Adam Schlesinger, who died of COVID-19 complications on April 1, is best known from Fountains of Wayne, but that was just one of his adventures in the music industry. Another was Scratchie Records, the label he cofounded with some other alt-rock stars, including two Smashing Pumpkins, James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky.
Dan Bryk, an idiosyncratic Toronto singer-songwriter who would eventually settle in Durham, was signed to Scratchie. In 1999, he got a call from Schlesinger, who was working on the soundtrack for Loser, a teen comedy starring Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari.
According to Bryk, the obvious theme song, Beck’s “Loser,” had fallen through, and Schlesinger wanted to know if he had anything in his pocket. Naturally, because this is Dan Bryk, he sure did have a song with the words “I’m a loser” in it. He demoed it quickly, FedExing the CD-R off to New York.
Here, narrative form calls for a decisive triumph or defeat. But that just wouldn’t be a Dan Bryk story.
Bryk is a gifted indie piano man, a nerdy-Ben-Folds-meets-louche-Randy-Newman type whose off-kilter confessions come swathed in a sweet voice and a sweeter falsetto. His 2001 album Lovers Leap got an A-minus from Robert Christgau in The Village Voice when that still mattered. It’s a lost indie-pop classic full of cockeyed odes to computer programmers and “chunky girls”—“the kind who’s just my size,” Bryk sings—where even tender ballads like “Memo to Myself” make room for a little heavy petting and Leonard Cohen. (Weight is a recurring theme in Bryk’s songs; he used to call his home studio Flabby Road.)
Lovers Leap was a commercial high-water mark, and it took him as far as Japan with Stephen Malkmus. Still, it sold poorly, a textbook victim of what Bryk aptly calls the “the major-label faux-indie-rock gold rush.” It’s not on modern streaming services for the same reason. He made a great record in the wrong place at the right time. Classic Bryk.
Regarding “Loser,” Schlesinger reported back that the movie folks were looking for a finished master, not a demo, though they liked the song. “I’m sure they didn’t, lol,” Bryk wrote, in his usual self-deprecating fashion, when he posted the demo on his website several days after Schlesinger died. “But Adam was master of the soft letdown.”
After Lovers Leap foundered, Bryk kept at it, off and on. During his first stint living in the Triangle, in the mid-2000s, he earned local notoriety with a song about Cherie Berry and made a Christmas record to benefit Raleigh music education. He released Pop Psychology, his last record to date, on his own label in 2009, had a kid, and promptly abandoned album promotion to be a stay-at-home dadvocate in New York. After one year in Tanzania (Bryk’s wife, Erin McGinn, works for an NGO) and two in Washington, D.C., the family landed back in Durham, where they’ve lived since 2016.
Bryk has been fairly quiet since then, but that changed on April 5, when he released the 1999 “Loser” demo and a 2019 demo called “The Elements of Style.” Since then, he’s released one archival track per day, conjuring projects and albums that might have been if not for label-and-immigration woes, wrong turns and bad luck, and his lifelong insecurity, which he’s been reconsidering in light of discovering that he has ADHD.
It seemed like the perfect time to introduce you to the best local singer-songwriter you’ve never heard. We decided to do so by drawing our questions from Bryk’s surprisingly detailed, surprisingly accurate Wikipedia page. When you’re a real original adrift in the music industry, truth is stranger than fiction, but these tracks just might spur a second or third act in Bryk’s career. With any luck.
INDY: At age eight, did you briefly receive piano lessons from Earl Mlotek at the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music but drop out due to hyperactivity and unwillingness to practice?
DAN BRYK: I think it’s pronounced “mo-tek.” Maybe this is where the ADHD story comes in. I’ve started some mindfulness training to combat something which really seems to have been a self-limiting factor my whole life. The amount of negative messages a kid gets because of ADHD—I’ve dealt with some crippling insecurity and lack of confidence in my musical work, sort of self-sabotage.
Where do you think Wikipedia got the idea that you stopped because of hyperactivity if you’re only discovering that in recent years?
I feel like I wrote that in a blog entry a long time ago. There’s a super-long interview I did with PopMatters, I think some of this came from that. There are a bunch of Toronto people that are really possessive or proud of me [laughs]. I know some of them are really active on Wikipedia and Discogs and stuff.
Did you establish a recording club and record your music under the name The Cunning Linguists at St. Martin’s High School?
Yes! The Cunning Linguists was me and my friend Mike Feraco. We were really into New Romantic synth stuff: The Associates, Depeche Mode, Human League. Kids today are so spoiled because they’ve got every synth in the world on their laptop. If I had the resources back then that I have today, I might have actually sounded decent [laughs].
Did you give an edgy solo debut performance at St. Martin’s 1988 Battle of the Bands that was censored by Mississauga Cable 10 community-access television?
