Blending manic punk energy with a classic soul aesthetic, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound present a singular brand of soul revivalism. The Chicago-based quartet takes as many cues from James Brown and Otis Redding as they do Bad Brains and The Stooges. The invigorating mishmash of style and swagger found on their 2009 debut record The Beat of Our Own Drum has drawn rave reviews from the likes of the Chicago Tribune, the Onion’s A.V. Club and BrooklynVegan. More recently, their scorching, reimagining of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” has become a minor blog sensation.
In advance of their upcoming show at The Monkey House, Seven Days recently caught up with Uptown Sound front man JC Brooks by phone from Chicago. We spoke about the band’s hometown, the definition of soul and, of course, that curious Wilco cover.
SEVEN DAYS: A lot of bands take influence from where they are from. But Chicago seems genuinely intrinsic to JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound.
JC BROOKS: To a certain degree. We’re definitely influenced by where we are. But I also think that we bring influences from what we like. I don’t think my influence on the band is specifically Jersey, just because I’m from Jersey. So the location … well, I might get hell for saying this, but it’s just a marketing tool.
SD: Well, that’s honest.
JCB: I mean, I don’t think it matters where we’re from. If we had the same life experiences but met up in San Diego, we’d still be making pretty much the same music.
SD: I guess I was thinking of the great history of soul music in Chicago. So it’s sorta perfect for a good soul revival band to come out of Chicago…
JCB: Absolutely. There’s the marketing tool. Chicago’s history helps. But, say we were in Philly, someone would be asking the same question with a Philly shading. There is a lot of good soul that’s come out of Philly. Or Memphis. Or Detroit. But I’m just speaking for myself. I know I would get some opposition from the other guys in the band.
SD: Ray Charles defined soul as “people who do things from the heart.” How would you define soul?
JCB: It’s close to that. I think there is definitely a racial sensibility to it … not to say that whites can’t make soul. I guess it’s more cultural than racial. But it’s something I grew up listening to, so I feel more authority with it.
SD: That’s a provocative statement.
JCB: Like, in the past 10 years I developed a liking for hip-hop. I had never liked hip-hop or rap at all [before]. But I also wouldn’t feel comfortable going out and rapping. I love that music, but I don’t have the cultural or historical context to rap. So I would define it, soul, as something that comes from who you are.
That’s kind of etherealizing it. There are gradations of soul, it’s not always R&B. And this is where we go back to the Ray Charles quote — soul is when what you’re saying can be felt from your ear to heart.
SD: So you’re drawing a distinction between soul and soul music?
JCB: Something that comes to mind is Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble.” I don’t think of Ray LaMontagne as a “soul artist.” But I remember the first time I heard that song, I was like, “Jesus, man.” It made me sit up and play closer attention because it felt like it was coming from a real place.
SD: That’s pretty similar to the way people often define punk.
JCB: Absolutely. And that’s part of my background, too. Soul or punk rock is more a mentality than it is a style.
SD: How did the cover of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” come about?
JCB: We were just bullshitting in the van on the way back to Chicago. And we were trying to think of a song that we could surprise people with and put our stamp on. We were looking for something that is a great song as it is, but that people who aren’t necessarily in the know might think is an older cover, or is something [other] than what it is.
SD: Have Wilco heard it?
JCB: I have heard that they’ve heard it and that they like it. But I haven’t, like, shaken Jeff Tweedy’s hand. But that would be a pleasure.
SD: So he hasn’t shown up at The Empty Bottle?
JCB: Maybe if we make some noise with it, or the YouTube video gets 100,000 hits or something.
SD: You made a video for it?
JCB: Oh, yeah. It’s a lot of fun. I get to “face palm” a chick while telling her I’m not with her. It’s great. Every time I watch it cracks me up. On one hand, I look like a huge douche. On the other, it’s really, really amusing. It takes the song into slightly more humorous territory.
SD: Quite a feat, since that’s a pretty sad song.
JCB: I think that made it an even more perfect choice. It’s a really good, genuine song. We just tried to put a soul sound to it.
SD: Last question. If, as your song goes, “Baltimore is the new Brooklyn,” what’s the new Baltimore?
JCB: Wow! I’ve never really thought about that. Um…
SD: Just say Burlington.
JCB: Burlington! Burlington is absolutely the next Baltimore.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound play The Monkey House in Winooski on Wednesday, May 5, at 9 p.m. $8.