Modern Fix

ECHOBRAIN – interview by mary ellen gustafson


What do you get when you combine two childhood buddies, who are also great musicians (Dylan Donkin – vocals/guitar and Brian Sagrafena – Drums), and add in a world famous bass player (Jason Newsted – former “Metallica” bassist)? One hell of a power rock/pop album from a brand new band called ECHOBRAIN releasing their self titled Debut on 03/05/02. When you hear this album, you’ll really have a hard time believing there’s only three guys putting out all this great music.

For all you heavy metal fans out there, if that’s what you’re looking for you won’t find it here. What you will find is some really great rock ‘n roll that defies being pigeonholed into this, that or the other genre and heads in its own direction. This is a GOOD thing in these days of cookie-cutter pop artists for the teenie-boppers, drum and bass rap metal that’s getting REALLY old and tired, hip hop artists rapping the same thing over and over with enough special guests to make any release a compilation album, or angst ridden soul and rock artists complaining about everything. Don’t get me wrong, the subject matter on the album isn’t meaningless fluff, but it’s not heavy-handed, beat you over the head dirge music either.

Okay, now I guess I have to back up. I suppose I can’t throw out the names of two largely unknown young musicians from the Bay Area with the likes of Jason Newsted without some kind of explanation, but I would very much like to. Every place I see something written about ECHOBRAIN it’s all about “Jason Newsted’s new band.” Personally I don’t look at it that way. This album is about three musicians that started out jamming together at the “Chophouse” and ended up with a quality album that fills a much needed gap not covered by bands like “Foo Fighters,” “Goo Goo Dolls,” “Barenaked Ladies” and scores of others. Their subject matter is seriously relevant, but the music is catchy at some times, moody at others, with really great twists and turns. The amazing guitar and vocal work turned in by Donkin, along with some seriously musical bass from Newsted and funk style drums from Sagrafena, give new meaning to the words “rock ‘n roll.” There’s some noir string work provided by principal members of the San Francisco and National Symphonies combined with acoustic guitar on some songs, while others are totally driven by massive electric guitar in true hard rocker tradition.

So, how did ECHOBRAIN come to be? Well, it was a chance meeting at a Super Bowl party in 1995 between Sagrafena and Newsted, where during half-time the tradition was to bang on the set of house drums. Most of the guests sat down and did the one or two drum beats they knew. Sagrafena, a mere sixteen years old at the time, was not a “Metallica” fan. He was more into jazz and funk, with “Tower Of Power” one of his favorites. When he got behind the drum set he started putting out some “TOP” tunes. Turns out Newsted was also a big “TOP” fan and he recalls: “. . . all of a sudden I hear this funky beat with properly used high hat and it’s this kid about five-feet tall pulling this stuff out. It was obvious that for a young person, his chops were beyond developed.” Sagrafena remembers, “He asked me to go down to his house and jam and I said ‘well, sure, let’s go’ . . . We walked down to his house and ended up jamming with John Marshall, the guitar player for ‘Metal Church.’ We just hit it off real well.”

Backing up a few more years is the story of how Sagrafena and Donkin met and became tight. When Brian joined a small jazz band at his junior high school, Dylan Donkin was playing bass for the same band. Together they began jamming after school, playing classic rock covers of “Steppenwolf” and “Led Zeppelin” among others. Donkin remembers, “I have seen “Led Zepplin’s” movie “The Song Remains The Same” at least 700 times. I’d bring my bass amp into the TV room and play along with it. And then Jimmy Page was so awesome I had to start learning his stuff.” So, he picked up a guitar and ditched both the bass and Sagrafena to join an all-Sabbath cover band. They remained close friends and would reunite a few years later, but Sagrafena stayed in the jazz band learning big band and swing improv.

