There they were, dressed to the nines in their Western ware and looking back at me from the ad for their debut album, Honor Among Thieves. I think it might’ve been frontman Dave Kincaid’s bolo tie that really caught my eye – snazzy, Dave, snazzy – but whatever the case, their name stuck with me. As a result, whenever it was that I was introduced to the band’s music, I was, like, “Oh, right, those guys!”
If I had to guess who made me hip to their tunes, it’s a fair bet that the great introducer was Jeff Castelloe; he and I have known each other for over thirty years now – his mother was my 3rd grade teacher – but starting at the arse end of the ’80s, we also spent a few years together in the music retail trenches. Jeff has also been guilty of wearing a bolo tie at one time in his life, so maybe that’s what led him to The Brandos in the first place, but all I know for sure is that he was a fan of theirs by the time he and I started working together at Record Bar, because the store used to subscribe to both HITS Magazine and ICE Magazine, and he would regularly scour their pages for information about the long-rumored sophomore effort from the band. Little did either of us know at the time that we were waiting in vain…but more on that in a few minutes.
Right now, let’s talk about this great little nugget of Americana from 1987 known as Honor Among Thieves.
As noted, The Brandos were and – surprise! – still are fronted by Dave Kincaid, a man with a very distinctive voice. There’s definitely more than a hint of John Fogerty, which is why it makes perfect sense to find a cover of CCR’s “Walking on the Water” on their first album…better to acknowledge the similarity right off the bat, right?…but Kincaid’s voice is deeper and has more of an ominous growl to it. Our beloved revolutionary editor-in-chief, Jeff Giles, listened to an MP3 by the band and asked, “Is this Cinderella?” I think he was kidding, but, okay, yeah, maybe I can actually kinda hear a little Tom Kiefer in there. (Not a lot, you understand, but maybe just a teensy bit, and probably only then because both bands have acknowledged an appreciation of the blues.) Whoever you think he sounds like, there’s little question that Kincaid has the goods as both a frontman and, as it turns out, a songwriter as well.
“Gettysburg,” the album’s lead-off track, finds Kincaid absorbing the reality that a member of his family was a participant in the Civil War and reliving that history for himself. It’s a powerful song, but it’s the second verse that really gets you:
I’ve seen a lot of wicked things
Heard a lot of people cry
I know it couldn’t touch the pain
Of seeing 50,000 die
I saw the sun fall away
The moon shone white on their graves
Truth be told, if you like your Americana a trifle dark, then Honor Among Thieves is an album with precious little chaff and a whole hell of a lot of wheat. “A Matter of Survival” finds Kincaid taking a discussion about a relationship and making it sound damned near like a threat, while “Nothing to Fear” is one of the most ironically-titled songs you’ll ever here, since its first verse offers up the lines, “Killer on the loose, they say / Heard it on the radio.” The title track stomps along just as ominously, and…well, what can I tell you that I haven’t already clarified? Yes, this is a dark album, but that darkness is what leads to its ultimate greatness. That’s why both Mr. Castelloe and I were chomping at the bit for that second album…and why we got progressively more angry and depressed when it never showed.
Actually, as it turns out, it kind of did show…but not in America. And when it comes to being angry and depressed about the matter, it’s fair to say that we ain’t go nothing on Dave Kincaid.
I’ve previously waxed nostalgic about those dark days before you could look up every single factoid on the internet, and The Brandos were a perfect example of a band whose whereabouts could’ve been discovered if only I’d known who to contact about them. Turns out that the band moved from Relativity Records, who released Honor Among Thieves, and signed a contract with RCA Records, but even though the guys recorded a follow-up album entitled Trial by Fire, RCA never got around to releasing it before dropping the band. Nice, huh? Fortunately, however, The Brandos had been steadily building a following in Europe, and when a German label offered them a record deal, they jumped at it. As of this writing, they’ve actually got half a dozen albums to their name…but none but the debut have ever seen release in their native land.
I hunted down Dave Kincaid online and asked him a few questions about Honor Among Thieves and the band’s subsequent career. His responses were decidedly illuminating…and wholly depressing.
You fronted the Seattle band The Allies and scored at least a bit of national success with your single, “Emma Peel.” What led you to disband the group, leave Seattle, and move to New York to form The Brandos?
At the time I left Seattle, we were one of the top-drawing bands in the club circuit, with a regional hit with “Emma Peel.” We had tried several times to get a national record deal and were finally offered one in ‘83; it was a lousy deal, though, and we didn’t take it. Not long after, our video was entered in MTV’s “Basement Tapes” contest; we won a semifinal but not the final, and after that, I decided it was time to move on. Seattle is a great town, I loved it, but I had reached a point where I felt pretty complacent and generally uninspired. In this country, it’s New York or L.A. I’m really not at ease with the Hollywood scene and found the directness and honesty of New York, however brutal, to be much more appealing. New York is like a good drill sergeant: tough but fair. I was also looking at the scene in New York; there were bands emerging like The Del Lords, and this made perfect sense to me. (Writer’s note: The lone album by The Allies is back in print and can be found for purchase via Amazon’s download service right here.)
