Houstonian Tales: Shaun Brennan
Shaun Brennan. Photo: Oceans Photography
In the Houston music scene, you can meet people from all walks of life, all types of backgrounds, and all types of careers who come together for the love of music. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with many of them, most of whom you may never have known about. One of those unsung heroes of the Houston scene is Shaun Brennan. You probably don’t know his name, but when you mention acts like Craig Kinsey, Pecos Hank, Arthur Yoria, and John Evans; you should know that Brennan is the guy who releases their albums. If you’ve attended the BowiElvis Fest or the Splice Records River Revival, he’s the guy who puts on those events as well. As owner of Houston’s Splice Records, Brennan truly loves Houston music and it shows with how he treats his artists and how he operates his label. FPH was lucky enough to get a moment of his time while he gears up for the May release of John Evans’ stellar new album.
FPH: You’re in the mortgage business, but you also own a record label, Splice Records. How does a guy in the mortgage business get into the music industry?
Brennan: I had to pay my way through college and someone once told me I was real good with numbers and would make for a ‘good money slinger.’ So I took to the business pretty fast and over the years it has helped me fund all my wild ideas. Early on I started to think, I could make money doing this and with those funds I could feed my passion for making films and throwing epic parties; which later morphed into making records and promoting concerts. I have always been drawn to the arts and I have always had an addiction to buying/collecting music, buying movies and going to live events. That passion of collecting music has grown into more than just an addictive hobby. Now it’s a business. I am still on the fence with calling it a ‘business,’ as that has never been my ultimate approach. Being involved in entertainment often does not feel like work, so I do not like to treat it as such. I do take it serious but just serious enough. I have had the streams cross more than a couple times. I have actually helped at least 6 or more musicians buy a home of their own, believe it or not.
FPH: You started Splice Records in 2014, was there a reason you began then, or was there a certain act that compelled you to start the label?
Brennan: When I moved back to Houston it was the same weekend Katrina hit New Orleans, and I was in rediscovery mode. My mission was to learn more about my hometown. So I started to go see live music and I started to rediscover the city through the music and through the arts. I became a huge fan of a lot of the local artists I saw first. I can remember seeing Arthur Yoria play Rudz, The Honky Tonk Blood Brothers at the Mucky Duck, then I saw a SideShow Tramps show and that kind of changed everything for me. I saw a real scene and a band that took the ‘smaller’ stage as serious as the “big stage.” I was hooked and I was shocked. Shocked that such an interesting sound and incredible live show was so embraced but also marginalized to the city. I think they planted the seed in me to ‘help,’ that has now grown into Splice Records. I am forever grateful for that.
FPH: The label’s roster is four artists strong, but those four being Craig Kinsey, Pecos Hank, Arthur Yoria, and John Evans are all heavy hitters. What about each one made you want to sign them?
Brennan: I am a music fan before anything else. I am also learning about an industry that has no clear path to success, while simultaneously having to explore what each artist calls success for themselves. Working with the artists on Splice allows me to grow with seasoned musicians, whom I also happen to be big fans of. I am most interested in the process and being witness to a song coming to life from these amazing songwriters from seed to plant is a special moment for a music fan like myself. To hang at SugarHill Studios, to feel the history there, to see Steve Christensen and Josh Applebee work their magic, are all something I never take for granted. I feel like if I am going to work with an artist, I have to love their music and be cool with hearing a song 100 plus times. Each relationship with each of the Splice artist is special to me. I get to learn from them, help them with their process and I get to be a part of the story. They each have a story behind them and I am really into storytelling. I believe all the Splice musicians lead a life worthy of a novel. That will have to be true with all future musicians we work with as well.
FPH: The goal with Splice is to gravitate to what you call “that Houston Sound,” what’s your definition of the Houston sound?
Brennan: The current Houston sound was birthed from the early third coast blues that was mixed with soul music and a with a hint of country music. That history mixed like a southern gumbo in a multi-cultural city is to me the “Houston Sound.” It can be any and every genre all meshed into one harmonious sound. I love to hear cultural influences in the music, whether it has horns like New Orleans, or an accordion from Tejano music, or even a guitar riff from India. I love how that sound is a reflection of the city and it’s people. The talent in this city never seems to amaze me, the only thing that does amaze me is how long it has taken to get recognized.
FPH: The label also does two big events each year with the River Revival and the BowiElvis Fest. Can you explain each and what made you want to put each on?
