Rank Your Records: Braid's Bob Nanna Rates the Emo Pioneers' Six Albums
Nanna looks back at the reunited band's short but influential catalog.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
A quintessential part of—oh, let’s just say it—that 90s Midwest emo scene, Champaign, IL’s Braid released only three albums between 1995 and 1998 before breaking up the following year. A very brief reunion in 2004 aside, 13 years and numerous other projects passed before the band—vocalists and guitarists Bob Nanna and Chris Broach, bassist Todd Bell and drummer Damon Atkinson—got back together in 2011, finally releasing their fourth album, No Coast, last year. With more new music on the way, it seemed like a good time to sit Bob Nanna down to see what he makes of the band’s back catalog (including their two odds’n’ends compilations), and whether he agrees with the legacy that’s since been bestowed upon it by every (now grown up) kid with a heart and a penchant for odd time signatures…
6. Frankie Welfare Boy Age Five (1995)
Noisey: This was your debut record, and quite an ambitious one at that—26 songs, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. What were you thinking when you came up with that idea?
Bob Nanna: Well, I don’t know if we were thinking much at all, to be honest! We found ourselves with the use of a friend’s studio that we could just go to whenever we wanted and mess around and practice and drink beer and record some stuff. We were just kind of messing around, and because we had this weird freedom, we came up with this grand idea to do 26 songs, one for every letter of the alphabet. We had a pretty crazy idea for the packaging as well. I think we were maybe over-stimulated with the freedom that we had and I think we went a little crazy. And at the time, I mean, the scene in Champaign and in Chicago and the suburbs was really booming, and as a band that had basically just started, we were getting pummeled with awesome influences from all these sides, so instead of picking a genre, it was just like, “Let’s throw everything out there and make a huge record!” So in retrospect, the making of it was fun, but it’s not easy to listen to, and I think that out of the 26 there are maybe three or four songs that I think are pretty good.
Which three or four are those?
I like “Hugs From Boys.” That’s one that I think we’ve played even in the past three or four years. To be honest, I haven’t really listened to the record in a while, but “Capricorn” I remember being one we really liked to play, and there’s a song called “Kissy Windmill Print” and we actually discussed maybe bringing that one back because it was so much fun to play. So those are three right off the bat, and I’m sure there are one or two others that I think you could take out of there and enjoy listening to without having to deal with the whole beast.
Like you said, it is a very varied record. Did it help Braid decide what to become afterwards?
I think maybe we just decided that what we tried to do failed on a few levels. Like I said, it wasn’t an easy listen and our packaging idea was not what we wanted it to be. I remember we got a pretty good review in Maximum Rock’n’roll, which surprised me, though they did mention how stupid it was for a band to do a song for each letter of the alphabet, but I think we just became more of a cohesive band. We weren’t really messing about in the studio, we were going out and playing shows and so we refined our sound. So when we did the next record, we had a much better grasp on what we wanted to accomplish album-wise.
5. Movie Music, Vol. Two (2000)
This is the second volume of your post-break-up compilation. Why choose this over the first?
The Movie Music records came out after we’d broken up in 1999. Vol 1. was songs that we had recorded for split seven-inches, and also our EPs are collected there, and then Vol. 2 was all of the songs that we recorded for comps and a bunch of covers. So in terms of an album, start-to-finish, it’s not very cohesive. I know it’s not supposed to be because it’s a collection of odds and ends, but it’s not a very good representation of the band. Our very first songs that we recorded are on there and they sound a little raw and obviously not refined. And there are a bunch of goofy covers on there. It’s a lot like Frankie… in that it was fun, but it’s not an easy listen and I wouldn’t say it’s essential.
Speaking of those covers, bearing in mind that Braid is classified as an emo band, “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me” is a very weird choice of song to cover. Was that why you did it?
Yeah, that was the reason. Or at least it just happened to be in our heads at the time and we thought we could do a pretty good reimagining of that song. As far as the covers go, that was the last one we did and I think it came out the best. I can’t remember why we decided to do it, but we all liked the song, particularly the Naked Eyes version and thought we could do a pretty good job of reimagining it for the Burning Airlines split.
What I like is that these covers challenge the perception that you’re a sad band that’s always earnest and sentimental.
That’s something I always hope people would keep in mind when they listen to Braid—that we have a sense of humor and we’re fun. We’re not at all sad and serious!
