Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: JC Brooks And The Uptown Sound

| June 1, 2013

This shit is easier than it looks.” A humble declaration from the hypnotic frontman of JC Brooks And The Uptown Sound, but one completely removed from reality. Brooks – the once geometric pompadour tousled, pressed suit jacket discarded, Technicolor shirt unbuttoned perilously low with its sleeves rolled and stretched around defined biceps – mutters this phrase with complete conviction toward the close of a groovin’ hometown set at the Congress Theater in April opening for the Greyboy Allstars and Art Neville’s Funky Meters. Standing like a rooster at the lip of the stage, veins bulging from his expanding neck as his fire-breathing voice shoots out atrocities of the heart over a soulful beat, effortless is not the adjective that immediately comes to mind.

If written out as a recipe, Brooks’ flamboyant stage presence would call for the following ingredients: a pinch of Beyonce, a dash of Tina Turner, a drop of Audra McDonald, and a smidgen of Steve Urkel. The singer looks up most to the female powerhouses writers often fail to use in favor of a certain knee-dropping legend when trying to describe his essence. “A lot of guy performers just bore the shit out of me,” Brooks admits backstage in the band’s tight dressing room earlier in the afternoon. “I like watching Tina, Patti [LaBelle], Beyonce. They’re fucking sweating and putting it down every show, and it’s inspirational.”

However, his pre-show demeanor tells a different story. Brooks possesses a mighty howl when the spotlight pierces the screaming fan-filled darkness, but displays a palpable aversion to making small talk and taking the reins during a two-part group interview. Instead, he absentmindedly peels the label off a glass water bottle while propped uneasily on a cooler stocked with clanking bottles of Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat Ale and deli meats. Sure, he’s down a few sentimental treasures after his basement storage area flooded in the deluge that helped propel April into the wettest month on record, but this disengagement doesn’t signal diva behavior or a tutorial in pouting. Rather, Brooks reserves energy for the unrelenting showmanship he’ll display later. He even remains behind, clutching a marble composition notebook, while the rest of the five-member Uptown Sound start sorting out the minutiae of soundcheck. He’s still in conservation mode when he emerges to test his mic.

It’s not hard to observe this mental preparation and trace a line back to the New Jersey transplant’s theater roots. After all, Jayson Brooks settled in Chicago to toil in the trenches of the city’s rich acting pool before answering guitarist (and Second City director) Billy Bungeroth‘s 2007 Craigslist ad calling for like-minded individuals interested in creating “aggressive dance music.” With a third album, Howl (the band’s second for local stalwarts Bloodshot Records), released last month, upcoming festival spots secured (North Coast and both weekends of Austin City Limits), and a UK tour in the works for October, could JC Brooks And The Uptown Sound be on the verge of making it?

The notion causes Bungeroth to stop dreamily noodling on his guitar and scrunch up his nose. “I think that the idea of making it is totally a perception, because in some ways I already made it more than I thought I would make it, or in some ways I’m not even vaguely close, so I still think it comes back to . . . is this set list good? Is this going to work? If we make a video how can we reach the most people? We don’t have a lot of talk like, ‘Well, this is gonna make it and then we’ll be here and then make it up to here.’ I don’t even know where here is,” he exclaims while wearing a pea green cardigan sweater that, along with his red velvet six-string, violently clashes with the dressing room’s eggplant walls.

The band certainly benefited from a proliferation of groups like Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings and Fitz And The Tantrums tapping into a sweat-drenched cultural zeitgeist concerned with moving both bodies and minds. Yet, as keyboardist Andy Rosenstein affirms, the group never intended to latch onto the retro scene and stay there.

“I feel like people do think that we are a throwback group, and there are strong elements of Stax Records and James Brown and all those things, but from the beginning, the Uptown Sound was never one thing or pretending it was the ’60s,” he says upon returning from a quick jaunt home in a brisk and unwelcome snowfall to retrieve a smart charcoal ensemble for the night’s set. “I think this record is going to show people that and whether they interpret it as a change of direction or continuing down the road that we’ve been on is sort of up to them. But I think it’s sort of the latter. I think this is just a continuation of a bunch of people who like a whole lot of different kinds of music and one of the main things we all have in common is loving ’60s soul music.”

Drummer Kevin Marks quips, “Hop in – we’ve got room – and come along for the ride.”

