Chris Brokaw on the time he played a show with GG Allin in drag and under an assumed name
Chris Brokaw has had a career in underground music that sounds like it can't possibly be true: He went to Oberlin College in the '80s, where he met Sooyoung Park, Liz Phair, John McEntire and Stephen Immerwahr. After graduation he played drums briefly with GG Allin, and from there he more or less helped to found the influential cult band Codeine. In doing so, he pioneered an expressive, textural drumming style oft-imitated.
Concurrent with Codeine, Brokaw played in Come with former Live Skull vocalist Thalia Zedek. Since that band broke up, Brokaw has pursued even more diverse musical paths, playing a stint with former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn, as a sideman with Thurston Moore, and in Consonant with Mission of Burma's Clint Conley -- this in addition to an eclectic and prolific output of music under his own name and in his various musical collaborations. We recently spoke with Brokaw about his long career in music, including his most high-profile gigs and his most recent records.
Westword: You got your start playing music in middle school. How did you get started playing live outside of that context?
Chris Brokaw: I remember, for some reason, being able to play in the cafeteria a lot in both middle school and high school, and even starting to play in rock clubs and stuff. This was all in New York, when I was around fifteen. Somehow it was easier then to play in bars and go to bars when you were fifteen than it is now.
What kind of shows did you play back then, and did you play with anyone you maybe rubbed shoulders with later on in life?
When I first started playing in bars, I was playing in cover bands. In junior high, I was in a cover band at a time I was starting to listen to punk rock. But I didn't really differentiate between different kinds of music that I'd listen to. We would play a Dead Boys song, and then we would play a song by the Band. Then we would play "King Tut" by Steve Martin or something. It was all good, you know what I mean. If we liked the song, we just liked it. I think twelve- or thirteen-year-olds tend to be that way.
How did you end up playing drums with GG Allin, and what was that like?
I had moved to Boston after going to college in Ohio. I had moved to Boston with a band that I was playing guitar in, and our drummer left. We had a really hard time finding a drummer, and eventually I decided to get back into drumming. One of the first things I saw was an advert for GG Allin looking for a drummer. I was sort of vaguely familiar with his work at the time. It turned out that his brother lived right around the corner from me, so I went over to his house and checked out the records and stuff like that.
Let's just say I was in a somewhat more confrontational period in my life at the time. So I enjoyed the fact [that Allin was confrontational, too]. All of my friends were horrified that I considered playing with him. People were really freaked out about it. I thought he was a good songwriter. I only played with him for a couple of months, really. We did a lot of rehearsing, and we recorded one seven-inch for Homestead, and then he had to go kind of underground for a while.
About a year and a half later, he called me up and asked if I would do a show with him. It was August of 1989 at the Middle East in Boston. It was fairly atypical, actually. I was friends with the people who ran the Middle East, so I said to GG, "I really don't want to do a show if the place is going to get destroyed or people are going to get hurt or something."
He said, "No, no, I really want to play a show where I sing a whole set of songs." He said that, at that point, he hadn't played a show in six years that lasted more than two minutes. So we did the show under an assumed name, and we were all in drag. Some stuff got broken, but I guess by his standards, it was a fairly sedate show.
Obviously you'd been playing bars when you were a teenager. Did you go and see music in New York when you were that age, as well, considering the more lax age restrictions of that time?
Oh, yeah. My father lived in Manhattan at the time, so I got to see tons of amazing stuff when I was in high school. I used to go see Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers a lot. For some reason, I saw Iggy Pop a lot when I was in high school. Suicide, the Voidoids and that whole crowd of stuff. Then when I was a senior in high school, it was more bands like the Contortions, the Bush Tetras and the Bad Brains. So I got to see tons of amazing music at a really young age.
Did you ever get to play shows with any of those bands?
Some of those bands I got to play with later on, like when I was in Come. Oddly enough, we ended up dong shows with both the Contortions and the Bush Tetras, which was amazing, too. To play some shows with your heroes.
Did you ever get to see Live Skull? Though that would probably be more your college years...
Yeah, I saw Live Skull a bunch. Both before Thalia Zedek was in the band, and once she had joined the band -- which was right about the time that we became friends.
How did you meet Thalia?
I met her through mutual friends in Boston -- some guys I went to high school with. Around the time she joined Live Skull, she was in this other band, Uzi, that only played a couple of shows. I was friends with the other guys in that band. They were around the house one day just to hang out and play music.
So the first time I met Thalia, we actually played guitar for a couple of hours. It was really amazing, and the two of us had a really great rapport immediately. She was busy with Uzi and Live Skull for a while, but she and I would get together sometimes and play guitar for two or three days at a time. Finally Live Skull split up, and she came back to Boston from New York and said, "You and I should try to put something together." So we put Come together after that.
How did you work together with her as another guitarist?
I felt like neither of us played lead or rhythm. I don't know how exactly we approached it, but there was no delineation in terms of lead and rhythm guitar.