Peter Bruntnell on Buckett of Brains cover

Issue #64

Bucketfull of Brains“The Peter Bruntnell Combination,”

claims the blackboard, wonkily.

“Free entry before 9.30.”

You check the clock. Why not? After all, nothing to lose. Down in the gloom the band appear. The man with the un-rock name has an acoustic guitar and a large beard, over which his eyes peer inquiringly. He doesn’t say much, just leans into the microphone and produces a string of staggering songs while the three-piece Combination do Crazy Horse off on the side. It’s just one of those nights. You’re in a strange town and some no-name band you’ve never heard of pins you up against the back wall and puts the prickles in your eyes. The amazing thing is that if you’re quick you can still catch Peter Bruntnell in surroundings that intimate as that night more than four years ago in Exeter. That night, I later found out, was a date on a tour designed to promote the band’s makeshift but highly promising first album, ‘Cannibal’, with a band including Matt Backer on guitar and Felix, son-of-Roy, Harper on bass.  As tours go, it was extremely low key, taking in only selected venues of South-West England, and typically Bruntnell in that the rest days were cunningly designed to take full advantage of the North Cornwall coast’s very passable surfing.

Eighteen months later came the second album, 1996’s ‘Camelot In Smithereens’, the title nicked from aline in OliverStone’s JFK. This one blended artfully-crafted radio-friendly rockers (‘Saturday Sam’, ‘Bewitched’) and aching country-noir (‘Ellison’, 25 Reasons’), the latter two as close and intimate and claustrophobic as a short wave radio jammed to your ear under the bedclothes. Finest, perhaps, was the slow-burning ‘Panelbeater’, close cousin to Cannibal’s devastating opener ‘I Want You’, and as brutal a song about creative desperation as you’ll find: Locked in a room / For fourteen years / Is this enough? / Shooting at the moon / Jumping through hoops / Is this enough? / Panelbeater, sick of trying – “Left to my own devices, I’d play nothing but country music” explained Peter Bruntnell at the time, “but you can’t do that in this country. No-one’ll listen.”

Thankfully, he’s changed his mind. ‘Normal For Bridgwater’, Bruntnell’s third and his first on Slow River Records, is the sound of a man free to play what he wants – and his current band is his best ever, chiefly thanks to James Walbourne, a terrifyingly well versed guitarist who looks like the young Robbie Robertson and seems capable of playing like anybody. Sure, there are still the tougher power pop songs – ‘Forgiven’, ‘By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix’, ‘Lay Down This Curse’ – but even these, like the rest, seem more serenly placed. ‘Cosmea’ and the banjo driven ‘How You Are’ are positively down-home. ‘NFB’ is a sweet gentle lament: (the title claims to refer to doctor’s code, shorthand for Normal For Bridgwater, occasionally jotted down on medical reports in the cider-crazed Somerset town of the same name) ‘Handful Of Stars’ is an aching admission of irreconciliation, ‘Shot From A Spring’ a stunning widescreen travelogue topped with blinding pedal steel from Son Volt’s Eric Heywood (Son Volt’s Dave Boquist also shows up to play fiddle. Peter agreed to meet BoB to cover the story so far, and selected the venue himself; a fine little Wandsworth restaurant called The Fish In A Tie, an eatery almost too good and cheap to mention in print.

Let’s begin with the first record, ‘Cannibal’. Is it true that the whole thing was a demo?

That’s right. We knocked those songs out just to get the deal (with Almo Sounds) but as it ended up, they just stuck them all on the album and released it.

Before ‘Cannibal’, you’d taken time away from London and gone to Canada. Did that have a big effect on you?

Yeah, absolutely. My band of the time, Milkwood, had just split up and I went to Canada twice and ended up living in Vancouver for about three months. There’s a friend of mine there, Bill Ritchie, a very bright guy, very well read, he knows just about everything and has all these wonderful Eskimo stories and stuff. We started writing songs together just for the craic – nothing in mind, no ambitions for the songs at all, but I learnt something. He showed me that songs can be tangential. You don’t have to state everything to get your picture across: sometimes you can bring in a completely different subject, that, in a wierd way, throws more light on what you’re really trying to talk about. Plus it’s good to bounce off someone else. They can sometimes make sense of what you’re mumling about.

Which ‘Cannibal’ songs do you like best now?

There’s only a handful of those we still play and really like. ‘IWant You’ is still one of my favourites. That first line (There was a Mexican wave on the TV / I was flying over the moon) just came from watching the world cup. I still like the song ‘Cannibal’, which was all about a pub I used to drink in – the kind of place where you can go at any time and be sure to meet someone you know. Trouble was, I was spending far too much time in there and, you know, you suddenly see your whole life stretching out in front of you – that’s what it’s about. And I like ‘Bent Out Of Shape’, which I wrote really depressed, coming back from Amsterdam.

