LAist Interview: Brandon Schott
Golden State isn’t just the name of LA-based singer/songwriter Brandon Schott’s second album, it’s also a great description of his outlook on life. Schott’s two albums are infused with a thoughtful optimism, and when he was diagnosed with germ cell cancer last winter, he turned that experience into a new organization, (Artists for Healing), through which musicians give back to the community.
Now cancer-free, Schott is getting back into the LA music scene with a benefit this Sunday at Safari Sam’s, from which all the proceeds will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Los Angeles. LAist recently caught up with Schott over espresso floats at Mel’s Drive-In on Sunset to chat about his two records (Release and Golden State), his recent battle with cancer, and life as a musician in Los Angeles.
LAist: I know you’re a multi-instrumentalist. When did you start with each of your instruments?
The piano was my first instrument and still my most proficient one, which I started right after I moved to England at the age of eight. I took piano lessons for eight years through the Royal Academy of Music in Oxford. As for the guitar, there was a period in seventh grade when our music class learned piano for two to three months. All the other kids were new to keyboards, but I had already been playing for three or four years at that point. So the teacher let me go in the back room where all the miscellaneous instruments were kept. They had a nylon string guitar and I remember that I only initially set out to learn how to play “Amanda” by Boston, which was big at the time. Then came “Heaven” by Warrant…I’m gonna stop there before I have to dust off my 80s power wig.
That takes care of piano and guitar, but how about the other instruments you play?
I just love unusual instruments and textures. Most of the other instruments I’ve picked up along the way kind of orbit around those two. For instance, I played a real banjo on my first album and I painfully fumbled my way through it. Then I found out there’s this great thing called the “banjitar,” which is six strings strung and tuned just like a guitar—plays like a guitar, sounds like a banjo. When I found that I thought, “Perfect! People will assume I really know how to play banjo!” (laughs)
Did living in England shape your musical tastes?
The great thing about living in England in the 80s was that UK radio was extremely diverse back then. You’d hear this six-minute techno track followed by Cliff Richard followed by Quiet Riot. It was very broad. So I think that definitely shaped my eclecticism from a very early age.
But generally I think I was a late bloomer when it comes to the scope of my actual musical language. When my wife and I moved to Boston, I worked at a couple record stores while in college. One of the folks I worked with, Shawn at Quincy Records, was heavy into late 70s punk and hip-hop, which was nothing I’d ever been exposed to. I remember hearing The Clash’s London Calling record for the first time and instantly the canvas of musical landscape became, like, a thousand times wider.
What was your major in college [at the Berklee College of Music]?
I majored in songwriting. When all was said and done and I walked away with my diploma, I instantly had a laugh thinking, “Now what do I do?” I was taught some great musical structure and lyric coloring skills and was shown by example cases of what makes a good song, but you still have to find your voice—to discover what makes you unique from any other writer out there. For me, I had a lot of work to do on my own before I could stand up and profess any kind of vision for my work.
What story does your first CD, Release, tell?
Looking back on it now, it’s really the story of me just trying to find myself as an artist. That record is so diverse and so all over the place—and the songs are all styles of music that I love. It was kind of a way for me to try out different things and see what really works best for me. It was designed as a song cycle through the ups and downs of a relationship, which I suppose has also kind of been the template both my records have taken. I’ll always have a warm place in my heart for Release—there was a real spirit of adventure on that record.
Who is Juliet in the song “Little Juliet”?
Me. (laughs) I was working a job I wasn’t really happy with and I knew that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. That discomfort ultimately led to my moving to LA.
“Your best foot forward is behind.” That was me.
Brandon Schott - "Paper Wings"
When did your relationship with the kazoo start? It’s a mainstay at your concerts during “Paper Wings” and it’s great when everyone in the audience is playing along.
When we were recording “Paper Wings,” I really wanted to make it unstable. It definitely had this real jazzy undercurrent at its core, but I wanted to turn that on its side a bit. So I told my friend Greg Jamrok, who produced the record with me, “Let’s make this sound like a high school band as directed by Tom Waits.”
So we got some friends together who had played various instruments in high school bands many years ago—and a few of them hadn’t played since then! I told them the key and to just play. It just turned out to be this massive moment of wonderful chaos.
In addition to that, we thought, obviously, “Wouldn’t it be great if we got a bunch of our friends together and gave them all kazoos and had them make noise on the track?” Why not? So, we got a case of beer and some tequila and all headed out to the studio. There were 12 of us in all with kazoos raising a ruckus and laughing our asses off. I just had so much fun with it that I started incorporating the spirit of that session into my shows by passing out kazoos to the audience. It’s fun. And noisy. I think it’s still my favorite song on the album.
Moving on to your current album, Golden State, what led you to choose California as your muse?
