In Conversation with Brother Hawk

The Atlanta-based blues-rock quartet Brother Hawk has just released a new album, Big Medicine, a selection of songs from their earlier EPs, and is now promoting it with a summer tour of the USA. J.B. Brisendine (vocals and guitar), Nick Johns¬ (keyboards and vocals), James Fedigan (bass), and Allan Carson (drums) got together in 2010 and by 2014 had made a number of recordings, toured the USA, and founded their own festival in Atlanta called “Brother Hawk’s Big Medicine Festival.” Recently J.B. Brisendine agreed to answer some of our questions about his musical background, the band, the new album, and the touring life.

What elements in your childhood and early years pointed you toward music? Toward rock in particular?
My parents are huge music lovers. There was always music playing in our house, good blues, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen. Then in the early ’90s my uncle Kevin (one of our
biggest supporters and a generally amazing dude) starting sending us CDs of all the good shit coming out then: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains … I was obsessed with all that stuff at a very early age, and Nick and I actually bonded over that when we met. We were the only two seven-year-olds at our school who knew or cared who Nirvana were.

What or who in your training had the most?and best?influence on you, as a composer, as a musician, and as a human being?
As a composer and musician, definitely Neil Young. He’s my absolute favorite songwriter, and he always does exactly what he wants musically, regardless of what anyone thinks. Personally, I celebrate the guy’s entire catalog.

As a human being it’s definitely my parents. I am who I am and where I am because of their love and support.

What was the most mesmerizing musical experience of your life?
Seeing Neil Young at The Fox Theatre in Atlanta in 2010. I’d wanted to see him for so long, when the show was about to start I could feel the anticipation building in the crowd and especially in myself. He walked out on stage and the place went insane. He sat at the front of the stage and started singing “My My, Hey Hey,” and I just get completely overwhelmed.

When he started the harmonica part I started crying. It was incredible. My entire family loves Neil Young so I always feel them so strong when I listen to his music. I cried a few
more times before the show was over. I told my mom about it the next day and she said she saw him twice in the ’80s and cried so much both times that her shirt was soaked. His music is just so powerful and special I can’t describe it.

How did the band-members meet?
I met Nick in elementary school. We started our first band shortly after with his older brother, Myke. I met James about 10 years ago through some mutual friends trying to
start a hardcore band. He was a guitar player at the time, but I talked him into getting bass gear so we could start a band. We played and wrote with a bunch of different people for years but couldn’t ever get the right thing going. Most of that time I was telling him about Nick and how insanely good he was. I bothered Nick for about three years until he finally agreed to jam with us, and it just clicked.

Describe a typical rehearsal.
In a typical rehearsal we’ll start by running the set for whatever the next show will be, and if we don’t fuck it up we’ll start working on new songs. We love to work on new material, as I’m sure anyone does. It’s always so exciting to be present in that moment where everything comes together.

What inspired the lyrics of “Half Empty?”
“Half Empty” actually came about when I was watching The Grapes of Wrath one day. I’d seen it plenty of times but for whatever reason it hit me hard that day and just got me thinking that I truly have no idea what it’s like for life to be that rough. Not even close. It’s just a song about having some perspective and appreciating what you have.

“Midnight in Tifton?”
The credit for “Midnight in Tifton” goes to my dad (who also plays harmonica)! I was working on the guitar parts for that song on my parents’ front porch while they were working in their garden, and my dad started making up and singing this song about how my mom has him locked away in a dungeon. It got into my head immediately and I just started writing lyrics about how they met and their relationship from my dad’s perspective.

And I obviously ripped his song for the “she’s the one who holds my key, and now she’s set me free” line, although with a new sweeter meaning.

How do you manage to balance such a virile rock sound with such amazing passion and tenderness in your songs?
It’s nothing intentional, though we do take that as a big compliment. It’s just the
kind of music we make and the kind of lyrics I write. It’s the only way we know how to do it.

Has Atlanta been a positive or negative influence on your work?
I think Atlanta has been a very positive influence. For all its faults it’s an amazing city with a lot of wonderful and supportive people that have had a huge impact on us. I can’t imagine where we’d be without Atlanta.

If you had an artist’s mission statement, what would it be?
We’re here to share our love with you.

Tell us a little about your day.
I’m at home in bed, but when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll take the van and meet the boys at James’s house in East Atlanta. We’ll hit Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points, then drive to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to play with our buddies, Steels. Should be a killer show!

What’s your next project?
The biggest thing on our plate at the moment is our fall European tour. We’re there September 29 to October 29, mostly Spain but also Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Holland, The Netherlands, and Italy. We’re all nervous but very excited!

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.