Christiaan Mader puts his phone on speaker inside a Ford Econoline van. He can barely hear over the hum of the road as his band Brass Bed drives back to its hometown of Lafayette, La., from a gig at Manhattan's Cake Shop. The show was the last of a monthlong East Coast tour, and the band packs up again in July for the West Coast. Both tours are on the heels of April's The Secret Will Keep You, the group's sophomore full-length LP on Crossbill Records.
The band is Lafayette's power-pop constant. Brass Bed made its debut in 2004, when its members were barely out of high school, and has reached nearly a decade of recording, touring and remaining the reliable rock 'n' roll presence in the Cajun music capital's growing alternative scene. While progressive Cajun outfits like Feufollet and Pine Leaf Boys reach international audiences, Lafayette's rising indie rock scene — including breakout hometown heroes GIVERS and stalwarts Brass Bed — has followed closely behind.
Brass Bed's latest album and sixth release overall captures the band's spirited grasp with its decadelong career. While indie rock was making mainstream waves, Brass Bed already was a few years into its reign as Louisiana's indie rock royalty. Spin, Paste and NPR premiered its latest album with critical acclaim.
But it's still a Louisiana band.
"Half the interviews we do they'll ask, 'How has Cajun music influenced you?'" Mader says. "[I], personally, want to be like, 'This is how it influenced me,' because it sets us apart from the rest of the country, but it would be disingenuous. When most people think Louisiana they think New Orleans, and when they think New Orleans, they think of brass bands. Over the years we definitely have shown up at these dive bars where people have expectations of a brass band."
Lafayette's musical history and role as Cajun music kingmaker, boasting as many Grammy nominations as New Orleans, has added a new chapter. In Lafayette, as in New Orleans, there's an unusual balance of preservation and progression. While many young musicians carry the torch of their musical forebears, others have returned to their hometown bursting with new ideas — whether it's progressing those traditions or doing something else entirely.
Acadiana's star players like Lost Bayou Ramblers and Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys share a landscape with face-painted pop band GIVERS, whose songs appear in Lipton ads, and Royal Teeth, which has headlined national gigs and made TV appearances even before it released its debut album (Glow is out in August).
"I think because Lafayette is such a Cajun capital of the world, it's (got) a little more music business savvy," says Brass Bed's Jonny Campos. "A lot of the reasons why these bands can explode, like, 'Holy shit, how did that band from Lafayette get huge?' is because everybody knows somebody in the business, from Lil' Band O' Gold or Lost Bayou Ramblers, and everybody's friends with those guys. Everybody knows everybody. ... It's a music town with a past."
On the DIY front, Lafayette's Cloudheavy Recording Collective features more than a dozen bands and artists, including noise-pop trio the Cavemen and lo-fi sweetheart harmonists Carbon Poppies, featuring Campos and Brass Bed drummer Peter DeHart. The grassroots-driven collective produces shows and multimedia art events and releases EPs and albums that can be downloaded for free on its website.
Lafayette's traditional music profile also has increased significantly — Lafayette area musicians C.J. Chenier and Steve Riley were nominated in the new Regional Roots category at the 2012 Grammy Awards, and in 2013, Riley, Wayne Toups and Wilson Savoy took the award, and Corey Ledet grabbed a nomination. Meanwhile, progressive Cajun band Lost Bayou Ramblers has toured with the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, and the band's 2012 album Mammoth Waltz featured appearances from Dr. John and Scarlett Johansson. (DeHart did the album art.)
"People who left Lafayette are coming back," Mader says, calling that city a "culture center." "We're seeing that a lot at the kinds of restaurants opening up, bands, people doing multimedia stuff and thinking outside of what Lafayette used to consider the alternative to Cajun music and rock 'n' roll. It's becoming more nationally conscious, while retaining whatever local charm makes it so attractive. It's magnified by the fact that it's a small place. One or two people moving back from New York City who want to do something with the arts can make a ripple."
Lafayette's clubs book across musical genres. Blue Moon Saloon acts as the scene's sort-of nerve center, where Brass Bed and Feufollet regularly perform together.
"There's sort of a weird profile of music listener in Lafayette," Mader says. "They might like the American archives and also really like Spoon. There's a strange appeal there where a lot of people seem to like both.
"You can live around Cajun music and not really feel like you're a part of it — which is not to say we feel separate from it either. The crossover comes mostly from the crowd. They like local Cajun bands and really like local independent music."
Brass Bed's challenge is to manage its national ambitions while still holding tight to Lafayette, which has embraced the band for nearly a decade. (Campos already has moved to New Orleans and travels to Lafayette several times a week for rehearsals.)
