On Dec. 13, the Garden Party will be playing a record release show for their new album, “Tennessee,” in The Pike Room at The Crofoot in downtown Pontiac. Other bands on the bill include the Bends, Tart and the Paper Sound. Doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets are $10 each. For more information, call (248) 858-9333 or visit www.thecrofoot.com.
CLINTON TOWNSHIP/STERLING HEIGHTS/FRASER — Marriage, parenthood and family values are not the foundation on which rock ‘n’ roll is traditionally built, but for local band the Garden Party, these eternally wholesome topics are the engine that drives their music and their lives.
The Garden Party are getting ready to release their fourth album, “Tennessee,” on Dec. 13 with a show at The Crofoot in downtown Pontiac (see sidebar). The record serves as a sequel of sorts to their 2005 release, “Pointed at the Sky,” which, through the eyes of a songwriter in his early ’20s, chronicled the thrills and travails of youth before looking ahead to impending adulthood. While “Pointed at the Sky” imagined what it would be like to settle down, get married and start a family, “Tennessee” picks up the story several years later, when these ideas have crystallized into reality.
“This whole album is really all about how interconnected family can be,” said Matthew Brown, the band’s lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter. “That ended up being the direction that I wanted to send the album in. … These were songs that struck me as a shared experience, something that we all felt, and they were about the interconnectedness of all of us and the meaning of family and the importance of faith. So I guess it’s sort of our grand statement.”
Such concepts seem to be a natural fit for the Garden Party, which is truly a family affair. In addition to Brown, the quintet consists of his younger brother, guitarist and singer James Brown; his younger sister, bassist and singer Megan Cracchiolo; his childhood best friend, multi-instrumentalist and singer Joseph Cracchiolo, who is also Megan’s husband; and his high school buddy, drummer Thom Monks.
Three members of the band also make their living as teachers in the local public schools: Matthew and James Brown are both English teachers at Chippewa Valley High School in Clinton Township, while Megan Cracchiolo teaches third grade at Mark Twain Elementary School in Fraser. All five musicians are between the ages of 27 and 31 and live in Fraser, Clinton Township or Sterling Heights.
Monks — who, unlike his bandmates, works as a full-time musician playing in numerous other bands and teaching drum lessons — is the sole Garden Party member with no relation to the others, but you would never know it.
“Even though I’m the only person in the band who’s not related by blood or marriage, this is still my family,” he said. “They have always welcomed me in like one of their own. For me, playing with the Garden Party is less like a normal gig and more like going to family Christmas. Every time we sit down to play, it feels like putting on an old glove.”
The road to ‘Tennessee’
The circumstances that led to the creation of “Tennessee” began with family tragedy and personal turmoil. In 2008, the Browns lost their maternal grandfather, Austin Newby, who had been ailing in a nursing home. Two days later, after traveling to Port Austin for the funeral, they learned that their paternal grandfather, Willard Brown, had passed away unexpectedly in his home state of Tennessee.
“We basically drove up there for one grandpa’s funeral, and then we got in the car and immediately drove down to Tennessee for our other grandpa’s funeral,” Megan Cracchiolo explained.
This began a very difficult year for the members of the Garden Party. Just a week and a half after the Browns’ grandfathers passed away, Joseph Cracchiolo lost his own grandpa. Within the next few months, Monks lost a great-uncle and a cousin, and one of the Browns’ uncles passed away, as well.
While such heartbreak would have steered many bands toward a mournful album chronicling their pain and sadness, “Tennessee” is not a record of doom and gloom. There are several moments of quiet reflection, but it mainly focuses on the Garden Party’s specialty: fun, upbeat, ’60s-inspired pop-rock reminiscent of British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the Kinks, mixed with the California jangle of the Byrds and sunny boy-girl vocal harmonies. To this cocktail of good-time jukebox music, the band also adds touches of doo-wop, country, Motown, modern punk- and indie-rock, and the type of left-field pop experimentation that songwriters like John Lennon and Brian Wilson mastered in their prime.
After a year filled with death, things had started to turn around for the Garden Party. The Cracchiolos got married, as did James Brown, and some members began having children of their own. Matthew Brown and his wife, Elizabeth, now have three kids ages 4 and younger, while the Cracchiolos have two kids ages 2 and younger.
This convergence of events inspired the band to craft songs that celebrated the many blessings in their lives, while also recounting some of the recent hardships.
As Megan Cracchiolo put it, “There’s so much on there about grieving, but there’s also so much about the joy of family.”
“It’s very important to me that we’re creating something that I feel is enduring — something that’s going to hold up no matter when people hear it,” Joseph Cracchiolo added. “This is an album about marriage, life and death. It’s about new births and new life, and about working through personal loss — and it all comes from a very real place.”
