Alex Brettin's musical alias paints him as an affable stoner, but he's as intense as they come.
“I’m not trying to soundtrack your fucking life,” says Alex Brettin, a.k.a. Mild High Club. “This is just my thing, and if you like it, hell yeah, I hope it’s inspiring, but if you don’t, fuck off.” This statement sums up Brettin’s marketing strategy pretty neatly. He takes his music seriously, and doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t going to listen to it that way.
Brettin will play Gasa Gasa Thursday as part of a tour to support his second studio album, Skiptracing, which came out last month. It’s a rich, textured effort, layered with bold harmonies and complex colorations, but Brettin doubts it will be given the consideration it's due. Critics and listeners alike, he believes, will pigeonhole the project as another psych rock album from the moment they hear its airy opening chords.
“I think music education has gone down the shitter,” he says. “People are totally unable to explain things, and it’s really easy to make comparisons to other bands and use blanket terms because we’re generally lazy. It’s a fruitful time for that kind of crap. We’ll see who picks up on the themes, and who picks up on the harmonies and the hyperbole and the irony. Some of that shit will just go over their heads and people will just think it’s called psych rock. So that’s just something I have to live with, you know?”
The themes he’s talking about here are not easy to uncover. Brettin’s voice is generally cloaked in reverb and twisted out of shape by Magical Mystery Tour-era synths, melting into the warm instrumentation surrounding it. His lyrics, therefore, are often difficult to decipher, at least for the casual listener. Then again, casual listeners are exactly the kind he is trying to avoid. Skiptracing is intended for the engaged enthusiast, not the passive partygoer. “It’s not necessarily about enjoying every moment,” he says. “It’s about trying to figure it out. It should be fun. It should be like a game. It should be like a mystery, which is the point of the album.
“It’s not like a musical soundtrack to Dick Tracy,” he clarifies. “This is like the musical equivalent of how Phillip Marlowe would approach an investigation.” Instead of spelling out a ready-made narrative, Mild High Club invites his listeners on a musical odyssey—a journey through cryptic references and obscure allusions—to the essence of his artistic identity. In his opinion, being referential is the most honest way to make art in a “postmodern world where everything is regurgitated.”
This philosophy is essential to one of the better songs on the album, “Tesselation,” which unabashedly borrows from Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” “Part of what I hoped would come out of this whole process is that Steely Dan would contact me about ripping them off because I essentially borrowed portions of their composition to write a song about it," he says.
“Myself and a friend of mine were trying to understand what the lyrics were about,” he explains. “We found out, after doing our research very deeply, that the song was about a famous LSD chef who made acid for the [Grateful] Dead—his name is Owsley Stanley—and how he was stubborn and made a mistake and got busted. So we were deciphering that song, and then the same event happened in our lives like three weeks later. Like almost the same exact scenario.” He doesn’t expand on this final revelation, other than to marvel at the “patterns and tessellations” in the universe, which he believes is constantly “speaking to us in weird, serendipitous ways.”
Still, the album does follow some of the conventions of noir. A gumshoed figure goes out thinking he knows what he’s looking for, eventually becomes disillusioned, has an existential crisis that shakes his belief in humanity. The specifics of the album’s concept are printed below in Brettin’s own words:
There’s an investigator—the protagonist—who sings throughout the first five songs. And by the fifth song he sees this character who he thinks is what he’s looking for, which is the “Kokopelli”, a Hopi Indian god. He’s a trickster god, and he represents the spirit of music and also fertility. From there, he has a conversation with the Kokopelli. The Kokopelli alerts him that “maybe what you’re doing isn’t so unoriginal, and maybe there is stuff out there that you can still explore, and you don’t have to be pessimistic, and you can expand on where we’ve come from.” And then by the end of the album, it goes back to the protagonist: “Chasing My Tail.” He realizes that what the fuck is he looking for in the first place? And he realizes that there’s nothing to look for, and all that he has is himself and his ability to learn and to grow. And “Chapel Perilous” is a concept developed by Robert Anton Wilson, who wrote several books—this one came out of a book called Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati—and yeah, just take a look at what that’s all about. It’s deeper than I think a lot of people are going to pick up on, and that’s fine. I mean, I’ll just explain it to the world, not to you.
Brettin digresses at points, clearly disappointed that I haven’t looked into his lyrics as deeply as he researched Steely Dan’s. Eventually, he returns to the album’s central purpose. “It’s about understanding and figuring out what you’re doing rather than blindly doing it for some vanity or something.” He continues, his voice growing louder and beginning to tremble. “It’s about exploring harmonies and breaking the bounds and norms of what you’re used to hearing.”
You wouldn’t know it from his alias, which he admits is basically just a weed joke, but Alex Brettin is an intensely serious musician. He can come off as didactic at times, but his attitude stems from a genuine passion for his craft, not from a place of pretense. Luckily for him, his music speaks for itself.
“All I would say as a message for whoever is reading this is go put on your headphones and dig a little deeper,” he says, in what he has already indicated will be his final statement. “Don’t just fucking put it on for the sake of needing some sort of extra stimuli. Actually get yourself involved if you want to go there. And if you don’t, fucking forget it.”