4. The Age of Octeen (1996)
So this is when Braid really became Braid.
I agree. That album was the one we did after Frankie… where we were actually using the same studio in which we sort of went nuts. But it was after we had done a bunch of touring and refined our live show, and so we had a better idea of what we wanted, and a shorter album, obviously. The first song on this album is “My Baby Smokes” and it’s a slow opener for a sort of rock band, and that was very intentional for how we wanted the album to flow. It ends with “The Chandelier Swing,” which is also very slow. Both of those songs we still play to this day. And in the middle it gets a little wackier and there are ups and downs and stuff. But yeah, I still can listen to this album as an album and appreciate it as an album. It’s the first one that I’m really proud of. The recording probably could have been better and there are things I maybe would change, but I’d still have no problem recommending it for someone to listen to start to finish.
It came out pretty close to Frankie…, were you guys just on a roll?
Yeah. Chris and I were in college and, frankly, were uninterested in going to class or studying at all. All we really wanted to do was practice and play and tour, and that was pretty much all we did. But with this record, we made sure that a lot of the songs were a little more thought out.
Do you remember your ambitions for the band back then beyond just playing and touring? Did you have any big ambitions?
No. Not at all. All we wanted to do was tour and write records and play shows. And I suppose that’s probably the naivety of being kids, like 20-, 21-year-olds who basically are still living off their parents. So we didn’t think like, “Hey, we need to think about our futures” or maybe save some money or maybe not do this really stupid thing that costs us a bunch of money. We were dumb a little bit, you know? But that translated into fun stuff or fun recordings, and definitely fun experiences. But we really weren’t looking at tomorrow in any way which, whatever, for better or worse… I still don’t have any sort of ambition for any music I do. All I want is to keep being able to do it.
3. Movie Music, Vol. One (2000)
I’m a little surprised this is ahead of Age Of Octeen, to be honest.
The reason is that we still play a lot of these songs live as well. This contained all of the seven-inches that we did and all of the split seven-inches we did, and maybe because… I’d like to say we talked a lot about what songs to put on comps and what songs we wanted to put on splits, as opposed to what songs we wanted to save for seven-inches or EPs, but for the most part it was “This comp wants a song from us. What’s our newest song?” and we’d put that on. So it’s quite possible that it was just the time and place that made a song like “What A Wonderful Puddle” be on a split with Pohgoh as opposed to just a comp. And I suppose maybe if the song had ended up on a comp, it might not have been something that people heard as much and we wouldn’t be playing it still. So there’s elements of coincidence or just chance that made Movie Music, Vol. 1 stand out a little more than Vol. 2 – which I’m cool with. But because these are seven-inches and we did spend a little time talking about what went on those, you have these little pockets of cohesion on this one. Especially in terms of recording quality, because you’d have three songs recorded at the same time instead of wildly varying degrees of professionalism.
How did it feel to have all these songs gathered together after you’d broken up? It must have been quite a nice monument to what you’d had, but at the same time bittersweet.
Definitely. But I’ve always been a real documenter of everything, so I made sure that we kept everything we ever did, because we had the idea to do these Movie Music albums a few years before they came out. Like, when we were even a band, we thought, “Well, we have all this stuff that’s never come out on CD so let’s compile it and call it Movie Music.” That was an idea we had even before Frame And Canvas came out, so it was in the works before we decided to break up.
2. Frame and Canvas (1998)
Let’s move onto Frame And Canvas. You just mentioned it. I guess this is what people consider to be one of the absolute peaks of that genre, but it also kind of brought about the demise of the band. Tell me about that contradiction.
Well, the two don’t correlate in my head that much. The idea that Frame And Canvas became a high point of the genre to some people had no real effect on the fact of the band breaking up. It’s possible that, if when the record came out and it was immediately a success or people thought it was important, it’s possible we might have still stayed a band, but the idea of people looking up to it came a little later, after we had broken up.
