Brett Emmons of The Glorious Sons

Brett Emmons of The Glorious Sons had a long talk with QRO....
Brett Emmons of The Glorious Sons
Brett Emmons of The Glorious Sons

There are identifiable qualities within any ethnology of artists that jump genre lines with gazelle-like ease. The unifying epigraph attachable to all truly exceptional writers is one: that they unapologetically threw sand into the pneumatic pistons of the society that first received them. The mirror maxim for the untidy rock creatures forming the musical counterparts to those writers would be the untaught tendency to beat swords into plowshares-–but perhaps not before both blade and barley have been used to shave down a supposedly sacred social sculpture or twenty. Kingston, Ontario’s The Glorious Sons appear not to have forgotten that it was disobedience that first paved the way to Utopia, and the name alone almost does all the advertising that is needed – Brett Emmons, Jay Emmons, Adam Paquette, Josh Hewson, Peter Van Helvoort, and Steve Kirstein play and sing as prodigal sons of the fine cache of pre-named-elsewhere things that others called fathers – anarchy, thunder, liberty, and the kind of sailors that know it’s only the heroes and crooks worth bellowing for – and along the way they have materialized a modern mania in their music that only has iconic predecessors.

The Glorious Sons have spent a decadent decade’s worth of songs encouraging not just one another and their loyal following but the accidental passerby-listener as well to put on battle jackets and take on the toffs and the tolls, come what may. Starting with their Shapeless Art EP in 2013 and on to The Union the following year – the full-length that would formally situate many of the Shapeless Art songs into their more permanent and public settings – here was a band announcing that it would remain committed to showing its audience the dogfight dressing on its own heart from surviving just those same experiences which they are inciting, memorializing, and resuscitating for the good of all in their mugwump music – homage to high-velocity memories, refusal of the goose-iron to the face that is normalized adulthood, well-attended wakes for the withering treatises of youth.

Coming completely into their colors on 2017’s Young Beauties and Fools, a toweringly brave album featuring shale-mountain songs such as “S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun)” with lyrics like “I’m sick of being okay against my will,” The Glorious Sons left no room to doubt that they had meant what their early insouciance had insinuated and were prepared to pummel their way through proving it too. By 2019’s A War On Everything, it had become incontestable that divarication was to be the dream for this band, and that the brothers leading it were willing to pay for their heaven of luminous fever trees just like the hardcore hangout artists of yore had done, the flick-knife of Fortune glinting at their throats. So many bands today, even genuinely well-meaning ones, that try to bring disarray back from desuetude like this end up so far behind the chaos curve as to be engaged in a race with their own asses, and totally unaware of it half the time to boot.

Take a listen to The Young King Sessions, Live From BBC Studio, or Our Little Piece of Work (Live at Richardson Stadium) to gauge the intensity with which The Glorious Sons have had to build their own weather in order to separate their live shows from the deputized parlor tricks that so categorize others who might be said to occupy a sonic sky similar to theirs. Rather than run like a scalded dog from the unchalked hash marks that aggressive authenticity will buy most any band in 2023, their latest, Glory, released on September 6th, runs the fugacious even further up the flagpole and is a record oozing like a busted can of biscuits with the fecund volatility that has come to encapsulate The Glorious Sons in both sound and image. Lead singles like “Lightning Bolt” demonstrate that even songs of theirs which sip at the roots of acoustic-folk live on planets with metal clouds, while “Mercy, Mercy”, a tiffin of a tune, serves as a graveside elegy beside a burn barrel for feelings never quite understood by the bearer until they were evaporated, Emmons calling his heart out as both a home for worker bees and also a place punishing enough in temperature to curdle honey.

