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Interview: Brett Newski

23 July 2021

Photo by Cortney Armitage

On an episode of the Dirt from the Road podcast that Brett Newski launched during the pandemic, Guster’s Ryan Miller commented that given the podcast host’s many talents, he could add a triple hyphenate after his name: Brett Newski, musician-author-podcaster.

For the last ten years, Newski’s supported himself by making music and playing gigs as both a headliner and an opening act for artists like Manchester Orchestra, Pixies and New Pornographers. Along the way, Newski drew cartoon-ish illustrations that lent some humor to mental health issues and earlier this summer, he published It’s Hard to Be a Person which collects many of these illustrations in an unofficial self-help-type book.

The Dirt From the Road podcast often features musical guests like Juliana Hatfield, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Pete Donnelly (The Figgs) and Matthew Caws (Nada Surf) who share stories about touring as well as addressing some of the mental health challenges they face and how they cope.

Newski and I had a lot to talk about during a recent Zoom call and I turned the table on the podcast host by asking him questions rather than the other way around.

Did the book come about because you had a bunch of drawings dealing with anxiety and, like putting together an album, you thought you should compile them and present them as one package?

BRETT: Yeah. We added the soundtrack after the fact, but, I love depression humor and anxiety humor. There’s not enough of it in the world and that’s been my major coping mechanism for dealing with some of the anxiety stuff. Depression and anxiety, this is an unpopular opinion, but it is pretty funny sometimes. Not all the time, don’t get me wrong, it’s a serious thing but some of the stuff I worry about or get depressed about is honestly some real nonsense so to try to get a little grip on some self-awareness when I’m really anxious and thinking about irrational worries is something I try to do through drawing or illustrating or just making fun of my own anxiety.

I find myself falling into the trap in my day job where 98% of the time, things are good and the 2% is office politics and things like that. But, I tend to focus 98% of my energy on that 2%. Being able to take a step back and realizing I need to refocus my energy into not putting 98% of my energy into that 2%.

BRETT: I can relate to that. I obsess about certain things or catastrophize – oh, this person didn’t respond to my email or replied to me weird or ended the phone call strange, did I bum them out? Did I say something weird or offensive? That circular thinking is no good and 99% of the time it’s complete nonsense silliness. I think everyone deals with their own anxieties in different forms but it’s nothing to feel guilty about. It’s normal. It’s all useful energy at the end of the day.

There’s no shame in seeking mental health support and I appreciate that you’re open about that and address it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

BRETT: I think it’s a good exercise if you have a really good buddy that you’re comfortable with, it’s great to talk about stuff you’re embarrassed about or vent. That’s what best friends are for, dump your shit on them as long as it’s in healthy doses. If you’re on the receiving end of that, it is an honor when somebody comes to you and is like, “Hey, I need to tell you this” or “I’ve been bumming about this” or “I did this person wrong and I need to talk about it.” It’s not good to be a “world’s out to get me” person or a victim person, that’s not good but it’s nice to have someone you can go to because talking about stuff is okay. It’s a huge relief to say things out loud.

The particular illustration – and page – that I related to the most in the book is the one where you say, “You are not your brain” I get caught up in that. My brain leads me to dark places sometimes and I have to remember to step back and be like, “That’s my brain talking.”

BRETT: I first kind of read about that stuff in Ecartole’s book years ago but I guess just like your heart can attack you, your brain can attack you. It happens to me all the time and it’s hard to know when it’s happening, to be honest. I think it’s important to remember that your brain is evil (laughs). I don’t actually think your brain is evil but it can do you wrong. The human brain is a complex beast.

How did you decide to create a soundtrack to go along with the book? Was that always part of the plan or did you have songs laying around that you didn’t know what to do and thought this would be a good opportunity to share them?

BRETT: I had all these songs stashed from a few years prior and the themes really fit in with the themes in the book – defeating anxiety, surviving the world, having more fun. They are just anti-anxiety rock and it’s a lot of coming-of-age songs and trying to figure out your shit as a person where you don’t have all the information or all the answers and you’re just trying to make it all work and obtain what information you can to stay sane and stay confident. I’m happy with the songs, they’re really fun, they’re raw, they’re kind of acoustic-thrashy, they’ve got some Violent Femmes vibe and some ’90s and some power-pop in there, some Green Day influence probably. My former manager said, “Don’t say ‘power-pop’ because no one likes ‘power-pop’ as a term.”

