Highway 9

An Interview With Gordon Brown

Highway 9

All areas where there's a music scene have "that band." The one that thrives when the scene itself doesn't. "That band" is one that survives despite the ups and downs, remaining true to its roots and never forgetting the scene from which it came.

Highway 9 has been "that band" on the Jersey shore scene for years. Though it started out as the acoustic trio Mr. Reality and later reincarnated into Samhill, this band has been the gas in the fuel tank of the local scene.

The shore scene has had its rough times, when getting people out to shows seemed impossible and sustaining a music career unheard of. Whatever alias they used, the members of Highway 9 have always set a strong example for other local bands to follow; create the music you love and respect those who listen to it.

The band has managed to keep focused. After being signed twice, Mr. Reality on SBK Records and, currently, to Sony/Epic, they hope to bring their brand of true rock n' roll out to a nation that's musical identity hangs onto terms like emo. This goal sets itself forth on their latest release, What in Samhill?

Mainstream radio has suffered in the past, just like it does in the present. Highway 9's persistence in the face of an industry that needs a wake-up call is to that of Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, as the Hive's lack of songwriting ambition mirrors that of the Knack.

In other words, when the mainstream sleeps, it always takes some boys from Jersey to wake 'em up, so to speak. Leading this assault is a band mixing stunning hooks, with rhythmically-nuanced instrumentation.

Singer Peter Scherer stamps his voice on guitarist/songwriter Gordon Brown's love-profiling songs with the smoothness and thoughtfulness of their composer. Guitarist Kevin Ansell enhances them with moody leads and chunky solos. Bassist Rob Tanico provides feel and movement to the mix, while drummer Dave Halpern keeps the listener's focus with steady-yet-swift drum beats. Together, they're an all-star cast whose professionalism and musicianship stands at its peak.

Bands less crafty and not nearly as talented come right into the mainstream with their one hit, only to quickly fade away. Highway 9 takes a more-challenging road, traveling city by city, making every radio and record store appearance they can along the way. With their staying power already proven on a local level, Highway 9 now prepares itself to challenge the airwaves with a catch phrase that seems to have lost its meaning in American pop culture: rock n' roll.

Chorus and Verse conducted this interview with Highway 9's songwriter and guitarist Gordon Brown during a break in the band's hectic touring schedule. Visit www.highwaynine.com for the latest news and information about the band.

How is the Rusted Root tour going? Are people receptive to Highway 9's music? What do you plan on doing when this tour is done?

When we started with Rusted Root we were a little unsure of what to expect.

Let me tell you, the fans made us feel like we were at home every night. We were pleasantly surprised to say the least. We went out and met everyone after the shows to get reactions and it was truly amazing. When people come up to you to thank you for playing for them it is an extremely special feeling. They don't have to do that. Their fans were great to us and we can't thank Rusted Root enough for giving us such a great opportunity. After this tour we are planning to do a promotional tour for the release of the new Highway 9 record What In Samhill? that will include radio and retail stores across the country. Nothing is confirmed as of press time just yet.

You've been writing some great songs for shore rock fans for years. What makes a great song? What are some of your favorite songs and what makes them great to you?

Well, I really appreciate that and, honestly, the truth of the matter is, growing up here can give you a certain language depending on the way you write songs. I personally have taken everything in from where we come from and put our own take on it. I can't help but write about the people and things I see and hear everyday, as well as let all the influences I've grown up with come out from time to time. I believe the two most important things that make great songs are ...

1. Honesty in the approach of the music, and

2. A singer's voice delivering so well that it's undeniable. I'm not talking about technically perfect here, just having the ability to communicate an idea in song that transcends any conversation you could have at the moment.

A great song will take the place of any conversation when it plays. When it's over it will be the subject of your next conversation. After those two things, everything else builds around the song and if the band is tight and playing well together you can't help but notice the movement in the arrangement of music. With many of the great live bands of our time, you get a feel that the band is playing together in the room and creating magic that can even transcend a song. In this case you are overwhelmed more by a band than a song at times. That is truly magical and helps to start musical movements even more than "hits".

I do like to listen for great bands and then sometimes I like to listen separately for great songs. Some of my favorite songwriters through the past ten years are people like Sheryl Crow, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Jay Farrar (Sun Volt), Third Eye Blind, Counting Crows, Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day, Pete Yorn, I mean, I could sit here forever and name my favorites. I have hundreds, I am a huge music lover and fan. I will say when the song comes together with a great live band it usually changes my life immediately. Then my friends hate me for the next two months because I'm pushing it down their throats every day.

