Brock's Folly started as a group of students who came together for the Bryan College freshman talent show in 2008. They performed the song "Ode to Apples," written by Jesse Murray. Bryan's student body loved it. The band members realized they shared common likes and interests in music, so they continued playing together. They practiced and recorded their second album in the basement of the campus auditorium, in a room called Brock's Hall, from which the band derives its name.
Every storyteller has a distinctive syntax and diction, and Brock's sound is predominately acoustic, alternately light with melodic space and dense with drums, electric guitar, and rapid lyrics. One of the band's distinctives is its use of layered vocal harmonies, as well as its range of instrumentation. Brock's music has featured the banjo, accordion, horn, and harmonica, as well as the more typical keyboard, acoustic and electric guitars, and bass. Although definitions are always inadequate and incomplete, it would not be incorrect to term Brock's an isotope of earthy folk-rock.
Brock's songs are very conscious of locale, rooted in physical places and their happenings. The band members have lived in such diverse places as Belgium, England, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, converging in the understated town of Dayton, Tenn. for college. A sense of specific and particular places undergirds the stories they tell. Despite coming from dramatically different backgrounds, the members of Brock's Folly sing of central things on which they all agree -- the creeds of the universal church, the long faithfulness of the upright man, the bravery of real love. Music is a space, as the band's name suggests, and in that space, these men seek to illustrate the truth.
Currently, the band includes Jesse Murray, Justus Stout, Trevor Haught, and Clayton and Farrah Schmidt. Luke Lillard recently left the band to attend seminary. Their second album is set to be released later this year.
Brock's Folly met me on a tiny balcony overhung with the thick afternoon heat and answered some questions about their music.
Is there a unified theme to the album you're about to release?
Justus Stout: If it had to be all tied to one theme, it's about the way our lives played out as everyone graduated. There're songs about school, songs about the city - Dayton, TN -- songs inspired by dating, songs about Joel [Peckman] getting married, songs about Luke [Lillard] getting married, songs about brothers.
How did recording in Brock Hall, your namesake, influence the recording process?
Clayton Schmidt: We showed up, and we'd planned to record, not knowing what the room would give. It was really a gamble. We were determined to do it there. We didn't know how it would react with tracking drums in there, vocals, everything. It turned out to be the perfect-sized room. It was really sort of a jerry-rigged set-up - everything was make-shift. These guys scrounged, put tables together, made all sorts of baffling out of old Bryan play sets and banquet scenery and blankets. I think that was really the magic of it - the imagination that went into the whole project.
JS: -- a few umbrellas.
There seems to be a recurring idea in your songs of the past being sanctified by the future, like in "Christ the Thief," or in "A Lesson in Dying from Heather." Is this an accurate reading of your music?
JS: A lot of it has to do with us being still young. The future is ours. We're looking forward to doing things, looking forward to marrying people, looking forward to being more sanctified; we're looking forward to going to Heaven. So, in a sense it's looking to the future.
Jesse Murray: I had a conversation with Michael Minkoff [their producer] about marriage. I remember him telling me that perhaps there is no better example of our eventual sanctification than marriage, and so that has been a big thing.
How would you describe yourselves in terms of genre? Are there any labels that you would like to avoid?
CS: I would not want to be "indie." I prefer alt. country. There're so many good bands in that genre. Some of our favorite bands are alt. country, like Wilco, Jakob Dylan, the Jayhawks -
JM: Josh Ritter. We're not really folk.
CS: But the Nehemiah Foundation [the label that recorded and produced both of Brock's albums] is an independent label, so we are part of that. How 'bout nonprofit. That's our genre. Brock's Folly is a nonprofit band. Rock, nonprofit, alt. country.
What goes into deciding in what venues you perform? Have there been any venues that you've turned down because of what you believe?
JM: No. (general laughter)
CS: That is out of the question.
JS: We've been turned down.
JM: Our first show that wasn't in Dayton was in Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta.
CS: We would love to go back.
JM: All the people who came to watch us were out there having drinks.
JS: Since we are a Christian band, I think that we should play everywhere.
CS: We can get booed out, chased out, spat upon - it doesn't really matter. We just want gigs.
What do you think of the idea that "The songwriter must know the long tradition of music in order to write something worthy?"
JM: I don't think so. I don't think that's necessarily true. I think a lot of the music we write - our ability to write that certain song comes from what we've been exposed to.
JS: A lot of it comes from genre. That's the whole foundation of folk: it's people who don't play music playing music. We're not a symphony. Maybe to compose a great piece orchestral music, yeah, it'd probably be good to have all your ducks in a row, but as far as folk, if you can play something in tune and you have a passion about something, it seems like that will suffice.
CS: You have to know how to shape chords. That's basically the tradition, period.
JS: And Sufjan Stevens went to school for Middle Eastern Literature, or something crazy like that. All he played was an oboe and then he decided to start playing music.
We all know that music is evocative. How do you approach, or do you ever think about, the emotional aspect of music when you're writing. What do you do with that?
JS: It's like trying to forget something, but remembering to forget it. You don't pay attention to it. You don't set out to make an emotional song. Once you're thinking about how to make it emotional, you've already lost it.
JM: I mean, everything is emotional.
Do you feel like there is a way that artists deal with that responsibly? Is there a Christian way to handle that?
JM: No, there's a human way.
What do you think that is? Is there a good way or a bad way or is it all completely neutral?
JM: I remember when I first started listening to Conor Oberst. He was just vomiting his emotions and he had no restraint, but I think that's what music is. It's not about being responsible. It's not about how you handle your emotions or how you write your songs. It's just about making sure that you still have emotions. That comes out in our music.
CS: I think our modern Christian way of doing responding to that has produced a lot of restraint.
JM: It's not emotional enough.
CS: Yeah, because we have people making music for the church or the Christian music industry and it has to be accessible to everyone. If you're writing it to be sung in church, obviously --
JM: There are things you can't say.
CS: The songwriter can't write his own experience. So the Christian way falls short.
JS: This is my answer: there are good emotions and bad emotions. Unfounded anger, envy or jealousy, or apathy; these are all bad. Godly passion, love, humility; these are all good. The godly approach to emotions is to have godly emotions, not to say, "these are my emotions in the most Christian sense." It's actually to have Christian emotions, like, instead of lust, having godly, bridled passion for a girl. Or, instead of despair in the face of death, to have an understanding of the truth behind it and to have hope for a Christian who has died. So, love instead of lust, hope instead of despair. These are godly emotions that definitely come out in our songs, I think. It's not a matter of going about them in a godly way; it's a matter of them being godly in the first place.
JM: And having said that, I think that's our goal as songwriters: it's to channel that. But it's also good to document the ungodly emotions.
JS: Or even the progression.
Who are the poets that you guys admire. That's an individual question, obviously.
JS: Jesse is the poet I admire. Put that down.
JM: Well, I have a couple who are actually poets. Alfred Lord Tennyson. He actually made it into one of our songs: the line, "Let the great world spin." And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
CS: Don't you guys like Hopkins?
JS: Gerard Manley Hopkins.
JM: Michael Minkoff.
CS: Robert Frost, 'cause I memorized some of his poems in High School.
JM: He made it into a song, too.
CS: Have you guys ever read "The Death of a Hired Man?" That's one of my favorites. It's a pretty heavy one. "Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in."
Do you have a favorite song of your own?
CS: Yes! I know I do have favorites. I like "The Marriage Song," 'cause it's fast. I could play that on the drums all day long.
JS: I don't have a favorite.
TH: I like "The Night Before."
CS: I love playing "Boston." I love playing songs just because of the drums in them. My favorite songs to play are the ones that are more fun playing the drums. And there's a lot of songs that are my favorite because of the lyrics. Or the melody.
You're just an appreciative guy.
CS: I do love playing "The Marriage Song" every time.
JM: I have a love/hate relationship with our songs. I love them. There are times when all of them make me angry. I don't live up to what we're saying in them.
JS: That is true. It's funny to have your hypocrisy pointed out by your own music.
JM: That happens all too often.
CS: It really hurts.
JM: Always has.
JS: 'Cause how can you sing it after that. Like, seriously.
JM: I don't have a favorite, but I love it when we do the "Creeds" song.
CS: That song has a great drum part.