With some of the most intriguing sounds (not to mention mysterious album covers) to ever come out of England in the second half of the 1970s, jam band extraordinaire Brand X were often regarded in the same elite class as Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea. Though the group of virtuoso players (whose first album line-up included Percy Jones, Phil Collins, Morris Pert, John Goodsall and Robin Lumley) broke up at the turn of the decade, a partial reunion in the ‘90s re-fueled interest in everyone’s underground melting pot of jazz, rock and world rhythms, even going so far as to influence the enormous likes of Phish and Dream Theater.
Despite falling off the general public’s radar after disbanding yet again, a recent announcement touting an American reunion tour from October 19-30 sent shockwaves of joy all around the globe (at least for those in the know). In fact, there are some extremely dedicated folks from several different states and continents flying to wherever they can score a ticket on the brief but increasingly sold out run, which includes a stop atop the Progtoberfest II bill at Reggie’s on Friday, October 21.These days, Brand X consists of original guitarist Goodsall, original bassist Jones, longtime drummer/Sting collaborator Kenwood Dennard, recent keyboard recruit Chris Clark (John Entwistle Band) and new percussionist Scott Weinberger (Adrian Belew, The Security Project). The legendary Jones recently called Chicago Concert Reviews from his current home in New York to reflect on what made the fascinating band tick the first time around, what’s in store for this edition and if he foresees its future.
What prompted this reunion after so many years apart?
Percy Jones: Well it was simply an opportunity to get us all together in one place so we could play because we were all sort of geographically quite spread out. About ten weeks ago, myself, John Goodsall and Kenwood Dennard got together here in New York. We played and it sounded quite good, so we thought, “well, we should take this further and do some gigs.” So we hooked up with a promoter and he booked a short tour, which is apparently already selling out at certain venues and there are also some more dates in January and again in April of next year. It surprised me quite a bit actually, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
What do you think accounts for this frenzied reaction that has folks flying from all over the world?
Jones: That’s a difficult question to answer for me because I’m on the inside looking out as opposed to the outside looking in. People have told me some of the jam bands that are around today listen to Brand X, so maybe we were an influence on some of these bands and maybe that’s part of the interest. I mean back in the day, we played mostly clubs and relatively small venues. There are certain parts of the US where we never played. And then we broke up in 1981 because of lack of support from the management company and the record company, so it sort of prematurely came to an end at that point. Quite a few potential fans who wanted to hear us never got to because we stopped playing. People who have the records still listen to the records presumably, so if they heard that the band is back out playing, then obviously they’d want to come out and hear it live. Other than that, I can’t really offer any insight into why there’s so much interest, but I’m happy about it of course.
You mentioned the term “jam band” a moment ago. Do you feel like Brand X fits into that category?
Jones: Well, yeah. We had structured songs, but inside those compositions there was always room for improvisation, so a tune would never be exactly the same from one night to the next and we did that because it kept the music fresh for the players. Personally, if I was in a band that played everything note for note, exactly the same every night, I would sure get bored with it. Because of that improvisational aspect, you could classify us as a “jam band” to some degree. It’s not 100% improvisation, but there’s a lot of that in there, so it’s got an element of that I think.
What other elements would you describe as having made up your sound over the years?
Jones: Well, the sort of composite sound is the result of all the individual players. John is a very individual player and he definitely has his really distinct style and Kenwood’s got his distinct style as a drummer, so you put all that together and I think you end up with a band that has a unique sound. And then I think in terms of influences, there was such a diverse range, from jazz to rock to classical, Indian music and North African. I think that range of influence also had a bearing on what the band sounded like.
From the man spying through the blinds on “Unorthodox Behaviour” to the alligator walking down the sidewalk on “Do They Hurt?,” Brand X was also known for some of the most striking album covers of its time and really all time. Give us a glimpse into that process.
Jones: We were lucky because we had Storm Thorgerson at Hipgnosis doing all the artwork and he was really good to work with. We give him a vague direction as to what to do with the artwork and he’d come back with some really cool ideas. They are all interesting, though “Moroccan Roll” is my favorite. It was interesting because the direction we gave to Storm was to use universal numbers, like pi, the golden mean and the natural logarithm, and to use those numbers and ratios in the artwork somehow. He kind toddled off and that’s what he came up with. He’s a very imaginative guy.
Have you stayed in touch with Phil Collins over the years or spoken with him about this reunion?
Jones: Well I’ve had no contact with him at all since 1981. The last time I saw him was at a party in Manhattan. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since. I think he went his way and I went my way and they’re completely different directions I suppose.
Do you feel like his fame from Genesis brought additional visibility to Brand X with more commercially-minded audiences?
Jones: Yeah, quite possibly. He actually wasn’t the original drummer. He came in a little bit later and he played with us. We liked what he was doing, he apparently liked we were doing, so we joined and then the band hooked up with his management, Hit & Run, and also the Genesis label, Charisma. Prior to that, we were briefly with Island Records, but they didn’t like the direction and they dropped us. “Unorthodox Behaviour” was originally recorded for Island and they refused to put it out. I think because of Phil’s involvement, that’s how we got picked up by Charisma. There are some statements out there that Brand X was Phil’s hobby band. I didn’t feel that was very fair. I took and still take Brand X very seriously, you know? So for me it wasn’t a hobby. It was quite a serious project. There’s other stuff out there saying that he started the band. That’s not true either. It was together before he joined.
Speaking of “Unorthodox Behaviour,” what made you concentrate your current set list repertoire around that album, “Moroccan Roll” and “Livestock”?
Jones: Somebody did a poll and the question was apparently “what were your favorite Brand X records?” And people predominately mentioned the first three as their favorites, so we decided to do material from the first three records, which were done a long time ago. But we’ve been playing the stuff and it actually sounds good, so we’re in good shape. The material doesn’t sound dated to me, although it’s a bit of a challenge remembering it all.
Is this strictly a touring reformation or do you feel like it’s going to prompt the resumption of the group’s recording career?
Jones: I think it’s quite probably [going to lead to recording] because there’s been a good reaction to this tour. So, yeah I would say it’s more than likely we’ll record something. I can’t be more specific than that as to whether it’s going to be a live thing or a studio thing. I don’t know, but I’m sure something’s gonna happen.
What’s going on in your musical life outside of Brand X right now?
Jones: I’d like to mention MJ12, which is something that’s current. It doesn’t have the visibility of Brand X, but it’s good band with some good players. And I’d like to encourage people if they get the chance to check out the record, which is called “MJ12” as well. It’s out on British label called Gonzo Multimedia and it will be up for digital download probably in November. Again it’s instrumental, and again, there are compositions and there’s space inside the compositions for improvisations, so it’s got some parallels to Brand X, but it’s got some different sounds because of the people playing in the band. There’s a saxophone player, Chris Bacas, who was with the Buddy Rich Big Band for quite some time and is a really excellent saxophone player. It’s loose but tight if that makes any sense (laughter). The band is tight, but there’s a loose approach where it can go in any direction, depending on what the members feel like doing. There’s a lot of spontaneity in it, which I really like since it’s challenging. It’s like every gig is an adventure, nothing is set in stone and you never know what to expect!