Brad Newell juggles multiple bands and styles of music
Grant Britt Special to Go Triad
Brad Newell can see for miles. His enhanced vision has enabled him to peer across a vast panorama, revealing musical landscapes not seen by others. From 8 Eyes to the Graphic with stops along the way for F-Art Ensemble and current excursions with Butter, baddBop, Brad Newell’s String Thing, Workbook, the Triangle Afrobeat Orchestra, and a project called The Fake, Newell covers virtually every genre of music.
The Greensboro native’s musical journey started at home. “Everybody sang. There were a lot of parties at my house every weekend, and they all sang older songs from the ’30s, ’40s and maybe even the ’20s,” Newell said recently by phone from his Durham home. “And as a consequence, I memorized them, and later on I’d have to tell them how the song went.”
His dad had the MG Newell company on Davie Street near Hamburger Square, running a venerated establishment that had been around since the 1880s and initially sold buggies and later diversified into industrial machinery and sanitary equipment.
“He was exhausted every time he came home, but he loved music, so he kept buying instruments that were lying around the house that nobody was learning to play. So I just started learning to play. This was like pre-Beatle, more like the folk boom, so I learned guitar and banjo first, took violin lessons, branched out from there.” Today, Newell teaches bass guitar, mandolin, guitar and ukulele in addition to his band duties.
Newell spent the early ’80s with Treva Spontaine in her band, the Graphic. A solo act till 1980, Spontaine put together a trio called the Krackers before forming Treva Spontaine & the Graphic with Doug Baker, Dwight Mabe and Garry Collins. Newell eventually replaced Baker, Jim Hoyle came in for Collins, and Spontaine’s husband-to-be/bassist Tony Brackett replaced Mabe.
“8 Eyes started literally about the time the Graphic played their last show,” Newell remembers. “We opened up for tons of people.”
Their producer was Don Dixon, who also produced REM and Marshall Crenshaw, as well as playing with his band Arrogance. 8 Eyes played with Crenshaw, the Smithereens “a bunch of times,” Newell says. “We played with Donovan, which was a big thing for me, Melissa Etheridge, Cowboy Junkies, Suzanne Vega; both those bands played at CBGB’s many times. One time, the Graphic played at CBGBs with Living Color, who were just coming up.”
The Graphic played New York on a a regular basis, roaming as far west as Chicago and Cincinnati. “We went everywhere from above Boston to Key West, Nashville, we were constantly going somewhere,” Newell says. Starting out as a cover band, the band switched to covering Newell’s originals. “When I left that band I had 200-250 songs written,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean they did ’em all. In the early days, they’d literally do anything I brought in, but you go on for a while, they get pickier, so you bring in three, they’ll take one.”
The band’s main performing space in Greensboro was Friday’s on Tate Street. Newell says the club was more of a scene than a club.
“One thing about a scene as opposed to just a place where bands play a lot is that you’ve not only got the bands and the music involved, but also filmmakers, artists, poster people, photographers, everybody was involved. It was like all the mediums were involved. That’s a scene. Like the San Francisco scene of the ’60s. Just having a popular bar is something else.”
That scene also spawned F-Art ensemble, in which Newell spent almost a decade.
The two bands left some goodies behind — Treva Spontaine and the Graphic’s 1984 Dixon-produced six-track EP “People In Glass,” featuring five Newell compositions and 8 Eyes’ 2003 offering, “Postmodern Boogie.”
One of the cuts, “Total Norway” is still a staple in one of Newell’s current bands, Butter. “The thing I like about that song is it almost sounds like a T. Rex record when you’re singing the verse, but when you go to the chorus, it almost sounds like beach music in a way, or soul.”
The melody sounds like a ’60s TV detective show theme song like “Peter Gunn,” but the chorus is as avant-garde as some of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ output, garage rock with soul.
“Am I cool?” Newell asks on the chorus before answering, “Total Norway, baby.”
8 Eyes went on through the mid ’90s as a quartet, getting more electric, morphing into an alt-rock band before ending in mid-2000. Newell started Butter with elements of alt rock but funked up and classic rocked as well.
“There’s a lot more of a Black influence in the music. We do covers, we’ve already put out one CD, an EP, getting ready to do another one.” The group also played for the Carrboro Music Festival in early October. Playing a modified guitar he calls the Gorgan, Newell is able to sound like a Hammond B-3 in Butter. “I’m more like basically the keyboard player in that band.”
Before the pandemic, Newell was busy with the slew of bands he has running. But he insists one of his projects not be labeled as a band.
“It’s called The Fake because it’s a fake band,” Newell says.
He and Greensboro-based songwriter/drummer Craig Pearman, who played in a band called The Return that played frequently at Friday’s, are the fakers.
“We pick a band from the ’50s to the ’80s, we haven’t gone any further than that. We write a song in the style of that band, then we record it to sound like that band. Kinda like if you’re an actor and you want to do a historical figure, you gotta learn their mannerisms. What are the things that make them them? It’s the same thing if you’re doing a Hollies song. You want a certain kind of attitude, a certain sound, whereas if you’re doing a Led Zeppelin song, you need a riff.” (Check out Newell’s Robert Plant channeling on “Black Train” at tinyurl.com/yyuf4th8).
The duo has done over 20 videos featuring fakes of superstars from Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis to The Hollies, The Cars, Roy Orbison and The Zombies.
“We have very different voices, so I’m able to cover all the stuff that’s kind of shouty and abrasive and meaty, and he’s able to do high parts, much higher than I can do.”
Like most musicians, Newell’s live gigs are a thing of the past, for now. In addition to the Carrboro festival, he dispensed some jazz fusion with his band Workbook at Alamance Country Club recently, but gigs are not on his immediate schedule. He has done some Facebook shows over the summer as a single and with a couple of his bands. “I don’t really see realistically trying to get any gigs till at the earliest next spring.”
But lack of gigs hasn’t affected Newell’s vision, which still encompasses a wide and varied soundscape including a new YouTube channel, Paths Through the Dark Forest, that features his electronic/experimental music.
“I’m still very much active in what I do,” Newell says. “I’ll just be glad if people remember me at all. This area is not particularly interested in a lot of the kind of stuff I do because it’s original, different. If people check it out and like it, that’ll be fine. I just do what I do, and I don’t really think about it too much other than what’s the next thing.”
Contact Grant Britt at firstname.lastname@example.org.