I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision. I’d never really said, “I’m going to make a California album.” It really just came from the environment. Half of the songs on Release were written in Boston before I moved out here, whereas Golden State was written exclusively in LA. I guess I was just influenced by my surroundings and Golden State is what came of it. This was also right around the time that the revival of Brian Wilson’s Smile happened, too. That record broke my heart the first time I heard it. It was so beautiful.
I actually had the title for the Golden State record before I had the song. It was originally thought up as an EP, just five or six songs. I was looking for something that kind of tied it all together and I thought Golden State worked because a lot of the music had a bit of a spiritual overtone to it. I really wanted to explore the connotations of golden state and what it means—to feel at peace—and what do we have to go through to attain it? It formed from there, and during the production of the record it seemed natural it should have little shades of the California musical experience as well.
Brandon Schott - "...Harper?"
What’s the story behind your song “…Harper?”
“…Harper?” was written as a really short instrumental break. For me, it bridges the album. I still think in terms of records and cassette tapes—side A and side B—and in this CD and iTunes era, I wanted to put something in there that felt like it was the start of a new chapter.
The song never really had a title, but once the album was done and we were getting ready to mix it, my wife Michelle and I took a drive up Foothill Boulevard and listened to the rough mixes. It was the first time she had heard it all the way through, I think. I can’t remember if she was pregnant or just about to get pregnant, but at that point we knew we wanted to have another child. We started talking about that and she brought up the name “Harper” as a possibility.
I had the thought that going into a song like “Hourglass,” which is really about not knowing where you stand in a relationship, and then coming to the realization that anything that means something to you is worth fighting for—that anything is still possible in your future together—it just seemed appropriate to ask the question, “How about ‘Harper?’” It just seemed like a nice lead-in to that. And it turns out we did name our second child Harper!
Brandon Schott - "Hourglass"
Speaking of your wife, the design of your album artwork really complements your music. Does she do all of your graphic design?
Yes, she does. She and I were recently talking about how the work we did on Release versus the work that ended up on Golden State shows not only my musical progression, but her progression as an artist as well. It’s so appropriate because we’re so deeply on this journey together.
In addition to releasing Golden State last year, you also wrote a Christmas song last winter. What was the story behind “Winter in the Sun”?
I’m generally not a big fan of Christmas music. It’s just not something that’s usually on my radar. But this song just kind of fell out of the air and onto my lap, like an eight-year-old kid kicking and screaming and demanding attention. It was not going to take a nap until I played with it for a while.
Thematically it tied into the whole Golden State aesthetic, which had just come out. And once we dug into it, it came together really quickly. It was written in September, recorded, mixed and mastered in October, then released in November. Quite honestly it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had working on a song.
Everybody that was involved with it brought their “A” game and it was so clear right from the start from everyone what it needed to be. And the group vocal at the end was a blast. I had a bunch of friends from work gather in the office of one of our senior VPs and sing background vocals. I had friends from Long Beach to New York e-mailing me vocals—I really wanted it to be a collective, family experience. It was a blast!
Your tour last year took you everywhere from Los Angeles to England. Which LA venues are your favorites?
I’ve been thinking lately about this place that I haven’t played for years, but I really dig called Hallenbeck’s General Store in North Hollywood. I love the vibe of that place. I also love Karma Coffeehouse, where I held residency for three and a half years—right up till the end of 2007. I like Tangier a lot. Bordello has a great aesthetic. Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park is a cool place to play. Their sound engineer, Arlo, is one of my favorite sound engineers in LA. He truly loves what he does, and that’s always great to encounter. And I’m definitely looking forward to Safari Sam’s this weekend.
A minute ago, you mentioned that your residency lasted up until the end of last year. I know that you received some difficult health news around that time. Would you mind sharing that story?
I generally keep myself pretty busy with my family, my job at a publishing company, and then on top of that, my music. Over the course of 2007 I was pretty tired and run-down but I didn’t think much of it—just figured I had been working a little too hard.
In early November, right around the end of the “Winter in the Sun” process, I had a bit of a lull and was able to slow down a little bit. I started having some shortness of breath, and then I felt pain in my chest when I inhaled too deeply. So I thought, “It’s been like this for a few days, so, I’ll just go to the emergency room and have them give me some antibiotics and tell me that I’m overreacting.”
So I went into the ER and went through all the appropriate tests. The attending physician in the ER had come in and told me that I had a fungal infection and that they were going to send me home. Then he went off to process the paperwork.
In between the time he left to process the paperwork and the nurse was about to let me go, a new attending started her shift, and she took another look at my chest x-ray. So there I was, sitting in a room, waiting for the OK to go home, and she walks in and closes the door. She laid it all out and said, “I took another look at your x-ray and we see something here that’s alarming.”
What did she see in the x-ray?