When you write, is there a certain format you stick to? Do you write the hook first or do you just generally start from scratch?

It happens all ways and luckily for me I'm able to work all different ways. I don't believe in a "format" that you need to stick to because music and songs are a reflection of our lives and our lives drastically change everyday. I will say that there is only one thing I like to start with when I write ... inspiration. That is how any thing I do comes alive and hopefully comes off that way to a listener.

Highway 9's songs seem to give every band member a chance to have their say instrumentally, yet everyone seems to play for the song. How is this accomplished?

Exploit the strengths and hide the weaknesses. Every one in this band has their things that they do well and we try to keep that as a general rule. That's how any great sports team wins their game, that's how any successful group of individuals is able to accomplish their goals. A rock and roll band is no different, well maybe except for the lifestyle (Laughs.)

Mr. Reality was a vocally hook-orientated group. Highway 9 has taken that element, with a lot of blues aspects added to it. What made you go in that direction after Mr. Reality?

Well, when you say blues, in my opinion, there is really only one blues-orientated song on the record and that is "Casanova", obviously because of the Stones-ish feel straight outta the Some Girls era. But, other than that, maybe Peter's voice has elements of Paul Rogers and Don Henley. I mean, we are definitely a band that is based on the elements of all types of rock and roll from the 50's to the 0's so there has to be blues in there somewhere. It's strange cause people have been comparing our record to all kinds of things, like alt-country bands like Whiskeytown, Sun Volt and Wilco as well as to the Eagles and Bruce, to Pete Yorn, Goo Goo Dolls, Counting Crows and The Wallflowers. That's really a large range of acts to be compared to. I think depending on who's listening and their tastes in music. Luckily, we're able to draw on a lot of influences for anyone who's interested.

What artists do you think are great at writing hooks?

Ya know, to define what a hook is nowadays is extremely difficult given the current state of music. Sometimes I hear a great R&B song with a stunning melody in the chorus and that's an obvious hook or sometimes a great rock song with a great guitar riff which then hooks you in like maybe the Hives or the Strokes. Then sometimes a song is sung so beautifully that the melody will never leave your head. At the same time, sometimes a song just blows you away from start to finish and it's hard to define what the great hook is. It just has that special something. Hooks come in all shapes and sizes and I don't like to discriminate. The only drawback to this is with video, sometimes the video is so great it "hooks" you in and you can't stop watching it, yet when you hear it on the radio you can't even believe it was the same song! It's hard to remember why you liked it in the first place. That drives me insane every now and then. Videos can sure make a song sound great sometimes and "hook" you right in.

Where does Highway 9's blues influence come from? What other styles do you consider apart of Highway 9's music?

Well, it all really starts with Robert Johnson. As a matter of fact, I think he's the one that may have started confessional songwriting as we know it today. I think about him constantly when I'm writing. But as far as our band is concerned, you could bring up Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, the Stones, the Beatles, Aerosmith, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Free, Bad Company, Kiss, Springsteen, just to name a few of the artists that taught us where we may have learned about the lineage of where great blues comes from. If you dive into all those records and learn about those artists, you realize where they got it from and the real history of blues in rock music. Our band is just basically keeping up tradition when it comes to blues. We really love all kinds of popular music and the radio has been a huge influence over us throughout the years. Any great melody mixed with unbridled passion in a song none of us ever usually turn off whether it's Korn or Toby Keith, Alicia Keys, Eminem or John Mayer. Listening to all types of genres is what keeps a band fresh and the juices flowing.

How has your music progressed since your days starting out on the Jersey shore scene?

That's not really an easy question for me to answer because I'm not a good judge of our own progress. That's the fans' job. I can tell you that since Rob, Peter and myself started to play together over ten years ago, we have never strayed far from what we believe has made what we do together special. Playing for the song, having the harmonies and intent to give back through our music because of how songs made us feel growing up. Physically the progression has become a bit more detailed in the arrangements, but the heart of what we do has never really changed at all. I hope that's something that people that have been there with us through the years will appreciate and respect; the "stick to your guns" theory. I do hope that we have progressed to become a better band and a tighter band through the years, of course. Again, I'm not one to judge.

How has the Jersey shore inspired your music?

In every way, shape and form possible. Anyone that has ever had a gig in this area that we've attended has been inspiring to us. We try to be a part of as much as we can by getting out to see a lot of the acts that come from here and come through here as well.