But Lafayette is in no danger of losing steam.
"It ebbs and flows," Campos says. "There are dry spots and floods. Right now there's a flood."
"I don't think any of us really grew up into Cajun music," Mader says. "It would be hard to call it an influence."
In middle school, Campos and DeHart assigned themselves guitar and drums, respectively, despite neither of them knowing how to play. DeHart owned drumsticks and a drum pad. They learned together and practiced in Campos' mother's office building. He had a key to use when the office emptied on weekends. "That's what we did instead of going to high school parties," Campos says.
The pair met Mader and formed Boxcar Ira, which quickly fell apart as the members went to college — Mader to Emory University, DeHart to Savannah College of Art and Design and Campos to University of New Orleans. They traded songs over AOL Instant Messenger and spent summer and winter breaks recording in Lafayette. After Hurricane Katrina, Campos took online courses in order to spend a month writing and recording with Mader in Atlanta.
"After we graduated college we said, 'All right, this is what we're going to do,'" Campos says.
Brass Bed's self-released Midnight Matinee caught the attention of Park the Van Records — which launched popular mid-2000s indie pop bands like Dr. Dog and The Spinto Band. Founder Chris Watson relocated his budding company from Chicago to Louisiana in 2008, and Campos approached Watson at a Lafayette bar with an iPod loaded with the album. The pair listened to it in Watson's car in the parking lot. Watson agreed to release Midnight Matinee, and the band, along with Baton Rouge indie pop duo Generationals, became the company's poster children for its new Louisiana lineup.
In 2010, Park the Van released Melt White, Brass Bed's first proper release for the label. The album bursts with playful psychedelic pop ("People Want to be Happy") and generous nods to band heroes Big Star and predecessors in the Elephant 6 collective.
The band's buzzworthy profile increased on the road and at home, where Brass Bed shared bills with contemporaries Feufollet. Those gigs manifested in the 2011 release The Color Sessions, on which Feufollet covered Brass Bed songs, and Brass Bed covered Feufollet songs — sung in Cajun French. The band turned Feufollet's dreamy bayou folk on "La Berceuse du Vieux Voyageur" into dreamy, fist-pumping guitar-pop, and "Les Jours Sont Longs" went from Beatlesesque bayou country to Beatlesesque rock.
"So much of Cajun music can be pretty formulaic, which I think is a good thing," Mader says. "It's what makes traditional music traditional. Feufollet as a Cajun band is very progressive. Some of those songs were relatively easy to adapt because they had a pop orientation. Other parts were more difficult because there was something distinctly Cajun about it. It was hard to imagine it another way. Aside from the basic difficulty of being a non-French speaker and singing in Cajun French, it was hard to do something true to the idea of the song and also fresh for us."
Mader still counts Feufollet's country waltz cover of Brass Bed's "If I Was A Farmer" as the superior version.
The Cajun romance didn't last long — Brass Bed's idiosyncrasy shone in 2012's On Nilsson, a brief EP of Harry Nilsson covers with DeHart's wife Allison Bohl.
With The Secret Will Keep You, the band's bright, fuzzy pop gets personal, from the sobering opener "Cold Chicory" to the manic "How Do I Live in a Bad Dream." The band recorded the album live to tape at Public Hi-Fi Studios in Austin, Texas.
"This record was an honest record," Mader says. "That doesn't mean things have to be necessarily dark."
The band ditched its whimsical pop-rock and lyrics. Bursts of feedback, heavy guitar hooks and brooding keyboards carry mature themes — whether dead-end dreams, romance or regret. "I've been thinking, I could quit this / I'm so tired of waiting for this knock on my door" Mader sings on the single "A Bullet for You." Band members agree they've stepped into a more mature direction, but it reflects where they are — physically, as decadelong survivors down South, and as a group that has played together since its members could play anything at all.
"The definition of the band doesn't come from the genre of the band, it comes from the people in it," Mader says. "It's only recently that people say, 'This is my worldbeat band,' or, 'This is my garage-psych band.' They define everything by the sound they want to make, not 'These are the people I want to play with.'"
"I write compulsively," says Campos, tucking a moppy handful of hair behind his ear. Campos has a "back catalog" of more than 40 songs waiting to be pruned by the band between tour schedules. "Then we'll start looking at what kind of record we want to make next," he says.
As another tour approaches, Campos has trouble keeping track of how many times the band has toured the West Coast. The group's spring tour, which circled the East Coast from Rochester, N.Y. back to Manhattan, was its most successful ever.
"This tour, we drove the most amount of miles, sold the most [merchandise], played to the most amount of people and probably made the most money," he says, laughing. "Best tour ever."