Over the past decade, as the driving force behind One Less Reason, Cris Brown has established himself as one of the most authentic voices in rock music. Across 13 years and a half-dozen albums, Brown has continued to push his creative limits while creating a unique brand of literate, heartfelt hard rock that resonates for deep within his soul. There have been many creative milestones along the way. A string of acclaimed albums and tour pairings with acts like Seether and Fuel built such solid word-of-mouth that the band’s independently-released 2010 album “Faces & Four Letter Words” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Without label backing, the band exceeded digital sales of 400,000 for that record, whose leadoff single, “Faces,” was featured in promo spots for “CSI: Miami’s” 2011 premiere.
One Less Reason’s upcoming sixth album, “The Memories Uninvited,” marks a unique time period in the band’s history. The result of two years of hard work, the impressively eclectic album features Brown’s most powerful songwriting work to date. It was during those two years of creation and soul searching that Brown purchased Kiva Recording Studio and House of Blues Studio on Rayner St. in Memphis—an address home to Tattooed Millionaire, the label he founded with John Falls in 2014. This acquisition allowed him to break any creative chains by eliminating time constraints, budgetary issues or studio concerns. The resulting freedom resulted in the ability to demo the album’s songs more extensively, record them more painstakingly, hone the arrangements, blend genres, styles and tones until the listener was able to hear exactly what he heard in his head. In short, it’s a a heartfelt musical journey not to be missed.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Cris Brown to discuss his musical roots, the creative growth he has experienced as an artist over the years and the challenges of bringing “The Memories Uninvited” to life.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did music first come into your life?
It’s kind of a funny thing. I was so young. I guess I was about 7 years old and my dad played a record, “Frampton Comes Alive,” and the song was “Do You Feel Like We Do?” There was something about the guitar solo, everybody knows this song, and it blew my mind. From that point on, there was really nothing else I was interested in other than music. When I was 14 years old, I had become better at guitar than most of the people I went to school with. There was a local band of older guys, probably in their late 20s or early 30s, and they invited me to come play with them. There I was, 14 or 15 years old, playing with these 30-year-old guys who could really play. Playing with those guys is really what honed me into the next level of being in a band, trying to figure out how to write a song and how to play in key over changing keys and whatnot. That was my introduction into being in a band and I stayed with them for six or seven years before I finally went off to start my own thing.
Who had a big impact on you and what you do musically?
I’ll tell you what, I was really, really into technical, almost death metal type stuff with bands like Tourniquet. One day around 1994 or 1995, I picked up the wrong cassette and popped it in. It was Matchbox Twenty’s “Yourself or Someone Like You.” I was like, “Ugh. I can’t believe I picked this up!” But the first song I heard from Rob Thomas was “Long Day.” It has the lyric — “It’s sitting by the overcoat, the second shelf, the note she wrote, that I can’t bring myself to throw away.” I thought to myself, “Holy crap! This guy has so much to say and he only has to do it over three or four chords and he has a great band backing him up!” That really peaked my interest into the ‘90s rock band’s like Tonic, Matchbox Twenty, Collective Soul and all these other bands. I have to say, these ‘90s bands are the ones that really made me want to write music, more so than anyone else. My dad just nurtured that! He saw that I was passionate about that at a young age. He was really the catalyst for opening the doors for me to do what I wanted to do. Now, it is my living and it is what I do from the time I was up until the time I go to bed!
It’s not easy to make a living as a musician. To what do you attribute your longevity?
I would say longevity comes from not alienating your fan base. I know a lot of people will go out and make a completely different sounding record because they are tired of what they have been doing and want to go do something else, which can completely alienate your fan base. I think if those people have committed to you, you have a commitment to them. It is up to you, the artist, to write the songs that you feel are great but you also have a commitment to them to make sure you deliver it in a vehicle you are both compatible with, if you know what I mean. I did a side project because I wanted to do some ‘90s rock stuff but that had nothing to do with One Less Reason. I think that always keeping the home team happy is very important. You have to listen to what they are saying. If they are saying, “I really like this song and that song,” when you go play live, you play those songs! It doesn’t matter if you want to play them. For example, our song “Favorite Color,” is one I have played a million times! I would rather hit myself in the face with a hammer than sing the song but if they want to hear it, who am I to say, “I am too cool to sing this song.” I think having the finger on the pulse of your listeners is the key to longevity, especially if you are trying to make a living in the music industry because they are the boss! They will tell you your good days and your bad days!
What went into finding your creative voice as an artist early on?
