“I lived in the back room of the basement—I remember experiencing sleep paralysis down there and feeling visited,” recalls experimental musician and outsider folk songwriter Brian Straw of his time living at legendary ’90s/early ‘Oughties Cleveland D.I.Y. venue and punk rock crash pad, Speak In Tongues.
“Crazy shit would happen at night when I was in a half-awake/dream state. White noise would envelop me and the fluorescent lights would flicker. I couldn’t move or talk…”
Fortunately, as an artist, Brian Straw seems to feel quite comfortable in these liminal states.
In fact, Straw’s astonishing new album—after a fifteen-year pause battling addiction and finding sobriety—is an homage to the in-between.
On Baby Stars / Dead Languages‘ haunting and elegiac tracks, Brian interweaves heartfelt Americana songwriting with subtly noisy—almost ghostlike—textural and spatial embellishments that reveal his artistic ambitions.
Brian Straw is creating and delivering music elevated far above most singer-songwriters. When I listen to Straw’s music I can feel the Rust Belt, my ancient home, creaking back into my joints, chapping at my skin. And then—mercifully!—relief arrives as the old pain escapes out of my crown chakra and I’m renewed.
This stream of feelings and reactions must certainly be by design, right?
“The title Baby Stars / Dead Languages is supposed to represent a cycle,” Straw explains. “The time between the beginnings of a star to the death of a language.”
Brian Straw & Straw’s own birth/death cycle since his last recorded musical output in 2007 included starting a gallery, engineering tons of musical projects and getting sober from drugs and alcohol.
This has been fascinating for me to watch and listen to long-distance as long ago I chronicled Brian’s experimental endeavors in Our Mother’s Moustache (with the late Ted Flynn) and solo, and even played one of Brian’s compositions, Walls Of Malm, at Speak In Tongues with Ted, Stephe DK, Aaron Davis, Steve Peffer, Ron Kretsch, Matt Kuchna and Jake Kelly.
And of course I’ve had my own struggles with substance abuse dating back to that era.
Fortunately, Brian Straw’s new music—which began appearing in late 2021 with a stream of singles that has continued post-album release with his latest “Silent Partner”—channels the rebellion and slop of youth into a spare and supernatural new form.
Brian is to be admired for making new and excellent art that’s tied to a journey—from obscurity, from Speak In Tongues, from substance-related stagnation—that many of us have experienced.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Brian as he’s beginning to navigate out onto the post-Covid concert circuit—what remains of our old Speak In Tongues-era D.I.Y. network—and forge yet another new path.
Where are you originally from, Brian?
I grew up in small town Indiana. The home of Tom Raper RVs, Richmond, Indiana.
When did you move to Cleveland?
I’m really bad with dates. Late 1997 or early ’98 I think.
Why did you move to Ohio way back when? What drew you to Cleveland in particular?
I came up here for school at Oberlin and dropped out after a year. I was impressed with the scene around the Euclid Tavern and Speak In Tongues. It was easy for me to find a place to live and a job as a 20-year-old so I made the move. I didn’t know anyone in Cleveland. I was inspired back then to make my mark.
What were some of the original performers you saw at Speak In Tongues that inspired you?
William Parker and Susie Ibarra was the first show I saw at SIT. My head exploded. I couldn’t believe that a space like that could exist. I had to be a part of it.
How and when did you begin your association with the venue?
I introduced myself to Dan Santovin, who at the time was booking a lot of great indie rock shows, and asked how I could help. They needed a sound person and I had a little background in audio so it was a good fit. I became fast friends with Ralph Haussmann, who taught me the nuts and bolts of running live-sound. That was sometime in 1998.
When did you move in?
Probably about a year after I started doing sound there.
What as it like living at Speak In Tongues?
Man, that was so long ago. It’s foggy. I’m having to peel away some layers of my brain to access those memories.
Living in a show space has it’s ups and downs. Something was always happening so there wasn’t really any downtime to decompress from the nightly events. That’s also of course exciting. No doubt we hosted some incredible performances. I was proud to be a part of it.
How did Speak In Tongues and SIT people contribute to your artistic development?
I learned about the punk aesthetic at SIT. I was in my early 20’s then. That left a big impression on my personal sensibilities and practice as a musician.
How do you sum up the experience for someone who wasn’t around back then?
Someone recently described SIT as a “free space” and I thought that was fitting. There was a loose collection of artists and curators that kept the doors open and true to its “mission” throughout. It was completely illegal. I don’t think a space like that could exist in Cleveland anymore. The experience re-wired my brain. I’m still shellshocked.
