Like many musicians, Charlie Brand was not a happy high-schooler. Discussing his days as an art school dropout — a troubled kid sent to a Scientology-run youth camp, where he lied to the E-Meter reader to escape, only to become a chronically depressed and morbidly obese pothead — the 24-year-old singer grimaces.
Fast-forward to today: Brand's undeniably infectious and quirky indie-pop songs are getting a huge response for his band, Miniature Tigers. The four-piece has been lauded by Spin and Rolling Stone, performed at October's CMJ Music Marathon in NYC, and is signed to the Sony-funded local label Modern Art Records. They spent the last month opening for Ben Folds, who handpicked them for his East Coast tour. Next week, the band rolls into South by Southwest as a showcased act.
Yep, everyone seems to like Miniature Tigers these days, and because of their success, Brand says he's learning to love himself, though he often seems as if he has a ways to go.
"I sometimes just don't understand why people like my music. I can see why people see all the good stuff in it; I think it's just very hard for me to like the music sometimes," says Brand. "I feel good about songs when I first make them and get excited putting music out there. But after a while, there's a lot of stuff I cringe at and wish I could change."
If you want to create a chronology, Brand's issues started as a teenager, after falling woefully behind other kids his age at the Phoenix charter school Metro Arts Institute. His mother and stepfather shipped him off to the Mace-Kingsley Ranch School, an infamous New Mexico boot-camp-like institution run by Scientologists, after tiring of arguing with him about his pot habit, ditching class, and other problems.
"It was bizarre because my family's not Scientologists. My parents thought it was for troubled teens. [The camp] forced Scientology on you, and you had to go through the steps before you could leave. You had to use an E-Meter and study guides about all their beliefs. I fought it for a while but eventually was like, 'Yeah, this Scientology stuff is great,' and faked it."
He was already failing school before his brush with the Hubbard-bots, but after Mace-Kingsley provided "useless religion credits that didn't apply to anything," he essentially was a 17-year-old freshman while friends went off to college. Depressed, he turned to food and smoking weed and ballooned to over 300 pounds. Brand was always somewhat shy and had few girlfriends growing up, but he started becoming extremely anti-social and self-loathing. He dropped out and settled for his GED, mooching off his father.
"I just never wanted to go outside or do anything," Brand says. "It was bad."
It led to some "oh shit" moments of panic when the musician wondered what he was doing with his life. He'd been raised on a slew of vintage '60s pop like the Beatles, and learned guitar in junior high. Although his "GN'R-type" rock band at Metro Arts called Final Dream went nowhere, Brand resolved to give music a more serious try and spent most of the next two years in his bedroom creating an endless amount of songs with his guitar and PC.
"I started eating really healthy, went to the gym everyday, and worked on music nonstop," he says. "Almost like a self-imposed boot camp on myself, trying to get mentally and physically healthy."
Although he cops to creating "some pretty shitty rip-offs of Beatles and Weezer" during that period, Brand was learning catchy chord progressions and how to craft effective and memorable pop songs. His low self-esteem kept him from letting the public hear his efforts or performing onstage (owing to a "deathly fear" of singing), but eventually he put out a pair of D.I.Y. EPs and posted music on MySpace in 2005 and 2006. Songs like "The Wolf" and "Dino Damage" caught the attention of Ben Collins, guitarist for local rap-rock band Chronic Future, who coaxed Brand out of his bedroom and into the studio with Ryan Breen of Back Ted N-Ted.
Breen says the recordings were replete with many of Brand's songwriting hallmarks: simple-yet-addictive pop melodies with a slight bubblegum feel, glowing Grizzly Bear-esque harmonies, irresistible hooks, and plenty of whimsy. Besides noting similarities to early efforts from The Shins or Fountains of Wayne, Breen felt the songs were Weezer-like, both melodically and in subject matter.
He was also impressed by his lyrical talents.
Sung in a boyish voice that exceeds Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard's in fragility, Brand's music and lyrics also exudes awkward adolescence. Verses are steeped in broken-hearted and bittersweet notions filtered through lively metaphors of animals and nature.
"The songs were just memorable, sweet, and charming, yet with this undertone of darkness and seriousness to them," Breen says. "Charlie occupies this imaginative realm, which is a big jungle where he can work out his personal issues and his songs capture that completely."
The pair recorded Brand's songs through scattered sessions during the summer of 2006, when Brand temporarily moved to L.A. He was sick of Arizona and hoped to escape from a "torturous" situation in which he was plagued by an unrequited love for a "cruel" female friend.
"She was a good friend who was dating my other friend at the time. They didn't know I was I love with her; I was involved in my head. I didn't really tell her until after I moved to L.A. I called drunk one night, saying, 'I'm in love with you.' She just laughed at me."
It was also in the City of Angels where he started collaborating with fellow musical savant Rick Schaier, a rambunctious keyboardist and drummer whom Brand met through MySpace.
Schaier contributed some drumming and keyboard work at the tail end of the recording sessions with Breen. Collins later used the songs to help persuade Epic Records to fund his start-up label Modern Art, which released the Tigers' recordings as separate EPs titled Black Magic and White Magic in March 2008. After the discs proved popular on college radio (including with the influential Nic Harcourt of Santa Monica's KCRW), Brand and Schaier started collaborating on what became Miniature Tigers' first full-length effort, Tell It to the Volcano.
"The more time Charlie and I spent together as musicians, he started trusting my ideas more and vice versa," Schaier says. "It didn't feel like a conventional studio situation, but like three guys kinda fucking off and making an album organically."
That album got into the hands of Ben Folds, who picked Miniature Tigers as his opening act for an 11-city East Coast stretch in February. The piano-playing power-pop star told South Carolina's The Post and Courier that he dug the band and wanted to expose his audiences to something they'd never heard.
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Now, the band — with bassist Lou Kummerer (who works at New Times) and guitarist Darren Robinson — has a chance to make a big splash at South by Southwest. Those who know them are betting on it.
"I think Charlie's finally kinda feeling comfortable in his own skin onstage and offstage," Breen says. "And Lou and Darren are just solid players and music veterans who balance out Rick and Charlie."
While Brand doesn't have any plans to produce a follow-up to Volcano anytime soon, he believes it will go in more experimental directions with less of a metaphorical bent. The next album also may not be as drama-fueled, Brand says, because he's grown happier and more confident in recent months, especially after touring with Folds. No longer does he worry as much about his voice or flubbing a guitar line onstage.
"I'm much more of a happier person now because I have a purpose in life: doing music," Brand says. "I've been in a great mood for the last while. There still are times where I don't like myself, though."