When Rolling Stone magazine listed Miniature Tigers as one of the Top 25 Bands on My Space in 2006, Charlie Brand took it in stride. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the ink. He did. But to him, it represented the difference between life in the virtual world and what he calls the organic approach to building a fan base.
"We got that early on," the singer/guitarist says by phone from New York of the RS mention. "We hadn't even played a show yet."
The organic approach, Brand explains, is about plain old fashioned hitting the road. "We see bands that come out of nowhere and instantly get blown up on, like, Pitchfork." Their fan base, he says, if they ever even have one will be flakey. "We've been building our fan base over the last two years of touring."
Indeed. The group that Spin called one of the nine hottest bands at the prestigious CMJ (College Music Journal) Music Marathon in 2008 hasn't spent much time at home in the years since they began gigging in earnest. Miniature Tigers toured eight months on the road during 2009 alone, part of which was in support of Ben Folds.
"We did, like, a month with Folds which was really crazy, going from playing [our own] small local shows to opening up for him in these huge theaters. After that, we went straight into another tour with another Arizona band and were playing to, like, 10 people a night in Boise Idaho and stuff like that."
On the eve of their tour launch with the Freelance Whales, Brand says the Tigers are not yet jaded. "I started this band just writing songs in my bedroom and sending demos to friends and stuff and now here we are, staying at the Hudson Hotel and playing a show tonight with the Roots. It really doesn't feel real to me."
But Charlie Brand has big ideas, and one wonders if Miniature Tigers have room enough to accommodate them all. If Tell It to the Volcano was a slightly nerdy power pop diary of Brand's relationship troubles ("It went from a bad thing to a good thing. That was the theme of that album,") then this year's Fortress is a darker-toned tour of isolation.
"I like solitude," he says, "but at the same time solitude has a downside. I was writing about that and about the emotional walls that people put around themselves." Each album has some kind of theme, he says, a thread that connects all the pieces. "But, I could never sit down and say OK, I'm going to write a concept album."
Then again, Brand says that self-diagnosis is a faulty science. "As an artist, it's hard to observe the things that you do yourself."
Fortress has a musical complexity not present in Volcano, as if things were orchestrated this time around by spirits with gifts on the order of a Brian Wilson. There's always been a vintage Liverpool-meets-the-1960s-California-coast flavor to Brand's songwriting, but Fortress takes that to another level entirely.
"When bands make the same record over and over it's kind of a buzz kill. I like it when bands make sharp left turns." But can the fans, whether organic, virtual, or otherwise hang with change?
"That's the hope," says Brand. "Fortress was definitely a left turn for a lot of people. But for us, it was a natural progression. Our last album was written when I was maybe 19 or 20. I've matured as a songwriter since then, and my tastes have changed."
That said, it wasn't Brand's intention to make a complex psychedelic record and turn his fans off. "Those were the songs," he says, "that came out."
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"We don't want to alienate people. When we were making Fortress we thought that fans of Tell it to the Volcano would be pretty put off by the new stuff but there was nothing that would make us change direction artistically."
Brand says he already has enough material written for another album and that even though he's ahead of schedule he hopes to get Miniature Tigers into the studio next year. The new songs, he says, carry the footprint of Simon and Garfunkel.
"My foundation is the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and I like a lot of modern bands like Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective. Those bands are really inspiring. I also listen to '60s stuff like Van Dyke Parks. But Simon and Garfunkel are like, a huge influence right now. It changes," he says. "I go through phases."