You’re in your mid-30s so I imagine ’90s rock was important to you and, even know, your “comfort food” that you can always go back to for nostalgia.

BRETT: Yeah, totally. I was playing this game with my friend Carolyn the other day called “Make It/Take It.” I modified it off one-on-one basketball, you know, you score and keep the ball. “Make It/Take It” is where you pick songs and one person picks the songs and if both people are like, “Oh, shit, yeah, this song!” then that’s a “make” and you get to pick the next song. The idea is to try to impress the other person and get them excited with your song selection and if you’re not both super pumped about it, then it’s a miss and you pass the ball back over to the other person. “Make It/Take It,” I’m realizing, is that even though I invented the game, I suck at it because all I pick is ’90s songs and all I do is pick Stone Temple Pilots and sometimes people don’t want to listen to Weezer. I need to diversify my palate to get farther in the playoffs of “Make It/Take It.”

Do you ever go down rabbit holes where you watch a Weezer video on YouTube and then see where YouTube leads you with recommended videos from the ’90s?

BRETT: I feel like I know every song ever made in the ’90s and that’s not a brag, that’s embarrassing. I need to go through those ’70s discount bins at the record store to find stuff I don’t know. To be honest, when I go to the record store, I pick through the weird World Music bins and buy some strange Latin record from the ’50s and often times it’s amazing and I don’t know who the band is but I still love listening to the record.

How do you record your music? Do you do everything at home? Do you go to a studio?

BRETT: My bandmate Spatola is an amazing engineer. And, as a side job for fun, he’s one of the largest independent camel retailers in the Midwest, so he just sells camels on the side, he’s a real interesting dude (Editor note: We haven’t verified that Spatola actually sells camels). He lives down the street so we do stuff together all the time. In 2018, we mad an album called Life Upside Down to analog tape in Oakland, California with a couple fellas – Beau Sorenson and John Vanderslice and Hutch Harris from a band called The Thermals, they are one of my favorite bands. I think that’s our coolest record still because we made it to analog tape and it’s just so cohesive. I’d like to do tape again, I think tape is magical.

I want to talk about your podcast, Dirt From the Road. Did the pandemic inspire you to jump into podcasting or is it something you had already been thinking about doing? You’ve got a couple of good hooks that distance your podcast from being just another dude interviewing artists he likes. You’re talking to artists about being on the road and also mental health and how they manage life.

BRETT: I think one of the big things is that I really wanted to talk to musicians about things that are not music and I feel like they’ve generally been really pumped about that because a lot of these guys, like Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional and Brian Vander Ark from Verve Pipe and the Barenaked Ladies guys, they’ve been around, they’ve answered the same thousand questions 4,000 times. They’ve done the same music interviews so if we can talk about breakfast cereals for two minutes and segue into the best Dracula movies and then the weirdest thing that ever happened to them on the road and then talk about mental health for another 15 minutes, I feel like people are pumped to talk about weird stuff. My goal with podcasting is to true to talk about something that hopefully they’ve never talked about before or at least bring some new nuance to it. A lot of these cats have way more information than I do and it’s cool to learn things from my musical elders and my musical heroes. I’ve been obsessed with podcasting. Being an introvert, I didn’t necessarily think I would love it that much. It was just an experiment that went well, I guess.

How are you hooking up with the artists that you interview? Are publicists reaching out to you or are you soliciting artists that you either already know or that you want to talk to?

BRETT: Generally, it’s people I’m interested in. I have some comedians on there. Joe List is a comedian I really love, who is hilarious around mental health. I’ve opened for these bands, just through my 10 years of doing music full time, so the Barenaked Ladies guys and like the Violent Femmes were kind of pals already so I could reach out to them and they are generally open to doing a pod. And then sometimes, if they had a good time, they would introduce me to their buddies who are some cool ’90s bands. So, I’m able to punch above my weight class a little bit in that regard. I think I have a knack for podcasting and I just love doing it even though I have a lot of anticipation anxiety around some of the episodes and prepping for them.

Have there been any interviews that you wound up not posting because they didn’t turn out the way you anticipated?

