JC Brooks makes soul-infused, genre-bending music that is energetic and kinetically charged. “It all started out as an effort to merge post-punk and soul, but it’s grown into so much more than that,” says vocalist/lyricist/bandleader JC Brooks. “I feel like we carry that ethos with the genre-mixing blend of soul music we write, and the punk aspect is more about our DIY determination to get out there onstage and engage with our live crowds on a visceral level.” After years of touring the US and Europe playing clubs to major festivals, the band hunkered down in 2016 to record The Neon Jungle.
That grab-the-listener-at-all-costs mashup manifesto has been captured to a T on the band’s new joint, which is set for an April 7, 2017 release via Rock Ridge Music. As JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, they previously released two albums for Bloodshot Records, and their soul mashup version of Wilco’s “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” was a nationwide jam. With the new album, The Neon Jungle, they have dropped “the Uptown Sound” but continue as one powerful live band.
Brooks himself describes the forthcoming release as an album-length depiction of “one crazy, incredible night out.” And what a wild ride it is indeed, from the percussive harmonic rush of the opening track “Jungle” to the vulnerable balladeering of “Playing With Fire” to the progressively funky kick of “O. N. O.” — a song where Brooks filters the best of Prince, Mick Jagger, and Steely Dan into his signature soul-train blender — to the whirling-dervish jam attack of “Get Gone.”
The album’s impetus started innocently enough with a core directive: to chronicle the soul of nightlife. “Our last album, [2013’s] Howl, was dark and ...contemplative and we wanted to make something a little more joyful,” Brooks explains. “For me, listening to The Neon Jungle conjures this oddly specific image: it's '87, you're going out on a Friday night and you're ready to lose yourself in the city, anticipating this unbelievable time and surfing the radio and stopping on whatever's gonna keep that tingle flowing through your body.”
The sound of the 11 tracks on The Neon Jungle is the result of a revised six-man Chicago-based lineup that’s now simply named collectively after its fearless leader, and the album very much reflects the full JC Brooks band’s invigorated, all-hands-on-deck approach. “One of the first things put into play with this new band was we wanted it to be a more wholly cooperative creative machine,” Brooks explains. “Everyone has a voice in its creation and this album came together the way it did and with the sound it did because the six of us did most of the writing as a unit.”
The Neon Jungle took the band over 18 months to complete. Assistance in honing the new JC Brooks audio-vision came courtesy of the album’s main producer, Josh Richter of Victorian Recording, along with additional production input from Isaiah Sharkey (“Jungle”) and Steve Gillis (“Stumble in the Dark”), as well as mixer Ken Lewis (“Drive”). “The album is very interpersonal by nature, and it sounds like us learning how to write together and feeling each other out musically,” Brooks acknowledges. “But since we’ve been playing as a unit for well over a year, I feel like we now have our sound together. The Neon Jungle is the product of everybody working together in harmony, where we all brought something to the table and never once sacrificed the eclectic nature of our music.”
To capture such a particularly adventurous sonic template for The Neon Jungle, the band opted for delving into creating denser mixes. “The last thing we wanted was bare or sparse arrangements, except for the ballad,” Brooks admits. “Another aim from the outset was to make this a full album. And Josh Richter is very meticulous about these things. He had so many great ideas for how each track was layered and how to fill out the sound.”
A prime example of just how The Neon Jungle fires on all cylinders is “O. N. O.,” the forward-thinking funk-prog-jazz hybrid that also features Brooks’s amazing falsetto. “Prince and Steely Dan was exactly what I was going for there,” the singer agrees. “I wanted to have a Princelike vocal backed with a Steely Dan-esque story. And what more can you say about a legend that hasn’t already been said?” Brooks continues about the late Purple One, who passed away in April 2016. “It’s impossible to not have been inspired in some ways by Prince if you’re playing music these days. He was such a prolific artist. Even kids who wouldn’t listen to anything else from that era have experienced, liked, and been inspired by Prince as a musical entity.”
JC Brooks has made a career out of delivering the goods they’ve put down on wax during their celebrated live performances, and the stage is where The Neon Jungle will be shining from next. To that end, concertgoers can expect to hear upwards of seven songs from the new album plus certain longtime favorites during the band’s upcoming tour. “I believe in our show. We have a very strong live band,” feels Brooks. “We know how to connect with people. Our show brings people into our fold and makes fans of those who might otherwise ignore our type of music.”
Connecting with people onstage is something that’s always been a part of JC’s DNA. “You want to reach out to many different people at the same time,” he says. “That’s why I feel like a searchlight at times. I’m trying to spread it all around when I’m up there to make sure everybody is getting all these different moments that you build into the show. The heightened emotion when I perform all of these songs comes from my own background and training in theater, and it's a constant part of my stage identity.”
The entire JC Brooks band is looking forward to sharing the fruits of its collective spark. “We’re quite energized, and we’re supercharged about our future,” Brooks reveals, hinting that the next studio album, which is already in the works, is likely to take on a more political tack to address what’s going on in the world around us today. “I believe in the likability and the danceability of our music, so all I want is for people to give The Neon Jungle a listen,” he concludes. “If people can hear it, we're gonna be alright.”
For now, the good-times vibes of The Neon Jungle rule the aural roost. And it’s easy to see why, as it’s the perfect soundtrack for driving all through the night to the other side to have that special night out on the town to enjoy the full-bore sonic assault of the JC Brooks experience.
“Enveloping stage presence and palpable charisma.” – Rolling Stone
“JC Brooks looks and performs like a cross between Chuck Berry and H.R. of Bad Brains in their primes, but his skintight R&B and post-punk soul upend expectations of a retro act.” –Washington Post