AOL, anxiety and spontaneity fuel new Brian Damage album

Before a release show at Cafe Bourbon St. on Thursday, Brian Baker discusses balancing the serious and the ridiculous on new album 'Sh*t For Brians'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Brian Baker, aka Brian Damage

For the past two years, Brian Baker has been recording nearly nonstop with local musician Adam Hardy (singer/bassist in Cliffs) for quasi-solo project Brian Damage. At one point during the pandemic, the two friends holed up in Spacebar while the Old North venue was closed, recording an entire album there. But while that collection was nearing completion, Baker started getting antsy.

“I got bored of not releasing stuff, and we had been working on the album for so long that I just wanted to do something different,” said Baker, who came up with the concept of recording one 30-minute song. “The idea was to string together a bunch of random ideas and kind of weave them together.” 

By that time Spacebar was open, so Baker and Hardy relocated to Hardy’s living room, where the pair would tinker between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. (with multiple “go-to-the-bar-and-get-a-drink intermissions”) a few nights a week for three weeks.  

“It was all spontaneous: I have a fragment of an idea; let's record it tonight and see what happens,” Baker said. “Sometimes I do songs like that, and sometimes they're actually well thought out and written and rehearsed. But it’s fun to make up stuff on the spot, because you'll do stuff that you didn't even know you were capable of doing, or things you wouldn't normally think to do. It’s just seeing whatever you can pull out of your ass on the fly, which can lead to pretty strange territory.” 

Rather than forcing the 30-minute song idea, Baker and Hardy turned the recordings into a new 11-track Brian Damage album, Shit For Brians, out digitally and on cassette. On Thursday, April 7, the live version of Brian Damage — Baker (vocals, guitar), Hardy (guitar), Chris Mengerink (keyboard), Hillary Jones (bass) and Mario Malachi (drums) — will celebrate the release at a Café Bourbon Street show with Miranova, Closest Relative and Aaron Plain & Tall. 

Several of the synth-forward, often hilarious art-pop tracks clock in around the two-minute mark, such as “The Dungeonmaster / Thoughts Of A Murderous Sleepwalker,” which came about after Baker told Hardy to record three impromptu drum tracks, over top of which they layered bass and guitar. “It's basically two songs in one,” Baker said, “and each one is about a different movie that I bought on VHS at Needle Exchange that day.”

More:Brian Baker emerges from pandemic with 'Yesterday's Slime'

Baker built snotty leadoff track “You’ve Got Friends,” which lands somewhere between Weird Al and Ron House, around the classic AOL “You’ve got mail” sample. “I live my life online/I don't have one any other time/All of these friends are mine/All a million and 69,” Baker sings over modem noise and fuzzy synthesizers. 

“I was a little hesitant to include [‘You’ve Got Friends’] because I was like, is this too outwardly funny and overtly comedic? But then I showed my brother, and he said it sounded like Devo, so I was like, I’m absolutely using that,” said Baker, who recruited friend Alissa Paynick to write the lyrics. “And if that song works, then I guess I can just really do whatever I want and it has a home under this name. … Some of the songs are more serious thematically, and then that song is just absolutely ridiculous, but they both can fit under the name Brian Damage.” 

A pair of heavier songs, “Anxiety” and “Shit for Brains,” deal with mental health. “It has no body, it has no shape/It can be the heaviest weight/It's like a boulder crashing through/Sits on your shoulders without asking you,” Baker sings on “Anxiety,” which revolves around “struggling with anxiety and depression every single day of your life.” On “Shit for Brains,” Baker turns the inner dialogue of somebody suffering from anxiety into one of the album’s prettier, downtempo tracks: “I can't tell you why I never call you back/I don't know why I can't make eye contact,” he sings. 

Singing those two songs is particularly cathartic for Baker. “It's a temporary relief, and sometimes it can even help you understand yourself,” he said. “If I heard someone else sing lyrics like that, it would help me a lot to know that I'm not the only person feeling that way. ... I hope those lyrics do reach somebody and it makes them feel better that they're not alone.” 

On Brian Damage’s 2021 album, Yesterday’s Slime, Baker inhabited the mind of a cop for the song “Thoughts of a Dying Police Chief,” and on Shit For Brians he takes a similar approach with “Bad Investment,” getting inside the head of an investment banker nearing the end of his life. 

“He’s like, ‘Oh, man. I wasted my life in the rat race, chasing money.’ And then in his dying thoughts, he realizes that the only thing that ever mattered was love,” Baker said. “It's really corny, to be honest. For some reason I always think it's funny to write songs like that. It's like a ’90s comedy movie. I feel like that's the plot line to every ’90s comedy I grew up watching. … Anyway, tune in to Columbus Alive and listen to Brian shit all over his own album.”