Interview: Big Brutus

“You’re the first person I’ve talked to in days,” said Sean Bryant.

The Atlanta-based musician, better known as Big Brutus, is biking along the East Coast from Boca Raton all the way to Manhattan. Alone.

I could hear the fatigue in his voice, masked by a genuine enthusiasm to share the stories behind his travels. On the day we spoke, he had been on the road since 10:30 a.m. and had biked a total of 380 miles since the start of his trip. He will bike around 1,200 more.

He is traveling with a specific purpose. Survive with nothing but a bike and some camping supplies. Play acoustic shows, when possible. But most importantly, raise awareness for International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit providing aid to refugees seeking shelter from war-torn countries like Syria and Libya.

He had changed three flat tires that day. The blazing sun, the stench of roadkill and the open road were fresh on his mind as he spoke to me from his hotel room that evening.

He spoke about his music but also about living and dying, loneliness and coming to grips with who you decide to be in life. There were times I was thankful we were speaking over the phone–my eyes would suddenly well up at different moments during our conversation. The dude is profound.

It’s very apparent that despite the trials of biking alone, he is truly living. I hope he finds what he’s looking for.

___

Big Brutus

Indie Soul Media: Describe your music.

Sean Bryant: Just kind of folk rock. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s completely that, I try to incorporate anything that I’ve ever really wanted to try into it. Basically I’ll start with an emotion and wherever it goes in terms of music, then I’ll follow it there.

ISM: What other styles do you try to incorporate?

SB: Sometimes country. When I was a kid, my family really loved country music. I’m not a huge fan of country music, unless it’s like that old school just right-off-the-range Willie Nelson type of stuff.

ISM: I totally get that, I would never call myself a country music fan, but there are still like the old school legends that I really love, I totally get that.

SB: Yeah, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album is actually one of my favorites. One of his first concept albums, too. I really like that concept of making an album say something.

ISM: Sharing as much as you’re comfortable with, what sort of events have inspired your music?

SB: I guess, sort of everything? I would never have started Big Brutus if I had never gone through like a major relationship shake-up. That really inspired the first album because I wanted to write something that sounded like a relationship kind of blooming and dying and then coming back together–maybe not the same thing as before but being a rebirth in a sense. I wrote Tiny Box from the whole idea that I could take all these emotions and just put them somewhere else and be done with them, you know?

SB (cont.): The Odd Willow was much more straightforward. Like, I’m nearing 30. Which isn’t old by any means but for somebody who’s approaching 30, it feels older than they’ve ever been. I just started thinking about wanting to accomplish things with my life and not having reached them yet. It’s the idea that if I don’t really do something about it, maybe I won’t ever reach them. And so a lot of The Odd Willow deals with that–coming to terms with who you are as a person, letting go of things in order to accomplish what you are meant to do.

ISM: How would you describe the way that your music has evolved from Tiny Box to The Odd Willow?

SB: Tiny box was very insular. Very immediate, so the sonic palette of it was a little more far-ranging than The Odd Willow. It was trying to do something musically without necessarily saying it so there’s clips of old movies in there and old hymns and stuff that are cut up and electronically moved around, stuff like that. There’s an old 1940s or 50s kind of self-help video i think was called “Marriage Today” and that with like a lot of sonic dissonance. There’s a lot of immediate left turns in the music. The album starts calm and then gets darker, or at least as dark as I can make something.

SB (cont.): A lot of the Odd Willow deals with dying and trying to come to terms with the fact that you will die and so you should make something with your life. So that New Orleans kind of brass band kind of thing really felt like the style that would fit. The whole album isn’t like that–there aren’t horns everywhere or anything. It’s very calming in its effect. There’s some jarring moments still, I didn’t want the album to settle into apathy. I wanted it to arise at its conclusion on its own terms instead of me trying to design it that way. Just like life, you just follow where it leads you.

ISM: How would you describe the songwriting process then? It’s different for every artist and it sounds like you allow it to come to you.

SB: It’s different for everybody and for me it’s even different from song to song. Sometimes you get a snippet of an idea or melody or you’ll be playing on a guitar. Or maybe switching up some instrumentation and come up with a cool rhythm. Maybe you’ll just hear a horn section in your head. And then you just go from there.

SB (cont.): One interesting thing that’s come out of this ride I’ll come up with different snippets or lyrics or phrases that go well together. I’ll record them into my phone while I’m riding and listen to them later and just extrapolate from there. Depending on the circumstance, I try to write from whatever medium I can. I don’t ever wanna be locked down to just a guitar, I want to explore.

