JC Brooks: Alpha Queen In A Soul Man's Clothes
At 6-foot-3, with a voluminous pompadour and a lean, potent look about him, JC Brooks, the frontman for the Chicago-based JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, seems like a formidable adversary. At least, that’s how he is portrayed in the music video for the post-soul outfit’s new single, “Rouse Yourself,” in which the actor Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) enlists the help of a hit man to vanquish Brooks, who he thinks is after his girlfriend, played by a beautiful-but-dead-eyed Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”).
That is the great, and subtle, irony of JC Brooks, who, when not in character as a soul-singing lothario, lives his life as an out gay man. “I kind of refer to JC as an alpha queen,” explains Brooks, laughing. “It’s sassy,” he says of his stage presence, “but because it’s lower-pitched sassy it doesn’t always read to everyone as ‘queen.’”
Brooks, who will appear with the band at Brighton Music Hall on Nov. 21, is the type of performer who emotes and gestures and sweats onstage, and he possesses a husky, nimble voice to match. His stage presence most often elicits comparisons to James Brown and Otis Redding, but, says Brooks, “I’m like, ‘No, my biggest performance influences are Patti Labelle and Tina Turner.’”
In fact, his background is not in rock or soul but in musical theater, a profession he was wholeheartedly pursuing in 2007 when he answered a Craigslist ad from guitarist Billy Bungeroth, who was looking to form, as Brooks puts it, a “post-punk-soul fusion” band. Bungeroth has stated that one parameter for the group was multi-ethnicity—a remark that Brooks says was really just a way of dancing around the fact that “he didn’t want to be an all-white band making soul music.”
“As long as you’re making good music, I don’t give a f–k what color you are,” says Brooks, who is black, adding, “I also think that if you are going to go into this genre specifically, it would be an egregious error to go into it without any sense of the culture that you are aping, of the culture that you are paying homage to—of why that music was of that time.”
All this incessant self-awareness somehow adds up to a visceral, dance-inducing show and polished, yet raw, recordings. “Howl,” the band’s third full-length release, has obvious roots in soul, what with its muscular bass lines and Brooks’ fierce, bluesy delivery. The members of the Uptown Sound, who besides Brooks and Bungeroth include Kevin Marks (drums, vocals), Andy Rosenstein (keys, vocals), and Ben Taylor (bass), have an affinity for jagged guitar riffs and aggressive drumming. Yet they can just as easily sink into a slinky backbeat, ignite a propulsive disco lick, or write a sing-songy indie-rock hook. Able to access and alchemize a seemingly endless array of retro-pop motifs, the band is as much of the moment as it is out of time.
Brooks, who does most of the lyric writing, tries to balance a fondness for metaphor with a newfound directness. “‘Howl,’ even with some of its purpley prose, is my most straightforward, plainspoken accounting of personal experience,” he says.
A fan of Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, Brooks at first abstained from confessional songwriting in favor of poetic lyricism and imaginative storytelling. But after the band added an ecstatic slow jam titled “River” to its live show, he changed his mind. “It was one of the songs [on which] I had tried taking a less metaphorical approach, and talking just about my mania, my depression,” he explains. “And because it got such a strong response, it kind of gave me a little bit more confidence in speaking more directly about my personal life.”
This frankness serves Brooks well throughout “Howl.” On “Rouse Yourself,” a bittersweet love song and the album’s first single, he employs the simplest language to reveal optimism at the core of regret: “If we had forever/ I hope we’d just get better, better, better/ That’s why it’s such a shame, yeah/ The ways we stay the same, same, same.”
For the most part, Brooks plays “the pronoun game,” as he calls it, opting for gender-neutral language. But a few songs on “Howl” are more overt, like the title track, a feverish number about the futility of human connection which features a soaring, sorrowful chorus: “He said he loved me, but he was wrong/He said he loved me, but he was young.”
Yet the singer’s sexuality is neither shtick nor centerpiece for the band, which is very much a product of five personalities all striving with the same dedication and love of pop music towards a common end. Brooks sings about girls as well as boys, inhabiting the slick machismo of the soul frontman with canny fluidity. The natural flamboyance of this womanizing character is slyly subverted every time he utters the words “he” and “him.”
What began as an artistic choice has become, by necessity, a statement. But Brooks is happy to shoulder the burden. “It shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately it does,” he says. “Visibility is very f–king important. Especially when you can have visibility in a positive way. People like what I’m doing. I’m not robbing banks or anything like that.”
It seems safe to take him at his word; after all, Brooks knows better than anyone the perils of lying. In life, as in art, the truth will out.