MAPLEWOOD, NJ — With his new album, “Evolution,” Maplewood native Dan Bruder’s return to the music studio reflects on his storied upbringing in the two towns while looking forward to where both music and the United States are headed.
Bruder is no stranger to the music scene; beginning in the 1980s, he was a member of various garage bands that played locally in both New Jersey and New York City at venues like Kenny’s Castaways, the Bitter End, Folk City, the Village Gate and the Stone Pony.
He stepped away from the stage to focus his energies on raising his family, but never lost his passion for the music. In 2008, Bruder developed a web series, “Who the Hell is Dan Bruder,” a satirical take on his own personal life. It’s a fictional rock-comedy about a middle-aged wannabe rocker who can’t let go of his dreams of stardom. What started as a fun project at the encouragement of friends turned into a bona fide hit for Bruder and his team, with an audience of 14 million viewing the episodes each month on relix.com.
The web series was so popular that Bruder decided in 2010 to channel much of the material that had come out of the show into a studio album.
“The first project was centered on the web series, and that was shaped around the notion that my life was pretty much a joke so I might as well make a show out of it,” Bruder said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I was surrounded by a lot of talented of people who I bounced a lot of songs around with for the last album.”
For his return to the studio for this newest project, Bruder said he didn’t have to look very far for inspiration.
“Evolution” is much more of a strategic project in the sense of I have this catalog of music that goes back to my days growing up in Maplewood and everything in between up to the present,” he said. “I found this remarkable linkage and repurposing when the idea for this album started taking shape. A lot of the lyrics have some very eerie connotations in today’s world and they really parallel what’s going on now even though some of the events I wrote about were 30 years ago. The inspiration for this really spawned out of this shocking revelation that the lyrics for some of these songs are so on point to what is going on today socially and politically.”
Bruder is a 1974 graduate of Columbia High School, and recalls his time there with fond memories of both the administration and his fellow students.
“I was privileged enough to be in the wake of a lot of the people who pioneered many things politically. Columbia High School was a political lightning rod and we were the next generation so we were in this churning order of activity that was embraced by the school,” he said. “There were a lot of very progressive, very passionate debates. At that time, the high school was divided into different houses. The South House principal, Thomas Fleming, encouraged our debates, and once he agreed to let the school close for the morning so our band could perform.”
No reminiscence of South Orange and Maplewood is complete without the inclusion of ultimate Frisbee, a sport that Bruder remembers in its early days, before it was regulated.
“Ultimate Frisbee was something I watched in the parking lot of Jefferson Avenue in amazement. It was no holds barred, unregulated, very unlike what it is today and it was just borne out of passion. That’s what existed in SOMA when I was in high school, passion for the truth,” he said. “Vietnam was still raging and my class was the last year to be issued draft cards. I remember sitting in the living room as they would pull out lottery cards and if you were in the top 20, 30 or 40 you might as well pack your bags so it held my attention in a very profound way. The music that was around reflected those issues.”
There was the passion of ultimate Frisbee, which was invented in SOMA, and the fervor surrounding the Vietnam War, but what Bruder also recalls as a pivotal time in his past is the Newark Riots of 1967.
“We were in Maplewood with a false sense of insulation, yet we could go up Springfield Avenue and see chopped up pavement, hear gunshots and it was an experience that impacted my life and writing and the lens that I looked at the world through. This odd split view of things, the Norman Rockwell existence in this nice little town with riots and war just down the road,” he said. “That’s what I wrote about and it really shaped me into deciding to make a pledge to myself and have loyalty to my fans that I would never try to have an agenda. I always do my best and try to be a good, honest observer of what was going on in an entertaining way and try not to spew my opinion.”
The parallels between those lyrics that Bruder wrote as a curious young man in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the father and husband he is today, are uncanny in their relevance.
“The first parallel that I would put forth is the level of venom that exists in our political system. Not taking sides or pointing fingers but what is going on in Washington I think is on parallel since the days of Nixon in terms of the ferocity of discord between the press and the White House,” he said. “The fallout from that is just amplified to an unprecedented level because something that exists now that didn’t exist before is social media. In the past it was protests in the street or brawls in a bar, but now its online barrages. We have these tools that allow us to get very brave behind a computer screen, which is dangerous.”
Bruder credits his producer, John Ginty, for helping him polish the songs that he wrote as a young man to reflect his current state of mind and worldview while still remaining true to the heart of the lyrics.
“My producer helped me give them an adult voice, I wrote the songs as a young man in my 20s, but they had to be delivered in a way that is sincere to who I am now. I still have this profound love for Maplewood, so much so that the working title of the album was ‘Maplewood,’” he said. “The ‘Evolution’ title is to mix old with new songs and to showcase my growth, but also the parallels between the past and the present, and that you have to navigate the world you live in and not internalize it and let it drive you crazy. I have been all over the country and there are few places that rival South Orange and Maplewood. I hope that many people recognize that, and in many ways this album is an homage to that.”
For more information on Dan Bruder and his work, visit www.danbruderband.com.
Photos Courtesy of Dan Bruder