And Howl‘s 11 tracks make for a wild one. “Married For A Week” crosses New Order with yacht rock – think Billy Ocean with an edge. The propelling guitar riff of “Rouse Yourself” is a kissing cousin of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway” while “These Things” stalks the perimeter of Phil Collins real estate. Flashy keys give “Before You Die” a glittery Pointer Sisters vibe as Bungeroth’s guitar and Ben Taylor‘s bass tag team on some Meters-worthy boogie funk.

Two standouts – “River” and “Cold” – rely on Brooks’ innate theatricality. The slow burn of “River” recalls Otis Redding and Chicago blues while his supple delivery flickers with enough passion to kindle soaked logs. With just sparse piano for accompaniment, “Cold” plays like the essential first act cliffhanger of a lost Broadway musical. Embodying a soul desperately in need of retreat, Brooks unleashes a torrent of excuses – first hushed, then thunderous – for his seclusion. It’s the stuff of Tony Awards, not rock clubs. Thankfully, the band agreed early on in the sessions for Howl to weigh each composition on merit rather than adhering to some stylistic checklist. “If it’s a good song we’re gonna work on it no matter where it comes from or what it sounds like,” Bungeroth says. “If it’s a good song and we like playing it, we’re gonna play it.”

Then there’s the songs with David Bowie’s eyes and chin and LCD Soundsystem’s nose (“Not Alone” and “Security”). The Uptown Sound’s listening habits may encompass the playlists of eight different radio stations, but every member can agree on the impact of rock’s clever chameleon.

“It’s like a Venn diagram,” Rosenstein says, explaining the band’s spectrum of tastes, “and in the middle where everything overlaps is probably David Bowie.”

With George Porter Jr.’s slinky bass wafting up the stairs of the Congress like the tantalizing aroma of a Rick Bayless concoction, the Uptown Sound wiles away the frigid afternoon munching on an assortment of chocolate chip cookies, hummus, and cold cuts; catching up (Bungeroth asks Brooks about his karaoke outing the previous evening. Brooks deadpans “It was karaoke”); and dissecting The Cult like affectionate music nerds. Tepid discussion about dinner options (Cuban anyone?) and a quest for a corkscrew ensue around an under-the-weather Taylor who leans his head back, eyes closed, into a chair. “I’ve been better,” he offers.

Conversation turns to the album’s visceral title. Bungeroth acknowledges the influence of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats along with his frontman’s carnal energy on choosing the name, but doesn’t downplay the gravity of the word’s literal definition. “We started talking about . . . what an actual howl is. People howl out of joy and people howl out of desperation. It can mean a lot of things, but sometimes people don’t realize . . . in the animal world it’s one animal yelling,” he pauses to run his fingers through his mop of hair, “[and] pardon me if this is kind of heady, but one animal letting the other animals know they exist – that they’re there. So it’s not like, ‘I’m a wolf, I’m lonely out here,’ but, ‘I’m just letting everybody know that I’m here. I’m letting you know that I’m out here. That I’m alive.'”

While the music calls out to establish identity and territory, it became apparent, as the songs came together, that the main emotion bubbling up in the lyrics veered toward isolation. As Bungeroth puts it, “You can feel lonely, but you can not necessarily want to call out.” Between “Cold”‘s message of using protective armor against emotional duress (“I’m just building skin”) and the title track’s romance gone awry (“The stars come out to ask the question/Why are you alone?”), the band doesn’t mince words.

“The lyrics are a lot more naked on this record and I think that Jayson shared a lot of himself . . . on this record, so there was more to hold onto. You go out and meet all these people who seem to be really affected and they’re actually waiting for you in Vermont and all of the sudden you want to write to them,” Bungeroth reveals. “We are kinda putting it out on the line. This is pretty honest of who we are.”

Since Brooks writes autobiographically, it’s too tempting not to ask if he’s had a particularly shitty year or if he’s just letting loose on a lifetime’s worth of grievances. “[They’re] experiences that I’ve accumulated over time, but I’m also,” he stops to reevaluate his train of thought, “no, that’s not the way I want to approach this. I was going to say I’m a deeply unhappy person, but – aww shit – I think that’s the only way it’s coming out.”

Bungeroth softens the blunt, yet appreciated honesty: “The best thing that can happen is someone who is feeling a similar way – this record could hopefully reach them.”

For the full story, visit the issue through our partners at ShadeTree, or grab a copy available free throughout Chicagoland.

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