We were kind of a hardcore band for awhile and were called Lapdog. I was 19 years old, angry and hated everything. Then I went and worked with a guy named Rick Beato, who was a producer who worked with Shinedown and several other big bands. While we were in pre-production, I was kind of noodling and singing. Then he said, “OK. Play me your songs.” We started playing this heavy stuff and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “What are you talking about? This is what we do.” He said, “Dude, you can sing! Why are you up here screaming like a fool!” [laughs] Six days later, we had our first four song EP with “Favorite Color,” “Worthless,” “Slight of Hand” and “Snow Angels.” When we left there, we changed our name from the previous band name to One Less Reason. He really gave me the blueprints for the sound that would eventually become successful. Well, I guess it depends on how success is defined by you. My definition of success is that I get to do what I love to do from the time I get up until the time I go to bed. Like I said, I don’t have to adhere to anyone except for the people who listen and buy my records.
Let’s talk about this new record, “The Memories Uninvited.” Did you have goals or aspirations when you set out to make this album?
No. Honestly, when I started writing this, it wasn’t even really writing a record. I was just writing some songs. I wasn’t even sure I was going to put out another record, if you want to know the truth about it. I have put out quite a few records and I kind of thought that I had said what I wanted to say and had done what I had wanted to do in music. The record just kept coming! I demo’d the record once and then I demo’d it again. I ended up recording this record over and over, right around nine times, before I was happy with the end product. Whenever I sat down and listened to it, I thought, “Wow. This is is really a great record. I’ve got to put this out.” It was cool because I had no pre-defined notion of what this record was. I wasn’t saying, “OK. I want to write a single today.” I really just sat down and said, “I’m just going to play music that I feel. How it comes out is how it comes out. It will sound like me and, at the end of the day, if I like it then hopefully the listeners will like it too.”
What were the biggest challenges in bringing this album to life?
With this record, it was really about taking my time, saying what I wanted to say and not rushing through anything. Like I said, I recorded it eight or nine times, so it was awesome to just go in and do exactly, and I mean exactly, what you want to have done and have no time restraints whatsoever. I own The House of Blues Studios in Memphis, so we literally shut it down for everyone else and just focused on my record. I heard Alex Prado, who has done the Pierce The Veil and The Devil Wears Prada records, come in and he engineered it for me. It was cool that every single hit was scrutinized when it came to the drums, every bass note was scrutinized, every guitar part and the way the vocals went together. If there were days we didn’t feel like recording, we just went and did whatever it was we wanted to do. The days we did record, we went at it until we felt like we had accomplished what we were going after. This was kind of like the old days when bands used to go in and spend as much time as it took to make a record and there was no recording on days you didn’t want to record. If you wanted to go play Playstation, you went and played Playstation! [laughs] There were no restraints whatsoever. This record was a complete freedom record to do as I pleased.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process? How have things changed or stayed the same over the years?
Pretty much all of my songs are about what I am going through and what is actually happening in my life. This record was a little bit harder because I have two children now and things are going very well. It is easy to write songs when you are unhappy and are a struggling artist! When you are first starting you are struggling, living couch to couch, living in a van and hoping someone will buy you some food along the way! [laughs] It is a little bit different when you are financially stable and you have a wife and children, you go out on a bus or fly to shows. It is really a lot harder to write those songs and it takes longer because I have to focus on different things in my life to write about, more so than the things the first records were about. The first records were about angst, relationships and the bad parts of everything. I found myself being happy most of the time now, so it is hard to write songs because when you are happy, you just want to go off and be happy! [laughs] There is a huge difference between the way I started and the way I do it now but it is the same feeling. I always know when it is time to write the music. It is almost like it is a poison in my bloodstream that I have to get out of me or I am going to die. I just listen to my emotions and where I am at. I always know when it is time to write and when it is time to go off and be happy now, more so than when I was younger. I used to think everything was crap and I was angry about everything, so I would say it was easier to write the songs earlier in my career but now I just take my time and as long as it takes to write them.
I am sure some songs come easier than others. Which ones came easily and which were the hardest to nail down?
The song “The Lie” came very easily and it pretty much just wrote itself. The song that came the hardest was probably “On The Way Down.” I wrote the song about my niece who has been struggling with things over the last few years and I wanted to make sure that I worded it right because a lot of people around me are going to know what it’s about. I wanted to make sure what I was saying was what I really meant because once you put it out there, there is no getting it back.
As you mentioned, there was some question as to if this album would ever become a reality. I’m glad it did but where do you see yourself headed in the future musically?
