Brian Young: The Art Of Simplicity

Brian Young

Lyrically-driven with perfectly encapsulated mini narratives that unfold like origami puzzles revealing entire worlds in polished, pop-perfect three-minute form, worlds inhabited by an eclectic cast of characters to whom we feel intimately attached despite having only the briefest chance encounter — this is the Simon & Garfunkel-like magic of Fountains Of Wayne.

Musically swerving from synthed-out, ’80s dance floor anthems like “Someone To Love” to the ’70s arena rock of “92 Subaru” to the jangly ’60s pop of “Traffic And Weather” — FOW span the decades on the new disc Traffic And Weather while retaining that deceptively simple, stripped-down, pure-pop-meets-folk-acoustic signature sound.

Mastering the art of simplicity. It could easily be the slogan for Fountains Of Wayne. And for drummer Brian Young who, along with his bandmates, frequently channels The Beatles, occasionally throwing in a little bit of Bonham too.

“It’s interesting when everybody’s playing less, how much better everyone sounds,” Young says, speaking from his Studio City apartment where he’s gearing up for the FOW tour. “With me it’s always song first. When we mix there’s a lot of care taken to make sure the lyrics are clear so the storyline doesn’t get lost. Otherwise, it really gets away from what Fountains Of Wayne is all about.”

Less is more — it’s a philosophy that’s served Young well since his earliest days, flying by the seat of his pants as a green kit player, subbing for his drum teacher at a string of local club dates in a little town called Prescott, Arizona. A town where, as Young puts it, he picked up drumming as a teenager because it looked fun, he was into rock, prog, and metal, and well, there was nothing much else to do. Nothing except, thank God, play music.

“Where I lived there was an area called Whisky Row — many, many bars with music all the time, every night, and so basically from the minute I started playing, I was gigging.”

Filling in for a drum teacher who seemed to be perennially overbooked, sick, or otherwise engaged, Young got off to a running start, even if it was a bit rocky at times. “He’d be like, ’What are you doing Friday night? I’ve got this country gig. Do you think you can cover it for me?’ And I’d be like, ’I don’t know. Do you think I can?’ So I’d show up at the gig and they’d be like, ’Where’s Pete?’ And I’d be like, ’He’s not coming. You’ve got me all weekend. And they were like, [groans] ’Oh my God!’”

Talk about trial by fire. Though he could scarcely hold his sticks, Young was suddenly behind the kit playing a medley of country, R&B, and pop hits, many of which he’d never heard before. “Even though I had this background of metal and prog and rock music that was hard to play, practically I was really just learning how to make a song happen and how to keep people on the dance floor.”

And it was the best schooling he could have hoped for. “These guys were very seasoned older cats and they would certainly let you know if that was inappropriate. You’d get the look from the bass player like, ’What the hell are you doing? Look at my hands and listen to what I’m doing!’ So it was really great practical training, and I made the best of it. I learned a lot from that.”

What he learned was to listen intently and master the basics — from that classic country train beat to the staple shuffle to a solid four-on-the-floor rock beat. His makeshift mentors also gave him a few other tips — like using memory-jogging phrases to remember rhythmic patterns: a straight-ahead military beat became “stepped in a bucket of s**t”, a jazz waltz: “wash the car and wax it.” But above all, Young learned to adapt in a heartbeat and to always, always keep the pulse.

“You kind of learn by the seat of your pants. It’s the most incredible experience just to get tossed in like that. You take advantage of the lowest common denominator of what’s going to make the song happen. If you’re not sure where a break’s coming, you can play kind of a fill-ish thing and even if everybody else stops you’re implying that maybe you meant to stop, maybe just adding a little extra. You kind of learn how to cover your tracks I guess,” he laughs.

On his off hours, Young was rocking out to Led Zeppelin and Genesis and digging into the repertoires of crazy, complex prog masters like Rush and Yes. It was a passion that fit perfectly into the strange noise-pop, punk, art-rock landscape of the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest in the ’90s — a time when the beautiful, brutal, bruised sounds of Nirvana blew speakers and minds open across America. And suddenly, Young jokes, “labels had no idea what was going on with music.” As the longtime drummer for power pop outfit The Posies, Young got a chance to channel his inner Neil Peart — tearing through shape-shifting melodies and swerving rhythms.

“The Posies were an odd pop band, more progressive with odd tunings and odd sections, Neil Young tunings and strange drum grooves,” he says. Then half-joking adds: “I got to play way, way too much drums in that band!”

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