By: Jones Willingham
Fewer bands have had a bigger two years than hometown heroes The Brook and the Bluff. The quartet of Joseph Settine (vocals/guitar), John Canada (drums/vocals), Alec Bolton (guitar/vocals) and Fred Lankford (bass/vocals) has become radically popular among listeners for their use of intricate harmonies and soul that has propelled them to opening slots alongside Judah and the Lion and Noah Kahan and appearances at music festivals such as Shaky Knees, Moon River, and SouthSounds. There’s a lot of love for these guys in their hometown — we can vouch for them personally, with Joseph, Alec and John all working as excellent teachers for our students in traditional lessons and Fred coaching our future rockstars in Rock Band League before they relocated to Nashville to get closer to the music scene.
In 2021, the band released the full version of their sophomore LP Yard Sale. Uniquely, Yard Sale was released in two bite-sized chunks — Side A came out in April of 2021, with the full album releasing in October. Fans of their debut First Place will find even more to love in this album, as the band has simply fine-tuned their evocative, soulful sound to write the best songs they’ve ever written. While on a coast-to-coast headlining tour to support Yard Sale, we called Joseph, John, and Alec to chat with them about their past year, tour stories, and the comfort they found in making Yard Sale:
First thing’s first: how’s the tour been going? It’s been so cool to see the growth in the crowds and rooms as y’all have gotten more popular.
Alec: It has been GREAT! After 18 months of not touring, there was definitely some hesitancy for sure and nervousness about playing live again, but it really feels like we’ve picked up right where we left off. People are super enthusiastic, and it’s weird to see that we, like, gained fans during quarantine.
John: I second that — it’s been great. There have been a couple of great improvements in the way that we’re doing the tour that we’ve just now gotten to do for the first time. We finally have a tour manager and sound guy, and they’ve been killing it every night. We also just got in-ear monitors for the first time so we can actually hear ourselves.
Wait — you mean you couldn’t hear yourself on stage before? You were flying blind with those harmonies?
Joseph: (laughs) Yeah man, honestly it was just luck and practice with that. It’s rad to have them now though — at first it’s weird because now you can hear your flaws and you can’t get away with messing stuff up like you used to.
You guys have played some seriously storied rooms on this tour all over the country; do you have any particular memories that have stuck out to you?
Alec: Dude, the Troubadour in Los Angeles. When we booked it we were honestly a little scared of it, but there was so much energy in the room that we could fly through the ceiling. There was just this moment of looking behind me and seeing that legendary sign and thinking “huh, this is it.” Everyone knew, like, every word to the songs too.
John: Denver was pretty rad too. We were running late because of some technical issues — we walked on stage and Fred’s bass basically self-destructed — so we had to go on 20 minutes late or so and everyone was so cool and understanding.
Joseph: That was hilarious because none of us were standup comedians so we just stood in silence as Fred was just fumbling with his cords and bass. It was beautiful chaos.
John: Also, we were in Seattle last week on a random Monday night, which is the worst night for shows, so I didn’t have high expectations at all. I was so wrong. We walked on stage and it was a full 400-cap room that was freaking out to see us. It’s just surreal that people care like this.
That’s one thing I’ve always loved about The Brook and the Bluff is that your fans are just incredibly devoted to you guys. I come from Samford where y’all are basically the house music for any given event, and it’s a legit thing — people go crazy over you. What do you think you’re doing differently to inspire that kind of fandom?
John: (laughs) Thanks man. I really think it’s from the live show, because that’s how we started and found our rhythm as a band. We just played a lot live and I think we found a chemistry there, and that’s how we found the most devoted fans. We’re there in person and sharing that magic with them live. And I think that’s why for us, COVID really sucked, because we lost that connection — live streams and Instagram are cool and all, but there’s really nothing like getting in a room with five hundred other people and sharing that experience.
Alec: And you can’t replicate that experience, so it was weird to take time off because of COVID and come back to see people more into it than they were before.
Joseph: I’ll give the hot take — I think it’s the singing in the live show. I think the voice is the most expressive instrument, and I think for all four of us to be up there doing that, it’s almost like an invitation to the crowd to be involved in our band. There’s almost a communal bond there that’s more pronounced because of the style of music that we play that leans so heavily into the voice.
Yard Sale Side B just dropped, and I think that the way that y’all did this release (two separate EP-length releases) is a fascinating and unique way to release music. What made you present your art in this way?
Joseph: For me, I wanted to have a playful take on the idea of vinyl. I love records, and they’ve come back in a big way. This album was made in a throwback mindset with very little digital instrumentation on the record, so this seemed like a way to extend this idea. Giving Yard Sale a Side A and a Side B was our way to give it a vinyl feel on a digital platform. But, there was also the mindset of practicality that came into it. While we were making the record, we had a lot of talks of “when is touring coming back” or “when will we get to play these songs” because of COVID, and this felt like a good idea to play out the release cycle of the album so that we could stay in the conversation for a little bit longer. It was a way to get the music out and stick around longer, because every song had a week or two to breathe.
