When Madison, Wisconsin’s rock trio The Nod split during the summer of 2011, lead singer Brett Newski went through the uncomfortable re-adjustments that follow any sort of break up. Then 24-years-old and working as a copywriter at an ad agency, Newski spent his non-working hours searching for ways to fill the gap left by his former group. By 2012, the songwriter decided to leave his job for the international void, traveling to Asia in pursuit of a new life and experiences.
Buying a one-way ticket to Bangkok with the intention to simply “write” and embrace whatever came his way, Newski traveled extensively throughout Asia, eventually setting up camp in Saigon, Vietnam. In Saigon, Newski has found himself a comfortable spot to manage his international record label Yes Please Records as well as create new music under the banner “Brett Newski and the Corruption” (along with drummer Mean Matt Green and bassist Jeffro Gantner.)
With the release of the band’s newest EP “Saigon At Night” along with an upcoming international tour (including a performance at this year’s Summerfest), JoeGuerilla got the lowdown from Newski about his new band, the Saigon music scene, street haircuts, homelessness and the perks of being lost.
JoeGuerilla: What brought you to Saigon?
Brett Newski: When the band The Nod split I was pretty bummed out. When you work at something so hard for so many years and all of a sudden it’s gone, it leaves a sizeable hole in your life and the way you spend your time. Soooo….I had a day job as a copywriter at an ad agency. I left that gig and bought a one way ticket to Bangkok. I had no plan whatsoever. The only mission was to bring a guitar and try to write. Then I found myself sleeping in the BKK airport next to a man with a peg leg. No joke. No sleep, and it was all very warped, but I couldn’t have been happier.
It takes a lot of courage to take a trip like that. How long have you been gone?
I’ve been in Asia six months. I traveled for three, then picked my favorite city and moved there on a whim. Saigon was it. Wasn’t ready to go home. It’s a good little music community with cheap rent and good food.
The great thing was the traveling evolved into this tour. I started booking shows and playing random house parties. I ended up doing well over 30 shows, so it was then coined the “Homeless in Asia Tour.” [laughs] A grimy one at that.
I can only imagine. I read some of the stories on your website.
It’s quite an odyssey over here. When you travel, you have so much time on your hands, which can be really bad. Because if you’re an anxious person, which I am, it gives you way too much time to think. Thinking too much is unhealthy. Sitting idle for too long is no good.
But in a way, isn’t that why we all travel? To think and have new experiences?
Indeed, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I started recording all these songs from the road, wherever I could. Hotels, makeshift studios, hostel rooms, people’s houses. And that evolved into an album called In Between Exits. “Rock/road/folk armageddon” we call it. Do you play music?
It’s difficult. I have eczema on my fingertips, which makes fretting or keying anything a terrible ordeal. It also makes for some pretty emo writing sessions when my fingers are bleeding all over the keyboard.
So drums it is. That’s a bitch, dude. But it’s also very rock n’ roll, right?
Not when putting my hands in my pockets becomes a painful process. What were some things bouncing around in your head when you wrote your newest EP Saigon At Night?
For one, we took some elements from that “Homeless in Asia” tour and kept them. They were important themes to me, like getting lost on purpose. Freedom and flexibility is addicting. You see all these people out here on the travel circuit who are totally hooked. Some of them are in their 50′s, still traveling around, staying in dingy places just to see the world. It’s quite encouraging to anyone who travels. Folks you meet on the road have a very open mind and usually carry a strange quirk. Characters a plenty; no plain Janes out here.
I’m seeing images of that Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach
I stay away from the beach, man. Sunburn. I’m pasty as hell [laughs]. Time stands still on the beach. But the cities are usually quite fun. They can be slimy and sludgy, but it’s where most of the music happens.
What’s the Saigon music scene like compared to Madison’s?
Very small. Smaller than Madison’s, but it’s very international. It’s a great hub to bunker down, write a record and then tour around the region. There’s many good festivals around SE Asia that bring in some pretty big acts. Madison is beautiful and stacked with talent, but there aren’t many bands there touring hard outside the region.
It’s a wacky experience here. We were recording at this studio right in the heart of a meat market. You walk outside for a break and there’s a lady chopping the head off a chicken right in your face.
How have these experiences affected your writing? I’ve always found that my own writing improves when I’m in a new place and culture.
I think just being here gives you a very worldly view when you write. The streets are mental here, so crowded with minimal traffic laws and narrow roads. You are literally always about to be hit by a motorbike, so you learn how to dodge them and they learn how to dodge pedestrians. It’s part of the fun and comes with the territory. You should come here sometime. The people are so jolly. It’s great.
Can you tell me about your record label Yes Please and how it’s evolved from its creation?
Yes Please started to evolve when The Nod was touring around the midwest. A few years ago it was used for very little, and now it’s picking up nice steam. We have five bands who are all very active. They are mostly based in Asia, but we have a few midwest bands and an artist from South Africa. It’s really been a great network of friends just helping each other out. The label is a non profit, so it’s a support circle. Each band has each other’s back. We exchange favors, contacts, shows, etc. It’s run by three or four guys now.
It sounds more like a family than a business
Yes sir. It’s a marvel. Matt Vend (South Africa) recorded a little EP with me here in Vietnam and played some shows. Now I’m going over there in September to tour with him. We’re working to expand the label more. It’s grown considerably here in Asia. We just look for really ambitious bands that play a lot of shows and play with a lot of heart. As musicians, we barely make ends meet financially, but we’re in it for the slow burn, you know?
Because you said it was an international community, has there been any language barriers with crowds or other musicians?
Many of the Vietnamese bands here have at least one or two members that speak and/or sing in English. English is much less prominent in Nam. We get by fine, and I am studying a little Vietnamese here and there. There’s a Yes Please band called The Standards from Bangkok. They have two British dudes and three Thais.
What do you look for in new bands that you sign? Are there key things you look for in particular or is it more of a gut feeling?
Here are the Big Three:
1) Work Ethic
2) How active they are. Do they play a lot of shows. Do they tour a lot?
3) And obviously look for the heart in their music. You can tell when a songwriter really believes in what he’s doing, those guys that just cut their teeth and tour and tour and tour. I love those guys, they keep me going as an artist.
That’s sort of a prerequisite for the music I like listening to. A sense of gritty earnestness.
Yeah dude, it’s a gritty DIY era. That’s half the battle. I love raw rock n’ roll man. It brings everything to life. Polish is for shoes.
For the last two questions, what are your plans for the rest of the year, and what’s going on outside your window right now? The Paris Review does a similar feature, and I thought it’d be interesting to ask a musician.
This is an important year. The band Brett Newski & the Corruption is up and running. We have a CD release next week with a US Tour to follow. Then we’ll be playing Summerfest in Milwaukee, and I’ll be doing the “Leave Town Smashing” South Africa tour in September. Then return to Saigon, probably out of money. Then the plan is to do a full length album and tour SE Asia the region. There are some great festivals and I just want to keep going while we’re full steam ahead.
For number two, I’ll have to look out the window quick…This street I’m staying on is quite a messy one. Authentic Vietnamese. I see motorbikes driving down the wrong side of the road. It’s quite dusty, with lots of random little creepy wedding shops. Half the shops on the street are closed with garage doors to cover the front windows. It’s funny, sometimes you’ll see a guy just bring a chair, mirror and light onto the public sidewalk and start giving people haircuts. I highly recommend this country.
Note: Check Out Brett Newski & The Corruptions new EP “Saigon At Night” Below, and be sure to share and comment!