Brian Brain — Club Audioprovocateur

(L-R) Peter Kronrief, Herbert Könighofer, Chris Kronrief — Delhi, India; 2017

“The weapon is music, the target is life.”

These words are sung in the title track of The Weapon is Music, an album by Austrian based genre-transcending project Brian Brain — Club Audioprovocateur. In them, lie the essence of what multi-instrumentalist Herbert Könighofer, the man behind this project, wants to convey through his music.

“The album name carries a strong message,” says Herbert, rolling a cigarette. We are seated in a big room, with four chairs, a couch, and a table laden with a couple of plates of mushroom-cheese dosa. Brothers, Chris (tenor and baritone saxophone) and Peter Kronreif (drums), have settled themselves into a chair and the couch respectively, sipping beers, while Herbert and I occupied chairs.

“There is so much war, refugee crisis and other shit. Through music we can reach people, because everywhere around the world, they’ll understand that the weapon is music, and not a pistol.” Their music itself is eccentric, with substantial traces of murk and gloom, and the themes even more so. “Seeing what people are doing to nature and other people makes me crazy. Perhaps that is why the music is dark,” is Herbert’s view.

Brian Brain — Club Audioprovocateur is Herbert’s own child. It was created for the exclusive purpose of allowing him to do whatever he pleases, and play whatever he fancies. “I like to play with different people,” he says, “The best scenario is if the musicians don’t know each other, because then they will be polite with each other on stage. They step back a little in the first moment, not hogging the spotlight, which is always good as it allows the mood to grow.” For the India tour, he travelled with the three piece, while nine musicians have played on the album. He plans to tour with the whole band as well as an orchestra. Taking a long drag on the cigarette, he says, “I can do everything with it. If it’s not good, I don’t care. It’s Brian Brain, my project. It makes me free.”

The BRIAN Guitar Case

How it came into existence is one interesting story. “After a concert, a guy came to me and said he wanted to learn the saxophone from me. But I had to leave the next day. So I called him for breakfast, to chat and show him some basics,” says Herbert, “The guy showed up with a very old guitar. On the case was written BRIAN. It was a present for me. Jokingly, he said that I could be the brain of the guitar which was named Brian, and we had a good laugh at that. I met the guy for two hours. Don’t even remember his name, but I was left with a guitar and a name for my project.”

Being a saxophonist primarily, his fingers have adapted to its style, so playing a guitar was difficult for him. But he took it as a sign, learned the guitar and became the brain of Brian. Since there is a post punk band by the same name, Herbert added Club Audioprovocateur to use it. Rather fitting — provoking other people into joining his musical club, and passing on the weapon.

In the early 2000s, Herbert had met Courtney Jones, a timbales player from the Caribbean, at a jazz festival. Liking each other, they wanted to work together. But such a chance presented itself only ten years later, when Courtney was living in Vienna. Based primarily on steel drums and saxophone, the two of them started recording the album in the studio, defining a new style. Sadly, Courtney passed away in the middle of production, after a year of playing with Herbert. This led to the whole concept being changed — different musicians were brought in, more guitars were added and the sound changed, leading to what the album presently sounds like.

Courtney Jones (L) and Herbert Könighofer (R)

Sitting up, Peter starts narrating his tale, “Herbie called me up and asked me to come to the studio to play on some songs he had written. There were some layouts, grooves and loops, which I put into my headphones and played to. Then, Herbie wrote some of the horn lines and lyrics on what I played on the drums, or my fills. This was a very interesting approach from the other side, as drum parts are mostly based on the track, not the other way round. So later, I had to learn my own fills. The result was different, not conventional. That’s the kind of vibe the band has for me. Everybody can bring their own stuff and the others will work with it. Actually, that’s what Herbie is all about to me too — unpredictable.”

“I became part of the project during the phase of studio production,” quips in Chris, “I was happy Herbie called me up. I had always estimated him highly as a musician.”

“I didn’t know that,” interrupts Herbert.

“Maybe I didn’t tell you. This is like therapy,” says Chris to Herbert, and everybody starts laughing.

Turning towards me again, Chris continues, “I’m a very different musician from Herbie, though we play the same instrument. Even as I am helping shape the sound, I’m always trying to get into the brain of Brian (gesturing at Herbert), and make it our collective brain; to establish a certain vibe, which can be different every night.”

“You can’t play a solo or a song twice. If you record, you’re just recording that particular moment. It’s necessary to record so that people get familiar with our work, but I don’t want to record stuff, because the magic lies in the moment. If you don’t join the concert, you don’t know,” explains Herbert.

