Thomas Brenneman of El West on His Days in the Music Industry

Thomas with his new custom guitar.
Luxicon Photography
Thomas with his new custom guitar.
In Pound for the Sound, Phoenix New Times gets technical with local music community members about what "gear" they use to create their signature "tones" in our community.

Thomas Brenneman, guitarist for local indie rockers El West, was born in Bethesda, Maryland and lived there until he was about 10. In fourth grade, inspired by a musician uncle, he started playing the trumpet, but only lasted six short months on the brass before switching to bass guitar. Around this time, his family moved to Phoenix. His middle and high schools offered guitar classes at school, and he also sought out private lessons throughout adolescence.

While in high school, Brenneman played in the local hardcore band East of Eden. After their breakup, he formed another band called This Is Halo, but after a year, he had had enough of the hardcore scene, and Arizona in general. Brenneman moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and landed a job with Warner Music Group (WMG), working closely with their publishing arm Warner/Chappel. A year into the job, however, he was laid off, along with 2,499 other employees, the day that Spotify launched in 2010. Out of a job, he decided it was time to return to Arizona.

After finishing his college degree, Thomas began working and immersing himself in the downtown Phoenix culture. He became a manager at Angel's Trumpet House in downtown, a job he held for six years before moving to help build their Arcadia location. After about a five year hiatus from actually playing music, he helped form El West, and they've been rocking steady for the past three years.

El West, in conjunction with Grey Matter Family Bicycles, are hosting their third annual "Grey Matter" benefit concert this Saturday, September 1, at Valley Bar. The show will feature a fundraising raffle, which includes a sweet set of wheels from GMF Bicycle, with all proceeds being donated to Barrow Neurological Institute in support of brain tumor research. With the show happenings, New Times was able to catch up with Brenneman via phone and email about his gear, his time with WMG, and his band's upcoming show.

Phoenix New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?

Thomas Brenneman: I would typically say lots of delay and reverb but I feel like that’s an easy way out haha. The overall basis of my sound or tone is my amp. I play a Bad Cat Cub40R and that’s the foundation. Pedal wise…outside of delay and reverb, I would say my Big Ear Pedals Woodcutter. It’s basically a Ratt distortion pedal, but has a very unique sound to it. It really cuts through the mix.

click to enlarge Thomas's gear. - THOMAS BRENNEMAN
Thomas's gear.
Thomas Brenneman

What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?

My new custom guitar from Balaguer Guitars. It is literally my dream guitar. Super versatile and comfortable and sounds phenomenal.

Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?

I’ll go back to my new guitar on this one because for my wedding last year, my wife and I bought new guitars for each other as a wedding present. I spec’d out my dream guitar and she spec’d out her dream bass. Other than that, my Bad Cat amp was a special pickup for me. It had been my dream amp for a while and I was lucky enough to receive an endorsement from them.

Just listened to "Rose Letter A." Powerful song, we could really feel the emotion behind it. And we loved the guitar work all over the track. How did you go about getting all those sweet, soft, spacey sounds from your axe?

Lots of delay and reverb haha. For that song I actually run 2 reverbs during the verses to really make it spacey. If I’m not playing with any overdrive or distortion, I typically go for 2 reverbs to really fill out the space along with the delay.

You, and 2,499 other employees, were laid off by Warner Music Group the day Spotify was launched. How did you feel about Spotify then? How do you feel now as an artist with music on the Spotify platform?

I knew it was coming. The industry was working on a similar platform, but just got beat to it. I started using it immediately (laughs). I love Spotify as a consumer. Not so much as an artist. It’s a great platform and offers promotion with playlists and such, but the payouts are pretty minimal. If you figure millions of people are paying for the service, they should be able to afford to payout more than half a penny a play.

click to enlarge El West performs at Valley Bar Saturday Sept 1 - LUXICON PHOTOGRAPHY
El West performs at Valley Bar Saturday Sept 1
Luxicon Photography

El West has a benefit show coming up this Saturday, Sept 1, at Valley Bar. Any words you wish to share with readers about your upcoming performance?

We’ve got our 3rd Annual Grey Matter Benefit Concert supporting Barrow Neurological Institute. Jared and the Mill and Sydney Sprague will be joining us for the evening and we’re super excited for that. There will be a raffle with prizes ranging from merch bundles to a brand new bike from Grey Matter Family Bicycle Shop. 100% of the proceeds from the door and the raffle tickets will be donated to the cause so we’re hoping to sell this one out. And, we’re very excited to debut some new music too from our upcoming EP.

El West. With Jared and the Mill and Sydney Sprague. 7 p.m. Saturday, September 1, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue; valleybarphx.com. Tickets are $8 via Ticketfly or $10 at the door.