“At that time, . . . jazz was not cool,” Sagrafena says. “It was something that came naturally to me. With jazz, you can walk into a room with a player that you’ve never met in your life and just completely bounce off each other.” It was probably his ability to jam with strangers that made his meeting with Newsted go so well. On the other hand, his friend Donkin was a metalhead and a “Metallica” fan. When he told Dylan he had jammed with Newsted, he didn’t believe him. “Brian asked if he could bring me along because we were totally tight,” Donkin says. “The first couple times I was a little nervous. I’d even get sweaty palms. But after a while, it was ‘yeah, we just love playin’ together.’ “

They jammed in Newsted’s home studio, called the Chophouse. The Chophouse sessions were what kept Newsted inspired. “That’s why I did it – to keep myself fresh and powerful. When it comes to playing ‘Enter Sandman’ for the 30,000th time, I sounded like I meant it because I spent time with these other people playing different styles,” states Newsted. For ten years, five of which included Donkin and Sagrafena, Newsted and friends have been making what he calls “wonderful soup music” in the Chophouse. “We’ve got hundreds of hours of tapes of everything from avant garde horn music, to soul singers, to hardcore electronic artists. No overdubs are allowed at the Chophouse. Whatever your performance is that day, that’s what you contribute, warts and all.”

The sessions with Sagrafena and Donkin were strictly for fun. Newsted was still in “Metallica” and there was no plan to record anything. They did keep the tapes at the Chophouse running and some of the songs and melodies ended up on the ECHOBRAIN Debut. In 1999, Brian and Dylan took a road trip to Mexico with some other “weirdos, musicians and artist-types.” The trip was a major source of inspiration from bonfire jam sessions to a dinky Mexican bar where they paid the owner $20 to let them play the house band’s crude instruments. After they got home, they recorded a bunch of songs on 8-track in Brian’s basement studio at his parent’s house, including some that made it to the ECHOBRAIN album.

When Newsted got back from a “Metallica” tour, he called the guys to come over for another jam session. The two played Newsted the tapes and “We had no idea he was going to listen to it as intensely as he did,” Sagrafena says. “When ‘Colder World’ (the first track on the album) came on, he was like, ‘Well, I need to hold onto this.’ And he called us back the next day and said, ‘You guys need to come up here. We’re gonna have some dinner and talk about something.’ “

“That was definitely the song that made me think about doing this seriously,” Newsted says. “It was just a brilliant idea for an intro. . .then Dylan’s voice comes in as if it’s coming through a two-inch transistor radio speaker. It reminded me of a young John Lennon. I listened over and over and over again.” Newsted told the guys he wanted to record – with him collaborating on bass and songwriting. “You mean the stuff we did on 8-track?” a dumbfounded Sagrafena asked. “Yep” was the answer.

In May of 2000 they entered the recording studio and did exactly that, without plans to form ECHOBRAIN, without a record deal in mind. Just to get on tape a good, long-running jam session among friends. “It’s very easy to be excited about playing music with these guys,” Newsted says. “They’re very hungry, but they’re also very true and honest. They play music every day. The challenge for me was the musicality. In “Metallica” there are only so many keys – it was a proven formula and you don’t mess with it. When Dylan and Brian came around, I had to start learning different modes and keys. It’s a challenge for my fingers and brain.”

And that’s the long version of the story. The album is called “A swirling, glorious mess based around a handful of incredible melodic hooks. In essence, it sounds like a jam session between talented friends from different schools.” That it is! Now it’s time to talk about the actual music . . .

The opening track, “Colder World,” is one of the survivors from that original 8-track recorded by Sagrafena and Donkin, as well as being the song that Jason Newsted based his decision on to go into the studio and record with them. The song pulls no punches as it talks about false rock star egos and gets the album off to a bang up start. This is a straight up rock song with a lot of emphasis on the beat backing Donkin’s vocal stylings, although there’s a pretty decent guitar bridge in there too.

Moving into acoustic mode, at least for the immediate intro, is “The Feeling Is Over. When the band joins in the guitar is electric, but with repetition of a rather strange sounding chord. This is a medium paced song with a hook you don’t really think about until you find yourself remembering it after the album is over. Although I’m usually into hard rock or metal, I really found myself liking this song. The combination of a few harmonies, strange guitar chords and great percussion comes together extremely well.

“Spoonfed” has all the right components going too, including the subject matter, which attacks TV evangelists. With a guest appearance by Jim Martin (formerly of “Faith No More”) on guitar, this one starts out with major guitars that give it a full, rich sound. It’s another medium paced song, but the emphasis on the short guitar solos between verses and a really full chorus make this a serious rock song as well. The instrumental bridge is really amazing with the percussion, bass and rhythm guitar backing a serious solo riff on electric guitar.