With no disrespect whatsoever intended toward the softer-lit side of rock or its full-time inhabitants, what the entire agglomerate of the audio world has needed for some years now is Thanatos standing in the full sunshine. Brett Emmons, microphone magus for The Glorious Sons, is that and the Kracken well and truly released, and one set loose in the snow-jazz-infused atmospheres of kaffeeklatsch kings not always best suited to understanding his nature. If I were to channel my precious Mamaw on the subject of Emmons, I would say: “My lands, it’s been a time since we’ve seen one of these.” For all that is waggish and without valor in modern music, he is the potent opposition. Emmons has come at his career with an improvisational tilt that leaves plenty of necessary breathing room for the childlike boast of real rock-n-roll, wherever it can still be found and no matter how it may rechristen itself to slink under the night-scoped stun guns of the prim neo-Puritans and slumberous whistle-pigs. He has unerringly trusted the fandangle and the fury of the music above all things, and that is the one sure sign of an avowed non-ventriloquist. It is also the nearest any artist will come to the brash contract with destiny that guarantees the music will love you back all the way.

Living by the wildcat surge can often mean a starless orbit these days. There exist many camps of crepe paper people controlling culture and canalizing choruses who suggest that straight talk is somehow sigogglin, but that has not stopped Emmons shamelessly emptying his gutbucket with all the primacy of a warrior monk into songs that stand starkly apart from the disaffected phrasings of the brainless bullpen. Worried mothers of radicalized IRA sons have been known to collectively ask: is rebellion in the blood, in the brain, in the bone–or is it just in the boy? Emmons’s fulsomely inquisitive, unharnessable life seems to answer this ageless query while simultaneously disallowing for any declivity to be imposed on what his ungrudging fidelity to truth of a microscopic bent has brought him, on and off the stage.

Guided by gratitude for where he and his band have gotten on their own terms, he also embodies what Don Letts once famously said about making yourself irreplaceable in whatever you attempt in life: “I’m of that generation that believes you need to justify the space you occupy otherwise you’re fucking baggage, so I never took that space for granted.” Nor did we wee Flying Feral at QRO when it was our turn to sling hair and aphorisms with Mr. Emmons and spend a moment with him finding out what it really takes to remain so fabulously fang-banged within a tame world that now habitually tries to either taunt or tear down anything bearing properly sharp teeth.

QRO: The first thing I have to say to you right away, Brett, is that I am very good at sniffing out my own kind, and my nose says you are a writer, sir, first and foremost. When I began really digging into your lyrics in a serious way, I thought, “Alright then Canadian Bob Seger, I see you!”

Brett Emmons: Oh, I love that! Thank you so much for that! That means a lot to me. Yeah, I write all the time; I can’t help it. It’s something I’ve always done and I definitely think I need to do it.

QRO: How do you capture it all–do you dictate a lot like me or does it all come through your hands first?

BE: Oh, I have to write with my hands because the immediate connection from my head to my mouth is just not a great one…[laughs]I need that processing time and to see it in front of me because if someone just took the things that come to my mind or mouth the way they would tumble out, I would probably sound like the stupidest person you have ever met! [laughs]

QRO: I completely feel that and carry a notepad and pen everywhere myself! I’ve heard what we word-bound people go through to create anything worth keeping described as “sifting a collection of impressions” and felt that was a very accurate description of being a writer.

BE: Wow, yeah, that is a good way to put it, and I have definitely gone in a more imagery or visual image direction with some of the writing on these later songs. It’s all things I’m thinking through, things I’ve seen, unanswered questions, or a beautiful moment I am trying to keep alive. I guess I am always just hoping that something I have written will be useful or helpful to someone else.

QRO: It makes me think of hearing you talk one time about John Prine and saying that if it took you as long as it did him, you’d be more than fine with that because the songs stand.

BE: That’s right! I don’t think anybody could name a more humorous or brilliant songwriter than John Prine, and he was writing no matter what. It may have taken some people longer than others to figure out how great he was, but the songs remain and they do speak for themselves. I always go back and forth with myself about how much I want to layer on or whether I want to just hit with something really straight on, no decorations.

QRO: Something like “White Noise!”

BE: Yeah! Exactly like that!