This is true! I spent so much time in the music department without being in a music class. The music teacher kind of tolerated me because he could tell I was creative, even if I was a two-fingers-with-each-hand style of songwriter. I always had better ideas than discipline to practice.
I was supposed to play this battle of the bands with a three-piece band of older guys I’d befriended in Toronto. But as we got closer to the date, I think they realized, oh, man, we’ve gotta actually go up to Mississauga and play at a high school? So they canceled, and I scrambled and sequenced a set. Stayed up all night, hooked up drum machines. I had one song which was kind of like a rap. It had a four-bar loop from “It Takes Two,” and I swore, which probably wasn’t cool with the school.
When people realized cable was going to broadcast it, it became a thing, like, we’re gonna get to see Bryk swear! But they just cut off my set before the last song.
“Losing [Adam Schlesinger] and Daniel Johnston in a year—that’s like my alpha and omega, my yin and yang. That’s my fucked-up side and my professional side, and I’m always stuck in the middle.”
Did you hungrily devour jazz and popular music under Prof. Howard Spring at the University of Guelph?
Yeah, once again, I was the person who was in the music department without being in it. The only 100 I ever received was from him. Later on, I said, why? And he said, in the years I offered this course, you’re the only person who wrote the essay on country music in the final exam. Instead of doing my studies, I spent a lot of time in the library going through microfiches of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. Professor Spring’s course was like a slingshot into country music, which I liked in that snotty-undergrad “Hank Snow not Garth Brooks” way.
I didn’t actually graduate from Guelph then. I got hired as a graphic designer when I was in school, and they were like, you could finish your degree and pay for that, or you can come learn stuff here.
That bit me on the ass much later, when I moved to America.
Did you move to downtown Toronto in 1994 and break into the scene with Dan Bryk, Asshole?
Totally, as any aspiring bohemian would. I did Dan Bryk, Asshole as a cassette and also an eight-track. That was a bit of a stunt, but it picked up a bit of press.
Did a CBC Radio 2 RealTime session in 1997 result in you signing to Scratchie?
Yeah, I had called in periodically to this live Saturday-night national radio show which focused on big Canadian indie music. They were marvelous people and took pity on me. They started playing Asshole a bit, and they were doing a series, sort of like Peel Sessions, and asked me to do one. My manager was like, I could put a band together for you, and I’d already been playing with Kurt Swinghammer. He’s one of my heroes in Toronto, so the fact that he played on my stuff was kind of like Brian Eno and Gordon Lightfoot rolled into one being a fan.
Those were the songs I handed to [label cofounder] Adam Schlesinger after a Fountains of Wayne gig. A month later, I’m at work, and my coworker’s like, James Iha is on the phone for you. He was really cool and low-key. He really just wanted to talk about Randy Newman. Mojo used to do “The Best Thing I’ve Heard All Year” every December, and Adam gave my CD-R as his favorite thing of the year, and it picked up steam. So his label, Scratchie, offered me a deal, and the best of intentions turned into a real textbook music-business story.
Adam, honest to god, was the hardest-working man in show business. He turned me on to so much stuff and always had an iron in the fire. If I’d had his works habits, I would’ve—I don’t know what [laughs].
[Major label] Mercury wanted Scratchie because those guys were hot, and then they started to be less hot, and the deal cooled, but I was stuck in that deal. Scratchie was this artist-centered label, but the contracts were Mercury boilerplate. The whole experience was of the era, the major-label faux-indie-rock gold rush. Mercury and Universal and Polygram merged, and everyone responsible for the Scratchie deal was fired. It turned into a mess, and I ended up sitting on Lovers Leap for years while they were trying to extract themselves. They weren’t going to push any of the records, so Adam was like, there’s no point in putting this record out and letting it die.
It’s really hard to have a business relationship with your hero, which is why Adam passing without us having more than cordial hellos in a couple of years is really rough. To other people, he was a genius, but to me, he was like a mentor. Losing him and Daniel Johnston in a year—that’s like my alpha and omega, my yin and yang. That’s my fucked-up side and my professional side, and I’m always stuck in the middle. I haven’t been able to listen to any Prine, any of Adam’s stuff. I don’t know if I can handle it yet.
“But it’s typical Dan Bryk luck. Every silver lining has a black cloud.”
When Scratchie finally independently released Lovers Leap in 2000, did it receive a positive review from Robert Christgau in The Village Voice and meager sales?
Yeah, all the people at Scratchie who worked on the Fountains of Wayne stuff had to take better jobs. So I ended up with the really well-meaning but less-connected people. I remember the day that Adam called me and said, Christgau’s coming to your gig at The Knitting Factory tomorrow, don’t fuck up [laughs]. And I was on tour when someone called and said, hey, man, you got an A-minus from Christgau. After being this gadfly, like who does that guy think he is, in Toronto, to rate with Christgau was such a huge deal.