Brennan: BowiElvis was actually created by Pecos Hank Schyma, who’s easily the most interesting human being I have ever met. As part of our relationship, he allowed me to get involved in an event that I fell in love with because I have a strong will to be weird. With BowiElivs we get to be real weird, we get to celebrate three of my favorite musicians of all time — the king, the white duke and Pecos Hank — two of them happen to share the same birthday. So it is a birthday celebration. We also force bands to learn their music, as each one of the bands who perform mix their live set with originals along with Bowie and Elvis covers. The event embraces showmanship and the history of rock n roll while throwing a festival that I can call “ours.” Ours in the sense that there is no other festival that compares. This past year the Space Villains, Kalvin Camp, thanked us for forcing him to discover David Bowie and he said he thought he was a genius. That to me was what is all about. We ask fans to dress up, we have a burlesque show with our friends the Dem Damn Dames, we get to work with our favorite MC John Mills-McCoin, we throw a party in a time warp and it has been held at my favorite place which is involved in that same kind of time warp, Continental Club and the Big Top.
River Revival allows me to integrate everything I love into one magical weekend. I love to camp, I love the River, I love Music and I am known among my close friends of one who loves to have fun. It also allows me to expand our sound to Central Texas, which are sacred grounds for me… especially the Guadalupe River. A river where I used to work as a kid patching tubes, selling BBQ with my dad riverside, and where I camped every Summer that I can remember. The event is partnered with our close friends at Saint Arnold Brewery, and our new friends Deep Eddy Vodka, and together we invite music fans and nature enthusiast to come hang next to the river and under the stars with us. We float, we swim, we cook breakfast and dinner for the entire campgrounds, we party, we have a naturalist artist ‘Journey Through’ make live art around the campgrounds all weekend, and we have a beautiful stage that is built all year and assembled for evening live concerts that you can watch from your tube in the Guadalupe River. We celebrate life like Dionysus, and to me and others it feels like the best time ever had. I can say that with a straight face. It is something we are on the fence with in developing… do we keep it ours, with just the few… or do we bring it to the masses? At the moment we really limit the tickets, the marketing and the advertising, but if it is for you, then we ask you to join the tribe. I do want it to happen naturally; to camp together means to bond together and not everyone is meant for camping if you know what I mean. In conclusion we try to make the River Revival experience equal for the artist and the campers. We really make it a community of good vibes for two to three days.
FPH: Your next release is “Polyester” from John Evans, which without letting too much away, is an album I think is his best to date. How did you and John get together and what’s your impression of the album?
Brennan: Believe it or not John and I come from the same neighborhood, walked the same halls at the the same high-school and are made from the same bark. I was a fan of his from afar and I saw him, Johnny Falstaff and Pecos Hank play a live show at the ‘Duck’ for a KPFT event many years ago. I filmed them all live along with Craig Kinsey and Emily Bell (all official members of the Honky Tonk Blood Brothers) at the Artery Houston, which was a special place for me and my family. I helped film live shows and I produced many films there. After getting to know him better there, I invited him to play River Revival last year and that is where we really bonded. From there we decided to collaborate on ‘Polyester’. As previously stated, Splice Records is into the storytelling side of music. I love to work with musicians who have a story of their own and a story to tell in their lyrics. John is one of the best at telling a story through song. The new album will show his diversity, his maturity and his ability to tell a story. I really feel we have something special with this album. The role that we as a label played in bringing the album ‘Polyester’ to life, could be one of our proudest moments. John does have a magic charm about him, and though he is a native Houstonian, he now calls Austin home. Austin is a city that is near and dear to my heart and the opportunity to expand Splice Records to our friends in Austin, Texas was a goal of mine in 2016. He brings so much credibility to the hard work and the vision we share at Splice. To have him a part of the family is simply kismet.
FPH: I would guess that most people think that because you own a record label, that you’re either rich or crazy, where the reality is that most independent labels take years to turn a profit. Are you rolling in the dough off of the label yet?
Brennan: I would say I am much closer to crazy than rich. I come from a hard working union family with an Irish-American upbringing. I myself started working when I was around 12 years old. I was raised to earn my own keep, work for what I get, and create my own path. I was given a lot of freedom as an adolescent, and with that freedom came a lot of room to make mistakes and a lot of room to explore the realms of pure joy and happiness. I learned a lot growing up but the greatest thing my parents gave me was independence. I think that freedom gave me the ability to create my own destiny. I started the label with Craig Kinsey and he and I brain-stormed in my garage about creating a record label. The idea grew really fast as if it already existed and like it was always in us from day one. From that moment forward I think about Splice and the artist’s everyday. We have created a family atmosphere that I do not operate alone or by myself, and I do not lead without everyone’s voice being heard first. The idea is to make quality music and put a lot into every show that we are involved with. No one knows how to party like a Splice Records party! We do try to pace our events out properly so we do well and do not saturate the product. In the end our success will be defined by the quality of memories, the friendships we make and the moments the artist have on stage performing. Monetarily we are doing well, and we ask for support when the time is right. Our fans are now our friends, and I think they understand what we are about and as a label we are working for more than just money. As a business we have yet to permanently define absolute success; and for the moment we just want to make great music. If we wither and die one day, I just hope that one day down the road, some music lover can come dust us off, look at the work we did and say, “damn, they made great records”.