Matthew Brown said that he wanted “Tennessee” to be an album that traced his own journey from a young man to a husband and father. As such, the record progresses from songs that convey teenage exuberance (“Shake My Name,” “Folding Chairs”) to those that discuss marriage and devotion (“My Elizabeth”), the excitement and anxiety of becoming a parent (“We’ve Been So Patient All Year,” “August in Another Place”) and, finally, the happiness that ultimately comes from starting a family of your own (“Johannah,” “A Guitar as Big as the Moon”).
Near the middle of the album, however, are a few songs that explore the loss that struck the Garden Party five years ago, including the haunting, spiritual title track, which tells a tale about the Browns’ grandfathers.
“It’s interesting for me because those two guys, even though they probably only spent a few hours of their lives in the same room together, they became interconnected through their progeny,” Matthew Brown said. “And I was so tired and so bereaved at the time I was writing the song ‘Tennessee’ that they kind of morphed together into one. … I love moments like that because they really show how we made this album as much for each other as we did for anybody else.”
Finding time to play
Making music requires a more concerted effort for the members of the Garden Party than it once did. While the band used to regularly perform live, time constraints now dictate that they only play four or five shows per year. And with the busy lives that they lead, working day jobs and taking care of children, band practices are often few and far between, and must be scheduled at least a month in advance so that babysitters can be found.
Likewise, the Garden Party typically have long gaps between new releases; “Tennessee” is their first album in four years, while its self-titled predecessor came out five years after “Pointed at the Sky.” To that end, the writing and recording of “Tennessee” took place off and on over a period of several years. The genesis of some songs dates back to 2006 or 2007, and they were later recorded periodically during jam-packed sessions that often stretched into marathons.
“Realistically, this entire album could have been recorded in a week if we were all in the same place at the same time together,” Monks said. “But it actually ended up taking us about three years. I do like the fact that, despite how long it took and how piecemeal it all was, everything that you hear on this album was recorded as organically as possible.”
Although bringing the record to life proved challenging, the band had no shortage of material to work with, as “Tennessee” originally started with 17 tracks before they whittled it down to 11 for the final product. The remaining songs will be collected on an EP entitled “Jamboree,” which they plan to release for free online in the next few months.
Familiarity plays a major role in the Garden Party’s ability to make the most of its time. Because its members have been making music together for more than a decade now, they are able to pick up right where they left off when they get a moment to step away from their adult responsibilities.
As Matthew Brown described it, “It feels so natural for us to be singing and playing together that it’s just like getting back on a bike again.”
And if anything, the Browns’ jobs as high school English teachers have had a positive effect on what they bring to the group. James Brown — who, in addition to writing and playing with the Garden Party, fronts his own band, Citizen Smile — believes that his chosen profession has caused him to raise his standards.
“I think that being a teacher has definitely made me a better writer,” he said. “Sometimes, when I’m writing a song, I’ll think to myself, ‘Man, I’m an English teacher — I really need a better line than that.’ So sometimes, I consciously force myself to work harder on writing good lyrics that actually mean something.”
“The thing about us is that what you see is what you get,” Matthew Brown added. “It’s not like I’m at school hiding the fact that I play in a rock ‘n’ roll band. We’re pretty much the same people inside and outside the classroom.”
Putting family first
So where does music fit into the lives of people who often don’t have time for it? The short answer is that while family and work will always take priority over playing in a rock band, the need to make music will never wane for the Garden Party. All five members bristled at the notion of music becoming a half-hearted diversion rather than a full-fledged passion. As lifelong musicians with a deep love and dedication to their craft, the Garden Party has become inseparable from how they identify themselves as people.
“This is not just a hobby that I have with some people that I know,” Megan Cracchiolo said. “It’s about doing the thing I love the most with the people I love the most. If I’m not with my kids, this is how I want to spend my time.”
And they have chosen to use that time writing songs that, intentionally or not, seem to deflate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll must be communicated in the language of sex, drugs and rebellion. Instead, the music of the Garden Party suggests that, when it’s done right, rock ‘n’ roll can be used to espouse some of life’s greatest, and simplest, truths. After all, sometimes people need a reminder that domesticity can be bliss.
“Marriage always gets such a bad rap, but there’s nothing better than living and waking up every day next to your best friend and making a life out of that,” Matthew Brown said. “So I wish that people wouldn’t treat marriage like it’s a burden, and I wish that people wouldn’t treat children like they’re a burden. … I know I want to be the kind of guy that my dad is, and I know I want my sons to be that kind of guy, too. I just want to do the best job that I can and maybe write some good songs about it along the way.”
For more information on the Garden Party, go to www.facebook.com/gardenpartyrock.