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JC Brooks on how ‘The Neon Jungle’ straddles genres to retool the uptown funk sound

“As long as people hear our music, I don’t mind how they do it. It’s all about getting people out to see a show.”

There’s a new sheriff of Uptown Funk in town, and JC Brooks is his name.

Brooks, a kinetically charged, genre-bending vocalist/lyricist/bandleader who currently calls Chicago his home, is a man who follows a taut grab-the-listener-at-all-costs manifesto. The results of that singular drive can be heard on his new joint, The Neon Jungle , out now in multiple formats via Rock Ridge Music.

The Neon Jungle can succinctly be described as an album-length soundtrack for one crazy/incredible night out. From the percussive harmonic rush of the opening track Jungle to the vulnerable balladeering of Playing With Fire to the progressively funky kick of O.N.O — a song which filters the best of Prince, Mick Jagger, and Steely Dan into his signature soul-train blender — Brooks makes the case for having his middle name legally changed to “Relentless.”

“It all started out as an effort to merge post-punk and soul, but it’s grown into so much more than that,” Brooks told Digital Trends about the group known as The Uptown Sound that now operates collectively under his own name. “The phrase ‘post-punk’ can cover so many different areas, and I still feel like we carry that ethos with the genre-mixing kind of stuff I write for this band. The punk aspect is more about our aesthetic to get this thing off the ground by any means necessary — that is, we want to get out there onstage and engage with our live crowds on a visceral level.”

Digital Trends got on the horn with Brooks while he was hanging out at home in Chicago to discuss how he and the band merge multiple genres into a modern sound, being positive about the benefits of streaming, and how to translate the energy that’s been put down on record over to the live stage. Don’t believe me, just watch…

Digital Trends: What were the differences between your production goals for The Neon Jungle and the ones you had for your previous album with The Uptown Sound, 2013’s Howl?

JC Brooks: Howl was very a dark and contemplative record, so we wanted to make a more fun album with the concept being, “a crazy night out.”

After I heard the mixes and the masters for The Neon Jungle, I had this image of someone driving towards the city for this big night, flipping through the radio dial. The sound range of all the genres that were around on the radio between 1983 and 1988 is the sound range the record conjures for me. It’s a record about nightlife.

While the band is simply called “JC Brooks” now, I see everyone’s contributions to the album as being an interlocked thing. The Neon Jungle is very much a band record.

“Sometimes I feel like a searchlight, where I’m spreading it all around to make sure everybody is getting all the different moments we build into the show.”

I’m glad you get that. I have been concerned about the name change being seen as an ego move, and that’s the thing I want to avoid. One of the first things we put into this “new” band was we want to be a more democratic and wholly cooperative creative machine, so it’s nice for everyone to have a voice in the album’s creation. The record really is a full band effort.

A lot of bands that appear under one person’s name pretty much are that person, working with an entire singular vision. But this album came together the way it did and with the sound it did because we did most of the writing as a unit — the six of us who we are now. It sounds like us learning how to write together and feeling each other out musically.

We’ve been playing together as a unit for over a year, and now I feel like we have our sound together. And no matter what, we won’t be sacrificing the eclectic nature of our music.

That’s good to hear. The album is the product of everybody working together in harmony, where everybody brings something to the table.

Yeah. We’ve expanded this beyond a single person’s vision. And outside of playing instruments, our percussionist [Jovia Armstrong] is also our tour manager, handling a lot of the logistical work. Our bassist [Theodore Berry IV] and guitarist [Alec Lehrman] are doing a lot of social media. Everybody takes on all these roles.

Our drummer [Kevin Marks] takes care of all the merch, and stores it at his house. Our keyboard guy [Jeremy Tromburg] does our accounting, and he archives all of our rehearsals and gets as many of our soundboards as he can. I do the graphic design and other things like that, and come up with the ideas about our artistic presentation.

Teamwork in action; I like that. I also like the layers I’m hearing on The Neon Jungle — the tambourine in the right channel on Get Gone, for example. The mix details reveal themselves on repeated listenings. That has to be the goal of yours and the band’s — for us to hear all of that hard work take root.

We did a decent amount of layering, yes. The guy who produced and mixed the tracks, Josh Richter, is very meticulous about these things, and he had his own ideas for the layering and filling out of the sound. The last thing we wanted were bare or sparse arrangements, except for that one ballad.

