An Interview With Grass Jaw

Grass Jaw is the solo recording project of musician and father Brendan Kuntz. The project’s 4th album Anticipation will be out November 5th, 2021 on vinyl and via digital download. Written and recorded while moving from Jersey City, NJ to Ithaca, NY, Anticipation blends elements of slowcore, alt-country and garage rock. The songs on this record reflect the tumult that happens during such a transition, covering depression, self-awareness, and super-anxiety that goes with parenting.

The following interview with Kuntz took place over email in September 2021.

You reached out to me through Resident Sound’s contact page, as occasionally happens with folks, and we started talking. Being an independent solo project you take on all artistic and business responsibilities yourself. What do you find to be the biggest struggle with getting through to people, be it artistically or promotionally, and where have you found success in this struggle?

Building an audience is something that took me a painfully long time to figure out. I played in a band in NYC from 2005 – 2015 and we didn’t play many shows (especially after the first few years) because shows usually were sparsely attended and seemed not worth the trouble. We all worked 9-5 jobs and had a hard time justifying being out until 4 to play to 5 or fewer people. After a while we mostly stopped trying, and would basically play only when invited by friends, which ended up happening more frequently out of town. During much of this time I was also in the process of trying to figure out how to function socially without alcohol, and it was very rare for me to go out and see other local bands, because it was uncomfortable to go out. In general, as a band, we weren’t really connecting with other people (and especially musicians) locally, so it makes sense that we didn’t have an audience.

Around 5 years ago, after my youngest son was born, I felt a strong need to get out of the house occasionally, and started seeing more live music. Going to a show, I would find I liked the opening band, or I would meet someone in the audience who played in a band or even just liked the same bands, and after a while it became shockingly clear what I had missed out on by not connecting with music people during that time. At first I felt a ton of anxiety about being the weird old guy at shows (especially basement shows!), but after a while it subsided. I lived in such a great music town, but for years didn’t really know or value local bands. It’s a little embarrassing. The other side of it is that eventually I did start going out more and more (of course still limited with a day job, 2 kids, and a wife who has her own interests) and meet a lot of people. Many of those people have been so supportive as I’ve started making my own music. I’m very appreciative of having music friends who share their own music with me, and will also listen to what I make. For family reasons I am not in a place to play live much or tour, and I know that’s an impediment to growing an audience much beyond where it’s at today, but I’m at peace with that (although I do hope to tour again someday when my kids are older, just to make more of those friendships in different places.)

Smaller musicians usually don’t receive the luxury (or burden) of having their entire catalog over-analyzed and ‘made straight’ by fans and journalists. What is the Brendan Kuntz / Grass Jaw narrative thus far? How did Grass Jaw come to be where it is now?

I’ve played drums for most of my life now (almost 30 years at this point.) I started playing with some kids in 8th grade in a band, and have basically played in some iteration of that band on and off since 1992 I think.  I went to school for recording and after college moved to the city to work in a recording studio.  I thought working in a studio like that was my dream job, but it ended up being one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had.  It left no time for playing music (or anything else) and also didn’t pay near enough to live on – it seemed like most of the people who were doing ok there had some other source of income or support.  After a while I gave up on it and found another job outside of music, and also started playing in a band again.

I love the group of people in this band, and love playing with them, but at different times in my life have felt like I wanted to have more of a voice than is typically afforded to the drummer.  Around five years ago I saw a show (it was Bad History Month) and the one guy in the band was singing, playing guitar and doing kind of a one man band thing on drums at the same time.  He’s one of my favorite artists and I was so excited to see him, but it was also kind of a realization that I could make music on my own and didn’t need to wait around or rely on any other people. So I basically just started writing some songs, and worked on recording them at home until I had an album’s worth. I asked for feedback on that first record from a trusted friend / bandmate and asked him to be brutally honest, and he helped me think about things like editing and crafting in a way that I hadn’t thought too much about as a drummer (like why am I bringing this part back, or what purpose does this section serve).