She saw about a dozen shadows—really faint gray areas—on the surface of my lungs. She said, “In my experience, this means some kind of cancerous growth or spread. I’m going to go find out what our options are and come back to figure out what we’re going to do.” That period between when she left and the time she came back was the only time that I truly felt afraid, because I was alone with the likelihood of this disease. It was slowly sinking in and I was trying to get to the extent of what it all meant.
Then, I found that once I told my family and started bringing more people into the story, the easier it was because I wasn’t dealing with it alone anymore. It wasn’t only my burden to carry—it was something I was going through with other people, that I could perhaps take care of them as they reacted to the news.
Once it was officially diagnosed as cancer, it was just a matter of taking the steps I needed to take to get this crap out of me. I was eager to get started and get it taken care of. I found the best thing I could do in a situation like that was to arm myself with knowledge. The more I understood, the easier it was to navigate. I was very proactive in my treatment, and sought advice from numerous folks along the way—on both the Eastern and Western sides of medicine—so there was a really great balance there for me.
What kind of cancer was it?
It was a germ cell tumor, which is the official name of testicular cancer, only it was located near my lungs. It was described to me like this: When you’re an embryo and developing, your reproductive cells form in your brain, and as your body develops, they migrate down to where they’re supposed to end up. But in my case, during that process, a few ended up sticking around in my chest and they’ve been there my whole life.
For whatever reasons—stress or environmental factors—for the last few years, they just started multiplying and became a three-inch primary tumor, and then it spread to spots on my lungs. So by the time the doctors saw it, it was already stage three.
Did you run into any roadblocks during your treatment?
Honestly, it still is amazing to me that, in the context of my story, I didn’t really have those roadblocks you hear about. Everyone was really supportive and wanting to help me through it. There was this feeling that I didn’t have cancer, but this whole network of care we’d created had cancer and we were fighting it together—not only my friends and family, but doctors and strangers who had no idea who I was two months before any of this started.
It’s still weird to say this, and I wouldn’t wish it on myself or my family again, but cancer really was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It reminded me how amazing my family is, and how lucky I am to have the friends I have. I truly saw the best of humanity through the whole experience. And what I was left with was an incredible perspective for moving forward.
When did you learn you were cancer-free?
The last couple weeks of February 2008. I was really fortunate that the chemo took right away. I was in treatment for 12 weeks and after my last dose, I went in the very next day for a PET scan. Within a day, the results came back and there was no trace left of cancer.
Although I knew deep down that I was fine, it still took a few days before my family and I were able to start believing it. I was still pretty worn out and had some recovery to do, but I was recovering under the context that it worked. We’d beat it. And now we’re just over six months free and clear…
What’s one of your biggest frustrations about the experience?
When I hear of similar people my own age who did not have the experience I had—who were not taken seriously and had a far more challenging time getting the treatment they needed when they needed it—it kills me. I feel that if anyone has to go through this, they should have the kind of experience I had at Huntington Memorial Hospital and City of Hope. By being open with my experience, perhaps I can express to those who might still be traveling a similar road that there are others who understand what they’re going through, and can provide them with the love, support and resources they need to come through something like this. There’s a great organization called I’m Too Young for This that’s doing some amazing work to that end.
But, other than being sick and feeling kinda crappy for a while, I can’t say that I personally encountered a tremendous amount of frustration. I was so inspired and moved by the outpouring of love that I encountered, and the strength it gave me and my family. I knew that when it was all said and done, I had to give some of that energy back. It wasn’t mine to keep—I was just borrowing it for a little while, but I always knew I wanted to pay it back and help somebody else.
Is that how you got the idea for Artists for Healing?
Yes. In the context of all of that, I knew that I was still going to be making music because it was my heart’s voice and I was writing at an even greater pace than ever. Songs were pouring out of me in single sessions. It really felt as if something was being driven through me. I was back at the crossroads of having to put myself back out on this grinding scene I’d been a part of, which is in many ways equally beautiful and impossible.
But I was faced with the question: “How do I move forward now?” Again, it’s the same thing I asked myself when trying to find my voice as an artist: What do I want my work stand for? How am I different?
I couldn’t do it the way I had been doing it, because it wasn’t good for my health. I kept coming back to the community of my experience. What seemed to make the most sense was when I thought, “If I’m going to put my music out there, why not put it out for something that’s larger than me and stands for more than just my own dreams?” Those dreams are still there, of course, but it just felt so much more natural to deliberately start promoting my music alongside the causes and people that inspire and inform it.
Tell me about this Sunday’s “Turning Toward the Sun” event.
Ever since we started putting our first event together with Artists for Healing, the energy has been astounding. It’s still as exhausting as before, but there’s a different energy coming back through it. It’s an excitement that not only I’m benefiting from, but the people I’m working with as well. It’s swirling in the air and it’s invigorating. It’s so worth all the time and energy we put into it.
