Having recently sold his old Volvo, Braveyoung multi-instrumentalist Isaac Jones started riding a motorized dirt bike to his job at Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. Since he started work at 5:30 a.m., the streets were usually empty, and the drive was uneventful. Then, on September 22, 2015, as the musician cruised down a narrow street, a van ran a stop sign and Jones plowed into the side of the vehicle.
“I flew off the bike and went through the driver’s side window,” says Jones. “My motorcycle was completely bent into the shape of a ‘V.’ I had an old helmet on, but I hit really hard on the right front side of my head. But I was unconscious. I don’t remember a thing.”
Paramedics medevaced Jones to the hospital, and doctors diagnosed him with a hemorrhaging frontal lobe brain injury. Jones’ twin brother and bandmate Zac was in New York and couldn’t be reached, and neither could his parents. So doctors reached out to Jones’ partner to make a critical life and death decision.
“They said, ‘We have to take out the right hemisphere of his skull to mitigate a subdermal hematoma and we have to do it right now or he will die,” says Jones. “But we need permission from someone who knows him.”
Consent was given, and Jones went into surgery for 11 hours. To equalize the pressure in his brain, doctors removed the right half of his skull and placed it in a freezer, where it remained for five weeks. Two days after the surgery, Jones woke up surrounded by his parents and his older brother.
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“When I saw them all I knew something was up,” he says. “I found out later that the doctors prepared my family for the worst. They said, ‘Look, he might not ever be the person you knew. He might not recognize you or he might think it’s a different time.’ When I came to, I was heavily drugged, of course, and I asked to hear specific Willie Nelson songs. Then I started talking about books I love with my friend. That’s when they figured I would probably be okay.”
The mournful, minimal orchestration and hazy arrangements of Braveyoung’s second full-length album, Misery and Pride, suggest that Jones’ near-fatal accident had a tangible impact on his songwriting. The record is a dramatic departure from Braveyoung’s 2015 EP, No Piece in This Mind , which combined classical instruments with droning guitars and hissing cymbals that swelled and receded, emphasizing the contrast between the vulnerably delicate and the menacingly loud.
By contrast, Misery and Pride is an exercise in introspective, hushed minimalism. Fragile, arpeggiated piano, elongated cello, violin and horn passages, disembodied guitar, and unnerving tape loops drive the songs, and they vary only gradually in intensity. Rather than reflecting the duality of the human condition, Braveyoung—Jones, Zac Jones and Mike Rich—now seek comfort and solace in the acceptance of despair.
As much as Misery and Pride seems to have been influenced by Jones’ life-altering accident, the seven songs were written, recorded and mixed long before it happened. The band’s musical transformation was actually an effort to escape the confining and homogenizing post-rock box into which Braveyoung had been thrown, which left them with a bit of an identity crisis.
“We had to change what we were doing to try to find out who we were,” says Jones, mostly recovered from his accident, but still plagued by the after-effects. “In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes talks a lot about how the only place you can possibly hope to find the person who is creating something is specifically in the things they don’t tackle and the things they can’t construct. So I wanted to understand what we weren’t constructing to maybe discover more about ourselves.”
Drawing heavily from classical minimalists including Lamonte Young, Terry Riley, Arvo Pärt, and Henryk Górecki, and augmenting their music with subtle samples and found sounds, Braveyoung have transcended their post-rock roots and evolved into an emotionally affecting outfit that offers beauty without optimism, like gorgeous slivers of colored light at dawn on a day that never fully brightens.
“When people write things that resonate, it usually comes from some source of suffering and struggle,” says Jones, who today bears the facial scars from his injury, and titanium plates that replaced the shattered bones in his right arm. “And I think you could say the same for great literature.”
In conversation, Jones often references books. He’s a voracious reader, familiar with German, French, Japanese, and American authors. His favorite writers include Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan, Frank Bidart and Flannery O’Connor. And he sees a direct parallel between literature and music; Misery and Pride was named after a passage in the Milan Kundera book Ignorance : “Misery and pride. On horseback, death and a peacock.”
“That phrase really stuck with me and it popped up when we were floating names for the record. It just made sense,” Jones says. “In my mind, it had this color that fits with the palette of the record.”
Despite their critical acclaim, the Jones brothers have experienced commercial frustration and disillusionment even before they formed Braveyoung in 2009. Some of the pain has been self-inflicted. Every time fans have expected something concrete, the Jones brothers have come back at them from another direction. They started their career in the loud, sludgy, post-metal band Giant, which released the album, Song , in 2006 and a split EP with Tides in 2007. By then, Jones was urging his bandmates to eliminate drums completely and take on a form that resembled Sunn O))). Instead, they abandoned extreme volume and embraced classical instrumentation. Adding to the confusion, they were forced to change their name to Braveyoung, since there was an established hard rock band named Giant in Nashville.
They signed with indie label The End, which released their first EP, 2009’s Bloom, and their first full-length, 2011’s We are Lonely Animals. But Jones claims the company didn’t understand Braveyoung’s aesthetic, and admits the band signed with it strictly because its roster included one of their favorite artists, Ulver. Braveyoung then spent two years and thousands of dollars recording, mixing and remixing an album which didn’t gel and that they’ll probably never release.