Listening back to that album now there are definitely some rough edges that can be hard for me to listen to, but I’m also proud of it as something that I set out to do and finished. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about tattoos a long time ago – I was asking him if he still liked all of his tattoos, and he basically said he would probably make different choices if he were to do it over today, but he’s glad he has them to remember where he was at. On that first record I was really just figuring out how to do things. I made another one a year later that felt like it came bubbling out of me, like those songs just had to get out and I just needed to figure out how to translate them. And with each record I’ve made (this is my fourth) the process feels a bit more natural, and capturing sounds feels more natural, and it’s just amazing how things come together when compared with that first album where it felt like I was pushing a truck uphill.  

Many musicians have credited their environment (landscape, weather, crime rate, etc.) with influencing their sound. Do you find this to be the case with your music, and if so, how has the move from New Jersey to New York state changed your approach?

I grew up near where I live now and I’ve always had a bit of a country streak in me musically, so it’s hard to say when it comes out how much is from my current environment, and how much is just ingrained, but it is there. I think one of the biggest things that’s pretty easy to hear in the newest record (after the move) is the effect this past winter had on me. It was probably the bleakest winter I’ve ever experienced, and it affected my mood and songwriting deeply. There was one stretch of about a month where I was literally shoveling every day, often 2-3 times a day just to keep up, and it seemed like it was never going to relent. I was in a cold dark place physically and emotionally, and I think it’s pretty apparent when listening to it. 

For you, what has your identity in being a musician given you that you don’t find else where? How do you approach the dissonance of daily life (responsibilities) and the art life?

I remember being in middle school and feeling deeply unhappy and lonely, just feeling like I didn’t know where I fit in, and hating going to school and being ignored (at best) or bullied. Towards the end of middle school grunge became a thing, and there was a lot of rock music on the radio and on MTV, and I would come home every day after school and play (drums) along to some of those albums. After a couple months I heard about some other kids that were trying to start a band, so I asked if I could try out. The next year as a freshman in high school was so much better, because there was a thing I was good at and I had some friends who liked some of the same things and could spend time with. I still had a pretty typical high school experience with bullying and struggling to fit in, but it was light years better than it had been before I found music. To this day, almost all of my closest relationships have some connection to music, and I’m very thankful to have found it.

Around the time when my wife and I were expecting our second child we decided we needed more space to raise a family, and we decided to do some renovations to our apartment. We were fortunate enough to be able to also add some extra space for a music room. For the first time in my adult life I had a drum set and other music gear in my home and could play without having to travel an hour and a half to the practice space we’d been renting for years. Ironically, having a space to make music at home came just as our 2nd child was born and all of a sudden it became harder than ever to find the time to make music. That said, my wife and I have always been really good at giving each other the space to pursue individual interests and maintain friendships. Up until last year we both have tried to give each other a free weekend 3-4 times a year. I also work remotely, and have been fortunate over the years to be able to sometimes (when my schedule allows) spend my lunch hour working on a new song. But of course it’s hard trying to fit inspiration into those little windows. There have been lots of times when a melody or lyric idea will come to me when I’m with the kids or working, and if I can manage it I’ll pull out my phone and quickly record it into voice notes and hope it translates later on. Or sometimes there’s just too much else happening and it’s lost, and I have to just trust that more ideas will come.

You’re far from the first parent musician, but maybe that’s a journey one takes alone. Do you see your struggles and stresses in the work of past musicians? How has becoming a parent shaped your view of your own artistic work?

