Quartjar keeps the music solid and steady on the eve of completing ‘42’
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Things you will (most likely) not see at a Quartjar performance:
Buckets of fake blood or faux body parts.
The local three-piece isn’t flashy or theatrical; aside from front man Randall Brown’s hat collection, there’s little to a Quartjar show that might be considered a spectacle. But that’s OK, because it’s not so much what you see at a Quartjar performance as what you hear, and that’s some solid blues-rock anchored by Brown’s nimble electric guitar playing and that smooth baritone singing voice.
That and Brown’s wry humor are what set Quartjar apart from their East Tennessee music scene peers. It’s solid and steady, and that’s the one thing that’s kept Brown’s project going through the years.
Last year, Brown lost his long-time Quartjar partner, Donnie Mahan, who decided to pursue other things. It came during a time when the band was gearing up to record a new album, and his departure ended up delaying the project, Brown told The Daily Times this week.
“We went in what you might call a rebuilding season last year,” he said. “Donnie announced he felt like he needed to do something else with his music. He offered to stick around through the new recording we were going to do last summer and the big Knoxville Museum of Art show we did last year, but we had an opportunity to start up with a new drummer, so we kind of moved on ahead.”
Instead of being a setback, however, Mahan’s departure was a turning point for the band. New drummer Tory Flenniken had experience playing with Quartjar bassist Malcolm Norman in previous projects, and their synchronicity as the rhythm section served to make Quartjar a true rock trio rather than simply a band around which Brown’s songs are played.
“It pretty well changed the vision of the band. ‘Years of a Monkey’ (the band’s first album) was kind of a spread-out, multi-year kind of writing and recording process, which had a lot to do with procrastination,” Brown said. “It really was a hybrid of me sitting around singing these songs with just an acoustic guitar or whatever and turning them into songs for a rock band. Since then, we’ve pretty steadily been a band as opposed to me being a solo artist, so the songs have evolved and the arrangements have gotten tweaked over the years.
“For the longest time, there in the mid-2000s, it was Donnie and I re-teaching new bass players the songs, and we had this phenomenon — you know how Spinal Tap had exploding drummers? We had bass players graduating from institutions of higher education and moving out of town. But with Malcolm, we really found a kindred spirit who was really down with putting himself into the songs, and he applied a whole different bass style than we’d been used to.
“On ‘Years of a Monkey,’ Donnie and I were kind of the constants, but now that it’s me, Malcolm and Tory, we’ve got a real continuity going on,” he added.
Going into recording “42,” which Brown said he hopes to release “before I turn 43” in August, that continuity is the latest step in one man’s musical journey through the local music scene. A native of both Lenoir City and Farragut (he shuffled back and forth between the two during childhood), he got his degree in English from the University of Tennessee and stumbled into the entertainment editor’s position for campus newspaper The Daily Beacon. By night, he played guitar and dabbled in bands long gone but fondly remembered by some long-time scenesters around these parts.
Charlie Brown on Acid ... The Aberrants ... Tonite! Nude Girls ... Head Cleaner ... Torture Kitty ... eventually, Brown became a music scene stereotype, working in (of course) a record store. It’s something the witty wordsmith can appreciate, but he credits the gig for broadening his musical horizons and introducing him to Americana, a style that added a distinctive flavor to “Years of a Monkey,” released in 2007 after Quartjar evolved from what was jokingly called the New Randall Brown Quartet (a group that was, for the most part, a trio and played no jazz as the name might imply).
In making “42,” he said, there’s a distinct impression, at least on his part, that the band is a more cohesive unit — as well as a more stripped-down one, he added.
“I feel like maybe at this point I’ve gotten a better feel for how a trio works,” he said. “That’s odd to say, since I’ve been in a trio mostly throughout my band life, but it’s interesting to have a bass player like Malcolm who brings so much melody along with the rhythm. He and Tory can turn on a dime — Malcolm can look over at Tory and nod, and we’re off into a whole different mood for the song. And in a lot of ways, one big difference is that on this album we’re heavier.
“We’ve got a couple of songs that I think of as our main new songs for the album, and they’re kind of the heavy duty ones — the rockers. ‘Monkey’ came out of my songwriting from the late ’90s and the early part of this last decade, just me sitting with my guitar and putting it in a simple blues-rock pattern. Some of those have way too many words in them, and those are the ones that still challenge me in a blues-rock setting.
“Some of the newer ones — ‘Waiting on a Bus,’ ‘Noble Rhino,’ ‘Someday I’m Gonna Die’ — those, to me, are the big awesome floral arrangements in the middle of the table,” he added. “I’ve shaken off more of my late-’90s flirtation with Americana, and I’m getting back into the music of my people — which as it turns out, and it’s a little surprising to me, is classic rock.”