Do you have any memorable anecdotes to relate from the recording sessions for Honor Among Thieves?
Probably the most memorable is the fact that “Gettysburg,” which became the first single, video and was the album opener, was the last song written and recorded for the album. We barely rehearsed it, played with half-finished lyrics at a couple of little club gigs, then went in to the studio. We played through one take just to warm up, then did a real one, and that was it. It was one of those rare moments when we were all completely on the same page, and it was fresh and spontaneous. Anyone who has done a lot of recording can tell you that this doesn’t happen that often. It was immediately apparent to everyone – and I mean everyone, family, girlfriends, what have you – that we had something with that song, The music business at the time seemed to agree, and we were very quickly signed, and on national radio and MTV.
Did you have any hesitation about including two covers on a debut album?
None whatsoever. All of our heroes, from The Beatles, Creedence, The Who, etc., had all recorded covers not only on their debut albums but on subsequent ones as well. The trick is to take them and make them your own, which we had been doing since the inception of the band. We really enjoy doing that, and still do it to this day. On our last album, 2006’s Over the Border, we recorded three covers, by The Sonics, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and even Pete Seeger. We’ll probably do this again in the future, too. We’ve found it to be one of the ways of keeping ourselves inspired.
Do you have a particular favorite song among the originals?
Well, the obvious one was and still is “Gettysburg.” The song is very personal; I wrote it after my first visit to the battlefield, finding my great-great grandfather’s name on a plaque there. But, it was also the kind of big, blustery anthemic song I’d always wanted to write. I guess it took that subject matter to really make it happen. After we had finished it, Ernie Mendillo, our bass player, described it as sounding like “Creedence meets The Who,” which I think is a fair description. This reflects two of my biggest influences, and became sort of our trademark sound.
Were you already planning to entitle your second album Trial by Fire before you started having issues with RCA? And what exactly happened with that situation? Did the album (or any of its songs) ever see the light of day?
Yes, the song “Trial by Fire” was already written and set to be the album’s title before the problems started. From our perspective, what happened was the first Gulf War of 1990. Right after it started, the entire music industry just panicked and sort of imploded on itself. RCA dropped something like 30 bands, which was a shame. For a brief moment, the label was making an effort to be progressive, having signed a number of younger bands like ourselves and the Del Fuegos. We would have taken it personally if not for the fact that almost everybody except Elvis, Dolly Parton and the Eurythmics were dropped from the label. These songs did see the light of day later on, although they had to be re-recorded, on 1996’s Pass the Hat and 1998’s Nowhere Zone.
When did you realize that you had a significant fan base building overseas?
We had toured Germany in early 1987 even before the release of Honor Among Thieves, and it was clear we could get a foothold over there. After the RCA debacle, we tried to get another deal in the states and got close, but nothing panned out. At that moment, it seemed like the only things getting signed were rap and very slick country. We didn’t fall into either of those categories and were forced to look elsewhere. In ‘92, we were offered a deal by a German label called SPV, and that being what there was to be had, we accepted it.
You guys were Americana before Americana was cool. For all your European success, do you still get a little wistful that your native land has never managed to catch on?
Actually, from my perspective, we broke at exactly the time when for a brief moment Americana was had not only become cool, but fashionable, which is not always the same thing. I’m afraid though, that “wistful” would be a gross understatement as to how we feel about the loss of our US career. “Heartbreaking” is more on the mark. We love touring in Europe, don’t get me wrong – one could do much worse – but have nothing but regrets that we can’t work at home too. When we signed the deal with SPV, the deal was for worldwide control of the rights. At the time, we didn’t think twice about it, all the US deals we had signed before this had all been for world rights as well. The problem was that when we were offered deals in the states later on, which we were on two occasions, they had to go through and be approved by the German label. SPV basically had us in a hostage situation: they wanted and expected big bags of money from a US label to be able to release and market our albums. This was not financially appealing or even feasible to the US labels, and we were stuck. For this reason, when we released a live album the next year (1995), we titled it THE BRANDOS, IN EXILE – LIVE! (This went right over the label’s heads.) At this point, probably the only way we will make our way back home is if we have a huge, phenomenally successful hit in Europe…and I ain’t holding my breath. If that were to happen, it would most likely spill back over to the States. Otherwise, we’d have to start over at home completely, and we’re not in any position to do that. We’ll just keep at it, and hope that some day we can come home again.
Will’s Parting Shot:
As noted, The Brandos are still alive, well, and have a considerable discography. You can find details about their studio recordings and live albums over at Haunted Field Music, but to close things on a more recent note, check out the band’s performance of the title cut from their most recent release, 2006’s Over the Border. It’s pretty clear that Kincaid and company still have the goods.