Neck of the Woods is sandwiched between an Asian supermarket and a fabric store in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco. Based on its understated location, you would never guess it has hosted so many legendary music acts. Artists ranging from Otis Redding and Buddy Guy to Huey Lewis and Train to Metallica have all graced the Neck of the Woods stage over the years.
On this night, the guys taking the stage are not legends—not yet anyway—but with the sound they hit us with right from the start of their set, they might as well be. They call themselves the Brevet. In case you’re not up on Civil War trivia, the name is a nod to soldiers who were given a higher rank as a reward for “meritorious conduct” but without the power, prestige and authority that comes with an official promotion.
For the Southern California-based band, this means their primary duty is to serve their passion for music. Any material gain that comes, while certainly appreciated, is secondary. “Our main thing is making music that’s true to ourselves,” keyboardist Michael Jones says.
But don’t let their humility fool you. For an unsigned act that has been a DIY operation since Jones and lead singer Aric Damm started writing songs together in middle school, they have achieved a surprising level of success. They’ve released one full-length album (2013’s Battle of the Heart), and followed that up with three EPs (American Novel: Chapters 1-3) and three additional singles. “Moving Mountains,” the lead track from American Novel: Chapter 1, hit four millions plays on Spotify this month, a milestone the members are extremely proud of.
They’ve taken an unconventional approach to getting their music out into the world, but it’s worked. “We started this as a passion project. The goal was initially to try and get some of our songs into friends’ films and whatnot,” Jones says. “Then, all of a sudden, we got a licensing company that was representing us and put our music into some major TV shows and trailers.” So, while the Brevet may not yet be a household name, many may recognize their songs from TV shows like 90210 and American Idol, films like The Good Lie and Ashby, and most recently a placement with Apple.
“It’s been such a crazy journey,” Jones says. “Ryan [Gaines of Mutiny Recordings] is constantly pitching different things to different outlets. He called us one day to tell us that he pitched one of our demos [the still-unreleased “Locked and Loaded”], which he wasn’t supposed to be pitching. We asked who it was for and he said, ‘There’s a possibility it’s going to be used for Apple.’ So we said, ‘OK, fine’ [laughs].”
“This was just a few weeks ago,” he continues. “A few days after that call, they flew us up to San Francisco. There were probably 200 people running the set, plus they must’ve brought in about 100 extras. They had us play the song 11 or so times over the course of a few hours. We thought we were just going to be in and out, but the energy of the crowd was so positive. It ended up being such an unreal experience.”
Despite not having a record label, the band doesn’t feel like they’re missing out. “The cool thing about our approach is that we’re constantly able to write and record and keep the creative train moving. We’ve never been pressed to force stuff out,” guitarist John Kingsley says. “We’re not 100 percent against the record label thing. If it comes our way, we’ll take advantage of it, of course. But if it doesn’t, we’re confident enough in what we do and the way we do it. We have a dedicated group of people that believe in what we do. We get to decide the best way to put our music up and serve it out, even if it’s in non-traditional ways.”
Non-traditional might be an understatement. They’re currently working out of a studio in Orange County, California, but up until recently, they did most of their recording in an unused building in a mobile home park. “My extended family basically owned the mobile home park, and there’s a community center there that was used in the 60s,” Damm says. “The humongous halls and rooms actually helped us a lot with our reverb and the ‘woahs’ in our choruses.”
“Obviously, it’s not the ultimate ideal situation for sound to be recording in a mobile home park,” Jones adds. “But we made it work, and that started to become our signature sound.”
And what, exactly, is that sound? Early in their career, fans and critics alike began using “epic Americana” to describe the Brevet’s music, and the genre label has stuck. They manage to combine elements of folk, country, alternative and rock, drawing comparisons to Kings of Leon, NEEDTOBREATHE, and even Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers. Yet there’s something about the music that is distinctly theirs and theirs alone. The style and delivery, especially in a live setting, speaks strongly to their fans. Even people who walk into a show with little or no knowledge of the Brevet find themselves converted.
“We’ve got a pretty big sound and have the capacity to do these big epic intros and interludes between songs,” drummer David Aguiar says. He points out that it’s important to consider the venue, though. “We’ve learned sometimes that doesn’t translate well in a pub or small hole-in-the-wall bar. If we’re in a theater, we know we have a listening audience, and we can take our time to build dynamics. Otherwise, we come out swinging. We come out strong and try to keep up the energy and keep people dancing.”
Bassist Ben Ross believes audiences also respond to the fact their performances come from an authentic place. “We don’t get caught in our heads. We’re in the music and loving the relational aspects of it,” he says. “We’re enjoying ourselves. I think that feeds the audience, which we then feed off of. It’s a really nice reciprocal relationship that happens each night.”
This helps the band’s confidence anytime they travel to a new city or if they’re playing in a venue that doubles as a restaurant or bar, where people may not be as actively listening. “Of course it’s awesome when we have a bunch of people who are joining in with us,” Aguiar says. “But if they don’t, at least I know I have four other dudes who want to hang out and make music for a while. It’s not worth it to try and get in everyone’s head. You just have to decide to go for it and enjoy yourself.”
“We basically try to create FOMO for anyone who’s not paying attention,” Jones says. And if you’re standing in the front row with your arms folded? That’s Ross’s pet peeve, but right behind him sits Aguiar, who takes it as a challenge. “I actually like it when people do that,” he says. “It’s like ‘unfold those arms, damn it!’”
“It’s always an uphill battle when you’re playing for people who haven’t heard your stuff before,” Kingsley adds. “But to see people over a 45-minute set get into it more and more makes us realize how far we’ve come in doing our jobs of winning people over.”
While turning concertgoers into true fans has been invaluable to the Brevet’s success, they also realized early on the importance of creating and maintaining strong connections with other professionals in the entertainment industry. That’s how they secured their licensing relationship with Mutiny Recordings, and they’ve tried to extend that same level of openness to everyone they’ve come across. As Kingsley puts it, “You want to be nice to everybody. You never know who might be your boss tomorrow.”
For example, thanks to the great relationship they have with filmmaker and director Sarah Wilson Thacker, they’ve created multiple stunning music videos. It’s yet another way they’ve been able to get music out there and reach an audience. “We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of talented friends,” Damm says. “I went to school for acting and ended up acting in Sarah’s graduate thesis film. From that, we became really close, and she’s directed all of our music videos since.”
“It’s a cool journey that we’re all on together,” Jones continues. “She’s building up her career as a filmmaker at the same time we’re building up our career as a band. We keep going back to each other to create this mutual work of art.”
Now, it’s back to San Francisco and their performance at Neck of the Woods. They’ve finished their set and the audience is demanding more. It’s obvious they haven’t planned an encore, a pleasant surprise given how canned the whole “encore” idea has become. After conferring for a few seconds, they decide on “Let Go” and launch into the tune. By the end, even the new converts in the room have learned the chorus and are singing along.