Created as a side project for a group of Pittsburgh-area musicians in 1997, THE JULIANA THEORY went onto last nearly a decade, signing to indie Tooth & Nail and major label Epic along the way. Underappreciated in their time, the band called it quits in 2006 and subsequently have cultivated a large following within the indie and emo scenes. In the interim, frontman BRETT DETAR told himself and everyone else that he was done with music, moved to Los Angeles and pursued other endeavors. But the draw to create was something he couldn’t fight. He talks about his album, Bird In The Tangle, in his first official interview as a solo artist.
Why a solo album? Why now?
Well, I never set out to make a solo album or to be a solo artist. After the [Juliana] Theory broke up, I didn’t know what to do. I tried a few different musical collaborations, but none of them worked out. I got pretty depressed, quit music, moved to Los Angeles, opened an online vintage clothing store and sold dresses. The thing was, even through all of that time where I was telling myself I had quit, I kept writing all these songs. I would just quickly sing them into a little recorder and then forget about them. It didn’t matter what I did, I kept being drawn back to music, to musical people and to writing music. One late night after having a few rounds of Maker’s [Mark] with a buddy, I listened to the recordings and realized I had what sounded to me like the makings of an album. I decided to work on the songs and then go to Nashville and record them live with a band of seasoned, old-timey country kinda guys.
You’re giving your record away for free. How can you afford to do that?
I can’t really afford to do it, but I’m doing it anyway. I self-funded the recording of the album, pressing of it on vinyl and everything else. I guess I’m just taking the “drug dealer” approach to releasing it—give the whole thing away and hopefully people will like it and come back for more later. If it does well, I’ll make money off of it somehow.
Lots of folks in punk, indie and metal bands praise Johnny Cash, so it isn’t surprising to hear the country leanings on your solo album.
Johnny Cash is the gateway drug. He’s the guy it’s cool to like if you like no other country music. It’s like, “Well, I like Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, but that’s it.” Cash is an American hero and a total icon. But I guess my love of old country, bluegrass and roots music goes way beyond him. I spent almost seven or eight years listening to nothing but old country, folk, Delta blues, bluegrass and its various offshoots. The stories, the music, the production—or lack thereof—and the realness of that music just touched my soul. The sound of a pedal steel guitar makes me stop dead in my tracks. Even now, if I’m out in public and I hear a steel guitar or a banjo coming over some tiny speaker somewhere, I stop and listen to hear what it is. I can’t help it. That music moves me. I just made a record that reflects the music I’ve been eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the last seven years. I don’t think you can do roots music justice or do it with authenticity coming from a rock music background if you aren’t truly steeped in the music and the history. I always had bits and pieces of that music in me, but it just grew. I’m certain that if I would’ve tried to make a record like this immediately following the break up of the Juliana Theory, it would’ve been one-dimensional and ultimately suck. I needed four or five more years to develop my own take on it. Of course, I also had absolutely amazing, seasoned players all over my record.
The album opener, “Empty House On A Famous Hill,” sounds like it’s about your time living in Los Angeles. Is that true or false?
Absolutely true. I adore the city of Los Angeles. It’s a place that is incredibly near and dear to my heart. The night before I moved to New York, I was sitting in this house that had nothing left inside. My dog, who was basically like my kid, died suddenly and very violently only a few weeks earlier, and I just kinda sat there with my acoustic guitar and voice echoing through this completely empty house in the hills and I wrote that song. I sorta focused on a lot of the negative things about Los Angeles and some of my experiences that came from my internal struggle. Dear City of Angels, if you’re listening, I love you and I didn’t mean to make you out to be so bad there. [Laughs.]
You’ve lived in L.A., New York City, Nashville and Pittsburgh. Which place will always be home?
That’s a huge part of this album. I lived in seven or eight different houses and apartments in five completely different cities while writing it, and that constant movement and displacement fueled many of the emotions and feelings behind the album. There’s a beautiful map [on the LP gatefold] that was hand-drawn by the talented Ben Tegel. It’s the gatefold in the LP and it’s based on that concept of me living in those five different places. But Pittsburgh will also be the home of my youth. It’s where all my childhood friends live. It’s where my family and my hockey team are.
Considering you spent a large part of your career making albums for Tooth & Nail, are you worried about a backlash from songs like “Cocaine Whiskey And Heroin”?
I’m certainly not worried about any backlash. The thought never crossed my mind. I feel the most freedom I’ve ever had musically and lyrically, but that’s really just because I’m writing everything and deciding everything myself. There was absolutely no one to answer to on this record. I didn’t have to think, “How do we keep parts of our old sound to keep old fans happy and still progress and do what we want to do?” I just made the album I believed in and hoped everyone didn’t hate it, but I made it for me.
You’ve recently mentioned that you’re singing in a register that’s more “natural” for you these days. Was the voice we heard in the Juliana Theory not truly “you”?
It took a great deal of work to sing in the voice I sang with in the Juliana Theory. We started that band as a joke. Before that, I was a guitar player and we thought we’d start this side project to do two or three shows. I wasn’t a singer, but I became one for a side project that ended up lasting 10 years. I wrote all these high-pitched, nasally parts on our first demo that weren’t how I sounded when I sang by myself in private. I ended up getting known for that voice and I didn’t know better. I had to sing high and loud to hear myself with our crappy P.A. system, and I guess it just went from there. As things progressed, I always double-tracked my vocals and there were usually tons of effects. But on my new record, there isn’t any pitch correction—which is obvious during plenty of what I’ll call “liberal pitch” moments. To be honest, the sound of my voice in a lot of Juliana Theory songs almost offends me. It sounds terrible to me. I sounded like a drum machine singing through a set of nostrils.
What kind of configuration will you take on live?
I’m still dialing that in. I think I’ll end up doing a bunch of shows just totally by myself and then hopefully some shows with a full band—drums, upright bass, steel, fiddle and all that. It just depends on supply and demand, I guess.
Is there a lesson to be learned from the story of the Juliana Theory?
Honestly, the only lesson I can think of is that you have to follow your heart. When musicians start thinking too much about moving units or anything else, the art suffers. I believe that music is art and a very high form of art. Call it pretentious, but music is an extension of the soul—it shouldn’t have to follow rules. If I learned anything at all, it’s to do what you believe in. People can sense authenticity. They can hear believability. Work as hard as you possibly can. “Style” and “sound” are secondary to songs.
You recently wrapped a series of reunion shows with the Juliana Theory. Was that truly the last we’ll see or hear of the band?
The reunion shows were a blast. It was incredible to play those old songs with my brothers again. I love those guys so much, and it was magical to share the stage with them again. It was like stepping into a time machine and being 13 years younger. Everyone who came out to the shows and traveled so far just blew my mind. But, honestly, I don’t have the heart for distorted power chords and modern rock any longer, and I’d be faking it if I was making new music like that right now. I absolutely respect what we did and the time we shared together, but people can sense authenticity. Big bombastic rock just isn’t in my heart right now. Besides that, even if I wanted to make a modern rock record, the guys are busy with families and school and kids. Most of the guys are in a great new band called Vesta, and they just put out a record. It’s as close to the Juliana Theory as you can get. alt