I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Animal Collective's music: it was 2004, and I was driving in the car with my parents to grab lunch in the city; listening to a special about the group on the radio. My folks are obsessive NPR listeners, so there's rarely a moment when something educational isn't pumping through the speakers. My mother asked me if I had heard of the band, but I hadn't. A year later, however, I ended up buying their 2005 release Feels and took a closer listen to their music. I was a semi-serious runner for a number of years, and at that time I was planning my first race as part of the renowned Bay to Breakers 10K course through San Francisco. Getting my hour-long playlist together was a big part of my preparation. I added the AC track "Did You See The Words?", a rather slow-building, psychedelic tab of happiness that happened to kick in right when I reached the bison field in Golden Gate Park. Feeling my runners high, staring at those animals in the grass, listening to that song really inspired something in me that day. It was still early in the morning, and I was relatively alone at that part of the race. There was something incredibly peaceful about that second in time, and it's a moment (and a feeling) I still associate with their music today. A sort-of revelatory bliss.
In 2007, when the band released their next album Strawberry Jam, I was just starting at K&L. There was another guy that had been hired a few months before me named Joe Manekin who quickly became my friend. We were the same age and we were both the low pegs on the Redwood City totem pole. Over wine and music, as well as being the only two people we knew who had Wednesdays and Thursdays off, we quickly bonded and began hanging together outside of work. One night I invited him over to drink weird Loire valley reds and listen to records; I began with one of my favorite new tracks at the time: "Peacebone", a frantic, lively shot of adrenaline that was both incredibly catchy and somewhat silly. Joe, being the rather stoic guy he is, quietly nodded. You could tell he was thinking about something, but wasn't necessarily sure if he should say it. Finally, after a few minutes, he cracked: "I actually grew up with these guys. Brian, or Geologist I should say, is an old friend from high school."
"No way!" I said, and began peppering him with questions about his old days in Baltimore. Brian had become known as "Geologist" partially because of the headgear he wore to see his equipment while performing.
Knowing I was a big fan, Joe made sure to introduce me to his friend a few years later; when Animal Collective was on tour and passing through the Bay Area. Brian had come by the store with his wife to say hello, and maybe grab a bottle or two of whisky while he was at it. I had recently become the spirits buyer, so Joe suggested that Brian talk with me about a recommendation. We picked out a bottle, exchanged emails, and since that time—whenever he begins feeling the thirst—Brian has reached out to K&L for his recreational spirituous needs. A lot of other things have happened to Brian and the boys from Baltimore since that time, as well. In 2009, when the group launched their most accessible record to date—Merriweather Post Pavillion—Animal Collective changed from an independent critic's choice to a widely-renowned, world-famous rock band. They went from playing small clubs to co-headlining the second night of the gigantic 2011 Coachella music festival with The Arcade Fire; cementing their status as one of the biggest acts of the new millennium music scene. Their hit single from that record, "My Girls", has ten million views on its YouTube page. That's big time.
In gathering my initial list of candidates for the Drinking to Drink interview series, Brian's name was one of the first I thought of. Not only is he a widely-known musician, he's now a colleague in the food and wine industry, and I know he appreciates a good dram now and again. I caught up with him last week to pick his brain about Taiwanese ramen, mezcal, and his changing views on single malt whisky. Check out our conversation below:
David: You saw the format of the David J interview, so hopefully you’re up for the same type of conversation.
Brian: I’m not sure I’ll be as good of an interview. I don’t think I have the history he has, or the interesting stories.
David: (laughs) I think you bring something completely different to the mix. First of all, you and I are the same age so we have a bit more in common regarding our experiences. Like David J, you’re a very talented musician and part of a very famous rock band, but you do so many other things on the side. There’s the environmental policy issues you work closely with concerning your graduate studies, and also the fact you’re the part-owner of a ramen shop in Washington D.C. You’re actually part of the food and wine world!
Brian: I’m a bit more involved with the restaurant now, whereas before I tried to be more of a silent investor. I still don’t have anything to do with the day-to-day operations, the quality of the food, or anything that has to do with the customer experience. As part of the investor group, I take a more active role as a bridge between the creative people and the business people. It’s been an interesting experience for me. I’m nicer to my record label people now. (laughs)
David: What led you to invest in Toki Underground; the restaurant?
Brian: I love Japanese food, and even though it’s a Taiwanese place, I was excited by that love. I was actually in the car with a friend when he pointed to the spot as we drove by, saying, “I’m investing in that ramen shop.” I was curious about it because it was only four blocks from my house and I was feeling an excitement towards becoming part of the neighborhood. A couple days later he sent me an email that said, “You seemed curious. This is how much money we’re looking for. Are you interested?” I probably shouldn’t have done it, in terms of being able to afford it. It wasn’t a ton of money in terms of what it takes to build a restaurant, but for someone like me—I’m not a millionaire; I’m not even close—it was a little bold.
David: That's a big decision, especially when you're not familiar with the business.
Brian: On top of that, I actually signed the check the same day that my wife’s pregnancy test came back positive with our first kid. I came home from a Raven’s game, and was then supposed to go to an investor meeting. I stopped home to get the check and my wife handed me the test. I thought, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea after all.” I did it anyway, however, because Animal Collective had decided it was going to take a year off—pretty much from even seeing each other. Things weren’t bad in the band, it wasn’t because we were mad at each other, but we just thought it would be nice to spend some time in our respective homes and just take a break. I didn’t really want to work on a separate music project, and the environmental stuff had dried up a bit, so I wanted another project to work on.
David: Does the restaurant serve cocktails? Do you go there to drink?
Brian: Oh yeah, we have a full bar.
David: Do you ever help pick out any of the booze, or do you just drink it?
Brian: I just drink it (laughs). The alcohol program is interesting because we have a talented young guy named Colin who works with Erik the chef. They collaborate together to use ingredients from the kitchen with the drinks. Our best cocktail—in my opinion as a whisky drinker—is called the Tokimonster. I’m not sure exactly what’s in it, but it uses something smoky like Ardbeg in a mist, mixing that with Bourbon and then a skewered pork belly that rests on top with a toothpick. I really try to stay away from any creative sort of input when it comes to this stuff. When you’ve got a group of seven investors there tend to be a lot of opinions, or too many cooks in the kitchen—no pun intended. I relate to the situation the same as I do being in a band that’s part of a record label. Just let the creative people do their thing. I’m not a creative person when it comes to food and beverages.
David: I understand that completely. As someone trying to run a retail spirits department and be creative with that approach, I’d often prefer just to be left alone and do things as I see fit.
Brian: I will, however, forward things to them from time to time— if I think it’s relevant. Our ramen shop is unique in that Erik is Taiwanese—he learned all the recipes from his grandmother working at the family ramen shop in Taipei—but we have a lot of Japanese ramen fans coming in looking for that style of cuisine. Sometimes they dismiss it as fusion or not authentic, but I think it’s something that Eric does a very good job embracing. He doesn’t try to be Japanese. It’s Taiwanese ramen and the Taiwanese influence is very strong. When the Kavalan whiskies were released here—which I think I learned about on your blog, actually—I immediately forwarded that post to Eric and Colin, and said, “I haven’t tasted this, but it’s Taiwanese, so we have to have it, right?” (laughs). And now it’s available from our bar.
David: Fantastic! I’m happy more people are giving them the attention they deserve. The funny thing about Kavalan is that the Taiwanese didn’t want to drink it until they saw other countries drinking it first. Now that it’s big in the U.S. and Europe, it’s becoming a huge success at home. Maybe this will help convince others (laughs). Let’s talk about mezcal now. The last time we talked, Animal Collective was getting ready to hit the road and you wanted me to send you some mezcal for the trip. Are you still into the Mexican spirits?
Brian: Mezcal is definitely the Animal Collective spirit; it’s one that the band can all agree upon. We’re not huge boozers, but we’ll order a bottle of mezcal if we’re going into the studio or if we’re having a band practice where the four of us are going to rent a house together. For a tour, we’ll usually keep a bottle on the bus for the end of the night.
David: How did that come about?
Brian: It’s rather recent; something that happened over the last few years. One of the guys in the band, Dave (Portner), happened to mention that he had tasted mezcal recently, and that it was smoky in the same way that Scotch was smoky. We tried some together—I think around the time I ordered a few bottles from you—when we were at a recording studio in El Paso; working on our last record Centepede Hz. It’s this crazy studio—maybe twenty to thirty miles outside of El Paso—and it’s on a pecan farm. It’s the second largest one in the U.S. The owner is this guy named Tony—it’s part of his family business—and he’s been hanging out with musicians, like the guys in ZZ Top, for a long time. He’s been around.
David: Sounds like a character.
Brian: We mentioned that we liked mezcal, and he told us he was really into wine. He has this crazy collection—like bottles from the teens; he’ll take you in there and say, “Look at this wine from 1912.” He’s a big collector of booze in general though, so if you say you like something he’ll just go into the back and get it. He loves hanging out with bands, so he built this recording on his family’s farm. He wasn’t interested in pecan farming at all. He just wanted a place where bands could hang out, so there’s this hacienda in the middle of the orchard that has three amazing recording studio rooms. And you can just live on the property while you’re recording! There’s a staff that will cook for you. You never have to leave. It’s like….like a compound. And it goes right up to the border fence along the Rio Grande. In any case, we’d stay up late with him drinking mezcal and it tasted amazing, so it just became the drink of that session. That’s when I ordered a few bottles from you.
David: Do you still think about that experience every time you drink mezcal today? Is it like a source of happiness in your memory? (laughs)
Brian: Yes, it’s a source of happiness (laughs) and there are other sensory memory things associated with it. We were there in the winter and—I don’t know the seasonality of the farm—there were always big piles of brush that they were burning. They use these industrial whackers—these weird futuristic-looking machines. If you imagine a bulldozer, but instead of a lift in the front, there’s a fork or something. You know those head-scratcher things? It’s like that; a huge industrial version of that with a blade that goes into the air and spins and knocks off the top off the trees. Then all the branches fall down, and the nuts come with them. To get rid of the branches they burn them, so there’s always smoke in the air; it gets all over your clothes and the studio smells like it, too. Even though mezcal often has its own smokiness, that image always comes into my head. I always think of those pecan trees and remember inhaling that dusty, smoky scene.
David: That’s a great memory! What a fantastic story. Have these experiences, along with your ever-changing sound as a musician inspired you to be more adventurous with your drinking, too?
Brian: I don’t know if the two are related, but there’s no doubt that the success of (the album) Merriweather afforded me a little bit of luxury. I don’t have to hold down a day job anymore and we don’t have to tour as much as we used to. And I don’t really have expensive tastes when it comes to other things. I buy records, I go scuba-diving, and then—as my wife often says—I like ritual liquids. I spend money on tea, or at least I did until I had two kids. At that point, tea didn’t really do it for me anymore (laughs). Now I hit the coffee shop every day. I was never really into alcohol growing up. I drank here and there, like any kid does, but I had a really bad first time with booze—with whiskey actually—and I didn’t drink much for the decade after that. We were always pot smokers, you know? My dad was in the duty free business, so he was super into wine and booze; he would always shove stuff into my face and say “Smell this!” and I would say, “I don’t get it. It smells like alcohol.” But then when I first started learning about Scotch, which was on an Animal Collective tour, I came home and started looking up stuff about it online. My wife caught me and said, “Here you go; this is going to be your new tea.” And, of course, it’s turned into that. I’m limited by price, but it sort has become my new obsession. I always have to have at least one.
David: I know a lot of those guys. This is the one pleasure they allow themselves, so they don’t worry about splurging on a nice bottle every now and again. I have more than one vice, unfortunately, so I can’t get too carried away with just whiskey (laughs).
Brian: The whole thing happened when Merriweather was about to come out. Our tour manager told us he was going to ask the promoters for a nice bottle of Scotch instead of a bottle of Jameson when we went on tour. In the past they would have told us to fuck off, but now maybe it would be different. The tour happened to be in England and it was the first tour after the record finally came out. I was super against it. I was thinking, “How dare you act like that! We don’t know if the record is going to be as popular as everyone’s saying it’s going to be; and even if it is we don’t have to right to demand something expensive like that.” But I got outvoted by the other members in the band about whether or not to add it to our expenses. Then, as irony would have it, the promoter started giving us different single malts every night and I was the one loving it. One night it would be Glenlivet, the next night Laphroaig, the next night would be Talisker. That sort of set me on this adventure. I couldn’t let go of just a bit of the embarrassment, however. I was thinking, “I’m not supposed to be enjoying something extravagant like this.” But it wasn’t my fault. The other members of Animal Collective outvoted me and now I’m stuck here dealing with the consequences.