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your collaborations with Ted Flynn?
Ted Flynn was one of the first people I met at Speak In Tongues. We became fast friends and collaborated a lot in the early years. We played together in Flux Up 10%, Our Mothers Mustache and probably another project or two I’m forgetting about. Ted was also my close friend. Someone I could count on.
Ted made the ‘Jerrycaster’ for you—what’s the story behind that instrument? Where is it now—do you still play it?
I still have the Jerrycaster. It’s basically a gas can cello. I played bass with it in Our Mothers Mustache and eventually Ted thought I should have it since I took to it. It made its way into my set as more of a noise instrument. I would run it thru delays and loopers and construct sound sculptures with it. It could sound massive and beautiful.
If you could only pick one Cleveland environ, would you say you are more Metroparks or industrial Flats?
I mean we have a great park system. They cleaned up Edgewater which is a 5 min walk from my studio. I like to run in the Rocky River Reservation. But, I lived in The Flats for about five years so my heart lies there. We built out a space in the Left Bank Building. I built my first studio there. We had a gorgeous view of the Cuyahoga River.
After SIT, you made some big breakthroughs with your music. How would you characterize the music you’ve been making the last two decades?
At its core I’m a singer-songwriter, but I wear a few hats. I’m as comfortable in the noise scene as I am in the folk scene. I access elements of both in my music and so It becomes more of an experimental music. Experimental Americana maybe. Songwriting takes practice. Thankfully, I’m still changing and evolving.
You made a bold decision at a certain point to get sober. My own experience in early sobriety was of incredible restoration and inspiration. How would you describe the feelings you felt? Do you still feel them?
A lot of raw emotion came over me. I was coming out of a failed relationship. I had to make changes or I was gonna completely sink. Quitting drinking was the easy part. Working shit out was the battle. I did feel some euphoria. Not drinking was the healthiest decision I could have made. This inspired me to make other healthy choices. It’s interesting how you start to peel back layers when you feel good physically. You uncover yourself. It’s still for sure a work in progress.
Your new album Baby Stars/Dead Languages seems to sum up a lot of the experimental music you used to make via subtle touches applied throughout. How much of a conscious decision is it to revisit earlier musical expression—or is it naturally baked-in at this point?
I go where the song takes me. I guess I’m more focused on song craft right now because I feel It best translates my emotions. I’m interested in that transaction between me and the listener.
How do you begin writing a song down—what’s your process?
It would either start with a chord progression or a melody. Piano or guitar. I’m always recording ideas with the phone. Sometimes I’ll sit down to write and a new song that just sits at my fingertips. Other times I consult with the phone recordings and pick out a previous idea to explore further.
Can you talk about “Underground” off your new LP? It seems to me it’s almost a manifesto—what is the story you’re imparting here?
That’s interesting. A few things are happening in that song. I allude to the process of recovery and reveal some findings in that journey. I am trying to tap into deep secrets in this song. And a feeling of bliss or contentment. Also, in places I sing purely for phonetics. I use words that sound right and that maybe vaguely impart a manifesto.
“Needle in the Creek” seems like a pivotal track. Do you write with a certain person or audience in mind?
I developed a close bond with a friend who was struggling with drug addiction. She was clean at the time and I had recently quit drinking. We found ourselves talking a lot about substance abuse. We talked about everything though. She fascinated me. I worried about her relapsing. Tragically, she overdosed and died after I finished this song… Musically, this song took a u-turn when I handed it over to Bill Lestock. I recorded the guitar and vocal for this song and asked Bill to add some fiddle. He turned it back in with fiddle, mandolin, guitar and bass! Did a superb job.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist from your latest journeys?
I’m an introverted person. I keep things bottled in. I don’t always do a good job communicating my feelings. Songwriting allows me to access those emotions and amplify them. It’s a release for me. It can be very powerful. I need music now more than ever.
The old touring and support systems have almost totally broken down—thanks, Covid. How are you going to do things differently in 2022 to get your music out there?
Well I’m working with a publicist this go around. That seems to be helping me get some exposure. We are finally starting to see things open back up again and I have some tour dates coming up so I’m feeling hopeful.
What are your artistic aspirations in 2022 (and beyond)?
I’ve started working on the next record. I have a couple bonus tracks from Baby Stars/Dead Languages that will be released soon. I’ve got some upcoming tour dates that I’m excited about.