There are a million musical stories in New York City and Brooklyn, many you’ve heard before. Take the 1 train up to 231st Street in the Bronx, however, and you’ll encounter a different tale. There a darker narrative unfurls, one drowned in alcohol and the chaotic, diverse noise that makes the northern borough uniquely like the New York of old. Distinctive, heartbreaking, dirty, and resilient, this is where we find Brooks Thomas and their new album, Poison.
The Brooks Thomas moniker comes from the respective middle names of its co-founding singers, Colleen Cadogan and Danny “D-Mac” McDonald, college classmates who became bandmates who became lovers. Originally an acoustic two-piece, they released the folksy album Sketches in 2016, but always held aspirations for something larger. As Danny set about finding a new sound in their Bronx apartment, the full group began forming around them, pieced together from past projects and dear friends.
First to join was bassist Rocky Russo, Danny’s childhood friend who’d played with both him and Colleen in a previous band. Next came Adrian “Ace” Colon, the drummer from a separate group featuring Rocky and Danny. The final piece was Arianne Lombardi, a fan of early Brooks Thomas material who found herself befriending the duo. Watching them work one night, she added her own harmonies to Colleen’s vocals, surprising everyone. That Christmas, Danny and Colleen bought her her first acoustic guitar, and Brooks Thomas was officially whole.
Putting the band together was barely half the battle, though, as the war to develop Danny’s musical ideas into physical sounds raged. His bandmates jokingly called him Psycho Danny when he was in the zone, pacing around his apartment as he shuffled concepts and lyrics in his head. He wanted to move away from reggae-influenced folk, making Brooks Thomas 2.0 something completely different — and not just from itself.
“I’ve always said I hated electronic music,” Danny says, “but then I’d secretly make it at home.”
But the type of electronic music he makes is unlike any you’ve heard before. It’s inspired by classic soul and R&B, Dirty Projectors and Miguel, disparate influences that share a common thread: intensity of feeling. Exploring new ways to reach those emotional heights, Danny began creating MIDI beats, pushing Rocky towards experimenting with pedals to change the textures, having Colleen and Arianne create three-part harmonies that skewed away from the standard 1-3-5. What they recorded at home became a script for their live performances, where fresh colors and depths would be discovered as they translated the digital maelstrom into an organic setting. The live recordings would then get re-digitized, spliced together and warped as Danny reworked the production.
Poison opener “Fade In”, for example, features the live recording of an old song Colleen wrote about Danny played backwards over a reversed saxophone sample. It ends with harmonies pulled from the penultimate song, “Gravity”, unintelligible in their manipulations. All of it lives as a creative feedback loop, the recordings affecting the live show affecting the recordings.
Life was affecting the music too, of course, but not in a way Danny nor Colleen were conscious of. Though they weren’t aware of it yet, these songs were about the end of their romantic relationship.
“I knew,” recalls Arianne. “I knew a lot going on in both of their heads. I knew they were in dark places. I knew everything would take its course, but I was also wrapped up in my own darkness of my life, which was getting wasted all the time and not making sense of any emotions I had.”
Drugs and alcohol mixed with denial to shield the musicians from the truth of their own work. Looking back, they could hear it. As much as the hazy electro-R&B of “Faded” is about being lost in substance abuse, it reflects the unhealthy codependency of a souring romance. “Darkness” spirals into a well of synths as the lyrics wrestle with the same addiction in prescient lines like, “It’s all rooted in using/ And the thought of your abuse is so soothing.” Where the David Longstreth-gone-Motown of “Hard Wind” is a breakup song written before the split, the weighty realization of the end floats in on “Gravity”. In that way, the Poison track sequencing very clearly acts as a time-lapse of this failing relationship.
“The album is a tunnel from the darkest, most substance-abusing portion of our relationship, through and up until where we are now,” Danny explains. “The sense of feeling lost, separate but nursing an unhealthy closeness to each other. Then breaking that and the pain and confusion.”
Which is why things end with “Good Sleep”, the only track written after Colleen and Danny chose to separate. Following a night of partying, the pair found themselves sharing a bed again — not sexually, just peacefully. The next morning, they’d learned “the lesson of a good sleep,” that they could get through the pain and retain the connection they still had left.
And that meant Brooks Thomas could persevere. “When we were together, we made a lot of good music. When we broke up, we made a lot of good music,” says Colleen. “We were together for eight years, making music the entire time, and that was a shared goal of ours. When we stopped dating, that goal didn’t go away.”
If anything, it’s made their music that much more impassioned. As emotional as it’s been for the former lovers to live these songs again on stage, their bandmates — close friends who’d been as much a part of their relationship as the former couple themselves — have been right there with them. They’ve all experienced the agony of that sort of dynamic in their own lives, and getting to share it with their bandmates in such interesting, intimate fashion has only strengthened them as a band.
Together, Brooks Thomas have taken everything from their uptown world — their helter-skelter neighborhood, the flowing alcohol, their sundry influences, the prolonged heartbreak — and distilled it into Poison, a rare, incomparable album. Stunning even as it burns, it’s a toxin well worth drinking down.
Bio by Ben Kaye of Consequence of Sound
Poison will be released September 2018