BRETT: Good question. I’ve done some interviews that, at the time, I’ve thought, “This podcast is not going to be good” and I’ll sit on it for a few days and then come back and listen to it and I’ll think, “Oh, this is pretty sweet. This is release worthy.” I think some days I’m not feeling like “on” in my brain while I’m doing the podcast and maybe that’s just a little bit of self paranoia and self confidence wobbles at the time. But, I don’t think I’ve ever done a pod that I didn’t release. Maybe early on, when I was still trying to figure out what I was doing, there was probably a few that I didn’t use. Some guests you connect to more than others, some guests I feel like I’ve known my whole life. Like, Brian Vander Ark from Verve Pipe, I call him my second-string uncle now because we both have the same sense of humor. He opened with dick jokes and I’m like, “This guy’s amazing, we’re going to get along great.” It’s cool to chat with some of these cats.

Do you think that once we return to whatever “normal” is, and you start touring more, you’ll continue to do the podcast?

BRETT: Yeah. Some days I don’t really feel like doing it but it’s a great exercise if nothing else and it’s a good thing to do consistently. It’s a thing I have to do every Monday, it holds me accountable. So, yeah, I’d love to keep the pod going for another few years and see where it goes. There’s going to be peaks and valleys but I love it and it’s super excitement to me.

Are there any episodes of your podcast that have had more streams than some of your songs?

BRETT: Probably, yeah. The thing with the pod is that it can have such a wider reach than music because it is a little less niche. That was another big idea around the book, it’s so much less niche than either the pod or my records. It’s cool, we get these orders in from book shops, “We’ll take 30 of the books for this event.” It’s a useful book to people because it can help with mental health stuff and it’s got this utilitarian purpose beyond just listening to music which excites me quite a lot. The book has only been out a few weeks and we’re already almost sold out of the first run. So, I own the print place another six grand to print some more! It’s scary and it’s exciting. It’s all good.

People don’t have to be familiar with your pod or your music to enjoy the book. For that matter, the same goes for the pod. People don’t have to know your music or have read the book to listen to and enjoy the pod.

BRETT: It’s cool to have challenging new art projects come and kick your ass a bit. It’s nice to have options. At a certain point, I’m not going to be wanting to play 180 shows a year. That’s pretty physically taxing, so if there’s other avenues that help tie it all together, maybe bring in a few bucks, that’s really great too.

I’ve heard you talk about opening for a lot of your favorite bands on the podcast. Are those Milwaukee shows where you know the promoter and are able to talk your way onto a bill? Between your own touring where you hop in a car and play wherever anybody asks you to opening for national bands in Milwaukee and even doing some touring as an opener, how does that all work?

BRETT: I have some booking help, I have an agent. I also still book some of my own stuff because I do a lot of off-kilter, weird touring. A fan in Dayton, Ohio will throw a show in like an old bakery and we’ll sell 80 tickets and bring a PA. We do stuff like that all the time. “Oh, so you want to throw a show in a graveyard? Let’s do that” or “You want us to play on the top of a building on a helicopter launch pad?” We’re a self-contained unit where I can bring a band or I can play solo. I have a great lighting rig and a great PA and that stuff is more work to set up but you make five times the amount of money because you’re not going through a club and a promoter. We do both things. It’s great to have a support tour or something neat to look forward to once a year, like maybe we open some shows for Better Than Ezra that gives us this luxurious handful of shows and then we go back to schleping our own shows. For any musician starting out, I’d say get a good PA because you don’t want to be betrodden to clubs 100% of the time. You can create your own destiny a little bit if you can throw your own shows in weird ass places. People get pumped to see shows in weird ass places. If you’ve got a friend who has access to an old warehouse, you can throw a party, and if the cops come, that’s even more exciting.

Any dream guests for the podcast?

BRETT: Honestly, I’m pretty pumped with the people I’ve gotten to talk to already. It would be sweet to have Charles Barkley on or maybe Shaq. I’d love to interrogate Shaq. That’s the thing with the pod, you hang around long enough and it’s always surprising the guests you can get. If I can get BJ Armstrong from the ’90s Chicago Bulls, maybe I can parlay that into a chat with Dennis Rodman. And then maybe I get Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea, maybe on his way down of his career when I’m on my way up. Who knows?

Check out BrettNewski.com to order It’s Hard to Be a Person, buy music, find tour dates and listen to the Dirt From the Road podcast.

 

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