KZSC Exclusive: Mild High Club’s Alex Brettin talks microphones, Chicago jazz, and NPR

Robin Estrin and Syd the Kid interview Mild High Club’s Alex Brettin at Don Quixote’s International Hall of Music. Read on to see how a review of the show dovetailed into an area woman’s existential crisis, and be sure to tune in to Syd’s show, “No Pasa Nada” on Monday at 10 a.m. to hear our first and only broadcast of the conversation.

It’s the day before my twenty-third birthday and I’m walking down Walnut Avenue, away from the commercial buzz and tourist-traffic of downtown Santa Cruz. I’ve got Timeline, Mild High Club’s debut album, shimmering through my headphones, and a gentle breeze rubs shoulders with the oak trees lining the street. It’s mid-summer, a beautiful afternoon by anyone’s standards. “I should feel lucky,” I tell myself. “I should want to go to the beach.” 

Not everyone loves birthdays. If you were to ask me about my mental state on that day, the day before the big two-three, I might have offered an image for the feeling haunted: “A past lover reincarnated as the smell of late-afternoon sunlight and pine needles.” 

Or I might set the scene for the feeling stagnant; surrounded by moving parts: “Standing on the concrete median intersecting Chestnut and Mission, waiting for the light to change. Acquaintances in a car drive by.”

Better yet, I’d spare myself the embarrassment of attempted communication, pass you my earbuds, and play Mild High Club’s “Windowpane;” let Alex Brettin do the talking. The entire track is woozy with the nostalgia that pairs with completing yet another revolution around the sun. A minute in, Brettin riffs on his UV-drenched 12-string and croons, “Life/ passes on the right/ Still life/ takes you for a ride.” 

The lyric, to quote again from the band’s oeuvre, “touches me.” It nods to the way I experience time—by fearing that if I don’t aim to constantly account for it, it will escape me altogether. “Windowpane” is a song about trading in fifteen living, breathing sunflowers for an image of them captured in a vase (see: van Gogh). It’s favoring preservation over experience, a sea of iPhone cameras pointed toward a stage. But it also offers some comfort. We are voyeurs of our own lives, yes, but isn’t this photograph gorgeous? 

Mild High Club’s sound is sweet as lemonade, but saccharinely so—something like a birthday or a summer in Santa Cruz, a town that’s built entire industries around nostalgia, a yearning for an idealized past. Seriously, think about it: the sepia photos of blond, sandy surfers at your favorite cafe, the historic beach boardwalk, heck, even KZSC’s own Art O’Sullivan, who’s been bringing you the Grateful Dead, regularly, for twenty years. You can’t walk down a single street in Santa Cruz without experiencing déjà vu for some feeling without a name. And this phenomenon is especially potent, for whatever reason, in the summertime. Maybe it’s the tides. Maybe you’ve lived here a few years and know what I’m talking about. 

Skiptracing, Mild High Club’s newest record, came out with L.A.’s Stones Throw Records last year. The instrumentation is overtly jazzy, a genre-bending leap from the previous release, but for Brettin, who studied jazz music at Columbia College Chicago, it’s a return to his roots. 

“I find myself continually, gradually getting back to jazz, because it’s really the highest form for me musically” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if five albums later, if I get to that point, it is just jazz.”  

But for now, it’s not just jazz. It’s a fusion, a future nostalgic for the past. Imagine throwing Homeshake’s Peter Sagar and Miles Davis into the dishwasher with your favorite minimalist’s Instagram. Add glitter. What you get is stunningly contemporary and eerily classic. Psych pop meets upscale blues bar. Can you hear it?

Supported by San Francisco’s Healing Potpourri, Mild High Club played to a doting crowd at Don Quixote’s International Music Hall on July 11. The band mesmerized, moving the audience from funky to Zen with professional confidence, skipping the banter and drawing the final notes of one song into the first notes of the next. Wrapping up, the second guitarist, the one who, with long hair and shoeless feet, looked more Felton than L.A., took a seat on the stage and struck the first note of the final song, a cover of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” I scanned the room. A dimly lit venue, Don Quixote’s, with its ‘60s era wood moulding and vinyl tabletops—its patrons clad in vintage denim and bartenders old enough to have known Santa Cruz before the earthquake, before the invasion of techies and fancy property developers—was sold this week for 2.2 million dollars.

There was a certain weight to the set, a gravitas. Time slowed and sped up again, and as much as the music beckoned me to presence, I had, tugging at me, the feeling of missing something. I checked my pockets. 

Mild High Club at Don Quixote’s International Music Hall on July 11, 2017. Alex Brettin on the right.

Center Stage: Lucas Nathan of Jerry Paper, Alex Brettin of Mild High Club, and Rikky Gage of The Memories play The Echo in Los Angeles, August 2016.

Laura Marling

This post (and picture) comes courtesy of DJ Compost, one of the hosts of KZSC’s “Dead Energy” program.

Full Disclosure: The last time I saw Laura Marling in concert, it was before I came to KZSC. I used  a fake press pass to get into the 21+ venue. With a hand-crafted and surprisingly legitimate looking photo ID badge and the acting skills of Nicholas Cage on a good day, I somehow got into the show. When I told Laura about it after her performance, she called me a “fucking genius” and told me of her own experiences as an underage music aficionado in England where she’d sneak into shows with nothing more than fake DJ equipment and confidence. A bonding moment to remember. I recently saw Laura again at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and this time, as a real media-type person. Laura walked on stage to a microphone stand three inches taller than her pixie-like self. Standing on her tiptoes, she timidly chimed “hello,” before beginning to play. I thought she’d adjust her mic to better accommodate her height, but she never did. It seemed strategic for the self-proclaimed and endearingly awkward folk singer to hold her head craned upwards where her eyes could easily travel to the ceiling. She opened with the first four songs from her new album, “Once I Was An Eagle”, each one blending seamlessly into the next, which built to the fifth and angriest track on the album, “Master Hunter.” Laura joked that if she were us, she’d be rioting against hearing new material, then played a pair of brand new songs. Apologizing for her lack of bantering skills, she laughed ironically then announced, “Now for the hits”  and played gems from her previous three albums plus a beautiful Townes Van Zandt cover of “For the Sake of the Song.” Laura let us get to know her during the next hour and a half, but only as much as she wanted, keeping parts of herself hidden away-dark, mysterious, vulnerable and inviting at the same time. Closing with “Where Can I Go?” from “Once I Was An Eagle”, Laura cooed gently: “I am cold and I am bright/ It’s a curse of mine to be sad at night.” At 23 years old, she seems to bare more of the world on her shoulders than she should have to; a blessing and a curse as a songwriter. She voices an honest vulnerability that is absolutely inspiring as if she’s swallowed up the entire world and spat out the good in beautiful prose and the bad in fiery spurts of fury. Find out more about Laura Marling at her website and listen for her on KZSC.