Sometimes the artless make better music than artistes. After all, craft is but a vehicle for emotions and ideas that, if expressed honestly and forthrightly enough, require minimal elaboration. Moody indie rock duo Brick + Mortar is a case in point.
Driven by the iconoclasm of frontman Brandon Asraf, their songs bristle with palpable longing, confusion and indifference. The throbbing, shimmying churn of "Bangs," moves like it knows where the Bloc Party is. Underneath, Asraf expresses his dissonance in a blasé tone: "I'm never gonna make it anyway / I think I'm gonna make it anyway / I know but really I just don't care."
Coming from the wrong side of the tracks, Asraf knew what Janis Joplin meant about freedom being nothing left to lose.
"I was just a poor kid growing up. I didn't have an identity. I wasn't really good at anything," says Asraf. "I didn't have a fear of failing or of dying or of any of that, because I figure that was just what was going to happen anyway. Because of my life at the time, I just didn't give a fuck."
Asraf grew up "like wolves" amid five siblings in an Asbury Park, New Jersey, household headed by a conman father. Dad's schemes ultimately tore the family apart. "Mom didn't take everything that happened the best," he says.
When his then-14-year-old friend/drummer John Tacon suggest Asraf pick up an instrument, it not only offered distraction, it changed the course of his life.
"It gave me a sense of purpose I didn't have," he says. "Music gave me a sense of value. I realized I could tell a story and express myself. It's positive. I'm meeting these people in the outside world that are making me feel like I can be the part of something positive on Earth, instead of being destined to this scumbag existence."
He and Tacon jammed together for many years instrumentally before deciding to try writing songs. Asraf was initially concerned about his voice, but like with everything else, his confidence grew alongside his mastery. After giving their project its name in 2008, they followed in 2010 with Brick + Mortar's 7 Years in the Mystic Room. It captured some buzz and, after lots of touring, the Bangs EP followed in 2013.
From the swirling minor-key calliope of "Keep This Place Beautiful" to the epic Britpop shuffle of "Locked in a Cage," the songs key a stronger sense of place. At their core are Asraf's twisted emotions.
"I'm trying to get better as a songwriter, but really those are pretty raw songs," he says. "I'm being figurative, but I feel like I'm much more blue-collar as far as what I really mean. I like big stuff with pretty simple thoughts; I'm a fan of action movies."
Where many musicians will say they spent the first half of their career trying to play like everyone else and the last half learning to play like themselves, Asraf's just the opposite. He's been back-engineering others' songs for insight into what he's done by instinct up to now. He's not too concerned about inadvertently pulling a Sam Smith.
"Why worry if you're already such a freakazoid?" he figures. "I'm already such a strong flavor, anything is going to come out in some mutant-y way. It's certainly not going to be whatever was put into the machine, since its insides are such a very strange, Rube Goldberg-ian contraption."