A few hours before I was set to interview Breton Sound frontman Jonathan Pretus, I happened to run into him on a Facebook thread. Nothing unusual there, except that it was a thread discussing the Monkees—specifically the discovery of some long-lost Monkee footage, including an alternate ending for their cult-classic movie Head. That’s pure trivia for 99 percent of people in the world, but pure gold for a handful of pop obsessives. Pretus is a proud member of the latter group.
You don’t have to be a pop obsessive, or even a Monkees fan, to love the Breton Sound, though it probably helps. It also helps if your taste runs toward solidly crafted, guitar-driven pop tunes that don’t sound like whatever’s on the current hit parade. As a classic-model pop/rock band the Breton Sound feel like a disappearing breed, especially in New Orleans—hence the name of their new EP, Don’t Be Afraid of Rock & Roll Vol. 1 (the first of two EPs that will ultimately be combined into their first full album).
“Let’s face it, the love of a guitar hitting a big loud A chord and rocking out has become passé to some people,” Pretus says. “And the bummer is that they grew up loving it, but because it’s not considered cool now, they stay away from it.” Though too young to grow up with ’60s pop, Pretus made up for lost time with help from his parents’ record collection. “The first thing I remember was listening to the records they had—everything from B.B. King to Earth, Wind & Fire, and that was my introduction to everything. As I got older I’d take a streetcar down to Jim Russell’s or Record Ron’s and spend all my money on records—the Beatles were the big fix for me when I was younger. Ten years ago I got into this huge Beach Boys kick and went down that rabbit hole, getting my hands on every Brian Wilson thing I could find. I always say I was born in the wrong decade, but as I get older I keep discovering things that blow my mind. Most recently it was the 13th Floor Elevators—hearing them was a big ‘Holy crap!’ moment.”
The Breton Sound was formed ten years ago by longtime friends Pretus and Stephen Turner (lead guitar), who have carried the band through a couple of lineups. The original rhythm section dropped out after the first EP, Jonathan’s brother Brian Pretus played bass on the follow-up EP (2011’s Maps), and twin brothers Joe (bass) and John (drums) Bourgeois have since joined. One key to the sound has always been that Pretus and Turner are equally fannish about different kinds of music: Turner grew up on prog and metal and cut his teeth on Rush and Eddie Van Halen licks. “We’ve been best friends for 15 years but we’re opposites in some ways,” Pretus says. “My thing is to make a song three and a half minutes. He says, ‘Let’s make it eight minutes and three different keys.’”
From the sound of things, it seems that Pretus’ sensibility usually wins out. “Not always. We’ll do something like ‘Love You More’ on the new EP, where the bridge goes into this weird time signature for a couple of bars. Stephen’s song on the EP, ‘Walking Backwards,’ sounds like it’s based on one riff, but there’s a lot more going on in there. He’ll come up with a demo that runs ten minutes and the lyrics will be a page of prose, so we’ll take that and work it into a more conventional structure. We don’t really want to be a prog band, we want to do something that doesn’t take a lot of brain power to digest. But we don’t mind putting some of those elements into a more conventional pop setting.” Thus Turner gets to pack all his shredder moves into a tight 25-second solo at track’s end.
Tricky bridge aside, “Love You More” revives a time-honored pop tradition: the romantic duet (with Cherie LeJeune of the Wooden Wings doing the honors). “I was really nervous about bringing that one to the band,” Pretus says. “You don’t hear a lot of songs about domestic bliss; they’re always about love lost or wanting someone you still haven’t got. What you never hear is ‘I’m married to you; you’re awesome.’ So that’s what I said—I’ve been married for nine years and I’m happy about where I am in life. So I made that one a lot more literal than I normally do.”
Though they may feel like outsiders, the Breton Sound has a direct connection to two of New Orleans’ favorite rock bands: Better Than Ezra’s Tom Drummond produced all three of their EPs; and Pretus spent a few years in Cowboy Mouth, stepping into the second guitarist/backup singer role after Paul Sanchez’s departure and playing on the 2008 album Fearless. You can hear traces of a Mouth influence on the new EP—specifically on “Illuminate,” which has a bit of their rock-gospel feel—but Pretus says they didn’t leave that much of a mark, and admits he got frustrated trying to pitch songs to that band. “I don’t think a lot of their attitude crept in, but maybe it’s there in the joyous spirit of what we do. I was in that band for about a week over three years. I was writing a lot at the time, and there was the idea that if you wrote something really great, it might get used. But the few tunes that I would venture in the back of the bus were pushed aside, so it became a thing that I’d keep in my back pocket.” (They’ll share a gig on New Years Eve when Breton Sound and Cowboy Mouth will both be part of Big Night New Orleans at the Hyatt Regency).
One band that did leave a mark is Weezer, who loom large in the Breton Sound’s worldview; they’ve been known to cover Weezer songs and sometimes entire albums. That’s the subject of “Rivers Cuomo,” which opens the latest EP—and yes, it does sound like them, though Pretus says they held back from taking the Weezer-isms too far. The lyric addresses the existential crisis that happens when a band you swear by releases an album—two or three albums, in Weezer’s case—that just isn’t that great.
“I read an article about how people get older and chemicals in the brain start to change: You can no longer connect with music the same way you did when you were younger, when a song became a snapshot of that moment in time. At the same time I read a review of the [then] new Weezer album and they were tearing it apart, the same way they’ve done with every album since 1996. So it got me wondering, Is the music really not as good, or am I just losing my ability to connect with it? This guy [Cuomo] used to say all the things I wanted to say to a person in a song, and now I’m not finding that. So whose fault is that? Is he saying something different or am I hearing something different? And can I really expect a 40-year-old to write on the same level as a 20-year-old? We tried to make the song sound less like Weezer and more like us—to my mind we have lots more stuff that sounds more like them. For instance we put a psychedelic break into it instead of a big rock solo.”
Two of the Weezer albums they do love, Pinkerton and the Blue Album, have been featured in their Desert Island series—designed as something of a Generation X answer to Susan Cowsill’s “Covered in Vinyl,” which mostly features ’70s and ’80s albums. Most recently Breton Sound posted four contenders (including the Who, Tom Petty and Collective Soul) and let fans vote online; the Foo Fighters’ The Colour & the Shape won and they played that album at One Eyed Jacks earlier in November. “The interesting part for us is dissecting other peoples’ songs and figuring out what makes them work. I’m not sure how long we can keep these shows up, because you have to learn the songs and do them well, and that takes time away from working on our own stuff.”
Besides, there’s plenty of their own work to do. The second EP in the series is due to be recorded after Mardi Gras, and they want to get more tunes on hand to choose from. “The idea is to do anything we can come up with and still make it sound like us. I’m sure there’ll be some up-tempo rock things, but maybe we’ll have something with a disco beat, or a seven-minute prog song.” Further plans include touring the country—something they haven’t fully done yet, since Milwaukee is the farthest they’ve been—and of course, keeping the world safe for rock ’n’ roll.