If you’ve been watching Leaving Neverland nonstop and obsessing over R. Kelly, you need Disgraceland in your life. With Jake Brennan at the helm, the podcast dives into the lives of famous musicians. It covers their music, their life stories… and the crimes they commit with abandon. From John Lennon to GG Allin, no one is too big or too obscure to get Brennans introspective treatment. After binging more than a few of his episodes (don’t skip the Michael Alig story), we called up Brennan to chat about true crime novels, his writing process and his thoughts on Black Francis and Tommy Stinson.
Like true crime? Don’t forget to grab your tickets to Death Becomes Us, our true crime festival! It will be in D.C. from November 8-10, 2019.
BYT: If you don’t mind me asking, why true crime?
Jake Brennan: I wanted to start a music podcast and there were a million music podcasts out there. My obsession had been crime novels growing up, so the story from music history that I was most drawn to and that I most wanted to tell, coincidentally had to do with crime. So putting the finer point of true crime onto a music podcast made a lot of sense.
BYT: What kind of crime novels did you grow up reading?
Brennan: Most recently, a lot of James Ellroy, which is fictional… But I’m actually looking at it on my desk right now. The Bronx is Burning, that’s a John Mahler book I read twice. It’s 1977 in New York City, Summer of Sam, Yankees, local politics, all that stuff. I feel like this book was written for me. Of course, being from Boston all the Whitey Bulger stuff, Black Mass, The Brothers Bulger. I could go on and on… It’s a long list.
BYT: Yeah absolutely. When you’re curating your list of episodes for a season, what do you look for? How do you get that balance between different genres and different stories?
Brennan: Well, it’s a mix of the those things you just mentioned, but also trying to figure out what I think my audience wants to hear. What story, what artists, they want to sort of spend time with for 30 minutes. Almost more important than that is what stories I think I can find a unique way into. You know, Kurt Cobain, Tupac and Biggie, those stories have been told so many times, but if I can find a unique hook that I can hang my hat on… A way to present the story that’s interesting to me and different from everything else that’s been already told, then that’s usually when I bite.
BYT: What are the stories your audience gravitates towards? What gets a really good reception?
Brennan: That’s interesting. I have some data to back it up, but I haven’t been able to really put my finger on it. I think the bigger the artists, the more listens the episodes get, but also the more insane the story is… Like GG Allin is not a well-known artist, Michael Alig is not a well-known music industry person. Those stories do really well. As did the black metal one.
BYT: GG Allin and Michael Alig were definitely two of my favorite episodes. And you interviewed Michael Alig for the GG Allen episode. How did you prepare for the interview?
Brennan: Well I had a really hearty breakfast that morning. Fortified myself. Honestly, I didn’t do that much prep. He and I had been going back and forth on text for a week before hand, just to try to the interview together. He happened to be moving at a time… I literally did that interview while he was moving into his apartment on the side of the road.
So I kind of had a rapport with him going already via text. Not that I wasn’t a little freaked out. I’m not going to lie. It’s not often that you’re talking with a guy thats done those sorts of things. But I knew I wanted to get his take. When he contacted me he was like, I was with GG Allin the day before he died and I’d love to talk to you about it. I knew we were going to talk about that, so I prepped that. I already knew that story because it was in the podcast. I’d already kind of researched it. Other than that, I wanted to get his thoughts on redemption and rehabilitation and those are easy things to grab at. There wasn’t a lot of prep I had to do.
BYT: Do you think it was easier because you could frame the conversation around GG Allin?
Brennan: At the end of the day, despite what he is or isn’t, I still wanted to be respectful of his time. I wasn’t interested in a “gotcha” type of interview. That’s not interesting. All that’s going to happen is he’s going to hang up the phone. He made it clear that there were things he wasn’t happy with, that I had said, but he stood by them. In a strange way, I kind of respect that about him.
BYT: Your podcast has a really interesting narrative structure that gets woven in with the cold hard facts of a case. Was that always a part of the podcast or was that something that you thought up a little later?
Brennan: The structure was always the same. The sort of five blocks of story and the device in the beginning. It kind of evolves around the first season as I sort of figured out how to become a storyteller in real time with with my audience. The style of subjective first person, I mean that’s the style I love to read. I mentioned James Ellroy, that’s how he writes. I didn’t really plan it. I fell into it and I just went with it. It’s sort of become a hallmark of the podcast.
BYT: It’s definitely one of my favorite aspects of the podcast… When you really feel like you’re falling into someone’s mind. How do you get to that place where you feel like you can reenact peoples thoughts and feelings?
Brennan: A lot of research. I do get into their heads and I do often times voice their thoughts. People can obviously question, how do you know what they’re thinking at the time? Well it’s like anything else, their actions, their true actions, and what they did. Enough research will give you the confidence to get to that point to say, OK, this is what they were thinking at the time.
