He started writing songs in a New York apartment, but he learnt the craft of songwriting in the loneliness of the Los Angeles movie theaters. Brendan Hines considers himself an actor first, but he showed his musical talent before being known for the tv series “Lie To Me”. His debut album, “Good For You Know Who”, dates back to 2008. Now Hines presents us his second work, “Small Mistakes”: a sparse and intimate collection of songs, that reveals the most thoughtful side of Hines – and his own version of maturity.
Let’s talk about the beginning of your career. Which decision came first: to be an actor or to be a musician?
I never consciously made that decision. I started playing the trombone in middle school. I started acting in high school, because it was the only way I got to be around girls.
But at the point in your life where you start to think about how you're going to spend the majority of it and how you think you can make a living, I just defaulted to acting because I felt like that's what I was best at. I left Baltimore for New York, did dozens and dozens of plays and worked all sorts of wretched temp jobs because those plays certainly didn't pay the rent. But it was never an option for me that I would do anything else. It was the closest thing to a skill I had. It still pretty much is.
So when I finally got my first real acting job (a terrible, terrible indie film called “Ordinary Sinner”, don't rent it) I burned through the perhaps $2500 I made on that by not working for a solid three or four months and instead sitting around my apartment basically just trying to get better at the guitar and learning to finger pick by drinking with and watching my buddy Tyler, who's a great guitar player. It worked, I got much better and then I had no money and never got another paid acting job the rest of my time in New York. I was good enough at that point that I was getting bored just singing other people's songs. So I just started writing my own. It's really a waste to be broke, depressed and lonely in New York and not write SOMETHING.
A few years later I moved to Los Angeles and most of the people I first met were first rate songwriters; my social life was very music-centric. I still had no interest in music as a career though. But I wrote a bunch and then started playing out and later assembled a band and before I knew it, it filled up all of the moments when I wasn't acting.
In the biography on your web site you said that you were raised by “a former nun and a former priest who fled Brooklyn and the church to marry and teach Philosophy”. How did your family influence your artistic personality?
Mostly by valuing humor and literature, I think. My parents are both second generation irish working class teachers from Brooklyn. The art of storytelling was always important. My father would quote a lot of poetry, irish folk music, philosophy, Shakespeare and Latin. And he'd basically bribe us to memorize poems or monologues that he loved. The first time I ever made any money for any sort of performance was when my dad gave me ten bucks to memorize the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. So we were raised in a house that had a lot of love for books and music and theater. Playing records after dinner was always a pretty exciting thing for me. Whether it was the Clancy Brothers or Kenny Rogers or Kris Kristofferson or the 1964 LP of Richard Burton's “Hamlet”, it was a great incentive to get me to behave.
How did your musical project take shape? Why did you choose to use your name as a “trademark” for your band?
Another decision I didn't consciously make. When I was playing solo I went by Brendan Hines. When my friends Kristen Toedtman and Al Sgro started accompanying me we called ourselves “The Fucking Gentlemen” or “Brendan Hines and The Fucking Gentlemen”. But that sort of sounds like a novelty joke band so I kept the “The” and my name to denote that I was playing with a band. Once people started referring to me in conversation as “The Brendan Hines” I knew I was fucked. And by fucked, I mean branded.
In one of the most brilliant songs of your first record, “Miss New York”, you talk about Los Angeles from the point of view of a New Yorker. Do you think the places where you live have an influence on your music?
I could go on about this forever. They do for me, yes. I suspect I never would have started writing and performing seriously if had I not moved to Los Angeles and met the incredible musicians and songwriters and aficionados I met there. I hardly knew any songwriters in New York when I was there. That just wasn't my world.
Also, I have an obsession with lyrics and stories. And it's obvious that different cities tell different stories, but I think that, depending on where you live and the kind of person you are, they also either encourage or dissuade creative endeavors. New York, for me, had sort of taken on the dissuading end of that equation. Los Angeles is where I finally started playing songs in front of people.