It’s all things I’m thinking through, things I’ve seen, unanswered questions, or a beautiful moment I am trying to keep alive.

QRO: I love that song for that very reason, and I love “Cosmic Beam” for a bunch of others. “Cosmic Beam” is many things, many sounds, and many worlds to me. What is it to you?

BE: That song is about a very close friend of mine that I wish I could have been a better friend to when we were younger. It is a song about looking at friendships you had in your twenties and wishing you had been more honest. Not letting someone think they’re “living the dream” when they’re definitely not.

QRO: I love this song for bringing back the Oscar Wilde way of having buddies. Male friendships like this used to be absolutely the societal standard and we have, unfortunately, moved into an era where they have waned in public depiction and acceptance. I know friendship to be every bit as important, and sometimes more so, than any other type of close relationship you will ever have in life, and I just read a book about how going to therapy for a friendship should be viewed as equally normal and necessary as going for commonly accepted things like marriage or your own internal mind.

BE: I agree in so many ways. I mean, I have been to therapy about friendship and I’ve gained a lot of perspective about what friendships are, especially the real and special ones that you never let go of. I’ve got this one friend who is like a brother to me; I’ll never get away from him or him from me. You get to a place where you can definitely tell what someone is going to be versus what you might have wanted them to be before you knew as much about life or yourself, and I think anyone is lucky that has even one really good friend that would stand by them no matter what happened. People do not need to discount the value of a real friend.

QRO: My heart could not agree more and if you only knew how my life has borne that truth out! That’s what we call “chosen family.” I’ve been fortunate to have a couple of people just like that and I couldn’t do without them. They are my human homes. Speaking of the architectures that keep us alive, where was this album recorded?

BE: At my house, actually. The way my house is laid out, it’s basically one big living room and so we just move all our gear in there, set up, and play. It’s so nice to be able to do that!

I’ve gained a lot of perspective about what friendships are, especially the real and special ones that you never let go of.

QRO: I bet! That also explains a great deal of the feeling of interconnectivity and closeness I get from this record front to back.

BE: Thank you for saying that; it makes me happy that you can hear that. We try to keep it very honest, very upfront, and just be a band. We love to play live and we want our records to sound like it no matter what we are going for thematically or any other way.

QRO: That happens to be one of the things that I respect you guys the most for: the way you have built your audience the old-school way, from the ground up, as well as the fact that you have evolved in a significant way from record to record. Have you received any pushback for those leaps in this Era of Expected Homogeneity, as I call it?

BE: You are so right to say that homogeneity is a thing now and my response to anyone who expects that of me is “There’s the exit.” I don’t feel the need to serve anyone who doesn’t want me or us to grow, and apart from a few negative comments on videos and things like that, we have not gotten any massive pushback for any of our experimentations in new directions, but I would not pay attention to them if we did. You’re supposed to change as an artist, and I’m not at all worried about catering to someone who doesn’t know and respect that.

QRO: I’m forever combatting the language around the word “rebel” because I love the word myself but people misuse it. They will label you as such for saying something like what you just did, for simply being a genuine individual rather than the common conformist cog, but really you’re not rebelling against anything because you’re too smart to have ever valued the status quo in the first place. “Rebel” is just a small-dictionary person’s word for “self-faithful,” which is a thing that used to be required of everyone once upon a time, but especially rock stars. I live in that world still, and I’m glad you clearly do too!

BE: Man, that’s beautiful. Thank you for that! And you’re completely right. As far as I’m concerned, music especially is about telling the truth, all of it. It’s about having the guts to be totally vulnerable and embarrass yourself with how naked you can be with a particular emotion or thought. If you aren’t willing to go there, what are you really doing? What’s the point? I would make that argument for anything though; it’s not limited to songs by any means.

You’re supposed to change as an artist, and I’m not at all worried about catering to someone who doesn’t know and respect that.

QRO: Did the Juno change anything about the tone of outside expectations around you guys?

