Tailing the members of Brahmulus, a new Wisconsin R&B duo
Ben Sholl and Greg Brookshire's Fringe Character offshoot prepares to release its debut EP, "Green." (Photo by Chloe Wallace.)
In a piano shop recital space on a crisp October Saturday in Kenosha, the two members of Brahmulus—Ben Sholl and Greg Brookshire (who performs as GregB)—have fake animal tails attached to each of their instruments, a guitar and bass respectively.
The two frequent collaborators and members of Madison hip-hop band Fringe Character are posing for a photo shoot in preparation for Green, their first EP as duo, due out on November 11. It's a perplexing sight without context—two people in their 30s with tails and coordinated outfits standing and strumming in front of a white background while a photographer, Chloe Wallace, snaps pics. (In the final photos the band shares, you can barely see the tails.)
But when you spend time around the two musicians, these sort of idiosyncratic things just happen—see also the Dur-Dur Band tunes Sholl plays in the car ride to Brookshire's Kenosha residence or the trampoline in Brookshire's living room. And there's somewhat of an explanation for the tails: they were inspired by the transcendent spiritualism of Australian band Hiatus Kaiyote's lead singer, Naomi Saalfield.
Further exemplified by the impromptu and idle jam session during the shoot, there is an air of interconnectivity between the pair and their actions. And you can hear it on the pair's past collaborations, namely the dazzling "Star Washer" from Fringe Character's latest album, Phases, and all throughout Green's six tracks. While Fringe Character draws on a sprawling hodgepodge of influences, Brahmulus leans in to the expressive style of mid-'00's rappers like Lupe Fiasco and the sounds of '90s neo-soul, balancing the candor of the former with the amalgamated nature of the second.
The Green track "Chantell," for example, keeps Brookshire's plain-spoken vocal in the foreground on the verses, before the instrumental combusts into a lush wash of funky guitar, jazzy saxophone and harmonized gospel vocals on the chorus. The rich details of Sholl's production choices, combined with Brookshire's expressive lyrics, make the EP feel like a fully fleshed-out statement.
Brahmulus also finds Sholl and Brookshire changing up their creative process despite the fact that they're used to collaborating with each other. Brookshire wrote all the EP's songs, which gave him a chance to re-establish himself as a songwriter and stretch his own wings creatively, and for Sholl, it's a chance to step out of his central songwriting role in Fringe Character and focus more intensively on production.
After a morning consisting of baked goods, Somali funk, a photoshoot, Sholl almost buying a grand piano from a deft Kenoshan saleswoman, and Dr. Dre's The Chronic, I sat down with Sholl and Brookshire ahead of Fringe Character's November 9 show at Communication to discuss their interweaving and diverging artistic trajectories, their shared influences and the purpose behind music that seeks to connect rather than call out. And, of course, the tails.
Tone Madison: So, as far as I understand it, a lot of Fringe Character's songs start with Ben and evolve through a collaborative process. How did the process differ on Green?
Greg Brookshire: Man, I still have a bunch of music, songs that I created that I've never released. I had a bunch of music that I wanted to put out, and Ben and I were jamming, and we always thought it would be cool if we just had a band. I brought these songs to him thinking maybe we could put them out. And I also wanted to play bass and sing and perform that way. Before that, I also booked a showcase-type show for myself to practice and it worked.
Ben Sholl: Which show was that?
Greg Brookshire: I don't even think I broadcasted it too much, this was like one of my mom's friend's talent night or something like that. It was mainly younger kids and spoken word artists, but I did it and then I hit you up. Then the Frequency show [in March 2018] opened up, and it went from there. It was always really easy because Ben understands my music and understands my influences. I think that's a big part of our relationship, understanding.
Ben Sholl: Yeah, there's that same basic starting point.
Tone Madison: How many songs did you originally bring to Ben?
Greg Brookshire: I think I brought nine or 10 tracks. They were the ones I wasn't tired of and I thought had the most amount of life to them.
Tone Madison: Ben, what was your role then after Greg brought the songs to you?
Ben Sholl: If you listen to the EP, all the stuff that I added were the production elements. What we started with were Greg's vocals, bass, synths and some basic drums. And basically, I went in and re-did the drums, usually keeping the vibe and pattern that Greg already wrote and dressing them up. I also added in little things, little noises. On the last song of the [EP], "Announcement," for instance, Greg had a bass line, I think, and I added in all those chords.
When you think of a song it's usually, at a minimum, melody. For some of them, I would reharmonize them because they didn't really have a harmony because they only had bass and vocals. So I put in the chords that add a lot of feel to it and stick that under the songs.
Tone Madison: It's kind of like adding infrastructure to them, but also decor maybe?
Ben Sholl: Yeah, context. Harmony is context. You can sing a melody. [Sholl proceeds to do a scat impression.]
