Derek Brink | Music, Faith, and the Art of Struggle

“Sometimes, even when you have terrible gigs, you smile, you suck it up, and you play the songs like each one is your favorite.”


If you were standing behind the unassuming gentleman in the wire-frame glasses ordering the iced coffee, you’d probably never know he was one of St. Louis’s best-kept musical secrets. Taking a swig out of his coffee and setting it on the table, he says, “I know most people drink coffee for the taste. I drink it for the jolt.”

Brink has an easy going, cockeyed smile and a charming eccentricity, underlined by his clothing, a veritable road map to his musical psyche: a Motörhead hat, a Brian Wilson t-shirt, and a pair of old cowboy boots that complete the look nicely. He’s issued eight LPs, one EP, and two singles on his Bandcamp site, and as a fan of everyone from Rufus Wainwright and Iron Maiden to Lou Reed and Hüsker Dü, I ask him how in the world he came to be influenced by such a wide variety of artists.

“A lot of my early sensibility and my early sense of what music I liked came from my dad or my brother,” he explains. “My brother’s eight years older than I am, so we weren’t necessarily experiencing the same things for the first time together. My dad—I mean, he showed me Woodstock for the first time and, a little more embarrassingly, got me into Neil Diamond, which is difficult to communicate on the playground,” he says, laughing. “I’m returning the favor now that he’s creeping up on 70 and still loves rock, so I’m sharing stuff with him.”

In order to keep both boys happy, their parents took a “favored nations” approach when it came to gifts. “When I was five or six, there was a Christmas where my brother got a guitar, so I got one, too, so I didn’t steal his. My parents were just those kinds of parents.” They were also the kinds of parents who would purchase a ticket for the aspiring rocker to see te Who at Busch Stadium on their 1989 reunion tour. “I was nine years old,” he reminisces, “and I already had a guitar lying around that I didn’t know how to play. Looking up at that stage, I saw Pete Townsend jump around, and I thought, ‘I wanna be that guy.’”

As prolific as he is as a recording artist, live shows are a rarity for the Florissant-based musician, not only because he doesn’t have a booking agent, but because he’s “really lazy” at booking himself. As he tells it, it also has a lot to do with where he’s at in his life, which explains his somewhat unusual penchant for offering his music free of charge.

“I’m in my 30s and I have a day job, so I’m not that interested in making money off of it; I just want people to hear it. I don’t look at it so much as, ‘Oh I can make money off this’ as much as it is ‘I’ve poured money into this and I want people to have it.’ People are welcome to put a couple bucks into it on the Bandcamp site; they have that option. Now and again people do.”

Most of his music is recorded at his home studio, where he can record without the constraints of a clock tallying how many of his organs he’d have to sell to pay the recording bill. For Brink, this makes offering his music for free a no-brainer, because it allows him to expand his audience, while being able to experiment without worrying about it interfering with day-to-day life.

“That really started with a project I did called New Year’s Eve, which was just a digital download thing, and I wrote a short story to go with it. It was a concept piece, and it was such a departure from what I had been doing that I didn’t know if anyone would be interested. So, I just thought, ‘Well, we’ll do this one for free.’”

Like so many artists, it’s never just about the art, though: It’s also about what the art is helping you cope with, and the New Year’s Eve project was no exception. “Honestly, it was kind of a labor of love, and it got me through a time where I was struggling with some depression issues,” he reveals. “I lost a job in there, so it was a rough period, and I wrote it so I would have something to do.”

Of course, music isn’t the only thing that has helped him out of an emotional bind. Brink is a lifelong Christian, and while it’s a huge part of his life, it doesn’t quite encompass his entire oeuvre like it has for other faith-based artists. “My albums are kind of weird in that they start out very Christian-y and then move far from that. Which isn’t to say my faith isn’t part of my writing; it definitely is,” he clarifies. “It’s different now, but it kind of feels like there are only so many ways where you can say ‘God is good, God is great,’ and sing that over and over.

“God is great, God is good, and we should sing that over and over, but life’s hard, man. And frankly, the struggle’s more interesting than the joy, and that’s what I want to write about.” Reckoning that “to have an existential crisis, you have to deal with your existence,” Brink explains that dealing with both the encouraging as well as the overwhelming aspects of faith has been a constant source of inspiration. “I’ve fought it as much as I’ve embraced it in times of my life, and that comes out in my songs because I try to write very honestly.”

The idea of faith versus struggle is perhaps best represented by his response when I ask him to select his personal favorites from his catalogue. “I have a complicated relationship with some of my earlier stuff, but the album I like is the Out from the Light album,” he explains. “I do a lot of work by myself, and I really had a fun experience working with other people. That’s one I’d like to be remembered by”

Conversely, another favorite is the more somber Something to Look Forward to. “It’s a dark record, man. Something to Look Forward to started off as spare ideas; I was just doing demos and it kind of came together as a record, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to drop this on people with no warning.’” In fact, the album was so gloomy, it took members of his family by surprise. “My brother, who is also supportive of what I do, was like, ‘That one bums me out, man.’ I mean there’s even a song on there called ‘Fuck It,’” he laughs. “My bible college friends did not appreciate that song! It’s from a bad place. At the same time I had fun, and it was helpful. The two records are very much in contrast. Out of the Light is the one people mention to me the most, though.”

As far as the future is concerned, Brink’s got a full roster of projects, which isn’t too shabby for someone who considers himself “lazy.” He continues to play bass for another St. Louis musician, guitarist Michael Feldman. “Mike has been in my life for about 10 years. He’s an excellent musician, guitarist; I can’t say enough about his playing. He taught me that sometimes, even when you have terrible gigs, you smile, you suck it up, and you play the songs like each one is your favorite.”

He’ll also be acting as a producer and guitarist on his brother Dave’s band, the enticingly named Dave and the Not-So-Daves. “It’s a great name,” he laughs. “It’s a fun record, and I don’t want to say it’s power-pop, but it’s very Squeeze influenced. Just two- to three-minute rock songs, and it’s all about having a good time.”

And even though he just released his most recent solo record, Trigger Warnings & Sunshine, in March of this year, he plans on releasing another one, this time geared specifically towards first-time listeners. “I’m going to be doing a career-retrospective thing, but recording the songs fresh. Since it’s all acoustic, I’m going to call it Sorry, I Didn’t Mean to Shout.” He plans four new songs for the set, one of which is a tribute to the Mexican wrestler El Santo. “I’ve been fascinated with El Santo for years; he’s a really interesting guy.”

As we wrap our talk and he gulps his last bit of coffee, I ask him whom he’d choose for his fantasy band, if he could hand pick them out of all his varied influences. “Maybe Townsend, although I think he would kill me. I’d want John Entwistle on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums, but I pretty sure he’d kill me too.” He pauses for a moment and reconsiders. “Honestly, I’d want to get together and play with some close friends. I don’t really care if they’re famous; I’d just want it to be people I enjoy playing with.” | Jim Ousley

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