It's made us realize that you can do this and create what you believe in, no matter what the cost. You can learn something from everyone at any show.

Does going out on the road and seeing many other cities across the country give you more inspiration when writing songs? If so, what new cities have inspired you most?

Well, I love to go to the heart of where my favorite artists come from and hang out at.

As a matter of fact, in every city I try to find out ahead of time what some of my favorite artists' bars are or where they may have played or grown up at. For instance, in St Louis we had a gig with legendary Chuck Berry in a club that housed many of his artifacts as well as it being the place that Uncle Tupelo had done many of their first shows at. I heard that Jay Farrar actually hangs out there from time to time and I couldn't wait for the possibility that I might get a chance to meet him. It didn't happen. To know you're standing in a room that has brought you such great inspiration is truly amazing and if you're a music fan, it's like going through a religious experience at every important stop.

In Memphis, to walk down Beale St. and visit Graceland, Sun Studios and know the history is almost like realizing you wouldn't be alive if it weren't for the phenomenal history of that town. To walk along the same roads that Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins did is eerie and enlightening and inspirational beyond belief.

To play the Fillmore in San Francisco and sit in the same dressing room that Jerry Garcia basically lived in is an experience that many millions of deadheads would never even believe. To play that stage is everything people ever talk about. To go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and take it all in on one day is impossible and I urge every music fan to experience it at least once in their lifetime. Your heart fills with so much energy and love it is hard for me to describe in words how your life can change after knowing what this country has to offer the music fan if you just go out and search a little bit. To walk down Sunset Strip in LA and realize your music has it's roots in the weather and musicians that have come from there for 40 years is basically mind blowing and awe inspiring, from the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac to Motley Crue and Van Halen to Sheryl Crow to further north in San Francisco where Third Eye Blind and the Counting Crows are from, as well as Train. These experiences are there for the taking and, truthfully, to see artists on their home turf is like going to meet the Pope in Italy. The actual place that spawns the talent adds to the experience like you wouldn't believe. It is one of my most favorite things to do. If we weren't lucky enough to grow up around the Stone Pony and the Fastlane here in NJ, I don't know if I would have the kind of appreciation I do for this sort of thing. Is it inspiring? It is the most beautiful thing I could possibly think of.

How do you and Kevin decide on guitar parts? How do your styles compare and contrast?

Kevin is really the guitar player, I play the chords and sometimes the theme lines. We work out inversions with capos to add to the arrangements. Anyone could do what I do. I hold down the bed for all the songs. Kevin gets to dress 'em up all nice and add flair and style and color. He uses his technique to communicate the way Pete does to sing the lead vocal. If I come up playing something leadish it is usually because I'll have a nastier, bloody, grammar school kind of playing style if the moment calls for it. I don't really care about the playing side that much. I'm not that technical, so when it comes to playing note-by-note intricate stuff, that's his job. I prefer to concentrate on the song and the arrangement.

You and Peter have been playing together for a long time. When you write do you have his vocal styling in mind?

When I bring a song to the band, I always go to Peter first and see if what I had in mind will translate well with him. Most of the time it does, lucky for us, which is why we have such a great working relationship. But when it doesn't we'll decide if we think the song is good enough and, if so, change the key or some of the phrasings to fit better with his vocal style. Most of the time we just move on to something else because there is always a wealth of material to choose from. We both grew up on the same pop music so it's almost as if we are always on the same page. It's an amazing musical relationship that he and I share and I cherish it everyday.

A lot of what's heard on the mainstream radio today differs from the raw, rock approach you guys take with your music. Is it a challenge these days to get people into just plain old rock?

It's a challenge to get people into anything they've never heard before. If it is presented in a powerful and confident way and the song is good, and the radio plays it, and the video channel plays it, and the Rolling Stone writes about it, and the chat rooms buzz about it, and somehow a label pushes it, and your manager works hard for you and oh shit ... people actually like it, you still have a shot in hell at selling a million records. You have to make the music you love and believe in as well as surround yourself with band mates that are like family. The spirit of rock and roll will never go away because it is in all of our hearts. We all crave freedom, a rebellious spirit, a shoulder to lean on, a friend to laugh with and an outlet for expression. As long as these basic needs are involved in all human beings, that is what will continue to be the need of music fans and the faith they put into the artists they see and hear everyday. Do we believe we have all those elements to turn people on to rock and roll again? More than anyone you have ever met and you can bet your bottom dollar on that.

Josh Davidson

Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.