy for me and I used to say that more ‘It’s therapy for me’ until I realized that I need actual therapy (both laugh). Now I’m like, ‘yes it feels therapeutic but Branden you still need therapy, music can’t save you.’
A: Sadly music is not the only way to get out of stress and anxiety…
B: Well it’s like, I’ve expressed my issues but let’s not live them forever, y’know. Because that’s the thing; the song is expressing what you feel but it’s not solving the problem.
A: The problem is still there, it’s not like singing about it made it go away.
B: No. I used to think it would (laughs).
A: So as a two person band, when you put on a performance your live shows have been commended to be very good and you have a great stage presence. Is that part of what you developed to get rid of your stage fright at the coffee…
B: Well I didn’t really have stage fright that much, ever, but I wasn’t really confident at that time, I was sort of quiet. And I guess that more just got me used to playing, right. But what made me not give a fuck on stage was honestly, before Brick and Mortar, I spent a couple years as a henna tattoo guy on seaside heights boardwalk. I didn’t really draw, my brother and I opened a henna tattoo shop and really I would just heckle people to come over. Like “we put the ‘oo’ in tattoo for you! come get a henna tattoo!” I would just heckle people, but then I would start to have people who were jerks and I would just say something fucked up like “Oh you don’t want to get a tattoo with your girlfriend, I think she’s gonna go with somebody else,” or something crazy like that. Like wild dumb shit, but I was just heckling people and they would want to fight me, it would be this whole thing. Y’know what, people would come up and be mad, but I would say it in this playful way, where I would keep talking shit a little bit and then they would eventually laugh and realize I was joking, and not want to beat me up. So that’s what I got out of it. I actually heckled the Jersey Shore guys too, ‘cause I was there the summer that they filmed the first season. And I used to heckle them all the time because they were jerks to everybody. That’s where I developed not giving a fuck, was basically shamelessly calling strangers out..
A: Calling strangers out on the boardwalk…
B: Yeah I’m like one eight carny, y’know what I mean? So it’s kinda that carny, barker thing I was doing. It kinda helped me out in the sense of when I got on stage I just didn’t really care, I was shameless.
A: Yeah I guess that’s a good way to do it.
B: This was like, my storyline just weaved that way.
A: Yeah, life finds a way. As a two person band, does writing music; at any point in the music process do you think about how you’ll reproduce it on stage, with sampling and everything. Because it becomes more complicated in that, or is that just kind of the process of…
B: I just try to not give a fuck, and I just make the best song I can, and then worry about it later, because there’s always a way to do it.
A: So you can always figure it out later…
B: Well yeah, I see a lot of bands too working at concert venues and stuff, and I see the way they do it, I’m like well, you can pretty much do anything.
B: Lil Tecca will literally come up here to 2000 people with the whole song playing and they don’t give a shit: I’m sure that I can figure out how to do…Y’know what I mean? I’m sure it’ll be fine. If someone wants to say ‘Oh it’s not cool to simple that’ or whatever, if it’s not cool that I sampled it, cool, write an essay about it so somebody can read about how much you don’t like me, how about that? That’s where I’m at right now.
A: Yeah, that’s fair; are there any elements of your performance that you’d like to include are kinda unable to, any pizzaz or big shows that you want to add? ‘Cause you’ve got your tour coming up, anything…
B: Yeah, if I had money to do a real production, with multiple people coming and helping me set it up it could be more grandiose; I would love that. I would love if I could have, y’know even if I could have maybe in the future other musicians to do stuff I couldn’t do. Y’know what I mean? I wouldn’t mind that, if we toured more than we are. But right now it just doesn’t make financial sense to do anything like that…
A: So if you were able to, let’s say you hit that success gauge, wherever that may be, that you’re able to put on whatever show you want. What is your ideal show gonna look like?
B: Multiple performance artists acting out the story of the songs in front of you, with different symbolic, artistic interpretations mixed with an amazing light show mixed with an amazing LED visual show that’s also bringing you into the bubble of our universe. Maybe I’d have different performers come out and do guitar solos or parts or things that don’t even exist right now, really make it so that I can take pieces of the songs and make them even bigger than they are, but in a very tasteful way. And then I’d have to listen to the crowd and see if they hate some of that shit. (laughs)
A: I watched your music video for Glamour of a Food Stamp (latest single), it came out a little bit ago, a few months ago…How do you work to create visuals for something like that, where it feels a little bit abstract but still has got a message behind it. How do you work on the art direction for that?
