Bret Koontz & Truancy Club
Bret Koontz & Truancy Club's music couches radical ideas in lush sonic invitations—Pop music's original and best function. Out of soothing tones that seem to pinpoint something shared and unspoken, a singular lyrical voice cuts through the static to coax us momentarily into a place of truth and levity. BK&TC's a Sparkle Road Cult is an expansive statement on the self, constructed realities, and life in a transient future. Koontz’s second release under his own name, it represents a culmination of multiple trajectories through life and music.
When Bret moved to Chicago from Nashville for a stint in film school, he found an arts scene that was smearing the lines between music, performance, and media in a way that hadn't seemed allowed elsewhere. He spent the following years experimenting in this scene: making comics and plays, leading avant synth-pop group Cool Memories, playing in a number of seminal underground bands (John Bellows, Rind, Bomb Banks), and co-founding Situations, a long-running DIY venue of Chicago's twenty-teens.
In 2016, amid a darkening political and environmental landscape, Koontz made a conscious decision to streamline his approach, emphasizing composition and lyrical content and limiting the equipment and resources involved in his output. The result was Low Light Trades (Planted Tapes), a baroque pop album inspired by the enigmatic music that haunts soundtracks of films like the Wicker Man and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
“Low Light Trades saw me coming off a period of time where I had looked around at how sweetly sad and complicated my life had become and taken some time to appreciate it, kind of luxuriate in it. With Sparkle Road Cult, I was beginning to turn my thoughts towards a more functional and radical future.”
While touring in support of Low Light Trades, Koontz began writing new material and assembling a backing band. Truancy Club is a band of songwriters, close friends and collaborators. Crawford Philleo (drums) had released Low Light Trades on his label Planted Tapes. Jake Acosta (bass) released an early EP of Koontz's on his Lake Paradise label and his band Famous Laughs is a beloved Chicago institution. Maria Jacobson (flute, vocals) had just recruited Bret to play lead guitar in Fran, her sensual indie rock quartet. Koontz and Ben McFadden (keys) met at Pop's Nice!, a music night curated by McFadden and his trio Pop Life.
In a house in Little Village, BK&TC worked to create recordings that played to the edges of the material's palette while maintaining a core sound anchored by the sum of their distinct musical voices. Brian Sulpizio (Health & Beauty) engineered these sessions, overdubs were done with Robbie Hamilton at Strange Magic Recording.
The sound at the center of A Sparkle Road Cult is Bret's voice. It's an idiosyncratic writer and composer's voice that has shades of the outsider sounds of Robert Wyatt, Syd Barrett, and Arthur Russell. The accompanying arrangements bring to mind the songcraft of the Carpenters and Prefab Sprout-esque Sophisti-Pop shaken up/down by a touch of the large format boogie of Wings and raw Power Pop of Big Star.
McFadden's keyboards and synths contextualize the songs with stylistic touchstones that range from the melodramatic strings of old Hollywood to the icy electric pianos of 90s R&B ballads. Acosta's bass provides an unusually melodic foundation, by turns reinforcing and subverting these sonic references. Philleo's drumming propels the group through subtle dynamic changes with a natural ease, introducing Bossas and syncopated rhythms that always feel integral. Jacobson's vocal harmonies favor subtler intervals that weave above and below the main lines. Her flute goes beyond texture, speaking in complete phrases that bring necessary harmonic ideas to the conversation.
After thinking hard about how to best share this album with the world, BK&TC arrived at the concept of releasing A Sparkle Road Cult as an Art Book Album. The book includes the entire album in sheet music form, a full-color art page for each song, and a CD. It's a timely innovation and a meditation on how we consume music, or as Koontz elaborates:
“I kept thinking about releasing and archiving music beyond recorded versions—the songs themselves. I got excited about doing the physical album in a way that was thematically relevant to the material and highlighted the cinematic and narrative aspects—so a book made sense, art pages as visual environments made sense—sheet music made sense. . . buying fake books and sheet music singles from the record shop was how I first started learning to play. And I like that it adds an open-source element— the formula is laid out for anyone to access, so it glances back to the give-and-take that's so ingrained pop music—all music, really.”