At the Crossroads of Music and Comics with Jeffrey Burandt/Jef UK: Part I

In my experience, the two art forms most difficult to describe in conversation or discussion are music and comics. This is not because you can’t find words to use, but because you end up piling adjective upon adjective, adverb upon adverb, and even being forced into new hyphenated words groups. That can be a very intriguing thing, but it can also make you steer clear of the challenge. In a way, I dread the moment, when making a rare visit to see one of my musician brothers, they ask me, pointedly, what I think of a new album by a favorite band of ours. Usually, we’re driving between one point and another, we only have a few minutes to get into it, and I just about break into a cold sweat. I focus and take a breath. It’s like shooting in the dark to get my message across.

One phenomenon that takes extra verbal space is the “I hate this new album” reaction when the discordant strife of a new style emerging smites your ears from the supposed safety of a label you’ve followed for years. So now I start my answers with disposable honesty: “Of course, I hated it at first, but…”. Are comics any different? When I pick up new a work by a favorite comics writer or artist, I anxiously scan for some degree of recognition. Can I still tell it’s theirs? Have they compromised in some way? Will this experience somehow ruin my past adoration? I’m waiting for that sense of being met at the station by a friend in a strange country, usually late at night to boot.

As with music, I find it very difficult to explain in words what my reactions to the new comic work are, but find it a little less paralyzing to do so after some time has passed. With comics, you are never really sure what you saw or did not see during the first reading experience, or even what you heard as your mind fills in the spaces between the panels with its own brand of narrative. The mysterious jumps it makes to create an organic whole personalize the story to what is essentially a narrative of your own creation. Music contains its own uncertainties in received performance, particularly live performance. The problem highlights the complexity of both mediums. Science tells us that all sensory perception is incredibly complex, and looking into human reactions to art forms is a like unwinding DNA, but I’ll throw in my two cents with music and comics for intricacy because they specifically target a derangement of the senses.

[Jef UK, photo by Seth Kushner]

So imagine my reaction to sitting down with a person who works in both mediums and has the alarming temerity to marry the two and expect the audience to walk away with both cranial lobes intact. I wonder if he realizes that he’s essentially going after their skulls with an ice-pick, or more specifically, targeting their eyes and their ears as well as their sense of spatial relationship. That’s the kind of derangement I’m talking about.

Jeffrey Burandt, sometime of Austin, Texas, now Brooklyn, New York, lived parallel artistic lives for quite some time before recognizing the potential for experiment. Growing up, he read comics as his first form of literature, and so absorbed visual literacy as par for the course. Superheroes and adventure stories were his mental diet, but by high school, performing music took up a lot of his time and a simple jam session on a Friday night is still “one of [his] favorite things” in life.

Founding the band Americans UK in Austin in one of those strangely literary moments that life can throw at you, arose from a fictional band in a sci-fi story Burandt was working on. It quickly became his reality, complete with a sense of the attitude and style such a band would espouse. The band lived and died in Austin and has since lived, died, and risen again in Brooklyn. It’s a creature of many lives, but it just keeps coming back, each iteration more strangely evolved than the last.

During one of the “death” periods, it occurred to Burandt to turn his creative writing degree from Brooklyn College, the pursuit of which brought him to this Northern Babylon, toward comics. The medium had obsessed him his whole life, and he had always been a big follower of Marvel’s output, from Brian Bendis’ work on the Ultimate Universe to Matt Fraction’s currently running Cassanova. Grant Morrison’s DC and Vertigo work had also turned his head, particularly The Invisibles. Why not write comics? The penny hadn’t yet really dropped for him, but he was rapidly approaching a crossroads. In the hiatus between band resurrections, which he describes as a “vacuum of making music”, he found himself writing a comic about the fictional band that had first led to it’s real-world avatar’s creation. It began almost innocently when he turned his real-world drummer JTR3 into a robot cyborg since he had always been quite the “machine”. The germ of a story developed. A cyborg heart might need recharging. Inscrutable technology might be from the future. Time-travel broke loose as a guiding plot-device. Throw in a villain, a noir-ish murder mystery in time, and voila, the real-world defunct band returned to its fictional roots.

That’s when all hell broke loose, artistically speaking. You see, Burandt, a true student of literature, has always believed in the “layers” inherent in storytelling, and had a particular penchant for the fake autobiography format. Ideas from his graduate degree’s sci-fi novel project, as well as from his own life fed into the comic, and thus filtered, emerged again into his life. Americans UK was born again in tandem with the comic that told its fictional history, and his own. Burandt had stumbled into an intersection between the major artistic forces in his life and chose to explore them rather than heading for the hills into safer territory. Burandt began to draft stand-alone short comic scripts to fit within a larger arc with a graphic novel as the goal, and worked with a number of collaborating artists to bring these episodes to life.