B: Well for that video I just thought about it and said…It really is a peter pan thing, like if I feel like the streetrat aladdin character, where I’m just so comfortable at the bottom, I can persevere, I’m like a roach, you can’t kill me no matter what, I keep going. It doesn’t matter, I could live in squalor, my life could be crazy; I’ll be fine. So the message behind that was kinda like, I grew up that way so that’s why y’know it’s kinda like oh what if we had a roach, a rat, and a dog that were all roommates, they all live together. Because obviously in America, traditionally, roaches and rats are the things that exist when you don’t have nothing. And the dog just smoothed it out to be honest with you.
A: The dog was just there to have a dog?…
B: The dog was just there to be like our companion, y’know. Even if you’re broke you still got a dog right? Like everybody. Basically my idea was kind of saying, ‘look you can make the best out of your life, even if you don’t have shit.’ ‘Cause that’s what I did when I was young, I had a lot of fun, I was a little bit bad, and y’know that’s the glamour of a food stamp
B: and I really also liked the idea of cosplaying these ridiculous characters. So the idea came to me and I was thinking we’ll have this whole thing where we’re all living together and we’re being evicted from the apartment, and that’s why there’s all those pink slips everywhere. ‘Cause when I wouldn’t pay my rent on time at my apartment, that’s my apartment, many times in the past I’ve gotten a little pink slip that says you’d better pay your rent or you’re getting kicked out. So I thought it’d be funny to put those everywhere and the idea was just to live a day in these characters’ lives…and remember being that punk and that messy. I’m better now because I’m older but it was just really a reflection of how it felt to be in a band.
A: Yeah, that makes sense. I think I was listening to another interview you did earlier this year, do you have an upcoming EP coming out this year? Or is it next year? B: It’s this year
A: When in this year can we expect that??
B: I don’t know the exact date, I’m trying to get it done and I’m stuck on the last song…but we’re trying to get it for late summer.
A: Late summer, ok, that’d be pretty sick.
B: Yeah, and I’m not going to say the title because I’m still…
A: Yeah, no pressure. Ok, so we’re based in Tucson, you can’t really see out the window because it’s kinda weirdly tinted because it’s bright outside; KAMP Student Radio from The University of Arizona. I think you’ve played in Tucson at The Rock before, do you remember that at all?
A: Vaguely, ok. Do you have any greater opinions on Tucson or Arizona? We’d love to hear any negative opinions on Tucson or Arizona.
B: I fuckin love desert rats, what are you talking about.
A: You love desert rats, you’re a desert fan?
B: I’m a desert rat fan, I like all you weirdos, I can tell you that…Weirdest fuckin, like I don’t know. Phoenix…wild humans, y’know what I mean? Like just in general. I also like that you guys identify as desert rats; that’s not a thing that people in New Jersey know of, until you’re there and then desert rat is terminology.
A: imma be honest, I don’t think I’ve heard someone recently say desert rat.
B: Really? It’s just punk desert kids who love being from the hot areas of America.
A: That’s fair, sadly your tour is mostly staying on the East coast right?
B: Yeah we’re doing a little bit West but I don’t remember in front of me right now because I’m a fuckin mess.
A: Any chance you might be heading to Tucson or Arizona in a future tour?
B: Probably, y’know this tour is kinda to test the waters because we haven’t done it in a while. That’s the thing about being an independent band, you gotta make sure you don’t fuck up or you’re paying the bill. So we’re going to see if we do well on this tour and if we can we’re going to do the whole West coast thing next time.
A: How does setting up a tour as an independent artist work for you? How does that whole process kinda go?
B: We still have a booking agent and all of that but we have to make sure that between the guarantees and what it’s gonna cost us, hotels and gas and food and all that shit. We gotta make sure it makes sense, so that we’re not just blowing a bunch of money and making nothing. ‘Cause also while we're not there we’re not working, and I can’t tell my landlord ‘hey, I didn’t really work this month.’ (laughs) he’d be like ‘go fuck yourself.’
A: ‘Hey I was over in the West coast this month, I can’t pay rent this month, I hope that’s ok.’
B: Yeah, right, he’d be like ‘it’s ok you can leave.’ But yeah, that’s why.
A: Ok, I think I hit most of my questions and we’re about 30 minutes, is there anything upcoming that you want to plug, anything you want to talk about that’s important to you right now, anything that’s going on in your life that you’d like to share?
B: I guess I’m excited to go on this melting up tour. I hope you guys follow us on all of our social medias. If you guys want to follow us on instagram or tiktok preferably, it’s @Brick and Mortar. Y’know, comment on my stupid videos and make me feel good about myself, that’s about it.