I don’t know. I am going to tour this record and enjoy this record. I hate to say it but I have already started planning the next record! [laughs] I have about four songs for the next record! I find myself wanting to do this for a few more years as far as the performance side goes. Then, I am going to see where I am at. At some point in the next decade, I am going to bow out of the performance side of music and step into the background. I am going to write and produce songs for other bands, which I do now, but it will be my main gig. Music has been great to me. The fans that buy our music are more like family and they have been great. When I do decide to leave music, I want to leave it on my own terms. I don’t want to be forced out of music because I got to a place where I had to bow out.
We have all seen the music industry change immeasurably through the years and you have been in the thick of it. What is the best part of being an artist in this day and age?
The best part of being an artist in today’s climate is that you have access to do all the things that major labels can do, if you are willing to put the work in. You have access to an audience, unlike before. You know, 15 years ago, you just had to go play shows and hope you got on the radio. That was it! That was all there was! Now, with Facebook, Spotify and Soundcloud, you have a readily available audience but you just have to go out and get them!
What is the best way for fans to support you at this point in your career?
Word of mouth! Word of mouth is absolutely the best way. Whether it is on your Facebook page by posting a song that someone might check out or saying, “Hey, check out this band.” Word of mouth and publications trump everything else. If a friend tells me, “Hey, check out this band,” I am going to check that band out. Whether if I am solicited by someone that I don’t know, there is a 90% chance I am going to forget about it within a 20-minute period. It’s like back in the day when people used to make mix tapes and give them to each other or CDs with 200 MP3s on it and give it to their friends. That is still the best way for a fan to help out. I hate the word fan because it seems so derogatory to me because it makes it seem like the band is up here and the person listening is down there. Honestly, I feel like everyone is on the same playing field because who are we as musicians if there is nobody on the other end to listen? I think one needs the other and it is definitely a 50/50 relationship.
You have come a long way over the years. What stands out as your creative milestones?
I would say the biggest milestone for me, when I felt like this whole music thing had really paid off, was when I was able to buy House of Blues Studios. It is the same studio that Matchbox Twenty’s “Yourself or Someone Like You” was made in and that was the record that made me want to write songs. I own the place that record was made in and I got to make my record there! That was really one of the biggest milestones for me. Of course, the shows are fantastic when you play in front of these huge crowds but standing in that space and thinking, “Wow. I actually own this place where all of these incredible records were made.” Collective Soul’s first record was made there and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s records were made there. Anybody can define success in different ways, whether it is a million dollars or a private jet, but standing in that studio was a defining moment for me.
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
I think the first lesson would be to be hard headed enough to not quit. Everybody has an opinion of what you are, what they think you should be and puts their own limitations on you. If you see yourself being this thing that you want to be, stay true to that vision. Don’t waiver for a major label because the major label will just tell their guy you should dress a certain way. A major label guy told me I should lose some weight, sing like this or wear my hair like that. People who are listening know when you are being real and when you believe in it. If you don’t believe in it, they will never believe in it and that holds true in every aspect of your life whether you want to be a singer, songwriter or an airplane pilot. I want to believe the guy flying my plane believes he knows what he’s doing! Ya know what I mean? [laughs] If he shows me otherwise, then I am probably not going to get on his plane! That is the main thing — stay true to who you are, your initial goal and what your vision was. These people who tell you to do it differently, 90% of the time in their own life they are failing because they are so busy jumping from one wagon to the next.
You are known for your live performances and have plenty of dates coming our way this year. What can we expect from you when you hit the stage these days?
We will be going out to do some support shows for Sick Puppies in September and October. We won’t be able to take our production out for that but when we start doing headlining shows we try to put on the truest show that we can. It is emotional. It’s loud. It’s got a lot of lights. It’s got fire in the places that will let us shoot fire and it doesn’t in the places that won’t! [laughs] We try to bring back a rock show like the ones we grew up watching before the ship started to sink and everybody was like, “Let’s just put a guitar amp up there and let you do your thing.” We are trying to bring out our own version of those rock shows that we grew up with. That is the best way I can put it. It’s going to almost be like an ‘80s rock show, of course on the level of the stage we are on now. It ain’t gonna be a Shinedown or Nickelback production but it’s going to be as much as we can cram into the places we are playing! That’s for sure!
Thanks so much for your time today, Cris. You are an inspiration and we wish you continued success!
I really appreciate you saying that! Hopefully, we will see each other on the road some time soon, so definitely come hang out!
Awesome! I wouldn’t miss it!
Follow the continuing adventures of Cris Brown and One Less Reason on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Spotify. Check out the official site for the band at www.olrmusic.com. ‘The Memories Uninvited’ will be released on August 19th, 2016!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.