Heading back into acoustic territory is “Adrift,” about the yearning for a nomadic life style. This song has more of that moody thing going I mentioned earlier. It’s also the first song where you start to recognize the vocal range of Dylan Donkin. He’s got a great falsetto that isn’t forced or out of place at all. With strings in the background playing what could be called off-key notes (but they fit the mood), along with the ever present bass and percussion, it eventually hooks you in. This is not one of my favorites from the album, but it’s still a decent song.

The next song, “Keep Me Alive,” will be the first single released from the album and already has a video shot for it. I can think of a few that would be better suited for the first single, but the next one will be “Colder World,” which is much more radio friendly. Heavy on bass and a guitar riff that follows the melody, the lyrics are Donkin off on a stream of consciousness trip with words just kinda thrown out there. For the simple chorus “Keep me alive” and the bridge, there’s a cool electric guitar riff happening along with the acoustic guitar and strings. The song ends with some really spacey sounds.

Melancholy strings and then acoustic guitar lead into the next song, “We Are Ghosts.” This is another one of those songs you’re not quite sure about at first but end up really liking. The most striking thing is that the vocal is done in a total monotone up until the chorus, when Donkin goes into falsetto mode for the remainder of the track. This song is fairly slow, has strings in the background to fill out the sound, along with some interesting guitar riffs bridging and backing Donkin as the song progresses. The same melancholy strings end the song.

“Sucker Punch” features another guest on guitar, this time Kirk Hammet (of “Metallica”), and is one of my two personal favorites on the album. This one has a funky beat and some great guitar work (of course!) both backing the vocals and between verses. I hate to categorize this, but it comes close to a power rock ballad. There are awesome harmonies, pitch changes, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pace changes and just about anything you can ask for in a song. Oh, it has a really interesting melody too – unusual, but cool. The instrumental bridge rates way up at the top of my list too. The bass is really melodically noticeable here, as well as the electric guitar solo and rhythm guitar. This is another one that ends with really strange sounds.

The next song sounds a lot like steel guitar is being used and is about a truck driving Elvis impersonator on a meth binge. Called “Highway 44,” this one has rather strange lyrics to go along with semi-country rock/Elvis type music. Again the bass comes more to the forefront and the beat isn’t the simple 4/4 of rock. There’s even some honky-tonk piano going on here. This one is kind of hard to explain, because the pieces sound odd but the song is cool.

With a fade in, harmonic, vocal intro (think “Moody Blues”) is “I Drank You.” This song rocks big time, but with a double beat thing happening in the background at times. Donkin’s non-falsetto vocal is really strong and impressive on this song and it’s one of those tunes that has something for everybody. This is another song I really like as it moves around with harmonica, great guitar riffs, interesting beats and . . . an abrupt end!

The final, well almost, song is “Cryin’ Shame” and this is my 2nd of two favorites. Opening with some real spacey sounds it heads into some serious bass with that funky percussion and a rather odd melody. Another Donkin vocal showcase using that awesome falsetto of his, between words/verses are the odd electric guitar notes and fuzz bass that perfectly fill things out. Again things are going at about a medium pace, but there’s so much going on musically here you just have to love it. To bring all these odd pieces of instrumentals, strings, vocals, pace changes and weird noises together into a cohesive unit is just damn impressive!

And here’s where the album lost it’s 1/2 star. No matter how good a hidden track is, and this one is pretty awesome, they’re still really irritating to me. There’s a very long pause (about 3 min.) before this track comes up, which I find rude and annoying. The song itself, however, could be “The Beatles” circa “Magical Mystery Tour.” I don’t know what the song name is, but it’s totally cool both musically and lyrically. Great harmonies, all kinds of instruments (even a kazoo!) and sounds over a steady beat, and Donkin’s impeccable vocal make it a great song. At least in this case the hidden track is worth the wait.

Overall, EHCOBRAIN is three extremely talented musicians that have jammed together for years before recording this album and you can definitely tell. There’s an easiness and cohesiveness to it that reflect the fact that all three guys are comfortable playing together. I absolutely recommend this album to anyone who likes ANY kind of rock music – be it classic rock or hard rock or even metal.