High School friends start a band. They graduate. Band takes a backseat to college. College isn’t for everyone. Band gets back together and a career in music is launched. This story has happened over and over since garages and guitars found each other.
Such is the case for Huntington’s Brian McSweeney. He and his high school friends started a band called Masquerade in 1989. Once they graduated life took its usual evolution and they left for college. Brian went to Ohio. That lasted for one semester before McSweeney and his friends relaunched the band as Seven Day Jesus. They began playing around West Virginia and shopping demos. Eventually, they were picked up by 5 Minute Walk, a label out of California and released their first album The Hunger. Shortly after they signed to Tennessee based label, Forefront Records for their self-titled album in 1998, which received a lot of attention. They disbanded shortly after. So where does a lead singer go after the band you’ve been playing in since your youth no longer exists? Everywhere. This is the story of the awesome journey and music of Brian McSweeney.
Conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
BB: Seven Day Jesus came to an end in the summer of 1999. Where was your next stop after that?
BM: I moved to Chicago and started playing with the drummer from the first SDJ album, Matt Sumpter. He had moved before we put out that second album. I started traveling up there as Seven Day was kind of on the rocks. We started making music and I officially moved there in the fall of ninety-nine. We started the band, Matthew, with him and a bass player who lived in the area, James Scott. We did that for three years. Pretty early on we were contacted by a label called Rykodisc, that started as a company that was committed to quality cd versions of old albums. They had Bob Marley and Elvis Costello’s catalog. In the early 2000’s they started signing original acts and we were one of those. At the time when we are on the label they also had the Posies on the label. They were very formative to me and Seven Day Jesus. Andrew Bird had an album on Rykodisc at that same time. It was a few year endeavor and it was super fun. We made the Matthew album, we toured all over Europe and the US. We were really proud of that album. But as it happens, it didn’t work out. There was some volatility that is typical for young rock bands, but I’m very happy with that whole experience. It was one of the first times that I made something, that everything about it felt congruent.
BB: Who would you consider to be some influences for what you guys did with Matthew?
BM: Sunny Day Real Estate and early Radiohead like The Bends, a little more guitar rock.
BB: The Radiohead influence is very apparent but it’s your own thing.
BM: Yeah, I don’t shy away from the Radiohead similarity. They’re an amazing band and if people want to say the music I make sounds like Radiohead, there are a lot of worse bands to be compared to.
BB: After Matthew, you did some solo work.
BM: We actually wrote a second album that was never released. We were trying to hobble along as a three piece after our guitarist left but that petered out. This was in that time where DIY recording was starting to explode. With things like MySpace, Pro-Tools was becoming ubiquitous, Apple laptops, the really chunky ones… bands like Danger Mouse and Bon Iver were taking advantage of that space and releasing music on their own. We just weren’t able to make that leap. Going from making albums in the studio, I think we were limited by our beliefs that we needed a massive budget to make something in the studio that we believed in. We kind of fell apart after that. I moved to Arizona and spent some years there. I never really stopped writing but I was kind of deflated in my ambition and my pursuit of “Hey, I’m going to do this.” I was just a little tired. But I released an EP that was largely self made. And in 2010 I fell into the tech thing. I was in a place where I wanted to do some honest work, use my hands and make some money and not think about marketing and all of the things that go along with having to build your own career. This was a welcome change for where I was at.
BB: There was an artist that you were a tech for that might surprise some to find out about. You teched for Prince. That had to be an incredible experience getting to watch that night after night.
BM: I did that gig for about five months and it definitely was. Prince was one of the most formative artists of my life. I remember before we were called Seven Day Jesus the first time we ever played in public, was at our high school talent show and we played the song Purple Rain. So yeah, the first gig I did with him was Saturday Night Live. I got a phone call from a tour manager that I knew asking if I wanted to work for Prince. I said yes and he told me to get on a plane and go to Paisley Park tomorrow and then I got to go all over with that.
BB: So at some point you moved back to Chicago and in 2019 launched a new project with some guys called Miirrors. You introduced your sound in a unique way by tackling what was an unfinished song by Jeff Buckley called Gunshot Glitter. You were able to put out what I believe would’ve been close to a finished version of that song. So how did Miirrors come to be and why did you lead with that song?