Alec: Yeah, in that way, we had 18 months before we could play shows again, so we wanted to give folks a side A to live with and then four months later they could have another while we were on tour.
I mean, honestly I think that’s brilliant, just because of the way that albums have become bloated to promote streaming numbers in the modern era. You look on one side and here’s Drake with another 24 song album that could probably be cut down into 12 really great tracks, and then alternately you all have a record that’s built on concision.
Joseph: Yeah, definitely. There’s one big difference though, in that Drake has an unlimited resource well, whereas when we record it’s like we have to be sure about these because of budgeting. But from an artistic standpoint, 10 songs on a record is a great number – you can make it digestible in one sitting.
John: 22 songs will keep me from touching an album — it’s daunting!
Joseph: I think Tierra Whack is doing a great job with this right now with Whack World and everything else she’s been doing — 15 one-minute songs makes it go by like a breeze, but it’s also so unique that you want to return to it.
Listening to Yard Sale, it feels like you guys are just incredibly comfortable — dare I say professional? With this being your second record, how do you feel like you’ve grown as a band after First Place and here?
Joseph: It’s amazing that you say that, because comfort was definitely a driving force behind this whole record. Going back in and making this second record and making it with the same person [Micah Tawlks, producer-extraordinaire], there was just so much familiarity in making these songs. We were incredibly comfortable and in our lane, so we just really dedicated ourselves to nailing these really cool parts on our instruments that we’ve always played. Like one of us said earlier, we weren’t doing a lot of digital tricks in the studio or anything like we did on First Place, so we really just wanted to nail down what we could reasonably play. I feel like we are getting to a point where we’re getting better at recording with each other because we have experience recording albums at this point, and we’ve done it a few times now so we’re just getting better at working together in general. It was definitely a little more focused — we carved out a round of “here are the sounds we’re gonna use” and it was generally more targeted as compared to the massive soundboard that we applied to our first record.
John: And on that note, before we got back on the road we went up to the mountains and started recording our third album — we don’t know what it’s gonna be yet, but it’s really cool. But that familiarity is there so now we can really push the boundaries on our sound.
With so much touring, I have to imagine that there’s a lot of van-time listening to music. What have you guys been listening to on the road?
Joseph: Oh man, my van song has been “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” by Sting. Micah showed us the video and it’s INCREDIBLE — like, if you haven’t heard the song, watch the video first. I’ve also been ripping up some of the old Blue Nile albums, and there’s new music out by this guy Dijon that’s really fantastic.
John: I’ve been into this older British band Elbow and I’ve also taken a dive back into my high school playlists — you know, like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes.
I can’t leave this call without talking about the massive Alabama Theatre show you have coming up. You’ve successfully scaled up from Saturn to Iron City, and now you’ll play that famous room. How does it feel, and do you have any memories of the Alabama Theatre?
Joseph: Man, it’s just really the coolest thing ever. (laughs) I can’t believe I’m going to put this on the record, but one of the first times I ever played an original song in front of people was at the Alabama. It was for Hoover High School’s pageant, and I was the hired entertainment that played in between.
John: Dude, no way. I had no idea this happened.
Joseph: I don’t like talking about it. (laughs) It was a 2 or 3 song segment in between the pageants — I think that was the first time I played original music.
Alec: Well, what did you play? This is incredible.
Joseph: (laughs) This Beatles song “All My Loving,” and then the first terrible song I ever wrote. I had my Alvarez guitar and this awful gingham plaid shirt on, so it’s just amazing.
John: There’s got to be a video of that somewhere. (laughs) For me, it was the Nickel Creek reunion tour. They’re one of my favorite bands and that show was just legendary. I can’t believe we’re going to be on that stage.
Alec: Yeah, we’re amped. We love this fun tradition we’ve started, because it’s the day before Thanksgiving, everyone’s in town, and it’s so cool to see family and friends. We did that livestream last year to take its place during the pandemic, and now we get to do again in front of people; it’s really crazy.
After a whirlwind year promoting Yard Sale with tours alongside major artists like Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Ashe, and Mt. Joy, and appearances at Bonnaroo and Firefly Music Festival, the hometown heroes of The Brook and the Bluff returned to Birmingham to co-headline Mason Music Fest 2022 on August 13 at Avondale Brewing Company. The music festival has its sights aimed high to establish itself in the Southeast as a premier event centered around opportunity, music, and community. Alongside The Brook and the Bluff, Nashville act Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors headlined a bill composed of Gatlin, Lady Legs, Shaheed and DJ Supreme, and Jahnah Camille. If you’ve never danced along to songs like “Doobie Bronson” or “Halfway Up,” you’re seriously missing out — witnessing The Brook and the Bluff live in their hometown is a treat that’s unrivaled among other bands in the Southeast.
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