Until last year, Brad Hawes knew little about writing his own songs. Hawes, 29, has played drums for more than half his life, most recently in Madison bands including Revolving Doors, the Projection People and the Cemetery Improvement Society. With former Awesome Car Funmaker bassist Justin Taylor, he puts an accomplished hard-rock rhythm section behind the fake German accents and intentional buffoonery of Butt Funnel.
But the new album In Circles, his first under the name Echo Island, represents Hawes' initial efforts to craft a batch of songs by himself, using mostly a keyboard and Ableton Live software.
It might not be the most daring thing a Madisonian has done with electronic music. Hawes doesn't spend much time digging for new synth sounds. Instead he sticks mostly to the ones already programmed into his keyboard, and he doesn't share Cemetery Improvement Society's eccentric palette of creepy samples and industrial abrasion.
But in his first year as a solo artist, he grew confident about layering those sounds and patiently unfolding hooks across several bars. He also has a knack for getting emotions across with bold strokes. The quick, three-note arpeggios on In Circles' "Easy Does It" signal giddy release. The last track, "Closure," uses a few concise phrases to unexpectedly evoke grief and the melancholy comfort of processing it.
At its best, In Circles is shockingly touching and catchy, considering Hawes is a mild-mannered guy who's been writing melodies for only a year. He talked about the album ahead of his April 20 CD-release show at Dragonfly Lounge.
People who play live with laptops and keyboards can really lose their low end if a venue has a poor PA. Does playing some live drums, over the electronic percussion you already have, get you around that problem?
I think so. It's kind of a double-edged sword. There's times when if I'm not careful, and they don't do the sound well at a place, by playing the drums I'll totally drown out everything else. The only [track on the album that has acoustic drums] is "These Buildings Are Islands..." and in the song right after it, "...Surrounded By the Sea," I sampled them a bit. [Live,] people kind of grasp it a little bit better if you're performing an instrument.
What was it like going from one thing you're very experienced with to something you have to learn from scratch?
Even now, it's weird for me to play shows by myself, because I've never done that before. I might end up having a friend come up and play guitar, and I want to work in more vocals and have more people from around town sing.
The new song titles include "Reflections on Wet Pavement" and "These Buildings Are Islands.…" How do you think about imagery when you're making songs?
It's not for every one of them, but there are certain ones where I have an image in mind. With "Reflections," I kind of had this mood in mind, writing a song for a rainy day. The entire time writing the song, in my head I had the image of when you're driving at night and it just rained and your headlights are reflecting off the water on the pavement. It's kind of a vague interpretation of how I feel in that kind of moment.
I can definitely hear the rock drummer in you here, because it's electronic music, but it's not dance-y, it's not ambient, and it's not hip-hop. Did you deliberately avoid those kinds of rhythms?
I wanted to incorporate certain things. There are some more ambient or dance-y parts of it, but I didn't want it to sound distinctly that. I think all of my different influences combine to not make it end up that way. Even if I tried to do more of a dance-y song, it's not going to end up sounding like that. I've been playing drums for almost 20 years now, so it's easy for me to draw on that to program, beat-wise.