Big Brutus

ISM: Has this trip inspired future songs?

SB: You know, I don’t know yet. I’ve been reading a lot of Steinbeck on this trip, specifically his book Travels with Charley, which he wrote when he thought he was dying. He took a camper around America and just drove around in search of the same thing I think I’m looking for right now. Which is just meeting and talking to people and getting a sense of America today.

ISM: What has this trip taught you so far?

SB: That everyone is lonely. You can hear it in a conversation with someone or in a snippet of a conversation between two people when I’m passing by. I’ve started to realize that it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s something important to understand and always keep in the back of your mind. Because everybody is the main actor in their own play, you know? It’s hard to remember that nobody else is a side character in their own life. And that’s like going back to the Steinbeck thing, he never wrote from a very immediate place, he kind of accrued experiences and then later he used them. I think that’s like the same kind of process I’m going through now. I’m just kind of writing down these interactions that I’ve had with people or experiences that I’ve seen. Very specific things like the smell of roadkill on the side of the road or just, you know, changing a tire in the hot, blinding sun. And just really feeling every inch of the road underneath my feet. It’s been a very eye-opening experience for sure, much more exhausting than I gave it credit for.

ISM: What kind of advice do you have for someone who’s thinking of taking on this kind of journey?

SB: Do your research. And I would say to accept that things will change while you’re doing it. That’s been one of the hardest parts for me. Because I think setting out with a goal in mind and not necessarily achieving it or having achieved it in a different way than you were planning to makes you feel like an impostor in a sense. There’s a syndrome called Impostor Syndrome where you don’t believe that you live up to the ideals that you set yourself up for. I think artists go through it a lot. Because you see the people you’ve grown to admire and you want to be counted among those people and then maybe you do something worth remembering but it doesn’t ever feel the way you thought it would feel. So if somebody were to do something like this, they should understand that life has a different set of aspirations than them. It will guide them that way. It’ll still be an experience, you know?

ISM: So how do you pull this off? Where do you sleep? What does a “normal” day look like to you?

SB: It’s kind of funny you say that. My original intention was staying in campgrounds a lot. But because it’s spring break for families, a lot of these campgrounds are packed full. So I’ve been forced to stay in these shoddy kind of motels off the side of the road. Not all of them are terrible.

One I stayed in yesterday looked like that on the outside but once I got to my room, it had a nice rustic Spanish Florida charm. But yeah, I’ve been getting up early, cooking oatmeal in the bathroom or wherever I am. I’ll mix some electrolytes with my water. I’ll pack up my stuff on my bike, bungee the sleeping bag and tent to the top of it all and start going.

SB (cont.): The kind of juxtaposition that I’m at right now is that I’m doing this for a very specific reason to raise awareness for International Rescue Committee but at the same time I’m riding my bike all day long and not getting the chance to mention it to anybody. That’s where the idea to take an Amtrak for a day because I’m stuck in a cart full of people and will hopefully be able to share more about International Rescue Committee there.

ISM: Explain a little more about why you’re passionate about raising awareness for International Rescue Committee.

SB: I just really believe in what they do and what they stand for. Back in 2012, I worked on a cruise ship and one day our itinerary took us through the Mediterranean, and we came across a small boat, about 23 refugees in it. We picked them up, they were from Egypt, they were trying to get over to Greece or Italy, and it was policy that wherever the cruise line was based out of, that we had to return them to their native country. It was always something that sat in the back of my mind and didn’t sit well. I could understand and empathize with trying to better your situation and being forced back into it just because of red tape and policy was very frustrating. And the thing about the International Rescue Committee is that they’re dedicated to helping refugees, specifically places like Syria and Libya right now that could really use more help. It’s about looking at the human side of war where there’s little kids and all of a sudden their moms and dads are gone or vice versa. I can only begin to fathom something like that. It just seems important.

SB (cont.): The only thing I want out of music is to be kind of counted among my peers as worthy of a musician. But past that, I don’t need fame or riches or anything like that. I want to help people. I want to give back to the world because I’m gonna leave the same way I came and I’m not gonna be able to take anything with me other than a settled mind.

___

Donate to Sean’s Crowdrise campaign for International Rescue Committee.

Listen to ‘The Odd Willow’: Spotify / Bandcamp / Soundcloud

Follow Big Brutus: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram