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Field of Screams

John Brannon Continues His Legacy of Howling Detroit Rock with Easy Action

LIFER: John Brannon (foreground, left) keeps rocking with easy action.

By Marc Masters | Posted 8/31/2005

Easy Action plays the Talking Head Sept. 3 with Clockcleaner and the New Flesh.

For more information, visit www.talkingheadclub.com.

“I’ve never had a problem with my voice,” says Detroit vocalist John Brannon, when asked whether his ferocious singing has caused any physical damage. “It feels stronger than ever. I really feel like there’s nothing holding me back. I’ve still got some batteries left, and I think I can do this for a while.”

Brannon’s lung-depleting howl, equal parts primal power and melodic reach, has ripped air for nearly 25 years, first with hardcore pioneers Negative Approach, then with blues-punkers Laughing Hyenas, and now with the steamrolling quartet Easy Action. That Brannon’s intense roar has survived this long is pretty miraculous. “I don’t know what else to do,” he admits. “My mother still says, ‘When are you going to get a job?’ and I always say, ‘Mom, I’m a singer!’”

On Friends of Rock and Roll, Easy Action’s 2005 album on Baltimore’s Reptilian Records, Brannon darts from slithery croon (“There Was a Time”) to slamming screech (“Get the Fuck Out of My Way”) to harrowing rage (“Kool Aide,” which drags the Stooges’ “Little Doll” through a dark tunnel of violent Brannon screams). While the band’s self-titled 2001 debut shone like hot chrome, Friends feels looser and more lived-in, like a well-worn leather jacket. It’s impressive given the group’s tumultuous history.

“We just couldn’t hold the band together, because nobody wanted to tour. People my age really don’t want to get in the van,” Brannon says. “But I don’t want to just play weekend shows in Detroit. I want to take this to the streets and show people how we rock. The lineup’s steady now, everybody’s up for touring, and we’re all really in tune to what we’re doing.”

The rough swagger of Friends of Rock and Roll reflects the spontaneity of its recording session, helmed by Detroit veteran Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Dirtbombs). The lurching “What’s Going Down” was built from a single riff minutes before it was recorded, while the anthemic title track employs an impromptu choir to buttress Brannon’s heroic bellow. “A friend of ours was planning to visit the studio after a night at a bar, and somehow word got around the bar,” Brannon recounts. “The next thing I knew, 20 kids walked in with him. So we said to them, ‘OK, you can hang out, but you’ve gotta help us sing this song.’ And it worked out great.”

Brannon began Easy Action with guitarist Harold Richardson in 1998 during the demise of Laughing Hyenas. “Harold and I were just messing around, doing ’70s glam covers,” Brannon recalls. “At some point I realized the Hyenas were not getting back together, and I was getting itchy. I’ve been touring for so long, and once you stop you really miss it. I felt like I had something more to say.”

Initially, Brannon also played guitar. “I never did that in Negative Approach or the Hyenas, though I always wrote songs on guitar,” he says. “But as the songwriting [in Easy Action] got going, we really only needed one guitar. Plus, I needed to concentrate on my vocals, to put on a crazier performance. The way I sing I need to have nothing holding me back—to be able to break some stuff and pump people up.”

With current bassist Tony Romeo and drummer Matt Becker, Brannon and Richardson have honed a tough, frantic sound that evokes numerous legendary bands from their hometown. “Growing up in Detroit in the early ’70s, bands that people regard as major influences were just local bands to me,” Brannon says. “The Stooges, Alice Cooper, MC5, John Lee Hooker, even Motown, I got saturated with that stuff. So I thought music was like that everywhere.” But Easy Action’s noisy edges place the band squarely in the current Motor City milieu. “We’re friends with Wolf Eyes, we really like playing with them,” Brannon says. “Same with Human Eye, the new band of Timmy “Vulgar” Lampinen from the Clone Defects. All the bands around here, we all go to the same bars, we all hang out.”

Still, the road is Brannon’s true home. “We’re excited to play anywhere we can,” he says. “I’ve been lucky—because of Negative Approach and the Hyenas, my demographic is like 15 to 50. I still get kids that were checking me out years ago. A lot of them want to talk to me about Negative Approach, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s cool that they still remember who the fuck I am. And I think they dig Easy Action, too, once they’ve seen it. We’re older, we hit it at a different angle, but we try to show them something they’ve never seen.”

Negative Approach songs have even shown up in Easy Action’s live set. “Yeah, if the mood’s right, we’ll kick some NA at the end of the show,” Brannon says. “I have a whole new audience of kids finding out about that, and they never saw those songs performed.”

For those looking to learn more, earlier this year Reptilian issued the exhilarating Negative Approach CD Ready to Fight, featuring demos and live recordings from Brannon’s vaults. “Chris X was really on my butt to get it together, because I was being kind of lazy about it,” Brannon says of Reptilian’s owner. “I finally went to my mom’s house and dug up all the old tapes and put the best of what I had on there. There had been some bootlegs, and they were pretty crappy, so it was relieving to finally get it out.”

After its current tour, Easy Action plans on immediately writing and recording a new album, followed by more shows. For Brannon, there are no alternatives. “I would’ve hung up the towel by now if I didn’t want to do this, but I’m too deep into it to turn back,” he says. “If I have to do the John Lee Hooker thing when I’m 68 and sit in a chair and sing, that’s fine with me.”

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