I honestly haven’t put too much thought into this, but I’m having a hard time coming up with many artists where there’s a clear connection between parenting and the music. I know there are lots of great musicians who had kids – one that comes to mind is Neil Young, I know his son had special needs that took a huge amount of focus and dedication, and it’s amazing that he was able to make any music for all of those years, but he was putting a record out almost every year, for decades.  I think he comes to mind first because we both had kids with special needs. It’s something that can take over your life, and it can be hard to maintain perspective.
One thing that is surprising to me is that I can’t think of much music that directly focuses on the feeling of being a bad parent, which I think is strange because it’s an extremely strong feeling that I think most parents experience. Or maybe it’s not being a bad parent, but not the right parent for your kid and working through that and trying to do better. It’s complicated, and it’s hard and it seems like a shared experience that could help other people with kids.

On a related note, I struggle with how much I should share about my own personal life, especially when it relates to my kids.  How are they going to feel about some of these songs when they’re older that are obviously about them, or about our relationship?  In a lot of ways, songwriting is a form of therapy for me.  When I’m writing music, it helps me process and think about what I’m feeling, what’s bothering me, what I want to change.  Sometimes it just helps me get a bad day out of my system.  I worry about how my kids might take those songs when they’re older, but I also want to be open and honest with them, because I want that kind of relationship with them.

A little question for people to nerd out on. What are you listening to? No cool answers!

Hmm, this is probably a “cool answer” but I am such a big fan of Exploding in Sound, and love almost everything they put out. It’s just automatic at this point that I buy every single thing they release.  The records they put out this year from Floatie, Thirdface, and Stuck have been in heavy rotation.  Last year it was Shell of a Shell, Dig Nitty and Knot. And the year before that there were records by Human People and Maneka that were amazing.

Non EIS records I love, Thalia Zedek – Perfect Vision, Squitch – Learn to be Alone, The Chives – THE CHIVES, Writhing Squares – Chart for the Solution, Frank & The Hurricanes – S/T

Regarding less cool stuff – lately almost everything I listen to is “new”, so it’s hard to say. I’m in my 40s, I don’t know what’s cool 🙂 As far as older stuff I just started to get back into Q and Not U. I always loved that first record but never really connected with the follow ups. A month or two ago someone suggested I go back and give the other albums another chance, and it’s just crazy how I missed it. I love it, especially Different Damage. As far as really old stuff, I can put on Thin Lizzy just about anytime and it’s an instant mood enhancer.

Hmm, what else? There was this one track thing a few years ago that I hope more people will listen to, it’s on Bandcamp, the artist is “Debbie” who I think is the primary singer / writer from Human People. I love just clicking through Bandcamp and finding new stuff.  It’s funny how many times I’ve wasted an hour scrolling through Netflix or whatever service looking for something to watch before bed. If I decide to instead spend that hour clicking / scrolling through Bandcamp, it is almost always a better use of that time. I also remember getting weirdly into Hawaiian teenage pop-punk around the time I turned 40.  There was a band called Aura Bora that had one amazing record.

Last thing –  my kids also love Weird Al (I’ve always had a soft spot for him as well) and it’s super fun to put on some of those records and just have fun with them and they are so catchy cause they’re based on radio hits that of course have great melodies, etc… I think one of my favorite lyrics of all time is actually from Weird Al’s I Think I’m A Clone Now; “I can be my own best friend and I can send myself for pizza” is hilarious but also kind of strangely dark and unsettling.

Last but not least, run what ya brung! Tell the people about your latest record Anticipation and where they can find it!

Thanks! Yeah, I am so excited about this record.  This is the first one I’ve done where every song is extremely personal, every song is part of my story, there’s no fiction or even really exaggeration.  This all happened to me.  There’s a lot of dark stuff on this record, but it does end on a hopeful note, and anyway, what kind of psychopath would be making a happy record after the last 18 months (or the last 20 years)?

It’s coming out on Nov 5th in all the usual streaming places, it’s also on Bandcamp and there is vinyl available as well for those who would like it.  I’m hoping to have a couple more features / premieres before the official release, and I will usually post that kind of thing on Twitter (@brendankuntz)

You can find Grass Jaw over at their Bandcamp, or find Brendan Kuntz on Twitter here.

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