Philly-based ‘The Brakes’ are on full speed ahead

Still gleaming with the sweat of red and yellow stage lights, Matt Kass raked a hand through his chin length mop of curls and grinned up at the ceiling, then at his fellow band member

Still gleaming with the sweat of red and yellow stage lights, Matt Kass raked a hand through his chin length mop of curls and grinned up at the ceiling, then at his fellow band member Zach Djanikian.

“I just got a present,” he said, in a slow voice that spoke true mischief. He unfolded his fist, revealing something thin and square, safely hidden in a black velvet sack.

A flask, as it turned out. The silver glinted in the lamplight as he held it up for all to see.

“I could’ve sworn it was going to be an iPod,” someone called out laughing. “This is better than an iPod,” Kass said, pocketing it with a wink. All jokes aside, the members of Philly-based band The Brakes – whose sound is a funky mix of classic rock, jazz and soul – treasure their music far more than their liquor.

Fans of indie darlings Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom and The Shins, as well as Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pearl Jam and Steely Dan, The Brakes spend most of its down time on the road listening to “on-the-go” mixes and singing along to its favorite songs.

Though they’ve toured with such high profile names as the Dave Matthews Band, O.A.R., Widespread Panic and Willie Nelson, they said they’ve had the best time sharing a stage with the bluesy Big Head Todd & the Monsters, a laid-back pop outfit whose long-spanning career has influenced the group.

“They’re such nice guys to be on tour with,” Djanikian, lead vocalist and guitarist, said. “They make you feel included. We’re a good musical pairing, and they’re very popular … we’ve been playing a lot of sold out rooms.”

“They’ve been in the music business for a long time, and we’ve learned a lot from just picking their brains,” keyboardist Adam Flicker added.

Most of the members of The Brakes met at Montgomery County’s Lower Merion High School, though some knew each other when they were younger. The band first formed in 2001 and played its first live set at a 9-11 benefit concert.

Bassist Derek Feinberg is still amazed that they didn’t play any covers that day, just original songs. “We played a lot of funk back then,” he said. “We were more of a jam band.”The group still jams on occasion – each member plays a few instruments and sometimes in the studio they trade back and forth and improvise tunes.

Now the band’s music is much more streamlined. On Jan. 31 The Brakes opened for Big Head Todd at the Theater of the Living Arts, looking and sounding very much like a band about to make it big – and in some ways, they already have. The Brakes starred in an H&R Block advertisement campaign, singing its song “Special”
in the company’s TV commercials and making it to the pages of “Rolling Stone” with its promotion of Block’s tax services.

“It was a really cool experience. It’s fun to see yourself on TV,” said Kass, who plays bass. “It got a little old after a couple of months, though.” “Not for me,” Djanikian cut in.

“It never got old for me. I’m still watching it on repeat.” He smirked, taking a quick swig of beer to keep from bursting out laughing.The Brakes were invited to audition for the campaign by a representative who found them through WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s
public radio station and one of the band’s biggest supporters.

The media exposure has helped the group secure a fairly large fanbase and will surely sell a few CDs once its debut album hits stores. Recording has been the band’s top priority lately because, as Feinberg put it, “We want to make an album that people really enjoy listening to. We want to get our album in the hands of lots of people.”

“It’s scary in some ways,” said Djanikian of the recording process. “You have to concentrate on something that makes sense as a whole. It’s a lot different than touring, and that’s what we’re used to.”Kass agreed.

“You’ll work on something for days and days, but then you’ll think, ‘Is this actually good, or am I too close to it?’ You produce so much material, but not all of it gets used. You’re only making a 12-song album.”

Despite members’ worries about how the album will turn out, The Brakes are still having a lot of fun in the studio.

“Recording’s the best, because you make music out of nothing,” Flicker said. “It’s a great, creative thing to be a part of.”At one point after the show, an unnamed member of the Disco Biscuits, another local jam band of sorts, popped his head backstage and cried out, “Oh, my God! I love you guys! You guys were so good tonight! You rock!” Then, laughing, he took his drink and sunglasses and left.

“That’s our one famous fan,” Djanikian said wryly. “Well, there’s also that guy on The O.C.,” Kass said. “The one who slept with the mother.

Well, not his mother, but the mother on the show. You know who I’m talking about. He likes us, too.”As long as people still like their music, The Brakes are going to keep touring. Flicker, who briefly attended Temple as a classical trumpet player, said, “I always saw myself making a living playing music. For awhile, I thought I wanted to be in an orchestra. Rock is a little bit cooler, though.”

Just a little bit.

Anna Hyclak can be reached at

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