Exploring the frosty electronic pleasures of Brahms

Digital symphony
By REYAN ALI  |  February 22, 2011

WHILE JOHANNES SLEEPS “We just borrowed a name from somebody who didn’t need it anymore,” says Cale Parks (right). 
If you want to witness a tiny flurry of confusion and bile, check out the comments of the last.fm page for "Brahms." The popular music site — which keeps a detailed tally of what music its users are listening to — has had difficulty separating Johannes Brahms the influential German composer from Brahms the Brooklyn electro-pop trio. As a result, listeners who have songs tagged as one or the other Brahms go to the same place, muddling play-count info and inciting the ire of the composer's acolytes. "Hey . . . these guys aren't Brahms at all," noted user ThineDoor in March 2010. UndeadPrincess enjoyed the group but suggested they change their name. "WAT!" exclaimed thiagozero. Mitsario dubbed it "garbage"; unlessicankill offered simply: "What the fuck."

Naming your band after a mighty musical figure whose work has preceded your group's by almost a couple of centuries takes some moxie, but don't mistake this choice for hubris. It's not quite a tribute, says Brahms's Cale Parks, but rather a way to channel something from his past. "One of the main moments that I really felt something amazing when playing music was when I was in high school," says the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist over the phone from the band's home town. As a timpanist in the Cincinnati Youth Symphony Orchestra, he loved playing Brahms's Fourth Symphony. "I remember the chills that feeling gives you. I'm not really equating us to him in any way, but there's something about his sense of melodies that really stands through." Parks paraphrases a quip from guitarist Drew Robinson: "We just borrowed a name from somebody who didn't need it anymore."

Weighty name aside, expectations have already built big for Brahms. The band coalesced in late 2009, after Robinson and bassist Eric Lodwick had been players on tour for Parks's solo material. Their demos surfaced online and netted some positive press, and soon Passion Pit were inviting the group to open for them. Without an official release to their credit, Brahms played their first show to 3000 people at NYC's Terminal 5.

"For some reason, the room was full early on, which doesn't always happen," Parks says. "I remember being really, really nervous walking on stage, but it felt better than ever to have two other people up there with me. After the last note hit, we were holding our breath. It was all hands in the air and screaming, so it was a big sigh of relief."

Although the band's discography remains malnourished — their first seven-inch will be available when they come to the Brighton Music Hall Friday on their tour with Asobi Seksu, and their full-length's release date is one big TBA — there's reason to keep an eye on them. Their sound has satisfying depth, layering chilly post-punk hooks with Parks's sullen, energetic croon and snappy electronic percussion. Since they dress in black and would have been a decent fit in early-'80s England, someone once described Brahms as "tropical goth." Parks keeps the tag alive, even if it is kind of a joke. "There's a lighter air to our stuff, and the melodies are a little too melodic to necessarily go over with goth fans." In sum, their approach isn't too distant from Phoenix or Passion Pit, but it does have depth that suggests potential for a sound of their own.

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