We're in Lit, a subterranean and sublimely seedy club in New York City's East Village. There're five of us: The punk-rock door girl on a stool by the stairs, a young, soap-clean couple at a table near the front, this writer on a ratty ottoman behind them, and a lone, rattier-looking guy in long, unkempt curls and an Army-green jacket who's seated onstage. He's stomping a kick-drum with one foot and kicking a snare with the other. He's tapping a hi-hat with the head of his guitar and riffing a rockabilly storm. His voice rises high and husky: "Wake up, America!"
This guy would be standing if it were at all possible.
Two more people enter the club. The singer introduces himself "Hi. I'm Big Brother" and launches into "Ugly Friend," a Nirvana-inflected, monotone ode to heroin. It's a love-hate song, but with a catchy, upbeat, almost olde-timey feel. The two briskly turn and leave. At set's end, Big Brother looks this writer straight in the eye and says, "Thanks for staying." The soap-clean couple are his old friends.
Suddenly, there's a commotion at the stairwell. The next band has arrived, and they're heading toward the stage. Brother gathers his gear and gets out of their way and it's like he wasn't even there. It's an old, bittersweet story, familiar to any virgin touring act a great show in an empty house, and then you hit repeat.
Big Brother (aka Royce Haas) is an Ann Arbor–based musician who went solo after a few sour band experiences: "Nobody wanted to do it to the degree that I wanted to," he says a few days later from a screened-in patio in South Carolina, on break between shows in Virginia Beach and Nashville. "Everyone was like, 'Yeah, if it works out, it works out.' I've always been like, 'Well, no, it has to work out. It will work out.'"
There's a seriousness about him that eschews any notions that the one-man-band thing is just a gimmick. When he discovered that he could play the drums and guitar at the same time, he became obsessed with it practicing for entire days until he got it right, scoring several noise violations and straight D's in his final semester at Eastern Michigan University in the process.
And while the one-man-band thing is nothing new from 13th century buskers to the memorable Dick Van Dyke character in Mary Poppins to current artists like Panda Bear what Big Brother does could be one of a kind. His act even inspired a documentary, The Big Brother Show!, by Douglas Akers and Kendall Embrescia that appeared on Al Gore's user-generated-content network Current TV (www.current.tv/watch/22943111).
Ben Began at 40 oz. Sound in Ann Arbor is producing Locked and Loaded, Big Brother's debut full-length, which is in its final stages and will be released on Brother's label (Watchdog Records) in a month or two. In the Current TV doc, Began describes how he started working with Big Brother: "He called and said, 'My name's Royce,' and he said he was a one-man-band. Well, there's no one that I've ever seen that really approaches what Royce does with it as far as actually playing guitar and hi-hat a full drum set basically."
And seriousness aside the guy likes to mix it up. (His first show was opening for saxophonist Colin Stetson at Ann Arbor's Alley Bar in January 2005; the second was a battle of the bands at I-Rock the next day.) The Lit gig was, in fact, understated compared to previous Big Brother shows. His performances have seen a guy in a white bunny suit jumping on a pogo stick and another guy in a George W. Bush costume wielding oversize dollar bills. There've been lots and lots of bubbles and American flags. Sometimes he uses an Uncle Sam getup and zombie eye paint as visual metaphors to comment on the anarchy surrounding him. It's kinda like Cobain meets the Colbert Report meets Alice in Wonderland.
In the beginning, the Bunny and W. helped Brother with his stage fright. "I would be up on stage, and I'd freeze up; I'd mess up the drumbeat or forget what I was playing, or forget the lyrics."
The characters also brought levity to material that dealt mostly with devastation, whether through heroin addiction or war. Brother quit the drugs more than a year ago, but he has friends and a cousin serving in Iraq ("The daily stuff that he's experiencing, no one should ever have to experience.")
Brother's bunny era has reached an end, however: "Yeah, I don't have people running around anymore," he says. "I've substituted them with a mannequin, pretty much to relieve some of the chaos."
The mannequin, christened "Clyde," keeps Brother company on tour, where he's been since early May, and will be through the first week of August. "He always rides shotgun. ..."
Onstage, Clyde usually wears the bunny suit, but at the Lit, he had more important duties: "I didn't bring him out of the car because I was worried [the car] might get messed with or something. I wasn't sure if it was in a tow-away, because I couldn't find the meter, so I put my mannequin in the front seat and put some sunglasses and a wig and a hat on him."
Big Brother was born in Toledo and grew up in Deerfield, Mich. His mom owned dance clubs and bars in Toledo namely Girls, Garters & Lace and a blues bar called Jimbo's. "When I was a kid, my pops wasn't around ... and my mom was really busy. ... Sometimes my mom would [bring me to one of the bars] while she opened it up. And later on, when my brother got out of class or something, or out of work, he'd come pick me up. So yeah, I spent a lot of time in those places when I was a kid."
Certain childhood experiences certainly presaged Brother's current vocation: "I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. When the bar wasn't open yet, [my mom] would put a bunch of money in the jukebox and let me pick songs. I'd always pick Michael Jackson songs and get on the stage and dance, trying to do the moonwalk and all that. I was like 5, 6 or 7 years old."
He purchased his first guitar at 15, wholly inspired by Nirvana. "I had what some might consider an unhealthy obsession with Nirvana, from the age of, like, 14 to 18. I wanted to read everything I could, I wanted to see everything ever released, wanted to hear everything, wanted to know how to play all the songs, and I did it. That's all I really did for those years, just sit in my room, play guitar, watch Nirvana videos and listen to the music."
He later developed a taste for such solo guys as Elvis, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson at least one of whom had some DIY in him.
But Brother goes beyond the "Do It Yourself" cliché; he really does do everything himself. And in indie-rock's current hype-happy, every-thing-is-good climate, it's refreshing to see someone doing it the old-fashioned way you know, writing songs, practicing them, recording them and going on tour.
It's this sort of slow-and-steady behavior that leads to a seemingly infinite string of almost-empty gigs. But eventually, the number of people staying will outnumber those leaving. Eventually, it will work out. It has to.
Thursday, May 24, at Corktown Tavern, 1716 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-5103.
Melissa Gianinni lives in New York, an Eastern city with a subway system. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org