I moved there in 2003 and I only knew a handful of people. I didn't know the city at all and I hadn't driven much in five years. I was constantly bitching that I was going to go back to New York. New York was familiar and easy and social and I had never found much success there so I had no fear of not succeeding because I already hadn't. L.A. was big and bright and depressing and lonely and the thing that got me through that first couple of years more than anything else was the amount of time I spent alone in movie theaters. The “New Beverly” and the “Egyptian Theater” (home of the “American Cinematheque”) mostly. They had and continue to have incredible programming. You could just bounce back and forth between those theaters every night and never get bored. If you're a movie nerd, that is. So the sheer volume of old and obscure films and the quality of storytelling and performances was something I was just soaking in. I've always been obsessed with film but being new to a city that reveres its cinematic history like that, coupled with my loneliness and the amount of time I was spending in the dark, got me going creatively. Great film dialogue has inspired and influenced my lyrics as much if not more than any songwriter. I've always wanted to make movies but songwriting is sort of a cheap and noble and not altogether dissimilar alternative to that.
Anyway, I just think there's a lot to be said for the anonymity of the new arrival.
Your new record is called “Small Mistakes”. Can you tell us something about that title? Do you think it’s possible to learn from your mistakes?
Much of my 20's were spent making mistakes for their own sake. Mistakes and shitty choices usually make for better stories. But at some point, I had to shrink them from big and horrible to just small and dumb. That's my version of maturity.
There's a movie from 1974 called “The Nickel Ride”. I saw it years ago at the “Egyptian”. Eric Roth wrote it. It's kind of a perfect genre movie. Bo Hopkins has a great line in it that came to mind a lot when I was working on this record: “Old enough to know better, young enough to do it again”.
What difference do you feel between your debut record and the new one?
“Good For You Know Who” is a breakup record. I wrote most of those songs within a few months of a particularly lousy and unexpected breakup and the dumb ways I dealt with it. It's a jaunty, bitter, snarky, angry post-love record. It's mostly directed outward. They're basically “you did this to me” songs.
“Small Mistakes” doesn't have that anger in it. It doesn't have that dialogue in it either. Most of it is “you did this to yourself” songs.
“The Butcher's Son” is an elegy to my father, who died a few years ago. That was his nickname in the seminary. He wasn't actually the son of a butcher, he was an exceptional pool player; they called him “the butcher's son” because he could cut the ball so damn well.
“Could've Sworn” is probably the first real love song I've ever written.
“Cahuenga” is in the vein of “Top Shelf” (from the first album) with regard to excessive boozing but with less reveling in it.
Sonically, the record is quieter than the first one. It's intimate, the sound and the stories. There are a few guitars, a couple of voices, some keys and a bare minimum of percussion. If “Good For You Know Who” is an album you'd listen to before going out and getting drunk and laid and stupid, “Small Mistakes” may be the album you listen to the next morning or the following week to remind yourself of the consequences.
How was the recording process of “Small Mistakes”?
It was easy.
“Lie To Me” had just been cancelled so all of a sudden I had a lot of free time. We recorded it at (producer) Al Sgro's studio in Los Angeles, which looks like the bar set of an old western. It's dark and wooden and teeming with old organs and synths and guitars and shakers.
I started by recording all the songs alone with my guitar. Then we let those songs sit for a few weeks because I was shooting “Scandal”. Having some distance from those recordings was useful though; thinking about them but not being too focused on them. The challenge was not to step on the intimacy of the recordings or the lyrics.
Kristen Toedtman came in and sang those lovely harmonies. That's when the sound started to expand a little and from there it was just about finding some grace notes. The not-so-secret weapon/multi-instrumentalist Phil Krohnengold added electric guitar and piano and some vocals. After that it was just a question of knowing when to stop working on it.
Your songs are often tales of love with a lot of irony. For you what does it take for a love song to not sound silly?
There's this fictionalized version of love that a lot of people write about. That doesn't really appeal to me. I think when people write and then sing those songs that's quite silly because it's SO serious.