Like the John Lennon episode. There’s a scene where he’s sitting at a table with his son eating cereal and he gets upset when he hears Bruce Springsteen on the radio. I didn’t actually read that scene, but I do know that he ate breakfast all the time with his son during that period in 1980. I do know that he was he was possessed by that Bruce Springsteen song and annoyed by it because it’s so real and he thought he couldn’t do the same thing and have a hit with it. I know that he listened to that station nonstop. So it was easy to put it all together.
BYT: Are those scenes the hardest thing for you to write for the podcast or do those come really easily for you?
Brennan: I don’t even plan them. It’s just kind of like, I know what I want to write, but I don’t plan how I’m going to write them. Those things, all the time, just kind of flow out of me. I think that’s just a tendency I developed from having read that style so much. It’s like playing an instrument. If all you’re doing to do is listen to Eddie Van Halen play guitar, once you start playing guitar you’re going to sound like him.
BYT: Your research must be insane for this podcast. How many books do you think you read in a year and how many hours do you put into a topic before you release an episode?
Brennan: Production is two weeks of work and that’s usually a week of writing and a week of doing the audio, like scoring the episodes. I was doing all the music for that and I still score them even if I’m not creating the music. And then mixing and editing and all that stuff.
So it’s two weeks of production. For research, I don’t know how to quantify it because I’m just doing it constantly. All the time. It’s something that I am literally always doing. I’m reading on my phone, reading on my Kindle, reading at night. Sometimes I’m blocking out a couple hours during the day to read in my studio. There’s anywhere from five to ten sources for each story and a lot of them, if not all of them, are books. Usually one or two biographies or autobiographies, documentaries, or magazine articles. Even a bio, if I feel like it’s it’s credible enough. I have no idea how many books a year I read… A lot, more than the average bear.
BYT: Do the stories you tackle on Disgraceland ever change the way you feel about the music? Do you find that you can no longer listen to certain artists or can you separate the person and their work as an artist?
Brennan: Part of the research process is listening, for me anyway, to the music. What you hear in each episode is me talking about the music they made and what drove them to do it. It’s a big part of it, so I have to understand it. Usually, what I find is myself getting more into the music, despite their heinous crimes, which is bizarre. When this stuff happens in real time, like the Ryan Adams news broke a couple of weeks ago. I mean… It’s going to be tough to listen to Ryan Adams. I’m going to watch that Michael Jackson thing that was on HBO last night. I’m going to watch that tonight and it’s probably going be a long time before I can listen to Michael Jackson again. But, you know, I’ll get back to it. Michael Jackson is just too good.
BYT: It’s funny you say Michael Jackson because I’ve been thinking about the documentary as well. I’m like, can I get you a place where I can watch that documentary and still listen to “PYT” almost every day?
Brennan: I don’t know. It’s a good question. We’ll find out.
BYT: Speaking of music, do you think you’re ever gonna have the money or get offered to play one of those beautiful pieces of cheese you talk about in every episode?
Brennan: Well, it’s become such a thing now. Such a device, such a gag that even if I had the money, I don’t know that I would do it. Definitely not on Disgraceland. I would do other other shows maybe that relied on artist’s music, but I feel like I’ve established an audio identity for the show right now that, frankly, I feel is getting stronger and stronger. I don’t really want to mess with it.
BYT: My other music question has nothing to do with Disgraceland, but I read a bio of yours somewhere that said you’ve played with both Black Francis and Tommy Stinson. Who is cooler?
Brennan: Oh man, two weird guys. To clarify, I didn’t play with them, I toured with both them. I opened up for them separately on two different tours. Tommy is one of the coolest bass players of all time. It’s hard to mess with that. Charles AKA Black Francis, he was in the Pixies. Without the Pixies there’s no Nirvana. I don’t know, man. That’s a tough one. It’s a real tough one. I’m going to go with Tommy though. He’s got that more iconic, cool rock and roll thing going on.
BYT: This is my last question and then I’ll let you get on with it. First, I wanted to thank you for having a podcast that’s 30 minutes long. Second, I want to ask, do you agree every podcast is too long?
Brennan: No, no. Part of me understands why people have the attitude that the podcast should be as long as it is entertaining. If 90 minutes is gonna hold your interest, great, but I think it’s the responsibility of the podcast creator to make sure that there’s nothing dead in there. And you keep the listener engaged. I wanted to do something that was structured and shorter and would fit into people’s lives a little bit easier.
That said, I am about to extend them slightly. Each one will be, without ads, 30 minutes. Part of the feedback from my listeners was they wanted more. They wanted longer stuff. This was a way to kind of push that, but not break the format.