The Write Stuff: Ian Brennan on the Arrogance of Believing We Are Modern

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen where authors give exclusive readings from their work.


Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning record producer and has produced three Grammy-nominated records. At age six, while staying home sick from school, he by chance saw an old Elvis Presley exploitation film on rerun television and was inspired to pick-up the guitar. It immediately became his obsession and “life-jacket” for surviving childhood and adolescence. He recorded his first album in 1987, during the pre-Pro Tools, dark ages. 

He has worked with artists as diverse as country-great Merle Haggard, filmmaker John Waters, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Fugazi, Green Day, Tinariwen, Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), the Blind Boys of Alabama, Nels Cline (Wilco), and the Vienna Boys Choir, and has repeatedly travelled the world in search of music. Amongst others, he has discovered and produced groups who went on to be the first international releases in the indigenous languages of their respective countries: Rwanda, South Sudan, and Malawi. During his leanest years, he supported himself by day working as a counselor in the locked emergency-psychiatric unit for Oakland, California. This led to his becoming a violence prevention “expert,” lecturing on the topic over 100 times annually since 1993 at such organizations as the Betty Ford Center, Bellevue Hospital (NYC), UC Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome), as well as on various continents: Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. He was a published poet by age 19 and has written about music regularly for Zero Magazine and Guitar Player. He is the author of three other published books. The Boston Phoenix called his lyrics ”a model of economical, unpretentious, narrative songwriting,” and the Readers+Writers journal praised his novella, Sister Maple Syrup Eyes as, “A beautiful book. Achingly beautiful.” Brennan was born in Oakland and raised in the far East Bay Area. He relocated first to Paris and then to Italy as a homebase, starting in 2009.

[jump] When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

In a nutshell, as strange as it sounds: I am a Grammy-winning music producer, author (of four published books), and violence prevention “expert” — having taught for the past 22+ years at such organizations as UC Berkeley and the Betty Ford Center.

What's your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

In the modern era, we are competing more against sheer volume than quality. Unfortunately, that “noise” results not in an increase in quality, but in the culture becoming more driven by the low-hanging fruit of celebrity, and progress stagnates.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Don’t!!!!!!!! (Unless you are a complete masochist.)

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I try not to consider myself much at all! With my background origins, the bar of success was pretty low. Having a job —  of any kind at all — was considered a success. Not ending up homeless remains a goal.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Anything featuring my friends The Malawi Mouse Boys.


Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

As teenagers, my grandfather and his brother came over from Ireland during the famine. They’d lost their entire family back home. The brother, Patrick, made it all the way across the country from New York City to San Francisco, but then ended up committing suicide by drowning himself in the bay. I’ve always found it haunting that my own father had relocated to San Francisco before I was born and without any knowledge of the fate of his grandfather’s brother.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

ELVIS. All day, every day. One day, I stayed home sick from school and caught a rerun of “Roustabout,” one of his 1960s exploitation films. When he rode his motorcycle around The Wall of Death, I was hooked.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

It definitely would involve many screams of frustration and probably the discontinuity of my 24+ years of vegetarianism.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

A shroud of darkness helps. And “The Sprinkler” move is a must.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Not ever enough.

What’s wrong with society today?

The arrogance of believing that we are “modern.”

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Music and movement. They work like a charm for most ills.

What is your fondest memory?

Every time I drive across the Bay Bridge, on the final approach to San Francisco, I miss the smell wafting from the Folger’s Coffee plant that used to fill the air and greet visitors.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

As often as possible.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Sub-Saharan Africa becoming the economic center of the planet (….and not because of petroleum).

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is anything done for its own aesthetic sake (without any other utilitarian purpose and/or to sell itself or anything else). Art is necessary for our evolution as a species. Otherwise, we remain passive prisoners of our environment.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

Slooooooow down.

What are you working on right now?

My next book is the non-fiction work How Music Lives (or Dies): Field-recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts. It come out in February and deals with the need for greater representation of international music and languages globally, to help offset the dominance of English-language artists and media. It is based on the many musical recording projects that my wife and I have done in more remote areas of Africa and Asia.

What kind of work would you like to do?

The ideal are artistic projects that also have some utilitarian benefit for charitable causes. Fugazi playing a free show for the homeless (Dolores Park, June 2000) or The Good Ones from Rwanda, having their lives changed by a few hundred dollars each, are amazing things to witness and participate in.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I am just awaiting the other shoe inevitably falling on a mono-economy. I think of the the Silicon Valley as “Future Detroit.”

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Weekdays only! Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays, I hide.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

As someone who worked in locked psychiatric-emergency rooms for 15+ years, the idea of “strange” kind of gets left somewhere along the wayside.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

50 words: Rather than, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?” we can just as easily flip that phrase to, “Who knows what goodness is hidden in the heart of others?” Physical actions may have irreparable consequences, but spiritually we’re ever-evolving and capable of growth or re-birth.

50 bucks: In the states, 50 bucks pays for a day or two’s parking. In South Sudan, it can feed a rural family for two months.

What are some of your favorite smells?

The brick oven as you descend into Tomasso’s Pizzeria in North Beach is certainly one of them. And the fur of my dogs.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

One more day on earth with my wife.


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