We’ve got balloon artists, face painters and a silent auction. My friends in Moving Picture Show and Just Off Turner will be there. Both bands have a tremendous amount of life to them musically and personally. Really, everybody I’ve dealt with has been enthusiastic and supportive by wanting to put something good out there with their art. Hopefully this is the beginning of something big.
What led you to choose the Make-A-Wish Foundation?
While I was sick, I spent a lot of time with my kids. I realized right from my first record that the spirit in my music—and the spirit of open possibility in being an artist—was really founded in that bond I had with my first child, Tyler. He made me want to be a better everything, and shortly after he was born, we created Release. And the same thing happened again with my second son, Harper, and Golden State—he inspired me to be that much better at what I put into the world.
While I was sick, spending more time with them really brought that home again, rooted me back in that spirit. I’d actually called the Make-A-Wish Foundation of LA while I was in chemo, in the light of all this, and asked if they had any music-related wishes I could help with, because I was already looking for a way to give back—help out another family having a rough time. Nothing surfaced initially, but it was always in the back of my mind as I was recovering and eventually when launching Artists for Healing. So, that’s why they’re the benefactors.
Brandon Schott - "Carousel Revisited"
You made a new version of the song “Carousel” [from the Golden State album] after you found out you were cancer-free. What led you to cut a new version of it?
It was part of the process of getting back out there again. The arrangement just kinda popped in my head one day and I thought it would be fun to explore a slowed down version. I had never ever considered re-recording any of my tracks, but I kept coming back to that lyric in light of everything.
That particular song was written after a trip to the zoo with my oldest son one winter afternoon, so it was inspired by a day of slowing down, taking it in and enjoying not only what you see around you, but also what can be seen through the eyes of someone else. You don’t have to keep on this spinning cycle all the time. You have to stop or you’ll go mad. It seemed fitting to revisit that song at this point. Life told me it was time; I had no choice but to stop.
Even the way the two versions of the song are arranged…the album version is up and fast and there’s lots of stuff going on. There’s all this crazy energy to it. And then the new version is this really reflective, slowed down version of the same song but re-colored in a way that reflects my experience. Seemed totally appropriate. And getting back to what we just discussed, I'm also sending 75 percent of the digital proceeds from "Carousel Revisited" to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Los Angeles.
Have you started on your next album?
Let’s just say that I wrote at least an album’s worth of material when I was sick. I imagine it’ll be recorded soon, as I want to capture the emotion of it before it’s too far gone, but I really don’t know when it would be released. Golden State is still the album of the moment, though I’ve got two-thirds of a fourth record, too. (laughs) All in good time, though…there’s plenty.
Now for a couple fun questions…
Is it true you once opened for the Smothers Brothers?
My friend Jake Simpson had just won Star Search and got a gig in Vegas opening for the Smothers Brothers at the Hilton. He asked me if I would play guitar with him. So we went out there and did about a week in Vegas, and it was really fun. The best part about it was that we got to know the staff at the Hilton a bit, including a seamstress who was there during the Elvis years, and she had some stories—gave us the full tour and showed us his dressing room.
Did you get to hang out with the Smothers Brothers at all? Any crazy Smothers parties?
We hung out a little bit, but it wasn’t like a lot of crazy dancing or bar-hopping was going on or anything like that. (laughs)
Is it true you're a big fan of Battlestar Galactica?
That show is frakking awesome!
What was your funniest onstage moment?
I was playing The Joint in Hollywood, and that particular night there was definitely a spirit of anything goes—we’d had a couple drinks and were just going to throw it at the wall and see what happened. They had a projector behind the stage where they’d play DVDs that were projected behind the band.
I’d seen it used before but I’d never ventured into that territory for my own set. But that night I was like, “Screw it. What you got?” Their sound guy said, “We’ve got some swirly pattern thing that’s pretty psychedelic and we’ve got Godzilla…” and I said “Stop right there. Hell yeah, hit me with some Godzilla!”
So, we were playing our set and Godzilla was tromping through the cityscape and people were screaming and flailing their arms. I’d look behind me every now and then and laugh. When we got to “Paper Wings,” around the middle of the song, some sort of pterodactyl started flying and Godzilla began swatting at it.
But I had no idea what was happening—I was just in the middle of the song and noticed that people were laughing. When we finally got to the instrumental break, I turned around to look behind me, and just totally lost it. I think we broke the groove a bit there. But it’s all good. What could have been a disastrous show turned out to be one of the most fun I’ve had on stage in LA. Thanks to Godzilla.
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Brandon!
The “Turning Toward the Sun” benefit for the Make-A-Wish Foundation will take place at Safari Sam’s this Sunday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. Entertainment will include Brandon Schott (backed by a string quartet), Just Off Turner and Moving Picture Show. Learn more about Artists for Healing at www.artistsforhealing.net.
Photos by Michael Reppert and Cathy Schott, album design by Michelle Schott