The Factory is a cavern, really, with concrete floors and glass panes punched out of the front window. Long ago, a congressman launched his campaign for governor here. Now it’s October 2010, on a weirdly frosty night, and a local guitarist is about to make a transition of his own.
Jonathan Pretus has reunited with Stephen Turner, and they’re about to play their first gig as The Breton Sound.
Jonathan had recently left Cowboy Mouth, an indie band that’s opened for Kid Rock and played to audiences 80,000 strong across the South. Between tours, Jonathan returned to his native New Orleans (and to photographer wife Julia); here, he found himself spontaneously jamming with Stephen, a tWeezer bandmate from their college days.
“Some other bands would mock us for playing covers,” says Jonathan. “Until one day, Stephen played a little Van Halen for them. That shut them up.”
The Factory is half-lit, and someone is pouring drinks at a makeshift bar. Local craftspeople are setting up corner displays of jewelry and soaps, giving off a street festival vibe. The warm-up act is a deejay whose spinning will be the loudest jam of the night.
While Jonathan toured with Cowboy Mouth, Turner played with a progressive rock band in Baton Rouge. “We had an ambient sound; real brainy, intricate stuff,” says Stephen. “But it took us six months to write a song, and we got into fights. It broke us up.”
Jonathan was weighing his own musical split. “I could’ve stayed and played someone else’s music, but I was burned out,” he says. In August 2010, after an all-night ride from Georgia, Jonathan stepped off the Cowboy Mouth tour bus for the last time. He dragged out his gear and went home.
By 1 p.m., Turner was at the house and ready to write music. “I had a lot of trepidation leaving the band,” Jonathan says, “but being able to jump right back in was definitely a soothing factor.”
There is no stage at The Factory. Jonathan and Stephen, armed with two acoustic guitars and four original songs, will play to the swarming crowd at eye level. As friends and fans arrive, Jonathan slips outside for a smoke, wondering if he’s ready. He is, as he says later, “scared shitless.”
It’s been years since Jonathan has had to distribute his own music (he got his start selling hand-pressed CDs from the back of a van).
The Breton Sound strategy is “a throwback, to the way it was in the 1960s,” says Jonathan. Those days, rock classics like “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” were released as a single, never appearing on a Beatles LP.
“We’re [also] single-driven,” Jonathan says. “When you continuously put out singles, it keeps you relevant and creative. We’re releasing them all without shame, one at a time, so they all get heard.”
In September 2011, The Breton Sound dropped four singles making up their EP, “Eudaemonia” (a word that conjures up finding happiness where you are).
Each week, fans downloaded one track for free, before it went behind a 99-cent paywall. The band relied on social media to get the word out and the tracks passed. “It seemed to generate a nice weekly buzz for us,” Jonathan says. “We’ll continue to put music out in different ways like that. That’s the fun thing about the music industry right now—no one knows what’s coming next.”
The deejay is fading out. Jonathan tunes his rhythm guitar; Stephen is on lead. There are no microphones, nothing to stand behind, and the crowd pushes forward as they start to play. Backed against the wall, Jonathan and Stephen can’t sense what is about to happen.
The Breton Sound entered Fudge Recording Studios on Magazine Street in spring 2011, with Jonathan turning to longtime mentor Tom Drummond (of Better Than Ezra) to produce “Eudaemonia”.
Tom got all the players deeply involved, even letting Stephen direct the bass parts. “It made me want to produce a sound,” Stephen says.
To capture that “grit and feel” in the studio, Jonathan lays down the rhythm tracks in two or three takes.
Sometime during those weeks of recording, a framed gold record of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”—music Jonathan idolizes—appears on the wall. “It was good juju,” Jonathan says. “It was a mystical guiding force.”
Lured by the music into The Factory, a strange cat makes his way to where The Breton Sound is playing. He’s tall and skinny, with floppy long limbs, dancing wildly. Then he whips out an orange and blue harmonica, and begins to punch the band’s songs with whistle blasts.
Stephen snaps a “what now?” look at Jonathan. Truth is, they could do any number of things: Ignore the harmonica player. Stop the set. Throw him out.
Jonathan, who’s clearly in charge, does none of it. Instead, he gets the guy’s name. “Scott Tillman, everyone!” he says. At Jonathan’s invitation, Scott Tillman buzzes with them through the rest of the gig.
“There was an awkward 20-foot span between us and the audience,” says Jonathan, “and Scott Tillman moved in the middle. It broke the tension. We relaxed after that.”
With more live gigs on the way, The Breton Sound is gaining traction in this voodoo vortex of jazz, blues and rock. “It’s a great time to be a young musician in New Orleans,” says Stephen. “There’s a great sense of camaraderie among bands here.”
The Breton Sound may not sound like other homegrown bands—no horns, no piano— but they play with feeling and energy, in a city that appreciates that over high technicality. Their playing is warm and melodic, with supple chord changes and shimmery harmonies.
And in a time when American music is becoming so fragmented and niche-driven (there’s a target audience not only for metal music, but sub-genres like crust punk and funk metal), The Breton Sound stays open to keeping crossover appeal.
“We shouldn’t put a label on our sound, or on what we can do,” Jonathan says. “The best bands have no fear of boundaries.”
Rolling with the unexpected before a live audience, hardly skipping a harmonic beat, Jonathan’s professional training, honed over years on the road, has kicked in, and he shows the reflexes of a seasoned musician. He may be in a new band, but he’s hardly starting over.
The Breton Sound is Jonathan Pretus, Stephen Turner, Brian Pretus and Chris Arceneaux. Catch them live on Jan. 18, at the legendary Tipitina’s Uptown. Follow them at www.TheBretonSound.com and on Twitter and Facebook.