Tone Madison: But it's just elevator music then.
Ben Sholl: Right, until you throw some chords under it, the melody makes more sense and it's got the context. The relationship with the harmony changes the melody. But yeah, Greg had vocal parts, bass parts, synth parts, drum parts. I don't want to say they were sketches, because they were more than that. They were written songs, but the kind that needs to be produced. We needed to add things like, when we got Elena Ross, a prolific Madison musician, to help parts of "Chantell" sound like a choir.
Greg had already been singing "All for love" on the chorus, but then we were like, let's get someone in here to make it sound like a choir. So that was the production side of it, but then I also wrote some of the chords in there and the drum stuff.
Tone Madison: I remember we talked about this a bit in the car ride over here, but does this collaboration with Greg model the type of stuff you, Ben, want to do with other artists moving forward?
Ben Sholl: I think so, yeah. Because Greg is super musical, the songs were very advanced when I first heard them. You could hum along with them, nod your head because that's how far along they were. Whereas I could work with someone who just does vocals, make a tune and a beat and then put their vocals on it, but I like doing more stuff with people like Greg, who have more music in them than just the vocals. I don't want to just make songs for people, I want to work with them.
Tone Madison: To go back to your side of things, Greg, I wanted to talk about lyrics. Because it seems that on songs like "Catch A Tiger," from Fringe Character’s 2016 album Mint, a lot of them are more about color and euphony rather than concrete narratives.
Greg Brookshire: That's actually really tight that you got that from that. I think it comes from me getting into music through freestyling at parties and wanting to be a rapper. And when you come from the hip-hop aspect, it's just more poetic. Instead of having, "I stand for this and this is what it's always going to be," it's more of a texture. I think it's similar to being a musician. It doesn't matter if it's A-Major over the 9th or the 13th, if it sounds good, you rock with it. I think with a lot of songs we don't even know the lyrics, but we rock with it.
Tone Madison: Do you stress much, then, over significance? Of music having to be more than something fun?
Greg Brookshire: Earlier when I began making music, it was heavy on that. Every song had to be something. Odd Future was coming out at the time and it was more playful, so I felt the need to go against that.
Ben Sholl: I don't know, man, your lyrics stick with me. All the lyrics of all the people always come back to me. I quote people all the time.
Tone Madison: There's literal meaning but then also the things that stick with you in a more abstract way.
Greg Brookshire: That's deep, and not to be super deep but that's kind of where I'm at as an artist right now. What it comes down to, is it could mean everything or it could mean nothing. But the one thing that I can control is my authenticity.
Ben Sholl: Yeah.
Greg Brookshire: Whether I'm explaining the stars or I'm just saying something simple, it's authentic Greg. That's one thing that can't be replicated. It's just on me.
Tone Madison: Do you ever feel like your music has to be doing something productive or political for it to be worthwhile?
Greg Brookshire: For me, it comes back to, and my wife said this, you can have certain experiences, but regardless of what you do, your son is going to be like, "My dad did this, my dad did that." You can go through these periods of time being like, “Man, what is it all worth, what is it for?” But, that's what it's for. It's to inspire people. And that's what the Brahmulus light bulb is for. I also might quit my job to pursue this full-time, and that might inspire somebody.
Tone Madison: What does that question mean for you Ben, in terms of motivations with music?
Ben Sholl: If you go back, I could show you I always wanted to make political music, or music that really meant something and took a firm stance against the tyranny of the world. I don't write a ton of lyrics but for those that I do, you can definitely dig in and find content that's anti-establishment. But also the music itself, art, self-expression, creativity, authenticity are all forms of dissidence and forms of civil disobedience. To know that the thing you are a vessel for, the thing you're creating is not controlled or limited by anyone. And that's one of the coolest things about music, is it can be whatever you want.
Greg Brookshire: Hearing you say that, it makes me think about Hiatus Kaiyote's effect on us. Her makeup and her guitar, it's so her.
Ben Sholl: Yeah, she's not trying to be anyone else.
Greg Brookshire: Thundercat! He'll wear some boxing shit, but it's him and he can be comfortable. And I think that's something that's really important now with social media now, is people finding the importance in being them, just authentically you and being okay with that.
Tone Madison: I've got to ask one more time. Could you explain the tails on your guitars during the photo shoot?
Greg Brookshire: It's weird. I think it's just about trusting yourself. Doing this project, and that we're at the end of it and I like the songs a lot, Ben likes the songs a lot, I see that this entire thing in my life is a lot bigger than me. And you can find connections with the people who are right in front of you. A lot of times we look for outside shit—drugs, another job, or another car, an outfit. You look for something external to make you complete, but you actually just have to check the extensions around you. So, that's kind of what the tail is.