The Brothers Burn Mountain: Blue Spruce

by Richard Thomas

In the 1973 sci-fi movie “Soylent Green,” Edward G. Robinson goes to an assisted suicide clinic and chooses what music he’ll listen to as he’s euthanized. “Classical. Uh, light classical,” he says. He gets a medley of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Grieg as he watches spectacular footage of nature extinct on the overpopulated earth. 

I’ve often wondered what music I'd want to hear on the way out. The answer varies depending on mood and age. At one time it was ABBA. (I was pretty young.) Another time, Motorhead. (Last month.) Current choice is The Brothers Burn Mountain’s new album, the band’s ninth in its nearly two-decade history.

To say it’s good music to die to doesn’t mean it’s deathly or depressing. More uplifting and transcendent, a bliss-out. It’s like something from another time altogether, but when is not clear. It could have been recorded 100 years ago (had digital been available then) or 100 years from now. 

It hearkens back to the brothers’ Gaelic ancestry and draws from roots musicians such as Charlie Parr. Officially, they list as their influences “old bookcases standing up slightly crooked, loaded to the gills with disheveled shoeboxes full of old letters, newspapers here and there, old coffee mugs, baseballs coming apart at the seams …" All that’s in there somewhere.

When I saw The Brothers live, I scribbled in my notes words like “raw,” “rustic” and “raucous.” The band consists of only two performers, Ryan and Jesse Dermody, playing guitar and percussion respectively. What they lack in numbers they make up for in energy. Sometimes they both just whale on the beleaguered drum kit. I think I also wrote, “Jesse is the live version of Animal from Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem,” but I’m not sure of my handwriting.

So it was surprising to listen to “Blue Spruce” and conjure up words like “slow,” “lushly produced,” “atmospheric” and “echoey.” I suspect they’re also influenced by the ethereal band Low. It’s closer to ambient music than rock ‘n’ roll. But it has its own intensity.

This album took two and a half years to create. Maybe the delay was partly due to financing, but it sounds like a lot of perfectionism went into it. It was recorded at the brothers’ studio deep in the boreal woods (Diarmada Studios, built from all-recycled materials and off the grid) near Cotton, 40 miles north of Duluth.

The first track, “Lord of Night,” opens with strings, provided by Ryan David Young of Trampled by Turtles, that eventually blend with Ryan’s voice, here in heartrending alto mode along with Colleen Myhre. The song is a prayer to the god of darkness, who, by their interpretation, is not evil: “Thanks for the dark and our shadows, believe in the balance where we go.” 

Track 2, “A Tender Aim,” sounds a bit like U2, with soaring guitar and vocals and earthy percussion. “We Scintillate” is the closest to a foot-stomper, but it still has the dreamlike quality that shrouds the album. 

“In the Garden” is almost like Pink Floyd, but underlying every note is a loud, low buzzing. Is that a guitar? A synthesizer? A saw? Or the mysterious phenomena emanating from the earth known as The Hum? It’s electric yet evokes nature.

“I Don’t Have the Time” opens with a pounding beat and bluesy feel, like Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levy Breaks.” It’s mostly an instrumental jam with trumpet and bass sax courtesy of Dave Adams and Matt Wasmund (both of Big Wave Dave And the Ripples). The horns get jazzy, or more like insane, running up and down a scale of unknown origin or destination.

The next three tracks are more countrified, with Leetus Wilmer Martin (of Feeding Leroy) providing pedal steel guitar. “Long Gone Like a Goodbye” is a ballad on the sweet side of country, though it drops the album’s one f-bomb. 

“What Johnny Used to Say” is a pulp western saga: “Johnny got on the wrong side of a bullet. ‘If you ever see a trigger, you just pull it.’ That’s what Johnny used to say but that was a different day. Now he’s pulling weeds in a cemetery. ‘If you got a sack of of gold, you better give it to me.’ That’s what Johnny used to say … Now he’s a world away.” 

“On Silence I Glide” is, as the title suggests, the floatiest, most angelic track. The album closes with “The Valley (Breathes me In),” an almost mournful ode to the wilderness. 

Which made me think about how long we’ll have it. Minnesota’s boreal forests are threatened by global warming, so get out in the woods and breathe it in while you can. “Soylent Green” is set in 2022, just around the corner, so it’s not all that far-fetched.

Note to the Brothers: Here’s an awesome idea for a music video. Recreate Edward G’s death scene and have him listen to “Blue Spruce” while watching video filmed around Cotton. Then at the end Charlton Heston shows up, says, “You’re not dying, you owe me 20 bucks” and drags him out. You can have this idea for $1 million.

“Blue Spruce” is available at The Brothers Burn Mountain shows. Their next show is 9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17 at Sir Benedict’s. Their earlier music is available at thebrothersburnmountain.com.

Photo by Roger D. Feldhans

Q & A with The Brothers

Why did the album take 2 1/2 years to make?

If it wasn't 2 1/2 years, it was going to be 10 years, but we didn't want to wait that long to share these new songs.  

Why record in a cabin in the woods?

The seclusion and backwoods feel of our cabin studio allows us the luxury of complete unselfconsciousness during the creative process, and there's little to no distractions to get in the way of our recording process.

Is this different from your previous albums?

Ryan: I think so. These songs have been a long time in the works. Writing and recording these songs has been an obsession to say the least. We've also invited several local and regional musicians to sit in on several songs. It's the first time we've worked with so many talented musicians.  

Jesse: Recording in a cabin in the woods is pretty much how we've been doing it all along, however, before we used to make makeshift studios in cabins we'd rent along wooded rivers and lakes, whereas now we have our own permanent cabin studio.

How is the album different from your live shows?

Ryan: The atmospherics and production on this record derive from my inner ear, the recording software I use and the natural acoustics of Diarmada studio's lofted, wood paneled walls. In the studio, production and sound are an equal focus to the performance. Live shows are mainly focused on performing and all energies transformed through the sounds. During the recording process, much of Blue Spruce's specific sound came to fruition during post production. At our shows there is no post production. It's a more raw, pared-down version of the same songs with much improvisation.

Jesse: I think the difference between how our live shows come off, and how our studio recordings sound is a question of the acoustics of the actual rooms we're playing in, who we're playing with, the current temperament of our natural passions and the fact that live public shows are different beings than private studio sessions.We love to be in the healing vibes of nature: to soak in the smell of the sphagnum mosses and blue spruce sap, to feel the white birch wind on our skin, to listen to the distant barred owls and train horns, to watch the raindrops fall onto us, and get all that essential backwoods energy into the sounds of the songs. It's our small part, where we fit in in the world. We love the northwoods, and love to be and create within that which we love. Though, because of our touring, we do also get our share of big city life, and that influences us as well.

We've averaged about 150 live shows a year over the past 11 years, and have held about 35 full-day recording sessions a year over the past 19 years. Through our share of real experience, we've just grown and evolved into our current methods of working, recording, playing out live. We do it the way it feels and sounds the best to us in the moment. So you can imagine that playing the same song the same way 150 times in a year would quickly get stale. So I don't think we ever really play a song the same way twice in a year. Hell, I've been told by a fan that one show last year, without even consciously knowing it, throughout the night we played four completely different versions of the same song. He said they were so different, he only recognized them by the lyrics, and he liked all four versions! Mission accomplished, in my mind. We love to play and create from the unconscious.