I think it's pretty silly when singers take themselves very, very seriously and there's no sense of self-awareness or wit or humor I find that quite silly.
I know what I like to listen to so as a songwriter and as a music fan all I can do is write the kind of songs that I would want to hear when I’m in love, freshly devastated, looking to get laid, looking for a fight. I like songs that are about big devastating events but described through minutiae. I like pretty songs with really darkly funny lyrical content. Without fail, the songs that I've locked into and fallen in love with and laughed at in desperate times are songs that find an unexpected perspective on trite topics. Great lyrics, great prose makes you laugh when you feel like someone is talking directly to you. When it seems like the writer has been reading your mail.
It can be a challenge when you're as turned on by lyrics and rhymes as I am, to avoid being too cute. I don't think I've ever used the word “kiss” or “baby”, I've used “love” once or twice but one of those was because I needed a rhyme for “Vaseline-filled-glove”. And that's a pretty garbage rhyme anyway. Don't worry, that song was never finished.
Did your work as actor affect in some way your songwriting?
Mostly in the sense that I've been lucky enough the past few years to make a living as an actor. So I don't write as much about terrible, soul-crushing jobs as I used to.
You appeared as a main character in the tv series “Lie To Me”, Eli Loker, who decided to practice the “radical honesty”, by always saying everything on his mind. You think a songwriter must always tell the truth or sometimes you need to lie to tell a story in a song?
No, I don't think songs should be documentaries.
As long as there's honesty in the way I'm singing, as long as I sound like myself and I can recognize myself in the words I have no great fetish for the truth.
The dishonesty I dislike is when someone writes and sings in a persona that in no way reflects who they actually are; the fellas who sing gentle, sweet, tender, romantic mumbly songs and yet are unkind, self-involved, unreflective, misogynistic assholes. They're just basically businessmen.
If one of your songs could be included in the soundtrack of a movie from the past, which movie would you like to choose?
If the ghost of Sergio Leone were to show up at my door with a time machine and a commission for a song he'd like me to co-write with Ennio Morricone for “Once upon a time in the West”. I'd probably be terrified at first, but then thrilled.
Is it more difficult for you to face a camera or to face an audience with your guitar? How do you live your relationship with live performances?
I get far more nervous singing songs than being in front of the camera. Partly because I haven't been doing it as long. But performing anything live is always more intimidating than being in front of a camera. When you're in front of a camera you're likely surrounded by people you've worked with before or have been working with for a while already. Generally speaking, most things in that environment are there to get the best out of you. It's silent, scenes are taken piece by piece, everyone there is a professional working towards essentially the same goal. There's no audience, everyone there is working. Also, you're speaking words that someone else has written.
That is rarely the case in a bar or some other music venue. First of all, those are your words you're singing. Probably things that have actually happened to you that you have some emotional connection to. In a bar, especially, you have to win people over. And some people are unable to be won. Those are the ones who talk during songs.
So, yeah, it's harder for me live is my answer. But it's ultimately more rewarding to perform live because, if you're lucky, you're getting immediate energy back from the audience and that's the drug that keeps you coming back.
In 2010, your song “The Butcher’s Son” was featured in the first compilation of our OndaDrops project, together with other promising singer-songwriters. Is there any singer-songwriter from the present scene that you especially appreciate?
Eef Barzelay is just great. It's not the present scene but I'll never stop loving Elvis Costello. I'm a terrible person to ask about new music, though. I try to avoid the hipper things. I also avoid most new singer/songwriters for the same reason I don't like watching people who look like me on tv and in movies. I'm a competitive and judgmental asshole.
I tried to avoid M. Ward as long as I could. But that's impossible. He's incredible.
What about your plans for the future in both music and movies?
More of the same, but with more people giving a shit. Regarding both things.
The Brendan Hines - The Butcher's Son (live)
(from "OndaDrops Vol. 1: Do you know the way to blue?")