Andrew Bryant probably first came into the Birmingham music scene’s consciousness as the drummer of Mississippi’s Water Liars, a feedback-loving Southern alternative duo (eventual trio) led by singer/guitarist Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster. The band played at Secret Stages 2012 and later frequented such beloved local venues as Bottletree, Saturn and Seasick Records.
Before and after Water Liars’ trio of full-lengths (2012’s Wyoming, 2013’s Phantom Limb and 2014’s Water Liars), Bryant had been making and releasing his own bedroom recordings starting with 2009’s Galilee and continuing with 2015’s This Is The Life. His latest record, Ain’t It Like The Cosmos, took him to Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, the studio owned by Drive-By trucker bassist, Matt Patton. While before Bryant’s songs had been more atmospheric and stripped-down, the band he brought to the studio was given free rein to make Cosmos a much more raucous affair.
Magic City Bands talked with Bryant ahead of his first Secret Stages performance this Friday, August 3rd. We discussed the themes of the new record, life in the South and switching from being a drummer to being a frontman.
Magic City Bands: At first glance, the title of your new album looks like a play on [former Big Star guitarist] Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos, but when you read it fully it’s actually a different phrase. What is the significance behind that particular title?
Andrew Bryant: People have asked me if there was a connection to the Chris Bell record before because it is such a big album title. I was aware of that record for sure, and I’ve heard it many times. The idea that goes with my title is just a little bit different, but I feel like I would not be giving good service if I didn’t say that the idea and the imagery of that was in my subconscious somewhere when I was writing the songs.
The line [“ain’t like the cosmos”] comes from a song on the record called “Bittersweet” where I’m dealing with two issues in the song: the first verse being about relationship issues and talking about being present in a certain place and time in the relationship that you’re in or with other people, and with the second point, I make a broader point about not thinking about the cosmos always being out to get you. I think that’s something that always permeates the culture. Like this fear of God or something out to get you. That whole idea is in the second verse of the song where the line is “ain’t it like the cosmos to play every card in the deck.” This is especially looking at the idea of death and mortality of man. I don’t know if I pulled it off well, but it’s about accepting your place in all of the recognition without having to stay too much in your own head. Overall, I think the record is an exploration of a specific time and place in my life, so I think that’s what sums it up best for me.
MCB: Who designed the cover art? It definitely seems to play into the theme well.
AB: My friend Ryan Ford lives in Chicago and had drawn that image. He’s a sketch and graphic artist and does a lot of work in the Chicago area. I was really struggling to find an image that represented what I thought would go well with the album. We actually toyed with several different album covers. Some of them were just different photos that I liked from photographers might work well, but I just never could find the right image. But then I literally just went onto [Ryan’s] Instagram one day and scrolled through it. I saw where he had sketched [the album cover image] on a pad and had taken a photo of it. It was perfect and exactly what I thought of as the visual representation of the album.
MCB: You recorded at Matt Patton’s studio, Dial Back Sound. What was that like?
AB: That’s where Water Liars did two of our records, Wyoming and the self-titled album, and the studio is in Water Valley. At the time, the studio was owned by Bruce Watson, who is the general manager of Fat Possum and runs the record label, Big Legal Mess. He put out the Water Liars records, so that’s why we worked there. Bruce had moved to Memphis and sold the studio several years ago, and that’s when Matt Patton bought it. But the same engineer, Bronson New, was working there, and he also worked on the Water Liars records. It was pretty much the same space that I was used to. I’ve been doing these bedroom recordings for years and still really like to do that, but I’ve been playing around with my band so much, I really felt like I needed to make a record that involved them and captured what we’ve been doing live. I also just wanted to get out of my comfort zone of hiding in my room. It was a lot more of a collaborative record than I’ve ever done for my solo work.
MCB: It definitely sounds like a “bigger” record with a lot of heavier guitars and solos in those first two songs.
AB: I had demoed the entire record myself playing every instrument at my house. I basically gave that to my band, and we went into the studio and played the songs that way. But they all brought their own spin to it. I’m not a great guitar solo rippin’ dude. I’m more of just a songwriter, so I’d demo the solo that I was going for and then let them play it really well.
I’m super proud of the record. We did three separate sessions where we all played live together in a room, and then I just brought people back with just me and the engineer over a few different sessions to do a lot of overdubs and to work on the sonic landscape of the record. It was a really good time.
MCB: You mainly play drums in Water Liars, but also have been a solo singer-songwriter for much longer. What’s it like to switch between the two processes? I imagine they can be fairly different.