Right — you mean the beginning of One for Someone, where it’s just you and the piano.

Yeah, exactly. That all fit into another aim of ours from the outset — to make a full album.

Sequencing is a lost art in the digital age, but the thread of the record’s narrative bears out following the course of that night out. Naturally, it’s important that Watch Me is at the very end.

We did at one point have a very specific idea of the sequencing, but we ultimately arrived at what was version 3 of the tracklist. It feels like it makes more sense sonically, if not necessarily narratively. But there is this thread going through, based on having less-jarring transitions.

Of course, a lot of people will stream this record. How do you feel about that as an artist, as the way people will be listening to you?

I’m fine with that — as long as people are listening. I believe in the likability and the danceability of our music, so all I want is for people to give it a listen.

It’s not for everybody, but I don’t mind streaming at all. For a band at our level, it’s advertising. I don’t feel like it’s taking that much money out of our pockets, though it’s not putting money into our pockets. (chuckles) It’s hard for me to put money and art together. You record something, and you want to make the money back it cost you to record it.

“For a band at our level, streaming is advertising.”

It’s a weird distinction to make, but I feel like people would get it anyway. Before streaming services, people were uploading things third-party onto YouTube. Each album track just had the cover for the actual visual content. It would have been out there anyway.

When our first album, Beat of Our Own Drum, came out [in 2009], my mom called me about the link. A Torrent site had ripped it — but I was so happy! I was happy someone wanted to take it and share it with the world. It only cost us $2 or $3,000 to record, and we’d made that back, so whatever! (chuckles)

It’s all about getting people out to seeing a show. And like I said, as long as people hear our music, I don’t mind how they do it.

Share and share alike, right? I think what people are going to find with your vocals on this record is you don’t have to ascribe one single genre to what you’re doing. We get to hear 11 different shades of where you’re at, which will then be interesting to see how you translate all that to the live stage.

That’s how I maintain some of my theater background — the theatricality of performing. That’s always going to be a part of my stage identity. I have another project where I’m a lot more reserved in a way to be more still and more grounded onstage, because I had gotten so used to doing the JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound thing, which is very kinetic and all over the place.

It’s really weird. Whenever I was trying to do something more serious, I was having trouble getting planted and being more grounded, so I started another band to work on that.

Are we also going to get vinyl for this release too? This is a needle in the groove kind of record to me.

Right on! Oh yes! I am partial to vinyl. I can listen to older stuff on vinyl, the older records that I have. But there is something newer I really like on vinyl — Little Dragon, that Swedish electronic band. I love the lo-fi, 808-ness of it, and even though her [Yukimi Nagano’s] voice gets a little crackle and hiss over it, that really enhances it.

How much of The Neon Jungle will be played live?

As much as we can, while still serving the people who have supported us all along the way. We’re playing about seven songs from the new album on a regular basis.

JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound - Rouse Yourself

I believe in our live show. We have a very strong live band. We know how to connect. Our show brings people in and makes fans of people who might otherwise ignore our type of music. It’s nice to hear, “Yeah, I wouldn’t normally listen to anything like this, but I came out here on the recommendation of other artists, and now I’m a fan! I want to buy your stuff!” I’ve heard that a lot as we’ve toured, which has helped strengthen the confidence of the show.

I like voting with my dollars at the merch table whenever I see a band I love, that’s for sure. How do you feel The Neon Jungle fits into where we are these days, societally speaking?

I feel like this album in particular is light on social commentary — it’s more about interpersonal commentary. It’s nice to be able to connect directly with people. You want to reach out to many different people at the same time. That’s why I feel like a searchlight at times — you’re trying to spread it all around to make sure everybody is getting all these different moments that you build into the show.

Before we wrap this up, I do have to say I love the way your vocals are either double- or triple-tracked on Stumble in the Dark. That song has a real Terence Trent D’Arby feel to it.

Awesome. That is something guys refer to a lot. That is definitely a compliment to me.

We need more vocalists with that kind of power these days.

I just want to say my piece, and then disappear into a little compound in the middle of nowhere. Our world is scary, and I like nature more anyway. (both laugh) I don’t want to participate in the madness anymore!

I’m kidding — sort of. I mean, I’m glad to do this for people, because I can’t do too much else in the world. I’m glad I can help you not think about all the bullshit for a couple of minutes. (laughs)

Mike Mettler
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has…
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