Andy Browne is a fan of Salvador Dali, who is famous for saying “Have no fear of perfection, you will never reach it.” It is a saying that mirrors Andy’s development into an artist willing to follow his muses in creating any mix of styles, themes, rhythms, and instrumentation without fear of how others will receive it. You may think you know Andy Browne, but chances are if you only are thinking of his earlier days as an Atlanta music pioneer, you might be missing out on the multifaceted art he is bringing to Atlanta music today, notably as leader of The Andy Browne Troupe.
Having been a vanguard of new music in this town, it is easy for people to compare Andy Browne today to Andy Browne of yesterday when it is all really the same Andy. The similes of comparisons to wine or whiskey whose characters deepen and change with age, their rough edges smoothed and more, are all very apt. It is still the same wine, yet years later it is different. We don’t say better, just “different.”
Let’s get the back story out of the way. Andy was the singer, guitarist, and songwriter with The Nightporters, the punk/new wave/college rock band that held court in the mid-80’s at Atlanta’s leading music clubs The 688 Club, The Metroplex, and others. During this time, much attention was being paid to the Atlanta and Athens scenes as bellwethers of the cutting edge of music. Opening for noteworthy groups of the period including The Clash, The Replacements, and R.E.M, The Nightporters were on this rise; any history of Atlanta music without them would be incomplete. When reviewing the few videos and the 2013 documentary of the band, Tell It Like It Is, the sway of the band over its fans and the looks of brash, youthful confidence in their eyes can be easily seen. Some video clips show energetic settings that look like latter-day versions of the Cavern Club.
Area music fans of the day all assumed the band was destined for a major record label, but it never came to be, and the members were never able to capitalize on their initial success. Yet, the band’s myth and legend only seems to grow with time. Despite turnover of some Nightporters personnel, its corral of great songs and obviously its lead voice Andy had not changed, and so Andy continued the band with a succession of players. Even current Andy Browne Troupe guitarist Dave Spencer first met Andy in these days and had a stint in a version of the Nightporters. “I was guitarist number 806 in the post-heyday Nightporters in between Sid and Clint,” the inside joke indicating the extreme turnover in later years of the group.
In 1993, Andy decided it was time for a change in both business and location. The local Atlanta music scene had changed with The 688 Club and The Metroplex closing in the late 80’s. The Seattle grunge style now influenced which bands got attention and who was booked. “My family needed me to help run my brother’s business in Los Angeles while he returned to Atlanta to take care of personal affairs. Sometimes you sacrifice for the good of your family. I rather felt I was doing my penance for the family but then stumbled into a career.”
Andy began engineering video screens for large events around the world. “I toured with Van Halen, did work for U2 and the Stones, spent time in Australia. I worked the 1996 Atlanta Olympics…and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. It was an exciting, but very busy time.” Andy flew to Philadelphia on September 10, 2001 intending to drive to New York City the next day to talk about a client engagement. The conversation naturally did not happen in light of the events of September 11. Andy relates, “I was already there, so I decided to settle north of Philadelphia.” He used his expertise in video and events to form a new, very successful audio-visual production company engaging corporate clients including Johnson & Johnson, Aramark, Olympus Cameras, among others. Music was still part of Andy’s makeup but not at the forefront at the time. “I was still writing music but rarely performing as I had my hands full with work.”
Andy’s own view of music and his musical past began to change at this time. “When I was working in Los Angeles in the 90’s, I would lead projects that could easily run more than 30 hours straight. After one of these all-nighters, I was in a coffee shop run by friends of mine. I ended up napping on the shop’s couch. When I stretched to wake up, I hit the bookshelf above me and a book fell into my lap, The Adventure of Consciousness by philosopher and poet Sri Aurobindo. I thought it providential, so I bought it and began reading it thoroughly. I found that on every page it offered up advice I needed to hear about myself. It opened my world to greater confidence and self-assurance as well as a healthy perspective on all the good things about my previous music endeavors. I still refer to it regularly.”
In May 2016, Andy flew to Atlanta to play a Nightporters reunion show with Pylon and members of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. Only a week before, in Philadelphia, he had played his first performance in many years at a CD release show for Zazel, a collection of songs he had been socking away now brought to life with Philadelphia area musicians. The shows reignited his passion for performing, “Those shows were really eye-opening for me because by then I had left behind the wanton ways of my early youth. That was the most fun Nightporters show I had ever played, and it happened to be the first where I was totally sober. I remember every smile in the room. Time slowed down and I enjoyed every minute. It was such a great, different energy as a result, and I knew this is what I needed to be doing.”
