by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Brandon Tinkler
Tiny Planets photo by Travis Glick
Maybe it’s presumptuous to say that Brandon Tinkler is trying something revolutionary with his sophomore album Open up Your Eyes. Granted, both Billy Joel and the Stray Cats have tried to mimic that hollowed-out, high-string rock-and-roll sound from the genre’s infancy. Joel spun the move into An Innocent Man, one of his best records, and the Cats banked on it as part of their wholesale shtick. Outside of those two efforts (let’s all agree that Tiffany album from the late 80’s never happened…okay?), few other attempts come to mind.
But maybe “revolutionary” is the wrong way to assess what Tinkler has created. If you ask him about it, he unflinchingly makes it clear that his impetus was one of authenticity, not gimmickry.
“The first record I put out [Nowhere to Run] was like a singer-songwriter record in my mind,” Tinkler says. “It had a lot of different sounds…a lot of different styles. All my musical friends, Anthony Mullis included, said: ‘This is good, but you love rock-and-roll music, and not a lot of people are doing it. You should write songs like that.’”
In writing his “songs like that,” Tinkler has produced an audio document answering the question: What would a modern record sound like if someone set out to emulate a sound Americans often heard on their radios a half-century ago? I formed my own answer the first time I listened to the collection, but during my third or fourth sampling, my fiancée—Wendi—pointedly noted that the tune titled “Sunflower” sounded “a lot like a Beatles song.”
Photo of Brandon Tinkler, Anthony Mullis (Gus Moon), and Dennis Furr.
Brandon Tinkler: “I don’t think you can ever complain about somebody comparing you to The Beatles. I learned how to sing from Beatles records. My take on this is that there are a couple songs on the record which distinctly sound like Beatles songs, but [in a bigger sense] I think of it as my version of a 1966 record.”
Donovan Wheeler: Did this work come easily to you?
Tinkler: “At the time I wasn’t the best at writing an upbeat song…let alone a whole record of it. So I decided, ‘You know, I’m going to try to do this and write the music I actually listen to all the time.’ Most of the time I’m listening to the British Invasion [or similar bands], whether it’s The Kinks, The Beatles, Harry Nilsson, The Rolling Stones…all that kind of stuff. The challenge I faced was incorporating familiar sounds—which I love—from that era without ripping off a song. How can I make it my own thing? And I have to write lyrics that I’m not going to get sick of singing which really mean something to me. I feel like I have accomplished all of those goals with this record.”
Wheeler: The style is distinctly “from the past,” but what about the content? Where is the record coming from lyrically?
Tinkler: “The lyrics address a lot of stuff from my personal life. It wouldn’t come across to a listener, and I really wouldn’t want it to, either.”
Wheeler: Such as?
Tinkler: “I was attracted to this Burmese woman who wasn’t really interested in meeting an American. Nothing came of it. We remained friends, but one of the songs—‘Just a Dumb American’—comes from that experience. It ended up being even more relevant two months after I wrote it just because of the national mood regarding immigration. She actually opened my eyes and thinking about a lot of things in the world. She gave me a lot of different perspectives which I didn’t have before.
Tinkler: “I worked overtime at a warehouse to fund this record, and in that capacity, I have met so many people from all over the world: Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico…obviously. I was able to get to know them and learn about their cultures, and that shaped a lot of my feelings about the record.”
Wheeler: You worked overtime just to pay for this record?
Tinkler: Yeah: 60, 70, 80 hours a week. I did this for a year, and it was terrible.
Wheeler: You were born in Indy, but you also lived in Pittsboro, graduating from Tri-West High School. Do you think that growing up in that rural environment impacted what we hear when we listen to your work?
Tinkler: “One of the biggest stories of my life is school, and not just [Tri-West] but all of them. I can remember the day my mom dropped me off on the first day of kindergarten. It was the worst day of my life. It was the longest sidewalk, down to this back door of St. Gabriel’s School, and it seemed like the long walk to jail. I never understood why kids were so mean to each other, and I always hated school for that reason. I was a great student. I loved to learn. I didn’t mind the academic part of it, I just hated how terrible people were to each other. It got a little better toward the end of high school, but not that much. And I even reference that in ‘We’re Older Now.’”
“The challenge I faced was incorporating familiar sounds—which I love—from that era without ripping off a song. How can I make it my own thing? And I have to write lyrics that I’m not going to get sick of singing which really mean something to me. I feel like I have accomplished all of those goals with this record.”
Wheeler: Of all the songs on the record, “On an Island” is really the only one that seems stylistically distinct, if not a tad out of place.
Tinkler: “Everyone tells me that ‘On an Island’ is the one song that doesn’t fit. I left one song off the record—a psychedelic folk song—which would have been a more thematic fit. But I wrote “Island” at the same time I wrote all the other songs, and if you take a closer look at British rock history, you’ll find that The Kinks had an island song on their ’65 record. And going forward, the British had an obsession with Reggae. Which makes sense. The British live on an island, and Reggae elements are prevalent in popular music forms such as ‘grime.’”
Tinkler: ‘So, in my mind, ‘Island’ wasn’t going to sound as tropical as it eventually did. But I had a steel-drum player come in, and I was going to have him play at the end of the track…something like Brian Wilson would do. But this guy nailed the song in fewer than three minutes. He was so prepared and so good, and nobody in the studio gets to record steel-drum very often. Everyone was so excited by his work that they all told me I had to leave it all in.”
