New Zealand indie-pop outfit The Brunettes plays Gooski's this Monday | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

New Zealand indie-pop outfit The Brunettes plays Gooski's this Monday

click to enlarge Paper dolls: The Brunettes
Paper dolls: The Brunettes

While it's not exactly Pittsburgh's antipode -- that would be somewhere in the Indian Ocean, between the tips of Australia and South Africa -- you can't get much further from here than New Zealand. And yet when The Brunettes visit, they can anticipate, if not a hometown crowd, at least the kinds of "remember when" stories and friendly faces you'd expect at your own neighborhood bar. It's a bit of a story.

The Brunettes started in Auckland as a recording project for Heather Mansfield and Jonathan Bree in the late '90s. At that time, their musical style -- influenced by the ornate 1960s pop of Jack Nitzsche, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, and others -- wasn't exactly en vogue on their local scene.

"Dance music, probably over here [in the U.S.], it was well on its way out, but in New Zealand it was still going pretty strong, so the backlash to that was full-on, ballsy kinds of rock," says Bree, from New York via phone. "‘Twee pop,' or whatever they called it at the time, wasn't very, um, popular," he adds with a dry chuckle.

But the times have caught up with The Brunettes -- or at least with their layered, bedroom-pop ethos. They've toured extensively with The Shins and others, and released three EPs and three albums, the latest being 2007's Structure & Cosmetics, put out by Lil' Chief Records in New Zealand and indie heavyweight Sub Pop in the U.S.

While touring Australia, the band performed alongside Pittsburgh rockers Modey Lemon at a festival. "We shared the same backstage area," says Bree, then corrects himself: "Well, it was the outback, so we shared the same bit of tarpaulin, beer-drinking area." When The Brunettes first toured the U.S., in 2005, the Modeys put them in touch with local guitarist Alexei Plotnicov (of Midnite Snake, Alexei and The Justins, The Karl Hendricks Rock Band and others), who gave them a tour of the city. A friendship -- and some adventures -- would follow.

"At some point we decided that he should come to Australia with us and tour-manage," says Bree. "There was this huge bush fire, and the road had just been closed off … but we needed to get to the city. [Plotnicov] was in the driver's seat, and he was definitely thinking about busting through the cones and just charging down this five-lane freeway." They ended up backtracking for hours to get to the gig. "The next day, we went back and drove across it, and we could see the whole motorway was scorched where the fire had actually gone from one side of it to the other. We would have melted."

After their next U.S. tour, Heather Mansfield and former trumpeter Harry Cundry stayed with Plotnicov, becoming, as he says, "quasi-Pittsburgh transplants for a summer."

"My most memorable times there were spent cycling around the Schenley Park area, wandering around Carnegie Mellon and marveling at the glorious Cathedral of Learning," says Mansfield. "Growing up in New Zealand, I've always had an appreciation for nature … I went for a stunning day-trip in the woods and over the Youghiogheny River and Ohiopyle." 

The Brunettes return to Pittsburgh with a five-piece lineup for a Mon., Aug. 10, show at Gooski's; Plotnicov will also perform. "I'm trying to help make their stop here as awesome as possible," Plotnicov says. "Also, I'm just looking forward to hearing those songs again."

The band also might have a brand-new EP ready for the tour, called Red Rollerskate; it's a foretaste of the October full-length Paper Dolls ("a very aggressive title," Bree notes wryly). The band has parted ways with Sub Pop, so for the first time, Lil' Chief (of which Bree is a co-owner) will handle both New Zealand and U.S. releases.

Paper Dolls promises more of the chiming, layered pop tunes that have long been The Brunettes' calling card, but also the subtle incorporation of electronic elements and a modern digital-recording sensibility that's made capturing the dense sonics more feasible.

"When we first started, I was very hung up on being a purist," Bree says. "I had a 4-track cassette-tape recorder, and all these ambitions of making these albums to mimic the great productions that I loved of [Phil] Spector and The Beach Boys. I'd just be crying, someone would be holding me and saying, ‘It's OK,' and I'd be saying ‘No, it's not OK -- they make these albums on a 4-track, why the hell can't I?'"


The Brunettes with Mrs. Paintbrush (Jackson of Grand Buffet), and Alexei Plotnicov. 10 p.m. Mon., Aug. 10. Gooski's, 3117 Brereton St., Polish Hill. 412-681-1658

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