At the same time that he released Zazel, a creative streak sparked in Andy with song ideas coming in rapid succession. “The talented jazz guys with whom I was playing were telling me to slow down with all the new material because they could not keep up with me! That was a surprise to me as most pieces were just three or four chords.” Just months later, Andy’s professional and personal courses aligned to encourage him to return full-time to Atlanta, 23 years after having left.
When Andy had visited Atlanta in 2015 for previous reunion show he had met guitar player Jeff Ford, and they found they shared many common favorite influences. When Andy moved back to Atlanta, he connected with Jeff. Jeff comments “Andy’s music extends from rock to pop, to punk and country. This eclectic mix allows a guitar player to stretch boundaries with sounds and tones. Andy had ideas for a large band. I knew it was an exciting chance, and so I jumped aboard immediately.” They put together some sets of material and played out as an acoustic duo. Slowly, Andy and Jeff started gathering a band around them when Andy reconnected with percussionist Pito Monteguedo, who has been a close friends of Andy’s brother Dean since their youth. Both Dean and Pito played with Atlanta’s 80’s punk band The Restraints. Dean also joined the Troupe on bass. They met Shane Perryman, a talented trombonist and multi-instrumentalist . The idea of adding brass to this new band was intriguing to Andy. He explains, “For me, when horns are done well, they can have great emotional impact – that is what transfixed me after sequestering myself and listening to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue on repeat. He showed that horns can be as important as any lyric delivery. Besides, don’t we often see depictions of elephants blowing their trunks as if they were horns? It all seemed to fit perfectly into place.”
The new band began playing Andy’s music around Atlanta and ran into old friend David Spencer, who had originally played with The Nightporters in the early 90’s. Andy says “I thought it had to be fate. For some years I had wanted to do a three-guitar act…in order to play more complex and complementary parts.” Andy explains that each guitarist brings something to the band. “Jeff is really the backbone of the band, he holds things down. His parts are at the cores of our songs. David has a knack for playing atmospheric, textural parts on top of all the other parts going on.” David joined the band as a package deal with his girlfriend, Amanda Lee, a talented violinist and vocalist. Andy jumped at the chance for them both to join as Amanda’s vocals added another new sonic weapon, and thus The Andy Browne Troupe gelled into its present form.
The choice of the word troupe, tied to his interest in the traveling circus, was very intentional. A troupe is an often-changing group of performers playing from town to town. “In a similar fashion, our intention as a band is that we can morph and change as we see fit and not to be pinned down to one particular style…we can grow and adapt continually.” In fact, it is not unusual for the Troupe lineup to ebb and flow as schedules dictate. The caliber of the players in orbit of the ABT makes this possible. Andy explains “While Pito has some demanding work commitments, we are excited to get to play with Harry Joiner, drummer for beloved Athens power trio Mercyland. The changing mix of talent can keep the music fresh.”
At this point, it is important to share a little of the Zazel story and its tie to the band. Andy explains, “I have always had a fascination with P.T. Barnum and Houdini. I love P.T.’s famous quote that ‘Without promotion, something terrible happens – nothing!’ It reminds me to get out and hustle every day.” Andy’s circus intrigue goes further. “I had this interest in using old tin prints or photographs of big top circus shows for that first solo record. As I sorted through many, I kept coming back to depictions of a girl human cannonball, and so I researched her further.”
Andy continues, “The girl was Rosa Matilda Richter, born in England, who took the stage name Zazel. She was a fascinating character on so many fronts. Not only was she the world’s first human cannonball, at age 14, mind you, she was the largest draw in the circus for years in the late 1800’s. Imagine as a woman of that era having the strength and dedication to stand up and be not only counted, but also admired and worshipped by the general public. She invented a life-saving device for those caught in tall buildings, the first safety nets. Convincing firefighters and the public officials in New York and other cities that this device she designed would help with rescues. In 1891, she broke her back from a fall off the high wire and she had to retire from circus life. She then decided to become an opera singer of some note. So, part of my fascination is her ability to reinvent herself and to think big with what she knew.” Relating back to his own experiences, Andy says, “I had worked among rigging and high-perched video screens in traveling shows around the world until my back, too, was broken, messed up for several years. In a way I, too, had tasted early success. There were many shared points with which I can identify. But the bottom line is the inspiration she gives, that when something breaks, you adjust for the better and make the most out of what you have. It is a mantra that all of us in the Troupe share. Though I did not know it at the time when I chose the name, a new and interesting band was rising out of the old.”
