Chicago Noise-Pop Artist Brother Derek Talks New Album ‘Parade Rest’, King Gizzard, & More

Listening to the noise-pop artist known as Brother Derek, you likely might not have guessed that he began his musical journey as a classically trained cellist. 

His latest album, Parade Rest, was released this past November, though some of the songs have spent decades in the making.

Brother Derek’s diverse sound draws inspiration not only from his own unique musical background, but from a variety of generational artists like The Beatles, The 1975, and The Weeknd, among others. 

His affinity for four-stringed instruments led him through a series of projects with fellow Chicago-based musicians before founding Brother Derek in 2016. Working at Postal Recording with producers Alex Kercheval (Coven, Jomberfox) and Tyler Watkins (Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So’s) brought a Midwest rock twang to Brother Derek’s already genre-flexible musical style in his first full length album. 

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We got the chance to chat with Brother Derek to learn more about him as an artist, Parade Rest, his classical background, future plans, and more.

So who is Brother Derek and what is he all about?

It’s basically just the wild nightlife side of a regular middle-aged suburban dad who happens to have a longstanding obsession with listening to, performing, and trying to write songs. Socially, I’ve always felt like more of an observer than a holder of court, which I think may relate to being a twin accustomed to divided attention, mixed race (Taiwanese/white), and the son of a member of an immigrant cohort (Asian) known for being “perpetual foreigners.”

Without attachment to a me-oriented identity, I often feel like I have some built-in license, at least artistically, to operate outside of dictates. In other words, to be weird. So to the extent folks find my material quirky or off-kilter, that may be where it stems from. More broadly, there seems to be some overrepresentation in the arts, and interesting works, by folks who are fringe in whatever way, but then can somehow spin that out-crowd energy into empowerment and engagement with the world on one’s own terms, not beholden to tribe. How’s that for some gobbledy-gook?  

As far as the name, a coworker or two called me Brother Derek about 20 years ago, so I guess that stuck as the name of this act, which fortunately seems to have gotten to be more than a just solo namesake project in that it’s now presenting live as a trio with guest(s). I found out later about a real-life thoroughbred racehorse named Brother Derek whose racing heyday was in the mid-aughts. That seems fitting, in that my old flagship band Recent Photo had a similarly-timed heyday, if we can call playing small clubs in Chicago a “heyday.” 

Did you do anything fun for New Year’s? Any 2023 resolutions?

I caught the early evening portion of an NYE celebration with a buddy at Chicago’s Montrose Saloon, then learned that my 11 year old daughter and fellow night-owl was looking for company at home for the ball drop, so I rushed home to toast in the New Year with her.  No resolutions concocted yet!

So you recently dropped your new album, Parade Rest. I see it’s named after the “military drill and ceremony stance,” but why?

It may just be the weirdness I discussed above- my evergreen excuse! To answer, I spent a few years in ROTC where we did drill and ceremony, and came to know the “parade rest” stance as a partially-relaxed yet visually striking state between rigid attention and “at ease.” It stuck with me as being an interesting, poetic thing to call it. It seemed like a good spot to be in, the balance point between harsh control and ragtag looseness. At some point years ago, the concept spun its way into the title track, seeing love as the true north, “resting your parade.” 

Is there a connecting theme or motif behind this collection of songs?

Dovetailing on above, I’d say the relatively-grounded title track seemed like a good centerpoint for the overall collection, which covers personal ground ranging from bachelor tribulations to heavy breakups to falling for that someone etc., all of which can be so much disarray. The idea is that it’s all a wacky parade that may be getting a bit out of hand, so let’s rest it.

Do you find determining the order of songs on an album like this to be a challenge, and how important is that to you?

Ordering songs for my last full length album (with Recent Photo) was not a challenge at all since my bandmate Joe Mason did it. 🙂 Seriously though, I don’t find it too tough, which I think may be because I DJ’ed at a neighborhood bar and at parties. I found it fun having headphones on one ear sweating bullets about what song to put on next to keep a (hopefully) quality vibe going. Not gonna say I nailed it with Parade Rest, but I think it flows decently, and at least with my own albums, I like for it to feel like there is some kind of story arc happening, which I tried for.

“Tom Cruise Leaves Self” felt like the obvious closer, to end the record in a kind of happy oblivion. What’s funny is that I just Googled the word “oblivion” to make sure I was saying what I meant, and the first result was a Tom Cruise movie I’d never heard of called Oblivion. 

I see you’re a classically-trained cellist as well. How did that knowledge and experience help you compose this album, or didn’t it really? Is that something you still do regularly?

It did help quite a bit with the dexterity, melodic attack, phrasing, exposure to great musical works, ensemble playing, and the whole nine yards, but my old cello doesn’t keep in tune well and since my teen orchestral days I’ve only ever dusted it off from time to time for a session or performance here and there. It was turning to bass/voice that ratcheted up my engagement level with composition.

Exploring songs in such a spare way with bass and voice presented limitations that were somehow liberating. To make it interesting to present songs in such a minimalist way at open mics, I found myself compelled to generate strong melodies and rhythmic interest to overcome that spareness, also for my own entertainment. Not to mention that I don’t have a strong, piercing singing voice, so the music itself needs to compensate for that.

What has been your favorite/the most rewarding part of making this album?

Basically just going into the studio, again with just that bass and voice rendering of the songs, and ending up with such nicely fleshed-out pieces, simply by letting the production and recording experts and musicians go to town with it. I’m a big believer that if you just trust people to the extent possible/feasible, more often than not you’ll be pleased with the results if the participants are doing it for the joy of it. In my old band Recent Photo, I had the luxury of penning all the songs, but I never dictated musical parts played by others so as not to take away from the fun of self-expression. 

What messages or feelings do you typically try to convey in your music?

I’m pop music obsessed, and like anyone in that realm, I am hoping to meaningfully contribute to that canon, to give ya’ some “fresh feels,” as I put it previously. I’ve been plugging away at it for a while in the Chicago underground… way back in ’93-94, I started a pop band called Phenomenal Cat with old friend Steve Delisi (with drummer Dave Hernquist completing its early incarnation as a trio) and we did so defiantly amid all the grunge happening at the time. I’m also an aspiring centrist, attorney by trade and truth-obsessed, so I hope listeners feel that the vibes and words feel honest and empathetic.  

If you could tour and open for any present-day artist, who would it be and why?

As a live music fan, I’d say King Gizzard. Very chameleon-like, they like to mix things up from night to night and do it competently. I’ve never toured extensively and don’t know how typical it is for the support act to watch the headliner nightly, but if that’s a thing, I’d want the headliner set to morph daily rather than experience the same presentation every night. 

What are some of your goals – whether musically or otherwise – for 2023? 

Hope to get in some album support shows and maybe a summer mini-tour. I also have a super secret EP in the works with some music scene friends. Perhaps later in the year, I might launch a non-namesake band as a vehicle to take things artistically in more of a fun, even humorous direction, perhaps in the power pop vein. If you’ll indulge me going beyond ’23, another recording project perhaps in ’24 may delve into some smooth jazz.

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