It looked like Braveyoung might make inroads with the metal community when they released Nothing Passes, a collaboration with their friends in the avant-garde doom band The Body in September 2011. But Braveyoung followed with two self-released, under-promoted EPs . And now, right when some are viewing them as an alternative to the louder, more conventional bands in the post-rock genre, the band has pulled a hard left and recorded a minimalist classical record. Their intention isn’t to upset or bewilder their fans. At the same time, they’ve never felt a particular kinship with the post-rock scene.
“When we used to read stuff that people wrote about our band, we realized there was this disparity between what we understood about what we did and what people took from it,” Jones says. “Even though we basically [were playing post rock], it annoyed us [to be considered part of the movement] because, to us, we spent so much more time trying to not build the same crescendo over and over again. We were discovering how to make something powerful in other ways.”
At the same time the members of Braveyoung were struggling to find their sound, they were scrambling to make a living. Zac worked as a photographer and played drums for The Body when they went overseas (Body member Lee Buford won’t fly). Rich played in hardcore band Advent and Isaac worked at the coffee shop. By the spring of 2014, they were questioning why they continued making music.
“It was strange, because music was still so all-consuming for us, even though it was so full of humiliation and desperation year after year of doing it. We didn’t really understand why we put ourselves through this,” Jones says. “We labor over these things and argue and scream at each other and create and lose friends over this stuff. We’ve had some great experiences, but at the end of the day, at most of the shows, we’re in a basement and there’s 15 kids there and half of them are on their phones.”
When Braveyoung first started working on Misery and Pride they tried writing music they thought would appeal to their audience, but it sounded contrived. So they turned inward, disregarding what people had liked about them in the past and following some inchoate, often elusive muse.
“Music kind of lost its universality and became something that we had to look at as a two-dimensional object,” Jones says. “If we assume that we’re writing something in order for it to be heard, in order to give it that third dimension, we start to hiccup. We can’t figure out our way. So Misery and Pride was us saying, ‘Fuck it,’ which is also why it’s taken three years for it to come out.”
Of course, the release of the album was further delayed by the aftermath of Jones’ accident. Shortly after the crash, Jones regained his speech and cognitive ability and was able to go back home. But he wore a thick helmet to protect the exposed part of his brain, and spent the bulk of his time reading. He also didn’t have the strength to pick up a guitar or the desire to write any songs. Although doctors told him he might have to live without half of his skull for up to six months, his brain quickly healed and five weeks after his accident, doctors stapled the right side of his cranium to the left. When they were sure there were no complications, they encouraged him to resume his daily life.
Gradually, he started picking up the guitar again and playing cello. Considering the extent of his injuries, Jones is lucky to still be able to make music. His broken left finger, toes and shattered right arm have healed, and his fretting hand functions normally, allowing him to strum and pick strings and maneuver a bow. He’s also able to run, which he does for exercise and to help clear his mind. But the accident has left some significant residual effects.
“I have severe nerve damage in my eyes, which is permanent, so I have really bad blind spots,” he says. “There are big chunks of my vision missing. Sometimes I notice it more times than others, but your brain is pretty good at mitigating those problems. I also have really heavy scarring everywhere. They had to cut through the muscles in my face to get to my skull, so there’s some shape change there.”
Now that Jones is able to play again, he’s looking into doing more Braveyoung shows. There’s nothing scheduled yet, and Zac plans to head to Europe with the Body in May. But Braveyoung would like to play some local gigs as a test run before planning a more extensive tour. For anyone concerned that a concert to support Misery and Pride will be dull and depressing, Jones says that the band plans to liven up the show by inserting extra elements into the performance.
“The live experience is a lot different than the albums,” he insists. “There’s more diversity there. We’re really into recording anything we find remotely interesting. Some of that makes its way to the album, but a lot of times we’ll just use those recordings. We’ve got a lot of funny audio and some endearing snippets of conversations and we love to use that in a live setting.”
When he reflects on the last few years of his life, Jones sometimes becomes melancholy and understandably questions if he would be a different person today if he left for work five minutes later on the day his world turned upside-down. At the same time, he realizes that sometimes things happen for no reason whatsoever, and dwelling on them doesn’t change anything. Still, that doesn’t eliminate his tendency to get moody, which was possibly physically exacerbated by the accident. “In traumatic brain injuries a lot of times your pituitary gland is disrupted and you can have really bad hormonal problems,” he explains. “I’m just blessed not to have any cognitive issues, I can read and speak normally. That was important to me.”
Aside from the sporadic moodiness and vision problems, Jones is seems remarkably well adjusted. His days are filled with reading, writing, and running and he’s excited about the idea of traveling in a van again and playing a bunch of gigs. It’s the thought about what’s going to happen after the shows that makes him anxious.
“I can’t sleep well anymore and not having sleep dissembles your life in a strange way,” he concludes. “It’s the most awful thing. I used to talk to Zac all the time about these people who seemed like they had these distinct mental illnesses, and I’d say, ‘I bet you he just hasn’t slept.’ Because it absolutely creates this hole in your life that is unfillable. It absolutely alters your life and makes you think about yourself differently. Going back and hearing Misery and Pride now, I think I gained a little bit of clarity on it for certain.”