The impression was so strong that after Andy named his first album Zazel, he titled his subsequent December 2016 record Zazel Attacks and his 2017 release Zazel’s Calling. Andy released three albums of material in not even a year and a half, his most prolific writing period ever.
“I just hit a time when songs were pouring out of me – a great flow of creative energy just opened up. It was not coming from me, but from an outside – or perhaps higher – source. When I started out, I was always writing behind a wall of my influences filtering what I thought people expected. Only now I am accepting that what comes to me is me, and so part of the change is accepting that and my being open to receive that inspiration, getting rid of irrational fears or worries of the past.”
Across the three Zazel records, available from all streaming platforms, the Troupe covers expansive musical ground. Wide-ranging influences are evident throughout his music, from Andy’s growing up in England to Georgia’s southern folk and country, jazz and blues, as well as to his perennial favorites The Clash and David Bowie. “Obviously I am a big believer in rock and roll. That is a given. Yet, limiting oneself can be somewhat of a mental prison for a musician, I think. A difference for me now is that I listen to everything. It is difficult to narrow our music down to a single genre label. When asked we often say we play ‘Atmospheric Rock with touches of Soul, Country, and R&B.’”
Hints of many styles and themes can be heard throughout these three albums. He can project the seriousness of senseless war in Zazel’s “Southern Rain” but on the same record show a playfulness in “Virginia Please” when the singer realizes he has little chance pursuing Virginia since another suitor drives the bus for The Black Crowes. “My Little Stone” (produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M.) has a big, strummy pop-rock sound and name checks all Rolling Stone members.
“Midnight In Georgia” and “Highwire” from Zazel Attacks offer up Americana-tinged pop, Andy’s vocals sounding roughened as if by cigarettes and whiskey from years gone by, giving the songs emotional authenticity. Purposefully sloppy Stones meets punk spirit in “Six Days In Memphis”. That record’s “Half Moon Over Tacoma”, could have fit perfectly in The Band’s Last Waltz movie. “Caroline” is a big toe-tapping rocker that only sounds bigger played live.
Zazel’s Calling features at one moment the jangly catchiness of “Sheila’s Ghost” and then the plaintive violin that accompanies the tale of missed opportunities in “This Ain’t Broadway” – either would have found homes on radio when radio mattered or would have fit nicely on a Paul Westerberg solo album.
Overall, Andy is a story-teller spinning lyrical imagery, with some songs about real-life people like Jane Goodall and Ida Lupino while others are projections of his own experiences. “Life has thrown some very tough curve balls at me, but at the same time, many wonderful things have come to me in the same two to three years…it has been revelatory to be open to capture both sides of the emotional coin on these records.”
In 2016, just as he was releasing this varied basket of music, Andy’s hero David Bowie passed away. This passing hit Andy unexpectedly hard. Andy explains. “I have not had to deal with too much death around me…then I lose someone who I thought understood me…it goes deeper than just being a favorite music act…that’s why Bowie hit so hard. Honestly, with the loss of David and Chuck Berry and Prince all in the same year, I kind of lost my marbles for a while. I still have trouble listening to his Blackstar to this day.”
Out of that sense of loss, Andy continued to pour his thoughts and feelings out in song and the Troupe prepared to enter the studio in 2018 for what would become the album Elephants. He even closes out the record with “Life Without Bowie”. But if there is catharsis and some somberness, Andy still slips in lighthearted moments. Andy confides, “My personal favorite on Elephants is “Little Tin Soldier (She’s My)” It is probably the favorite song that has come to me. You know a song is right when it comes very easily. It came to me completely in one day, and then we recorded it just three days later. It is written for and about Lucy Theodora; it’s a love story.” On it Andy whimsically rhymes “She’s my Mona Lisa, don’t like anchovies on her pizza.”
As Andy is an artist not willing to sit still, blending and bending genres, an even more urgent sense of recreation and reinvention, like that of his fallen hero Bowie, pervades this latest batch of songs. The first track “England” kicks off the album with a mix of trombone and electronic drums. Andy wraps his voice around lyrics much like the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, dropping people and place names across the UK, a feat Andy can uniquely pull off, never sounding the least bit hokey.
