Monday, December 14, 2009

Interview: Matthew Brownlie of Life is Happy and Sad

posted by Free Press Houston @ 2:31 PM

by Omar Afra
Photos by George Dixon

If you have not been paying attention, you would not know that Catastrophic Theater's Life is Happy and Sad has been getting some splendid friggin' reviews as has been Matthew Brownlie's (Guitar player, vocalist of Bring back the Guns (The Groceries)) portrayal of early year's Daniel Johnston. The follow up to Speeding Motorcycle, Life is Happy and Sad focuses on nascent years of Johnston's songwriting in Austin. Again, Brownlie's portrayal of the eccentric songwriter has celebrated after the first week of performances and he is gearing up to what will undoubtedly be a busy follow up week particularly as Johnston himself will be in attendance. Brownlie was kind enough to answer some questions. Brevity is not his style.
Response has been exceptionally positive for the first week of performance. Any jitters for this next round or do you feel more 'comfortable'?

Well, it took me so long to answer these that now week two is in the can and the last four shows are coming up. I'm more spooked now than before, for a couple of reasons. First, the audience at our last show was weird, weird, weird. Lots of getting up and going to the bathroom during my monologue, a large number of people who left during intermission (which is fine, this play ain't for them), just general awkwardness. It really freaked me out and was it was strange to keep trying to connect throughout all of that.

Also, I do believe that The Man Himself will be showing up at some point this week. That's, you know, terrifying. What was your biggest challenge in capturing Daniel Johnston? Ever been that lonely?

Honestly, the biggest challenge was getting everything memorized. I guess I forgot to tell Jason Nodler that I'm the kind of guy who, when reading someone's phone number in order to call them, has forgotten the last four numbers by the time I've dialed the first three.

As for capturing Dan, I've worked on the voice a little bit, getting that lisp in there and trying to elongate my short o's. But the material is instantly relatable to anyone who's been separated from their friends, struggled to fit in, tried to communicate to the world via art or gotten excited about a band. Jason often says that Daniel feels everything everyone else does, it's just turned up to 11. So basically, I have to go real hard on stage. It is completely exhausting and has really messed with my head a little bit.

I don't think I've ever been as lonely as Dan seems to be at the time this play takes place, but my first few years in Houston were a big adjustment, even more so for my girlfriend at the time. I was about the same age Daniel is at the time this play takes place and I've seen and felt how loneliness can lead to all kinds of despair.
It seems you have been on a self-imposed hiatus from performing for some time now. Was it jarring to jump back in with such a strong, central role?

Yeah, it was, and I can't wait to go back into hiatus. This is far and away the most difficult thing I've ever done (as I've said a million times now) and I'm not at the point yet where I can tell whether or not it's been rewarding. I do know that I love playing Daniel's music and that the second act is so fun to be a part of from beginning to end.

I'm going go go off on a bit of a tangent, feel free to run this or not. Recently, some asshole posted something on the Hands Up Houston messageboard accusing me of fishing for compliments, which was bizarre and unfounded, as the only action remotely resembling that I've done since the show opened was post our great reviews for this show I'm just so proud of. The thing that Joey G (who I believe is a music "critic" at the Chronicle) doesn't know is that I really don't like taking compliments very much. For one thing, I'm no good at it. But also, my relationship to my music and performance has changed drastically over the past year or so.

When I started playing piano when I was seven, it was a relief for my parents that I'd found something I was good at. I was a total fuckup at school and was generally a weird kid who got picked on a bunch. Being good at music got me positive recognition (I was really good at piano for my age) and pretty much became my identity in a huge way. I was always the best musician in whatever project I was doing. When I started Groceries and BBTG, I didn't just want to make music I liked–I wanted to be the best frontman for the best band in Houston. I wanted everyone to think we were amazing and I wanted to be a career musician. However, I also wanted to make pretty weird rock music because that's just what I was into. The two impulses are probably pretty mutually exclusive.

When the band wound down last year, it was almost immediately a huge relief in many ways. Not because I dislike the band or the people in it, but because I had grown up enough that I felt comfortable being something other than Mr. Awesome Musician Guy. And when I began really practicing Buddhism I started naturally growing all this genuine compassion for others and myself.

Well, along comes this play. I thought it would be neat to try my hand at something creative I'd never considered. I auditioned, I got the part. And while I don't have even a tiny bit of regret and suspect that I'm going to end up really treasuring the experience, I also can't wait to get back offstage and back into my practice. I haven't had the energy to keep up with it and I've also taken on some other unhealthy habits. I can't wait to get to work on those, too. 2009 has been the best year of my life so far, and in 2010 I'm going to get into better mental and physical shape and it's going to be amazing.

Any near future plans for more theater work?

Well, I have actually been asked to read for another production. I think I'm going to say no, but I'm also curious to see if I actually have any talent or if I just fit the role of Daniel Johnston at 22 due to my own experiences. It's not something I'll pursue, but I might just continue to take opportunities as they fall into my lap.
How much weight did yo gain to take on this role? 100-150 pounds?

Ha! Nah, Dan was a beanpole at this time in his life. Probably skinnier than I am. Did I mention unhealthy habits? Yeah, well, I definitely am flabbier than I've ever been before.

Brownlie is backed up by Roky Moon and Bolt (pictured above) and word is the musical performances are really-ass-Trill.

All tickets are Pay-What-You-Can: "$20... more if you have it... less if you don't" Buy online or call 713.522.2723. Runs Wednesday - Saturday through December 19. All shows start at 8pm at DiverseWorks.


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