Brain Surgeons NYC Rock The Big Questions
A Canaveral-esque countdown kicks things off, ushering in a deafening roar
of guitar, bass and drums, a sound that will remind you of the face-melting,
ear-pummeling metal of your misspent youth. This is "Rocket Science," the
first track off Brain Surgeons NYC's Denial of Death, and if it brings
back memories of
mid-1970s parking-lot gropes and tokes, there's a damned good
reason. Drummer Albert Bouchard is the one who put the cowbell into Blue
Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," among other headbanger
classics. Bouchard and his wife, Deborah Frost, ex-drummer for Flaming
Youth and a well-known rock journalist, started Brain Surgeons in the
early 1990s. Since then they have released seven albums on their own Cellsum
record label. The latest, Denial of Death, is a heavy rock triumph,
full of crushing riffs and spiraling solos. Yet beyond that,
it's melodic, soul-searching and intelligent as it grapples with the big
questions like death and the morality of war.
Denial of Death is, in part, the Brain Surgeons' coming to terms with
of their guitar player Billy Hilfiger in 2001. Hilfiger, the brother of
designer Tommy Hilfiger, had played rhythm guitar for the band since its
second album, Trepanation, in 1995; he was diagnosed with brain cancer
in 1997. "Billy first got sick... right before we did our first West Coast
tour, and his participation became more and more limited as his illness
progressed," Frost said. "But as it became clear that he wasn't going to
get better, it wasn't really helpful to tell him, 'You've got a brain
tumor, you're out of the band.'"
Hilfiger's illness and eventual death, and the passing of long-time friend
Helen Wheels, made the early 2000s a dark and difficult period for Brain
Surgeons, but there was never any doubt about whether the band would
continue. "There was a question of whether we would regroup as a different
band or keep the same name," Bouchard said. "It's something we're still
dealing with, hence the 'Brain Surgeons NYC' tag that we're using now. That
way it's the same but different."
Moreover, continuing to play is one way of defying death. "But we don't
need anyone who's literally on his deathbed in order to go out play every
show like it might be our last," Frost said. "We made the album the
same way. We don't want to leave anything in the locker room. That's the
The band toured as a trio to support the 1999 double CD Piece of
Work, but recently added guitarist Ross "The Boss" Friedman" of the
Dictators and Manowar to the lineup, a change that shaped Denial of
Death in several key ways.
For one thing, Friedman can shred with the best of them. His solos,
majestically slow in "Tomb of the Unknown Monster," and Eddie Van Halen
rapid in the break to "1864," give the band an extra dimension, a more
credibly metallic sound. "We've done more metal songs in the past and they
didn't come out as well," Bouchard said. "Ross helps us sell the metal
aspects of our sound in a big way."
But, as the delicate, almost
Spanish-sounding guitar work of "Strange Like Me" shows, he's versatile,
too. "Ross started that when I brought out this nice little nylon-string
guitar and suggested he try that for the lead instead of the electric he
had been using. We knew after 10 seconds it was the right sound,"
Frost added, "The song just cried out for it. It's very ‘Never on Sunday.'
And we were really happy to finally get a chance to use that guitar, which
is really great but was relegated to storage for decades. It didn't even
merit a place under the bed! Now it's redeemed itself."
Friedman also transformed the songwriting process, making the Brain
Surgeons' latest album their most diverse and collaborative ever. "He's
really the first person who brings as much to the party as Albert or I do,"
Frost said. "He's just in an entirely different league in terms experience
and a distinct voice. And he's helped elevate our game and vice-versa."
She added that past efforts to involve other band members in the
songwriting process had fizzled. "It was like pulling teeth, except at the
very end with Billy, when he was just grateful to participate in any way,"
she said. "Ross is the other extreme he's the fountain of spurt. And
every idea he gave us, we made a song out of."
Having three songwriters instead of two meant that there was more than
enough material for Denial of Death, she explains. "For the first time
ever, we wrote way too many songs or instead of having to include something
we weren't totally 100% about, we had to leave some out. All
of this material was really fresh it wasn't stuff that either Albert or
I had lying around in various states of undress forever. And for the first
time, there were no what I would call specifically Albert songs or Deborah
songs. We really worked together on everything, which hasn't always been
the case, and then we worked together on the ideas Ross brought us."
Many of those ideas had to do with the war in Iraq, a conflict brought into
Frost and Bouchard's home, literally, with the daily postal
delivery. "It's very difficult for us, who grew up during Vietnam and have
a son who just turned 17, and is getting mail daily from every branch of
the military offering him some cheesy premium you get for opening a bank
account you know, just give us your name and potentially your arm, leg,
or life and you can get these cheap sunglasses absolutely free to look
at the daily carnage and the heartbreak," Frost said, adding that concerns
about the war informed songs like "Jimmy Boots Fetish," "Constantine's
Sword" and "Change the World, Henry."
There's also a Civil war song on the album in "1864," with lyrics
about a young soldier's watery escape from death rising above a frantic
punk metal beat. "That's a true story about Albert's great-great
grandfather, who won the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the Civil War,"
Frost said. "Albert mentioned it to a librarian type friend into Civil War
research, who found several accounts. We took the song pretty directly from
a newspaper article. [He was] interviewed near the end of his life y'know,
like when they'd trot the local hero out to shake hands with General
Pershing on the 4th of July. A lot of it is verbatim."
"It presented a new kind of experience in terms of writing, which I really
loved, and telling the story from a different character's perspective,"
Frost added. "Before I ever wrote anything else, I thought I was going to
write plays, which is what I did when I was 15, 16 and this might have been
the first time I felt like I'd really let someone else talk in a song, and
I was very proud of finally figuring out what to do with the chorus, 'cause
it took a while."
Brain Surgeons NYC are playing a handful of shows in April and May, with
stops in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Detroit, Canada and Philadelphia. For more
complete dates and other information, check the Web site Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, March 30, 2006]