Meanwhile, he expanded into a wider sphere of comics writing, including a graphic novel project with Oni Press, Odd Schnozz and the Odd Squad, with a 2013 release date. Performances of the resurrected band Americans UK, Burandt’s comics work, and some freelance writing for a magazine brought him into contact with Brooklyn’s Dean Haspiel in the early days of planning the multi-media online arts salon Trip City. Haspiel, multi-faceted comics artist, writer, and teacher, brought Burandt in as a music and comics contributor to the digital site. Short comics featuring the characters Americans UK with a rotation of talented artists contributing, appear on Trip City, often with an interactive musical soundtrack to emphasize the unusual junctures in the band/comics relationship.

But it’s also the live performances you have to watch out for. I was fortunate enough to attend one of Trip City’s live salon events where I first heard Americans UK perform, and witnessed the audio-visual interaction between the luminous, projected comics, and the musical sound-track the band provided. One of their newest songs at the time, “Sons of Ba’al”, was particularly effective in rattling the senses through the use of stark black and white images, combined with written language, while the band played a track resonant enough to illicit phone calls from the police. It was quite a trip for the audience. I was struck by the vast potential of the unusual combination I was witnessing, on a night already strong in performance comics presented by several Trip City contributors. In any concert, perspective is a strong influence on later memory. What did you really hear, or think you heard? How much of that was informed by your knowledge of previous albums, attending prior performances, or your proximity to the stage? In short, you create the performance as much as the guy, in this case, in the domino mask. And by the way, you are going to read comics at the same time, and provide a whole other layer of instantaneous collaboration. Americans UK were certainly the first fictionally real band I had ever heard perform surrounded by the illuminated panels of their own fictional universe.

[Trip City Live Salon at Fornino’s, Park Slope, Brooklyn]

I jumped at the chance to sit down with Jeffrey Burandt a couple of months later and hear his story, and try to figure out how he ended up in the jaws of this unique experiment. The mental leap necessary to bring the two mediums of comics and rock music together seemed to me to be like taking the Nemean Lion in one hand and the Hydra in the other, and though Burandt was not oblivious to the unusual aspects of his labors, sitting in Bryant Park on a humid August evening, he seemed to have reached a point where he could harness the unusual beasts of both comics and rock and find their point of mutual cooperation.

We discussed the state of comics industry, the trials of self-publication, his musical tastes, and the past, present, and future of the band and the comics: Americans UK. First thing first, I indulge my curiosity and ask him about his double nomenclature, a not-so-secret identity, featuring as both Jeffrey  Burandt and as Jef UK in the worlds of literature and music. He admits it’s complicated as friends and fans aren’t sure what to call him when, but Burandt still perceives an important distinction.

Jef UK is his “comics name” used on message boards, and in the promotion of the Americans UK comic. For his formal literary work, either as a prose novelist or as a graphic novel writer, he uses his full name, Jeffrey Burandt. I comment at this point that Stan Lee found himself in a similar situation, setting aside the more literary Stanley Lieber in readiness for his great American novel, and using his first name, Stanley, as Stan-ley, written Stan Lee, to distinguish his comics career. In Burandt’s case, however, Jef UK is also a fictionalized version of himself, making the situation more “layered”. The ambiguity is something that Burandt associates with digital self-publishing, too, where everything is essentially “beta” and can be revised. Jef UK is an author name for the “rated R stuff” that might go up online, whereas Jeffrey Burandt has predominately produced “all ages” comics work. The two could easily cross or overlap, but haven’t yet forced a decision the way that Stan Lee felt his epic comics career did, finally formally choosing the new form as his legal name.

After a few seconds of talking to Burandt, I was already wondering if two hours will be enough time to explore so many diverse ideas. We started off talking about music, and the “hate it” phenomenon. “When you hear something new, you need time for new neural pathways to develop” he explains with a serious expression, as if it’s the most important truth in the world. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s the fading daylight, the cars streaming by the park, and the dream-like atmosphere as the streetlights come on, but I begin to get the impression that this intersection between comics and music is, in fact, a “really big world” opening up to exploration.

[Stay tuned for Part II of the interview, featuring the state of the comics industry, the irony of performance, and an up-close look/listen at Americans UK’s Sons of Ba’al]

Also check out this recent podcast with Jef UK.


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