What about ‘I Want You’ – the one with Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro on guitar?

I never even met him. I only went for it for that, but they took the tapes to LA and when it came back I didn’t even like what he’d done. – I could have done better myself. What a waste of ten grand. But I still like the song, I was humming it for ages with those words thinking, hmmm, I must make up some proper lyrics for this, but then I realised it actually made perfect sense as it was. It turned out to be a song about not knowing what I was doing – which was perfect, really.

Why did the Peter Bruntnell Combination disband?

It just happened naturally. Well, of course, it was partly financial as well. Unless a whole band signs a deal then you just can’t support them, and the record company won’t keep paying out. But also, coming into the second album, I wanted things to be more song oriented – less muso, perhaps. I’d been listening to The Pixies and I wanted to play electric myself and make the whole thing much rawer.

So what were your reference points, if any, for recording Camelot In Smithereens?

Definitely the two Acetone albums – Cindy and I Guess I Would – and Being There by Wilco, just for the sounds and stuff. And maybe Sparklehorse. Listening back, there seems to be a conflict there between the potential singles and the others – between what you wanted to do, perhaps, and what you felt you should do. That makes sense. I probably wasn’t conscious of it at the time. Looking back, the ones I feel happiest about are Ellison, Panelbeater and 25 Reasons. It’s funny, ‘cos when I wrote the single Saturday Sam I intended it as a sort of Velvet Underground song – slow, acoustic and folky. Somewhere along the line, though, it went punk and I think that was a mistake. I liked it better as it was.

If forced, how would you describe the new record.

I don’t know! I can’t say! The songs are more personal – well, more personal-based. There’s one which is me and a banjo and a fiddle, there’s two others with just acoustics, mandolin and banjo, sort of porch-style, and the rest of it is rock. I had this great bluegrass tape that I borrowed off a friend and that affected the record; none of it is actually bluegrass, but twoor three songs are that way inclined. The rest of it is, well, just a picture of the whole thing that I’ve liked for a very long time. It’s difficult for me to answer when you ask about reference points, because obviously I have to say Son Volt ‘cos I love them, but I’m also wary of saying it – because I love them so much! They’re just the best group I’ve come across, and that’s it. But, you know, because you’re influences are X, Y and Z, it doesn’t mean – well, hopefully it doesn’t mean – that you’re completely ripping them off or even necessarily sounding like them. I mean, I’ve always loved Prefab Sprout – just thought I’d mention it.

It sounds like the record you wanted to make.

Yes, I’ve done exactly what I wanted and it’s the best collection of songs I’ve ever done. People’s reactions to it are interesting. I don’t care about what most people think – just friends, who basically like the same kind of music that I do – who I really care about, and they think it’s fucking excellent. It’s probably not the most commercial record I’ve ever made but it’s definitely the best. Funnily enough, my manager doesn’t like it, but how could he? He doesn’t listen to that kind of music, he just works in the music industry, and that’s a different thing. There are some songs he just doesn’t get – and those, funnily enough, are the songs my friends really like! So, for those who don’t like it, sorry, but I’m not here to please you. I didn’t sell that many records the first two times around, so I haven’t got anything to lose. I really haven’t. Sod it, I’ll sell my house and get a cheaper one.

And what are you listening to?

All kinds. Actually, I think I’m a bit OD’d on country right at this moment. But nearly all the stuff I really, really like is dark. I don’t know why. It just means something to me. Everything else seems like pop crap. I’m not a big pop fan -as you probably know. There’s not many happy songs I like! Well, there’s I Get Around – that’s happy, actually. Does Leader Of The Pack count as happy? It makes me laugh, whatever. I’m a massive Bill Hicks fan, but that’s real comedy so it’s different. It’s really funny; I’ve been working part time in a record wholesalers’ and you should see the stuff they get in! I put all these mad records on and the bloke at the other end is looking at me going, – what are you doing? – I’m on a mission at the moment to find the best Christmas album ever made. I’ve just come across a cracker – a boys choir; it’s lovely, I’m keeping it. You once told me you’d achieved everything you’d wanted to. Did you mean it? I was trying to say I was happy with the songs I’d produced, and commercial success couldn’t make me feel any better about the songs. Commercial success doesn’t mean that an artist is true. An obvious thing to say. To really get that into your head isn’t easy, but totally necessary. You can make a record that’s great in your head. It might not sell, but it’s still great.

Finally, what are your loves and hates?

Ha ha! I could go on for along time. For things I hate I’d say the music charts – I detest the charts. McDonalds. Oh, people who don’t know the width of their car. Things I love – well, I havent got that many. My daughter, number one. My girlfriend. Pedal steel guitar. Gillian Welch. My house. I love this restaurant. Oh, and my porch. I built it myself and it’s great! I’ve been hanging out there with Gram Parsons blaring out on the stereo.

– Rick Batey
www.bucketfullofbrains.com