Always an opener, never a headliner

“Pop culture is amazing,” muses Jonathan Bree, songwriter with Kiwi indie-pop outfit the Brunettes, by e-mail.

He adds, rhetorically, “Is it strange to [fill] your heart with it and sing of the inspiration it brings? Most of life’s heartfelt moments and experiences come via the TV or movie screen, right?” — and then concedes: ” … maybe it’s just me.”

But if the increasing popularity of the group that croons the praises of Gidget, polyester and “Loopy Loopy Love” is anything to go by, it’s not just Bree. The Brunettes, currently seven-members strong, are busily crossing and re-crossing the U.S. spreading happy quirk-pop wherever they roam.

As they gear up for their third supporting slot at the Orange Peel in as many months, one wonders whether this seemingly chronic opening act is beginning to outshine the big-name bands they precede.

Sassy as a girl group

“The Shins saw our show when we opened for them in our home town, Auckland, New Zealand. … Jesse [Sandoval], their drummer, came up to me [and] said they were totally f••••n’ blown away,” Bree recalls.

He inserts the “••••” himself. The Brunettes are prone to contemplating the darker side of romance: “I could be as faithful as a sea horse/ And if you were a marine biologist/ You’d know how tender that line was,” Bree sings on “Your Heart Dies.”

But they’re not exactly potty-mouths.

“‘Coy,’ ‘cute,’ ‘cutie-pie,’ ‘hoochie-pie,’ ‘coochie-woo,’ ‘woochie-candy-poo.’ These are, more or less, all terms that … the Brunettes have been denying and simultaneously inviting their entire career,” explains a passage on the band’s Web site (lilchiefrecords.com/brunettes).

Well, they are very cute — in a thrift shop, fluffy-dance-beats, hey-didn’t-I-hear-this-in-the-’80s kind of way (Breakfast Club buffs will remember “Your Heart Dies” as a classic Ally Sheedy line). But Bree and co-front-person Heather Mansfield are also laughing at an inside joke of sorts. On the title track to Mars Loves Venus (Lil’ Chief Records, 2004), Mansfield sings a soda-pop “wha-oh-wha-oh-wha-oh,” to which Bree, knowingly, responds in kind — think a 21st-century Fred Schneider textured with a Shane MacGowan snarl.

And then there’s their beehive-and-sock-hop name. “It actually comes from my first and only band that was me and three male flat mates,” Bree reveals. “We were pretty awful, and couldn’t play our instruments that well, but we figured with a name like the Brunettes, people would come see us hoping to see a sassy all-girl group.”

When Bree teamed up with Mansfield, the talent improved greatly — but the name stuck. “Either through laziness,” Bree admits, “or because I was going through a Blondie/Ronettes appreciation [phase].”

Stealing the spotlight

So there they were in New Zealand, opening for the Shins — who, since the release of their indie-platinum Oh Inverted World (Sub Pop, 2001) and their inclusion on the Garden State soundtrack, have regularly packed concert halls. And then, according to Bree, Sandoval told the Kiwis that “if we [could] get the money together, we should come party and support them on their next U.S. tour.”

Sounds like a ridiculously casual exchange — but the Brunettes have been opening stateside dates not only for the Shins, but for folk-pop group Rilo Kiley. And, it seems, stealing the show (see Earful in Xpress‘ May 18 issue).

“Being the opener has its advantages,” Bree writes. “We are just having a ball night after night, largely due to the fact that the audience of both bands seem to tolerate and often enjoy the show we put on. It only allows for more creativity than the main act, though, in that we can play what we want during our [30-to-45-min.] set.”

He smugly notes: “It’s not like someone’s gonna be disappointed because we didn’t play the hit song right.”

Bigger is better

At any rate, they have a good time. It’s a theme that comes up again and again — and it may just be the secret to their success.

“We had been playing in New Zealand as a 10-piece six months previous to coming to America, so we actually did do some downscaling,” the songwriter points out. (He and Mansfield are sometimes a duo, and sometimes have as many as nine extra players on stage.)

“The more friends [we] can fit up on stage, the more party-like a show feels, and the less I find we rely on audience appreciation to brighten our mood,” Bree continues. “So basically my mind frame at the moment is the bigger the better. Sequined costumes, pyrotechnics and a mothership aren’t on the cards, but I love playing with a full array of orchestration behind us.”

And as for that cutie-pie-cootchie-woo thing being a stumbling block: not likely. “Definitely doesn’t affect our ability to explore artistically,” the front man insists. As in, look for more retro-pop hijinks on their new release, When Ice Met Cream (Lil’ Chief, 2005). But Bree’s not opposed to spreading the Brunettes’ message to the masses, either.

“How about a wide audience of adoring fans that totally understands all the double meanings, dark undercurrents and personal anguish?” Bree proposes. “Is that a little too much to base my personal happiness on, you think?”


The Brunettes open for Rilo Kiley at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Friday, June 10. Okkervil River also plays. 9 p.m. $14. 225-5851.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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