Jonathan Pretus talks frankly about his goals for the band on the eve of its performance at the My Spilt Milk Awards.
The Breton Sound plays arena-sized rock in indie-sized rooms. Many of the band’s models are pop classicists—The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Big Star—but the results are closer in spirit and sound to Weezer and Foo Fighters. It’s no coincidence that when the band performed a couple of Desert Island Disc shows last year, they covered Pinkerton and The Colour & The Shape from end to end.
Unlike many indie rock bands, The Breton Sound isn’t engaged in a one-sided argument with the marketplace, trying to convince it to love its sound. These aren’t the salad days for heavy rock, but The Breton Sound can see that there’s a world out there that likes the thing it does. The challenge is how to reach it.
“I think that what we do is good enough to be mainstream-acceptable, and also still be considered quality art,” says singer Jonathan Pretus. “I can also see it as the kind of thing that would thrive in the arena setting. I want us to be a big band. I want us to play stadiums. I don’t want to play 500-person clubs my entire life.”
The Breton Sound will play the My Spilt Milk Awards Thursday night at the Howlin’ Wolf.
Bands don’t always wear their ambition so nakedly. It’s cooler and easier on the ego to play off ambition, but there’s someone in every band that wants to big. That wants to climb in the van and tour for three months, go out, get seen, get laid, connect, and hopefully perform in front of the right person to make something happen. It’s easier to stave off disappointment that bands with those aspirations face 90 percent of the time by not putting those hopes out there.
Pretus’ ambition might be harder to take if he wasn’t a music fan first. He may have big goals, but there’s always time to nerd out over Beatles obscurities. He was ecstatic when the band was able to record its EP Don't Be Afraid of Rock & Roll Vol. 1 at Ardent Studios in Memphis—the studio that was home to Big Star, Alex Chilton, and Chris Bell.
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds made him want to make records, and it’s such an important album to him that he and his wife are flying to Boston to hear Wilson perform the album in its entirety with the Boston Pops Orchestra. When recording, he uses Pet Sounds as something to aim at, even though the band’s music sounds nothing like the album.
“As much as you want to believe you can be Brian Wilson, you’re not going to be Brian Wilson,” he says. “You’re not going to be John Lennon. But you can try, and the more you try, the better it’s going to make you because you’ve got a benchmark to shoot for. You’re not going for lowest common denominator stuff.”
He found Better Than Ezra’s How Does Your Garden Grow? to be equally inspirational in a very different way. “That was the first time that a band I’d grown up with went outside of the circle of the guitar rock they were known for and expanded on what they can do,” Pretus says. “I was 17 when that came out, and that opened my eyes. It’s not always about guitars.”
Equally important was the way the band’s existence gave him permission to play. Growing up, he wasn’t comfortable with glam or eye makeup or almost anything that characterized ’80s rock ’n’ roll. Rock often seemed like a thing that magic people from somewhere else did. Seeing guys like him from the area come out onstage in the same jeans and T-shirt that they wore the rest of the day opened his eyes.
“It seemed more possible, like anybody could do that if they’d just try it,” Pretus says.
Pretus doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t into music. His grandmother was a singer and his uncle was a musician, and he was fascinated by what they did. He discovered B.B. King albums in his father’s record collection as a young boy and was so into those albums his father took Pretus to see King play The Blue Room in the ‘80s for his sixth birthday. At one point, his father spoke to somebody who ushered them backstage, where King was sitting in the hotel kitchen drinking a Bud. “He physically picked me up, set me on his knee, and started asking me questions. What songs of mine do you like? Do you want to play music when you get older? He was so personable.”
Pretus is comfortable with his ambition, which he sees as fundamentally practical. He wants the kind of musical freedom that success buys in the music industry. He acknowledges that yes, you can also be free to do almost anything if you exist outside the industry, “but I don’t want to be poor,” he says. “I want to make a living and take care of the people that help us.”
Similarly, he can’t wait to play larger rooms because The Breton Sound sounds better in them. “We’re a loud band,” he says. “When we did the Ogden, I was a bag of nerves that day. When we play Voodoo or Jazz Fest, I’ve got no problem with that. It’s not the intimate nature of the show. It’s the experience and bigness of what we do, and how does it translate into that small space.”
Not surprisingly, Pretus has no concerns about money tainting art or leading him musically astray. He can point to the greats who got paid and still made great music.
“I’ve never not wanted us to be in large rooms and large venues,” he says. “I’ve wanted this to be as big as it possibly can be, to be big and successful.”
The My Spilt Milk Awards take place Thursday at 8 p.m. at The Howlin' Wolf, with performances by The Soul Rebels, Tank and the Bangas, Rotary Downs, The Breton Sound, AF the Naysayer, and comedian Andrew Polk, who'll host the show. Tickets are on sale now.