AB: It’s a lot different. It’s funny that I’m thought of as being a drummer because I’m not a very good drummer. Water Liars is the first band I’ve ever played drums in. Justin and I had met each other strictly from a songwriters’ standpoint, two guys who just really liked what each other was doing as far as writing songs. I had just had some experience recording at my house, and that was the whole reason we hooked up, to do the first Water Liars record. He is terrible at drums, and so I ended up being the default drummer. I definitely got better as time went on.
Playing in Water Liars came at a time where I could just lay back and not really have to focus on the writing and being up front and being the main vocalist. I could really hone in my drumming skills live, but also in the studio I play a lot of other stuff for Water Liars like piano, organ, guitars and bass. It still is a really good chance for me to not have to be creative in words and melodies and be in the front. It’s really easy for me, and I like that. Justin’s style of songwriting is easy for me to know where he’s going and makes it fun for me.
The solo material is a totally different beast where I’m trying to focus on my craft as much as I can now, much more than I did before. It was always important, but I think working with Justin made me see what it was like to be a songwriter and a guy in the front who is trying to develop his songs and sound at the same time. I’ve really tried to do that with my solo records. That’s why I did the new record at Dial Back with the other guys. I knew that I needed those other people, where I could do something that I didn’t have to think about all the time. It really helped open up the space for me vocally and with my guitar playing.
It’s a lot more nerve-wracking playing solo. I’d done that for years and years, and this most recent tour I did in May [with Birmingham’s Will Stewart] was an east coast tour for two. It was me alone on a stage and I had completely forgotten how vulnerable and anxiety-ridden that can be. But I really like falling back in love with that process.
MCB: In terms of your lyrics (especially in songs like “The Price Is Right”), you describe things in a minimal and direct way that is also vivid and almost cinematic. Have you always written that way or has that developed over time?
AB: I don’t think I’ve always written that way. If you’ve been doing songwriting for 20 years like I have, you go through phases and processes. You end up honing in on things that work best over time, and to me, that’ s just where I ended up. It’s just these small snapshot moments. And actually, the songs that I’m writing now are a lot different than this songs on the new record. I’ve been noticing that the types of lines that I’ve been writing are a lot less like that. They don’t have those small, vivid moments. And I’m kind of worried people are going to hate the new material (laughs). It’s wordier and poetic or whatever.
It’s more of a matter of what sounds good and looks good on the page. That’s usually what I go for. And my songwriting usually goes per couple of years. It’ll be one way and then it’ll be another way a couple of years later. I think that’s just largely influenced by what I’m listening to and what kind of mood I’m in and how much space and time I have. I think there’s so many influences that go into why a person writes the way they do at a certain time.
MCB: How has living in the South and your specific part of Mississippi influenced your creative process?
AB: I get this question all the time. It’s something that I don’t think about a lot. There’s definitely something to be said about being in this place. I was going through the Delta the other day, coming back from Memphis. My kid was in the car and we were talking about “well, what else are you going to do when you’re out here?” You have to find some way to be creative and kill off the boredom.
There’s also something my girlfriend pointed out to me when we were driving through that same area. There are no words anywhere. You see all of these billboards and signs and storefronts in Memphis, and then you start coming back through the Delta and you see that there are no signs. There are no words just out in the world, in these places that are very rural and forgotten and out in the middle of nowhere. She works in the education sector, so she’s very conscious of this. It’s something they have to remind children of all the time, words and language. I think that’s pretty influential, specifically in the Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia region. In the South in general, there’s this need to tell stories and create images where there are none. I think that’s probably the only extent to which the South really influences what I do.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really have much of a connection with country music or classic rock or anything like that. I was a child of the 90s. I grew up on 90s grunge, punk and even 90s Christian rock. When I was a kid, I just wanted to move to Seattle and go see all my favorite bands. I don’t have a ton of nostalgia when it comes to Southern music sounds. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. There’s usually a lot of triggering, traumatic things that can happen when I hear certain old country songs. There’s something about it that’s very deep in there. It’s something that past even me. It’s something I feel weird even speaking about because I really don’t know what it is or where it comes from.
MCB: What are three records you can listen to from start to finish at any point?
AB: Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs: Ohia
Control by Pedro the Lion
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan
Andrew Bryant plays in the upstairs area of Avondale Brewing Company this Friday, August 3 at 8 p.m. as part of Secret Stages 2018. His set is all-ages. For more information and to purchase tickets, click HERE.