FPH: As a guy who owns a home, has a family and a successful business, I see you out more than most people who have half of that. Do you have a secret to making it out to see live music and balancing daily life?
Brennan: I would be foolish not to thank the two Sara’s in my life. My partner in crime with Splice is Sarah Miller aka Sarah Gregory. She helps with day to day operations with Splice and has such a talent for this business. My partner in life is my incredible wife Sara Brennan, who is a very talented singer herself and she loves Splice and has helped me every day since we met with with ‘life.’ She is very special person and her and I have agreed that our life is meant to be lived. Splice keeps us alive. She has even sang with Craig Kinsey on stage at River Revival and she is featured on the Pecos Hank album as back up vocals. We have two young boys Townes and Lil River. I am a very busy person and I would say I do accomplish more with my time than some, but seeing live music is very important to me. I mostly stay local but I have my favorite national touring acts as well. I love many of the local venues and I am always scouting out talent and trying to diversify our lineup. I am also trying to learn through observation and I have always loved making friends. Friends are not made sitting on the couch. I wake up early every day and make breakfast for my family and I try to seize every moment as if it were my last. It is a good quality most of the time and when it is all said and done I want to inspire my two boys. I want them to see their father doing stuff, making things happen, laughing every day and helping artist make the world beautiful. That is what inspires me… and as busy as I am, I still feel lazy at times. I tend to think I will sleep when I die, but until then I want to live life to the fullest. Carpe diem, as they say.
FPH: There’s a theory in the music industry that guitar based music is in a downswing, yet you own a label that’s deeply rooted in guitar music. Have you found that people are turned away by guitar based bands?
Brennan: One day, what was once thought of as old hat usually becomes cool again. I tend to think moving forward with music can best be done in looking backwards. I am into the history of music and for me and for Splice we are into telling a story. If that story is told by a guitar riff, then let it be told and let it be told loud and with real emotion. I am open to all genres of music but my whole life I have gravitated to genres that are influenced heavily by the guitar. Many say rock n’ roll is dead and to an extent I see that being only half true, but maybe it has evolved. The new sounds that come from artist these days all came from somewhere and have evolved into ‘their’ sound. If we have to be the label that still “rocks” the guitar, then so be it. I do not see Splice working with musicians or bands without a guitar. With that being said my mind is open and my man Ruben Jimenez at Roologic Records is helping me to evolve. I am a big fan of their work, their representation of the city and their business model. The same goes for Wonky Power, the Convoy Group and some many others that deserve everything they get in our city. I think we all have the ability to help the city reach it’s highest potential. I am just glad to play my part, whatever that ends up being.
FPH: Are there any new artists you’re looking into signing in the future?
Brennan: Right now there is an overwhelming response to the label. We have so many friends that we would love to help and work with one day. We are just trying to grow organically while being smart about who and how we can help. Splice does not want to over extend ourselves as we would prefer to take each project on with the attention it deserves. At the moment, I am really into a lot of bands/musicians, and to mention just a few: I really like Adam Bricks’ song writing, the Wheel Workers are very talented, Kelly Doyle is the best guitarists I know and have seen. Anything he and Geoffrey Muller touch I am a huge fan of, and I cannot wait to hear Dollie Barnes’ new album. I think Moji puts on a fantastic show and has one of, if not the best voices in Texas. Johnny Falstaff is the coolest dude ever and his live show is one I miss, I have worked with and feel that Hayden Jones is an absolute raw talent with a very strong will to succeed. I think Chase Hamblin and Sherita Perez are both very focused and talented musicians, the New Offenders have a hot sound, and I really dig the blues so the Mighty Orq is one of my favorite acts in the entire city. But we can be friends, we can help, we can work together and I can be a fan without signing them to the label. If my arms and pockets were bigger I would love to work with a lot of different local acts. I also do not want to limit myself to just Houston acts. I have been listening to Altamesa from Austin a whole lot these past few weeks. I buy music as much or more than I ever have before, I go to shows as much as my life (aka my wife) permits and since I do those things, therefore I care for them all. Keep on a rockin, Don Dokken! That is a funny little saying my friends growing up used to say. It’s ours, but you all can use it.
Brennan’s commitment to the Houston music scene and the acts he represents at Splice Records cannot be diminished. You can usually see him out at any of the Splice artists’ shows, and you can chat him up on May 14th at Raven Tower for John Evans’ album release party. The all ages show has doors at 7:00, an opening set from Nic Armstrong & The Thieves, and tickets for $15. You can also pre-order Evans’ new album “Polyester” from Splice Records here.