Did you tour Japan with Stephen Malkmus and have radio hits there?
Yeah, it was awesome and surreal. I felt like Thom Yorke, sitting in a room for five hours a day of interviews. I took Erin, my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and I think she got a really unreasonable expectation of what the trajectory of my career would be, based on being spotted in the street and playing for thousands of people. Once again, in Canada, it was like, oh, they like him somewhere else, maybe we need to pay attention to him.
Did you move to Durham but settle in Raleigh in 2003, and what’s up with that weird equivocation?
We rented in Durham and then decided to buy a place in Brier Creek. I had been in Toronto, still on Scratchie, doing demos. Adam kept saying, we’re doing this deal with New Line Cinema, so hang in there, because if that happens we’ll have a decent budget. Then Erin got offered a gig in RTP.
I was in this other band called The American Flag. It was these two high school kids that had made a record Bob Pollard put out on Rockathon. These kids put together a band of Toronto scenesters they were fans of, so that’s how I ended up in that. We opened all these gigs for Guided by Voices on U.S. tours. Because of that, I had a musician visa that lasted a year, and then you renewed it. But 9/11 happened, and they started yanking visas from Canadians.
I came down to New York City for a wedding and the guy at the border stopped me with my suitcase of recording gear. He said, how do I know you’re not going to New York to record bands and make money? So I was refused entry. Then you have a flag on you, and my musician visa expired, and it became a real headache.
I realized if I was going to stay with Erin, I needed a job. I had to finish my BFA to get an actual work visa. I could literally only be a graphic designer. I couldn’t play any shows or act as if I was a musician, including online. So in the nascent Myspace days, I had to be really low-key. It took a few years until I got a green card in 2006.
Did you get dropped by Scratchie after it was acquired by New Line?
New Line asked for more demos, and the first set I gave them is on my Bandcamp as Mississauga Rattler. The word I got back from Adam was like, there’s not really any ringers here, I want you to dig deeper and give me elemental Dan Bryk songs. New Line didn’t hear the ca-ching of any cash registers. If I’d stayed in Canada and been more active in that time—well I shouldn’t say I was inactive. I put out a handful of good records by other people on my label, Urban Myth.
“There’s not a day in the music business without a small indignity. But I guess I’m having the last laugh, because what music industry?”
Did you give a song about Cherie Berry to WKNC as Tha Commissioners and only admit it was you when the e-mails were found to originate from your computer?
I think that was the story [laughs]. The co-hosts goaded me into the pseudonymous pretense. They started playing “Cherry Berry” six times a day, and it picked up steam. It actually turned into a heartbreak for me, because Swinghammer had written a song, “The Signature of Marilyn Churley,” about being seduced by the signature of the minister responsible for elevators [in Toronto]. On some level, I forgot that that was the inspiration, and Kurt got really mad, like I stole his idea. And because it turned into this media cause célèbre, people perceived that it was more of a success than it was. It’s kind of weird getting the front page of The News & Observer over this goofy thing I did in an afternoon. But it’s typical Dan Bryk luck. Every silver lining has a black cloud.
Is The Old Ceremony’s song “Stubborn Man” about you?
I think it’s a composite. I remember Django [Haskins] saying something like, oh, man, there’s a song you’ll hear tonight, I think you’ll know what it’s about.
[Haskins says: Ha! I’ve never heard that. No, it was about—wait for it—me. But in another sense, it was about every one of us who continues on this path despite the obvious difficulties. So I guess it is about him as well. I do love DB.”]
Does “Stubborn Man” reflect you?
Um, yeah, probably. I’ve probably erred on the side of thinking that “recalcitrant and prickly” was good promo, and it probably hasn’t been. It comes back to this whole ball of ADHD stuff; over the years I’ve made a persona which has more to do with being fundamentally insecure. There’s not a day in the music business without a small indignity. But I guess I’m having the last laugh, because what music industry?
Tell me about these “coronavirus archives” tracks you’ve been releasing.
It sounds silly saying I’m a perfectionist because part of my whole thing is that it’s a bit off-kilter. But I just haven’t been able to part with a lot of things. I don’t play guitar after all these years, lord knows I’ve tried. I’m still just a keyboard player. So I have a lot of things that are done except guitar. I’m releasing one a day until I run out or the songs start sucking too much. I figured I’d do this for a couple weeks and see if anyone was interested.
Honestly, losing a bunch of people to coronavirus and other stuff has made me realize that if I died tomorrow, I do have a lot of stuff that people might find interesting while I’m alive. This situation was enough to kick me out of a sense that I’ve got to have all this stuff right. I’d rather just have it out there, I guess.
Correction: Robert Christgau’s review of Lovers Leap appeared in The Village Voice, not Rolling Stone.
Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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