Wheeler: When you go back into the studio will you try your hand at this style again, or will you keep this 60’s sound limited to this album?
Tinkler: “I’m definitely going to incorporate some things from this sound into future recordings, especially if I release an EP in between this record and my next full-album. But I love rock-and-roll. So even if my next album sounds less retro (which is what I think will happen), it will still have all those basic rock elements. Making a record is so much work. For two or three years it’s an incredible amount of work, and I knew [back when I started the record] that I had to have fun doing it. Because at the time I wasn’t having a lot of fun.”
Wheeler: Why not?
Tinkler: “I’ve been gigging since I was 16, and sometimes you reach that point where everything gets stagnant, and you get burned out.”
Wheeler: How you mean? Burned out creatively or burned out in terms of gigging in a room full of people who aren’t listening to you?
Tinkler: “It’s more of [the latter] for me. I have an unlimited number of songs. If you could fund me, I would never quit making music. My burn out started with audiences not paying attention. Even Neil Young experienced that in Detroit several months ago, so it happens to everyone. But even the business side was also a challenge that wore on me, as well as the simple act of keeping a band together.”
Wheeler: So you’re saying you would rather be part of a band than a solo performer?
Tinkler: “I really love being in a band. I could play solo all day long, but it’s just not as much fun as being in a band. I’ve been through two different bands. In my early 20’s I was in one of those ‘free-wheel’ rock-and-roll bands where everyone tried to have input…I realized that wasn’t going to work. And then I put another band together for the first record. But it’s hard to keep people together.
“One of my two biggest heroes today is Anton Newcomb, of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. He’s always been against the industry, but he still figured out a way to make it work for him. The other guy is Neal Casal. He’s put out tons of solo records which nobody knows about.”
Tinkler: “I never could find a bunch of guys who all said, ‘Let’s be The Beatles!’ That kind of shit only happens when you’re 15-years-old. When you get to your 20’s and beyond people have their own lives, they’re in three different bands, and they want to get paid. When I set up the [CD release show] I brought in a drummer and bassist. We did four or five rehearsals, and then they quit showing up. No explanation. I texted them for a week and got nothing.”
Wheeler: That’s a little more extreme than a good musician wanting to get paid.
Tinkler: “It’s hard to find people who are dedicated and serious. You might be the most talented guy behind a guitar, but then you’re a dick and an egomaniac, and nobody can stand to be in a van with you for a week. Talent is the least important skill you need to work in a band. You also have be cool…get along with people and be laid back. And you have to possess an incredible work ethic, and finding those three things combined into one person is almost impossible.”
Wheeler: Do those headaches make you consider hanging it up at times?
Tinkler: “You go through phases. You’ve got to keep doing it and doing it and doing it. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, whether I get the recognition I want or not. I just need the ‘art’ side of it to continually get better.”
Wheeler: It sounds like the CD release show is going to generate some worthy recognition.
Tinkler: “I don’t know about that, but we do have a full band for this thing. When I put on this release show, people [who are used to my solo sets] are going to be shocked.”
Wheeler: What else have you learned about performing and recording?
Tinkler: “One thing is writing stuff you’re not going to get sick of. Another is writing music with a good beat and melody, so that the audience doesn’t get bored with a bunch of slow, depressing tunes.”
Wheeler: It sounds like you’ve latched onto that critical element of authenticity. The record sounds fluid and effortless, not forced, gimmicked, or contrived.
Tinkler: “Those sounds are important to me, and I want to incorporate as many of them as I can into the music—organs, tambourines, fuzzy guitar solos…all of that. I never sat down at any point and said, ‘I think I’m going to write a Beatles song or a Harry Nilsson song.’ But because I’m using many of those sounds, people draw those parallels.”
“I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, whether I get the recognition I want or not. I just need the ‘art’ side of it to continually get better.”
Wheeler: What other lessons has your work taught you?
Tinkler: “You’re never going to get successful in music by furthering your own career. If you’re not supporting other bands or other artists, if there’s not at least two or three other bands which you are supporting and happy to see succeed, if you and those other bands come up [through a scene] together, then you all have a better shot.”
Wheeler: When Brandon Tinkler looks into his crystal ball, what does he see for his future?
Tinkler: “My goal is to be able to make music whenever I want to and play 300-500-seat venues across the country as well places such as Europe and Japan. I would love to get to the point where I don’t have to hold a day job which funds the art side of life.”
The degree to which Tinkler’s endeavor wins over listeners will depend largely where they’re coming from when they hit “play.” A Baby Boomer who grew up listening to the British Invasion catalogue in “real time” may admire the work, but hold off on Beatles or Stones comparisons.
That, however, is the wrong way to look at it. For all of the album’s retro panache, Open up Your Eyes is still a 21st century production. And here…in this century…in this indie music landscape, Brandon Tinkler has decided to set aside worn down labels such as “Americana” and “cross-genre” and instead create that record all his musical friends urged him to do for years. By those standards, the album is a refreshing change of style, pace, mood, and content. It’s a project worthy of a $15 CD purchase, worthy of a trip to a live performance, and most definitely worthy of respect.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.