Unsure of a directional theme when they started, Andy was wide open to creativity as they started Elephants with producers Neil Fried, Bruce Bennett, and Palmer Wood. “It was amazing working with the three of them as they understood from the get-go…this wasn’t trying to be something that was expected…being different was the key and as far as I’m concerned all three did a spectacular job in finding the catalyst for Elephants.”
Already, the Troupe has enough new songs to record at least a couple of albums. Andy offers, “I have a pile of rock songs and another pile of softer songs, so there is much from which to choose.” The group will likely head to the studio later in the year aiming to release a new record in the fall. The band is willing to try new and different elements in their music. Yet as boundaries are explored and music can morph, there are unchanging constants. On stage, Andy remains an exacting bandleader, demanding the best from his band mates while simultaneously letting their talents wander enough to keep things loose and rock and roll. Today in front of the microphone, exactly as he did decades prior, he still commands involuntary attention, holding court on the stage as his stories and their musical hooks and palpable emotion grab one’s attention.
In this regard, Andy holds a philosophical view on the nature of his art. “Sure, I am very proud of my earlier work. Yet, I feel like the Troupe is on a whole different playing field. It is not even in the same ballpark. It cannot be measured against something written 30 years ago. Experience and perception over time change you. The writing that is coming through now…it’s bold, brash, and quite different. As an artist, one changes. Your level of consciousness changes. You grow up. You learn and you feel things you did not know as a teenager. I can’t be singing about the same things as I did in those days.”
Also, with the art of his music changing, his attitude toward music success has shifted. “When I was young, I had this idea that to be commercially successful was to sell out, but I am no longer afraid of commercial success. I am not creating my music to try to please an alternative emo kid somewhere in Indiana – although we do hope he enjoys it! I am not writing what I think other people want to hear. I am doing this for me, but getting to share my music with people is a great thing. We are playing all sorts of venues and area locations. We would love the chance to play for as many people as we can reach.”
Indeed, Andy and the Troupe are up for exploring new channels to push their music and engage their creativity. When Andy posted a link to the then new Elephants record, the band found a new fan in renown rock critic, Rolling Stone contributor, and Lou Reed biographer [plus one-time Atlantan] Anthony DeCurtis, who commented “Love this!” That started a relationship that soon resulted in The Andy Browne Troupe backing Anthony singing tunes from across Lou Reed’s catalog. They performed three of these shows in 2018 and are set to perform together again May 25, 2019 at 529.
Andy has also agreed to provide some of his songs for an upcoming movie produced in Atlanta about Millennials in America. He is in discussions to license other songs, some of which could end up in a Canadian TV special. In the midst of all this busyness, Andy and partner Lucy Theodora are also working on a children’s book. Even with all of this activity, Andy says “We are not even firing on all cylinders yet! When we are – watch out!”
With all the material The Andy Browne Troupe has created in a relatively short time, it pays for the listener to take in the many styles and stories in repeat listening sessions. Only then does one start to get the many sides to the band and Andy. He is the risk-taking lion tamer, the thrilling high wire trapeze artist, the teary-eyed sad clown, the mischievous jester, the focused juggler, the daring human cannonball, the barrel-voiced ringmaster – they are all under The Andy Browne Troupe big top.
|Grapevine Profile: Andy Browne|
|5 Desert Island Discs||1. Stevie Wonder - Talking Book
2. Miles Davis - Kind Of Blue
3. Curtis Mayfield - Superfly
4. Elmore James - King Of The Slide Guitar
5. Bob Dylan - Infidels
|First concert||The Jackson 5 in Cleveland
|Favorite concert in Atlanta||Public Image Ltd. at Center Stage|
|Favorite area hangouts||The Majestic Diner, Clay Harper’s pad when he’s in town, Savage Pizza and Fellini's Pizza (those I really missed while living up north), Wax 'n' Facts, anywhere my tribe is (after all it’s about who you're with)|
|Memorable gigs around town||• Grant Park or 529 with the Troupe is always awesome
• Playing with The Clash at the Fox Theatre
• Hanging out with RuPaul and the Now Explosion was always thrilling and a great education in misconduct...I am honored to have shared the same stage and call them friends
|Buy Troupe music||iTunes, CD Baby|
|Band website||Under reconstruction - up soon!|
|Favorite Atlanta music site||Atlanta Music Grapevine!|