BE: I think I’m probably not alert enough to the people who come knocking because of things like that, but we do appreciate the idea that anyone wants to give us an award. It’s not what we are doing this for, and certainly not why I make music, but it can feel good to get an award and then you just go right back out to your next gig. It could be a great gig or a hard one, but that will all come from our internal mindsets in that moment, not anything to do with winning something like a Juno. I think it has also helped us that we have always been out on the road when those shows were happening and I don’t like performing on TV anyway because I just don’t ever know if it translates. I worked with a songwriter in Nashville a while ago who had all these gold plaques and awards sitting on the floor and facing the wall. I just thought: “that’s the kind of guy I want to be like.”

QRO: I think the attitude has always already been there for you because the thing my little garage rock heart hears is a sliver of the old outlaw country ethos honed by Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and of course Willie and Waylon, where you are essentially saying, “Yes, we appreciate beyond words getting to make music every day and we don’t take any of that for granted for a second, but you’re not going to tell us what to do either.” I think “Glory” is an excellent example of the way you have blended the appreciative with the unapologetic in such a harmonious way.

BE: That’s exactly it. I don’t worry about people who think you need to ask permission for what you want or who you are. Those people are probably not going to listen to me anyway. I just worry about whether I’ve gotten the songs to where they need to be, whether they are saying what I felt like they were trying to say or needed to say, and whether I feel like I have told the most truth that I can tell. If you serve the song like that, I believe the song will serve the audience. Thank you for ever thinking to name us alongside those legends, by the way. That is a huge compliment because every one of those guys is someone to respect for all the things I would hope to be.

QRO: You’re most welcome as it’s most true. I look around at the grotesquely pristine musical landscape of today and I’m always thinking…“Where’s the mess?” Thank you for giving us the raw, truculent truth like you do, like some of us will always need. What is your own definition of musical success?

BE: Oh man, just to die doing it. That’s what I want. To be an old man still out there doing it to the very end.

If you serve the song like that, I believe the song will serve the audience.

QRO: That’s precisely what my Dad, who has been a working musician for over 60 years now, says. He says he wants to die on stage! And it’s what I say too for myself, but not for him! [laughs] People ask me all the time if I’m going to relax after this book or that milestone, and I’m always like “Relax? The book, to my mind, is the starting line, not the finishing!”

BE: Yeah, totally, that’s how I feel! Every song, album, show, and tour is a new day to me. I never wanted to do anything else and I know I never will. I don’t think I would ever want to do something every day that I thought about stopping either. What kind of fulfillment would that be, quietly waiting around for a rest or some last level or whatever? I do this because I love it and I don’t see any valid reason for doing anything in life if you don’t love it like that.

QRO: Damn straight, and something I feel like I have to say way too often to others. I’m like you in my art world: I will die at this desk or one very like it with a pen in one hand and a chocolate bar in the other!

BE: It’s the only way! Have you read Sometimes a Great Notion?

[the writer in question immediately digitally drags Mr. Emmons to a framed portrait of Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters in action back in their heyday]

QRO: My Dad gave me that book when I was in the 11th grade and I’ve been trying in one form or another to emulate Ken Kesey ever since. I always name-drop him when people ask me about authors I would like to be similar to.

BE: That’s so amazing I barely have words! But that book teaches it all and says it way better than I could. It’s the good kind of obstinacy I want to take from that. The ‘never give any inch’ in the way no one should.

QRO: Bingo all day! Thank you so much, Brett, for taking time out of your tour to chat with us. It’s been so lovely and helpful for me to hear your thoughts on all of these subjects. I’m going to try my best to catch up with you guys down the rock-n-roll highway on this tour so I can drink all the Glorious Sons glory in live!

BE: Please do, we would love to see you out there. Thank you so much for supporting us like this and for such a great conversation!

I do this because I love it and I don’t see any valid reason for doing anything in life if you don’t love it like that.

-photo: Matt Barnes

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