We recorded the album in December of ’97 and spent literally almost the entire year of 1998 on tour. I think we were only home for a month or two. We did Europe twice and the US and Canada, and it was relentless. The album didn’t come out until the middle of the year, so the first tour of 1998 we did, touring with The Get Up Kids in Europe, the record wasn’t even out yet. And so when the record came out, we got offered to do this tour with Burning Airlines in Europe in November, so we did that, and I remember being at a show in London with Burning Airlines and the head of Southern Records came to see us play. I remember him speaking to us, and I’ve never really talked about this with anybody, but he didn’t really understand us. I remember Chris and I backstage talking to him and thinking, “This is great, he’s the head of the label”—and we asked, “What do you think?” and he was kind of silent. He was like, “Yeah. Keep playing. Keep doing it.” You could tell he was not interested, and we were getting a lot of signs from people where it was like, “I don’t know if people even like this!” That didn’t directly influence us breaking up, but maybe the fact that we were doing all of this touring and, for one reason or another, still coming home broke and kind of hating being around each other because we weren’t giving each other enough space and just fighting over stupid things. That’s sort of what led to us breaking up in ’99.
So when you look back now in 2015, what do you think about this album?
When you think about The Age Of Octeen, there are songs on there that… I’m not embarrassed about, but where it’s like, “Oh, I wouldn’t have done that” or you fast forward and skip a song here or there. But Frame And Canvas, start to finish, I’m proud of it. We did a bunch of shows when we played the album start to finish and it felt good. It felt complete. The album was recorded and mixed in only six days and you can hear that. You can hear the fact that we really needed to nail it and you can tell we’re nervous but excited and really pressed for time. But I’m still happy with the way it sounds and I’m happy with the way people think about it now.
Were you aware when you were making it that it was something people would hold in special regard?
No. I don’t think so. If anything, what mattered to me at least was “Is it something I’ll hold in special regard?” I wanted it to be something I’d be proud of listening to years on. We were doing really cool things—I always make it a point to put surprising things in songs just to snap people back to attention a little bit, but we just wanted to impress ourselves first.
1. No Coast (2014)
And 16 years later… No Coast came along.
Yeah! It’s first because… it’s not because it’s the one I want to promote. It’s always been the way that the newest album is my favorite, just because it’s the newest one. If I’d said that Frame And Canvas or The Age Of Octeen was number one, I’d feel like I was fucking up, like “What am I doing?!” I constantly think we need to keep impressing ourselves, and that was the whole mindset of the phrase ‘no coast’—we’re uninterested in coasting on the success of Frame And Canvas and putting out this so-so record with a few good songs on it. That was just not part of the deal. So we decided very specifically as a band to work really hard on that album and make it be a great, cohesive album. When we had a bunch of songs ready—we had like seven or eight—and we decided that none of these songs should open the album. We needed to write a good song to open the album, so we knocked out “Bang.” We were very aware of how the album would sound start to finish, which is maybe an antiquated notion now, but we wanted it to have the album-type feel to it. And playing these songs is exciting and new and I really enjoy seeing people’s reactions to the new songs as much as they react to songs from Frame And Canvas.
You guys got back together briefly in 2004, but how was it being back in the studio after all that time? Did you find the energy and the synergy was still there?
Definitely. Braid never really had a normal studio production. It’s always been a little off. For the first two albums, we were just recording with our friend. We’d come in when we had to and just sort of mess around. With Frame And Canvas, we drove to DC to record and it took six days and we had to knock it out really fast. Even for No Coast, just because we’re older and have other important parts of our lives so we can’t practice like we did when we were in college every day, we got together and wrote all the songs together over a few months, but for the recording process, Damon, Chris, and I flew to Philadelphia to record just the drums with Will Yip, and then he flew to Chicago to record everything else with us there because our schedules were so messed up. So in that sense, it was a lot like the other recordings, in that it’s just not normal. It’s not what a normal band would do, but I guess that’s perfect for Braid.
You mentioned being older. How did it feel writing these songs as an older person as opposed to being young kids with nothing to lose and no cares in the world?
You know, I kind of feel the same way. I just turned 40, but what’s crazy is that I still sort of feel, in terms of music especially, like I kind of have no cares in the world. I’m still sitting here recording goofy covers at home and I’m still putting out Braid records and solo records and other band stuff and I’m in a band with my wife. It’s funny, and maybe I need to get my priorities straight, but I feel almost like I’m doing more stuff now than I did when I was 21 and my only MO was Braid practice after I went to class or didn’t go to class. The joy of playing music and writing music is what makes me happy, so all the stuff you have to do, like work, I just look at as a way to keep the lights on, so to speak, while I’m able to do what makes me happy and my wife happy and the dudes in Braid happy. That’s the only important thing.