Workshop/Concert at EkTara — Kolkata, India; 2017 — © Rohit Shukla

I can personally vouch for Chris’ statement that things can be different every time they play, because I watched them perform at two different places, and the sound and vibe was completely different at both. The performance at Rabindra Sarobar on 12th November 2017, part of the Live in Lakes franchise organised by Siddha Foundation, was intense and musically rich, even a bit dark, while the next day’s set at EkTara, a school for underprivileged children, was more personal and lighthearted, though not less exciting by any measure.

Pt. Ranajit Sengupta joined them for the Sarobar performance, and they jammed on the spot without any prior rehearsals. The saxophone heavy sound was formed on a backbone beat of electronic loops, which the drums expanded. The guitar added rhythm and unusual sounds. The sarod blended beautifully with the existing foreign moods, and took off into its own classical dimension. The differing soundscapes never clashed, only supported and enriched each other. A true fusion orchestrated by top notch musicians.

Herbert is probably one of the most interactive and animated performers onstage. He is an entertainer in the true sense — acting, playing, singing, making weird moves and noises, dancing and jumping, and running around in the crowd while blowing away furiously at his saxophone.

The crowd at Rabindra Sarobar was so enthralled by their performance that they watched silently, captivated. No one drifted away. And such music is not exactly familiar to the common person residing in Kolkata! The kids at the school were even more delighted by them, especially Herbert. Getting chances to play the instruments was the clinching point, with the drum emerging as a clear winner, though the baritone saxophone had won hearts with its strange sound. Even some of the serious faced teachers at the school were left with smiles.

The band’s experience in India has been rather happy. Seeing so much colour, activity and numerous people has left them pleasantly baffled. “We have been accepted so well here. Very warm and kind,” says Chris. The Sarobar concert was special to Peter. “People were standing right next to me while I was playing! In between songs, they came up to me to shake hands and say ‘Thank You.’ This experience was rare. This is a different world. I’m curious,” says Peter, with a beaming smile on his face.

Concert at Rabindra Sarobar — Kolkata, India; 2017 — © Rohit Shukla

The vibe they give off when playing onstage is infectious. I wanted to jump into their midst and pick up a instrument and play (That would have been disastrous), just so that I could participate. It was that exciting and moving! This is the perspective of someone who watched their performance. But what about the vibe they feel while playing together on the stage?

“With Herbie, you have to be on your toes! Anything unanticipated can happen. So, I leave behind all my expectations of how the concert will go down before stepping on stage. Even if he tells us what the songs will be, five minutes before the show, he can change his mind. He presses a button and some other song starts,” says Peter, throwing up his hands. Meanwhile, I look at Herbert and he places a hand on chest and leans back, signalling stepping back. Clever guy. I give an understanding nod, and we share a secret smile.

“I trust Herbie’s intuition. He is going to do what his body’s vibe tells him, so I just follow him and his feeling. That’s how the concert shapes up,” continues Peter, “Other than the fact that it’s crazy — that’s same — everything’s different! I think he enjoys making us do what we don’t expect.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Herbert grinning into his beard.

Chris agrees vehemently with his brother. “Herbert is unpredictable, but makes live music interesting. He’s a provocateur — the joyguru!”, he exclaims, using the term (denotes very high praise; joy — hail / guru — master) he heard someone addressing Herbert by, at the Sarobar performance. We all burst out laughing.

The Weapon Is Music album recording crew

Turning to the master, I implore him to share his head space. “On stage, the best case scenario is switching into another dimension. It’s like : Click! Then I’m floating — out of time, out of place; no fear, no pain, no questions; Nothing. That’s the ideal state of being,” says Herbert, his normally twinkling eyes showing traces of something strange.

Herbert’s club has seen numerous other provocateurs collaborating with him. He also performs as a duo with Peter, and in a separate act with pianist Hannah Eisendle. A very special project is Kunn Varjossa (In the Shadow of the Moon) with a Finnish multi-instrumentalist, Sid Hille.

The message Brian Brain — Club Audioprovocateur is trying to spread through their music is just another typical musician thing, right? Think again. All of us listen to some form of music which we like, be it anything. The weapon is in our hands and hearts. Why not use it’s power?

Schladming, Austria; 2016 — © Georg Stranger

Images Courtesy : Artist

Check out the track ‘Voodoo Lounge’ :