From the outside, it appears as if Carl Finch and Brave Combo couldn't have planned it any better. Only a few weeks after the group's last album, 1999's Polkasonic, was named Best Polka Album at the Grammy Awards, Brave Combo will have a new disc in stores, The Process, on March 21. Even though the band's Grammy came in an oft-overlooked category, there's no better way to kick off the campaign for a new album. It's the kind of thing record companies dream about.
Of course, The Process isn't exactly the perfect record to follow up an award-winning polka album. It's a pop album, as much influenced by The Music Machine, Manfred Mann, and Love as by the Brazilian foros, Cuban guaguancos, and South Texas polkas that have appeared on previous records. At first glance, you'd assume it was a case of everyone's favorite wedding band finally deciding to write some songs on its own. Which is precisely the problem: Brave Combo's been doing that all along. Finch admits to having low expectations for The Process. When it comes down to it, he has only one wish for the record.
"What I really hope is that people will start to look at us as songwriters as much as they do as people who take old music and rearrange it," Finch says, on the way to a gig in Austin. "Our reputation's pretty solid in that respect. Our original songs have always been there, and they've always gotten just as much attention, and frankly, we get just as many requests for the original songs. But when you see how people sum us up over and over and over, our unique contribution is always that we take this old music and rework it for modern ears. It always comes back to that. So, we'll see what happens with this.
"I'm very realistic, though," he continues. "Really, we're so psyched about the Grammy, and we're already working on the next polka record, so we'll just look at this as a side project and hope it pays off. If this doesn't really pay back in some way, we'll probably really focus on the polka thing for a while. And we've been wanting to put out another Latin record for a while. The only thing I don't like about that is by the time we got it out, this Latin craze is going to be kind of waning. It kind of sucks that fads are the way that they are, but that's why they're called fads, you know?"
But The Process isn't that much of a departure for Brave Combo. After all, it's hard to escape from more than 20 years of playing various styles of dance music from around the world. Sure, it's pop music, but it's David Byrne's version of pop rather than the definition you'd get from Burt Bacharach. The first song on the disc, "Golden Opportunity," takes its cues from both ska and polka, and the Latin-tinged "My Tears Are Nothing" cha-chas around the middle of the album. "Why, Oh Why," in fact, is a remixed version of a track off Polkasonic, and its inclusion more or less serves as the main idea of the album.
"The point of that, really, is that we're still wanting people to perceive polka not so much as a style," Finch says. "You know, it's just a song, and it happens to be this style. I mean, I think the album is really similar. But, on most of our other records, we sort of labeled each song as a style. So I think we put a lot more emphasis on playing styles instead of songs. We wanted this record to be geared toward the songs, so people would be thinking song first."
Which is what Finch had always hoped people would think about Brave Combo's music, though he understands why that has rarely happened. If The Process doesn't work the way he hopes it does, he's more than happy to return to his position as the man who dusted off polka and brought it into rock clubs. He never wanted much more than that, though you can tell that he's burning to be taken seriously as a songwriter. But he doesn't need another Grammy award to prove that to himself; with The Process, he believes he already has. Besides, Finch never thought he'd ever get his first Grammy.
"Oh, I gave up three years ago," he says, laughing. "I mean, it just seemed so unlikely. But to be honest, there was a degree of strategy involved here that we weren't able to do before. We went to a different label for [Polkasonic], Cleveland International, because we're good friends with the president of the label, and he's probably the number-one polka supporter in the country. We felt like even though it's a really, really small label, the entire label would get behind it. We weren't thinking so much Grammy; we were just thinking of impact within the polka community. Once we realized that was working, and we were getting airplay -- much more that we ever did in the polka scene -- then we decided, well, this might have a chance." He laughs. "But we never thought it was more than that."
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