The Knoxville music syndrome was first conceptualized by the esteemed R.B. Morris in his groundbreaking work “Local Man.” Subsequent songwriters now grouped under the convenient tag of “The Knoxville School”—Todd Steed, Mic Harrison, and even Rus Harper—have expanded on Morris’ local man construct in a variety of ways. Simply put, for Knoxville musicians, perseverance pays off. That’s why it’s not really surprising that, after over two decades toiling in sub-obscurity, Quartjar’s Randall Brown has emerged as Knoxville’s newest rock ’n’ roll man of letters.
Quartjar’s quirky, literate blues-rock might not be the hot thing on a worldwide level, but the band has amassed a large local fan base of late. With astute and introspective lyrics, a skewed take on the blues that veers into faintly punk territory, and an overall classic-rock approach that really is classic in the best of ways, the band’s new album, 42, is a testament to Brown’s endurance. This is the good stuff.
“You know, I’ve always wondered who were we going to go over with,” says the charmingly modest Brown, an alumnus of punk bands Darlene and Charlie Brown on Acid, among others. “I keep realizing that I’m not playing rough-and-tumble punk rock anymore. But the kids aren’t into blues-rock. To put it bluntly, I think our crowd is middle-aged ex-stoners, guys my age and older.”
There are plenty of guys Brown’s age who are really into Quartjar. The group has a major draw on their own, and has recently scored high-profile gigs opening for Robin Trower and, this weekend at the Shed in Maryville, Scott Miller.
In Quartjar, Brown is abetted by bassist Malcolm Norman and relative newcomer Tory Flenniken on drums, both veterans of the heavy-metal scene.
“We’ve really gelled as a band in the last year,” Brown says. “It all started from me wanting to be mister singer/songwriter, so a lot of the songs are things that I threw together myself. The teamwork of the band is exciting to me because we make all these new sounds that I didn’t expect to be making. But I guess the control freak part of me would concern the lyrics. I think everyone’s okay with that. I hope they are. For me it’s a lot more exciting to have the full band thing going on—the whole rock ’n’ roll experience.”
The new album is loosely based on literature.
“The title is a joke of multiple origins,” says Brown, an editor and entertainment blogger for the News Sentinel. “My favorite book of all time is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And the big concept of the first book in the series is that this alien race is looking for the answers of all life’s questions, and their computer tells them the answer is ‘42.’ The aliens are confused by this, of course. So the computer says the problem is that you have the answer, but you don’t know the question. That’s the existential joke, that the Earth is actually a giant organic computer built to answer that question. For me the title is this perfect blend of cosmic philosophy from this book. So we decided to call the album 42. And lo and behold, that’s the age I am. I realized a lot of the songs I’m writing are from the perspective of my own age—a guy at 42 ruminating on life.”
Don’t let all this talk of literary erudition, middle age, and the meaning of life mislead you, though. Quartjar is a tightly rocking unit with a tangible edginess that probably comes from the players’ experience as punk and metal musicians. Although Brown might seem reserved as an individual, the band is brashly aggressive and cocksure.
“Although we’re basically playing blues rock, I still feel like it’s punk,” says Brown. “As D. Boon said, ‘Punk is what you make it.’ I just feel like there’s some gusto there. I feel like our music is like a mix of the Minutemen and ZZ Top.”
As to the future, Brown is both confident and realistic. “The plan from here would be just playing steady shows,” he says. “I’ve half-jokingly worked for years on what I call the low-ambition plan. I realize there will never be a record deal. We just like making records and we’ll have to do it ourselves. But I guess the long-term goal is to at least be famous in Knoxville.”