BM: So while I was in Matthew, this would’ve been 2000 and I met Shawn Rios, who would become the drummer for Miirrors, on a plane. The flight was pretty empty and this guy in front of me looked like he was pretty into music, and I asked him if he had heard the band I was listening to. It was Sigur Rós, with their first album that had just come out. I hand him my Sony Discman. He listened to it but we didn’t do anything right away because we were both in other projects, but we knew of each other. Like you said, I did move back to Chicago. My now wife, got into graduate school at the University of Chicago and I was coming up to visit her. One of the first visits I thought, well I have this friend, Shawn who lives in the city and I will hit him up. We started playing music together just for the fun of it.
The first time we played together was probably 2014 and we wrote twelve ideas. It was crazy. It was the most prolific real time experience I’ve ever had. Three of the ideas that we came up with that day ended up on the Miirrors album. So we were making some music that we liked but there was no real agenda. And we just kept doing that when I would visit. Eventually, I just moved back and we thought lets just record this stuff and it was still just the two of us. Over the coming years we gradually introduced other players to come record with us and it got to the place where we had a band whether we wanted to or not, and said it would be pretty stupid to not play some shows with this. We had our ups and downs, because for me it was like, man I’ve been doing this my whole life and I don’t know if I want to be in a band ever again in my life. It’s too stressful. It’s too much. But then we kept writing new songs and they were really good songs. To be honest, my wife was encouraging me saying “This is your shot. When are you going to get another chance to do this?” So here we are.
The Gunshot Glitter release came to be through our drummer who, through a random series of events, knew Jeff Buckleys drummer, Matt Johnson, who played on the album Grace. The song was one that Shawn and I had always loved and we just thought if we did a cover, which we enjoy doing, but you have to be careful because if you do one everyone knows, such as something off of Grace, you’ll forever be compared to that original. But this was a song that was never finished so it’s just speculation because all we ever had was the demo version. So we felt like, let’s try it and then Shawn had the idea of asking Matt to play on it, which could’ve gone either way, but he was super into the idea. So I find myself at Electrical Audio in Chicago recording tracks to this song live, looking through a glass pane at Matt Johnson as he and I are recording a Jeff Buckley song. That was more surreal than me standing on the side of the stage in Dubai watching Prince perform. It’s like, how does this happen, you know?
BB: It’s absolutely incredible to be able to say you started in Huntington, West Virginia and ended up with these experiences. Miirrors dropped the album Motion and Picture in March of this year and then you almost immediately followed that up with a solo release in April called Go To Pieces. What inspired this track and the release so soon after the release of Motion and Picture?
BM: There has been a bunch of overlap with the projects. I’ve been recording a solo album for a while now. I started working on what’s going to be my next solo album pretty much when Covid started. I’ve really been taking my time. I’ve been making demos since I was a teenager living at my parents on a four track cassette recorder and eventually I was also doing the ProTools on my laptop thing. But during COVID I spent a lot of money that was probably not responsible to spend at the time on a basic amount of gear and really got serious about engineering, mixing and mastering. I’ve been taking my time with this album. Learning the Miirrors material and working our live show has cut into that time to make this album and that’s ok. It’s a marathon not sprint. I’m not even sure that this song will make the album but I wanted to put something out because it had been a while since I put anything out as myself. I waited the amount of time I thought was appropriate after the band release and am happy with it.
BB: If there is a song that you want people to listen to from Motion and Picture that encapsulates you as a band which track would it be?
BM: Obviously listen to the whole album, but one of my favorite tracks is Fields and Forests. I think because it’s a slower song there’s the potential for it to be a sleeper where people skip to the next track but it’s the kind of song that shows a musical maturity that I’m very proud of.
BB: Thanks for talking with us and for one last question, do you ever make it back home to West Virginia and what does being from here mean to you as an artist that has been all over the world?
BM: I do! I was home a few weeks ago. My parents and family are still there and I am making it in with more frequency. I’m coming back for my nephews graduation in a few weeks. As a musician, the biggest impact West Virginia had on me, was during my most formative years as a child. My mom and dad were part of a gospel quartet with my dads mother and father. Growing up listening to Southern Gospel music you’re exposed to it’s sibling Bluegrass music. Listening to that taught me so much about harmonies and a certain rhythm that I don’t think I would’ve been exposed to had I grown up in, say Chicago. I think there is a musicianship in Bluegrass music that is much more sophisticated than some might recognize. West Virginia gets a lot of different stereotypes and when we first started touring, it was really funny to hear peoples reactions to us and our accents. But when it comes to the music there is a sophistication that I hope is not lost on everyone.