Don Breithaupt, of Monkey House: Something Else! Interview

Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, composer and author Don Breithaupt joins Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss his band Monkey House – which just released Left – as well as his own professional history and the terrific 2014 release by the Breithaupt Brothers. 

If Steely Dan seems like an obvious inspiration, there’s a reason: Breithaupt, in fact, wrote a book on Aja as part of the 33 1/3 series. Left features Steely Dan veterans Michael Leonhart, Elliott Randall and Drew Zingg, among others. Welcome to the Club, the band’s 1992 debut, featured a radio-hit cover of Donald Fagen’s “Lazy Nina.” Headquarters, Monkey House’s 2012 release, also included Leonhart and Zingg.

But there’s more to Monkey House. For instance, 1998’s True Winter found Breithaupt collaborating with Little Feat’s Richie Hayward and David Blamires of the Pat Metheny Group. Breithaupt has also co-written songs performed by Marc Jordan, Chris Smith and Alfie Zappacosta, among others; he’s currently working as a producer with Eleanor McCain and Stephanie Welton. Left, which was co-produced by Peter Cardinali, also sees the return of Blamires.


PRESTON FRAZIER: When did you start composing Left? How did you determine which featured soloist would be cast in which song?
DON BREITHAUPT: I started writing Left when I was driving out to Los Angeles, the so-called Left Coast, in 2013. I had picked up my whole world and, um, left. There’s a lot of open space when you drive across North America, and I had a lot of time to sing to myself, play drums on the dashboard, imagine new sounds. I was frantically scrawling lyric ideas on candy wrappers and gas receipts the whole way. By the time I got to L.A., I had a bag full of song fragments that turned out to be the basis of the 11 new songs on this album. My beautiful wife can tell you I did a lot of revising around our apartment, too! There’s a pretty amazing group of guests on the album — Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Drew Zingg, Michael Leonhart, Donny McCaslin, Marc Jordan, Lucy Woodward, David Blamires — and they all killed. In most cases, it was obvious who should be on what tune. Jay and I wrote “Good to Live,” so he wanted to play on it. Drew just seemed like a natural for all those snaky chord changes on “What Exactly Is It That You Do All Day?,” and Elliott needed zero coaching as far as what to do with “It Works for Me.” When I mentioned “jazz on Lower Broadway” in the lyrics to “It’s Already Dark in New York,” I thought of Mike Leonhart. He’s an extraordinary improviser.

PRESTON FRAZIER: The album was recorded in a number of studios, but featured of a core band. How long did it take to record Left? Was it recorded digitally?
DON BREITHAUPT: I guess from the first day with the rhythm section to the last day of mixing, it was about six months. We recorded everything at 192kHz — like, super high-res. That took some doing, and a few extra sound cards! I’m so happy with the sound of Left. It sparkles. The clarity is incredible, but there’s real toughness in the low end. The mixing process was meticulous. We missed nothing. Your ear is always guided to the right thing at the right moment. No doubt in my mind that this is the best Monkey House album yet.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Talk about your concept for the band.
DON BREITHAUPT: Monkey House started in 1992 as an outlet for songs I had written that seemed too jazzy or otherwise tricky to pitch to pop artists. Everyone said I sounded like Steely Dan then. I thought, well, if [Walter] Becker and [Donald] Fagen are not doing anything right now — they were on hiatus — then I’ll do it! The first album, Welcome to the Club, came out on Aquarius Records, a mid-size label out of Montreal. They’ve had lots of big stuff over the years, like April Wine, Corey Hart, Sass Jordan and Sum 41. The advantage of being with them right out of the gate was that they were distributed by Capitol, so I had the full corporate might of EMI behind me when it came to advertising, radio promotion and all that. There were three hits on that album, including a cover of Donald Fagen’s “Lazy Nina” that charted in three different radio formats. From the beginning, Monkey House was a project, a song-driven thing with a rotating cast of players. In 1998, the second album, True Winter, came out. A lot of airplay once again, and some special guests: Richie Hayward, David Blamires and Kevin Breit [Norah Jones]. In 2005, we put out Big Money, a compilation CD with four new songs on it. In 2012, Headquarters brought us to a whole new audience, and my mind was blown when musical heroes of mine like Jay Graydon, Michael Omartian and Rob Mounsey took notice! Now we’re signed to ALMA Records, which has a tremendous worldwide distribution network. The new album, Left, dropped on P-Vine in Japan even before it dropped in the U.S.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How has the sound changed from Welcome to the Club to your current release, Left?
DON BREITHAUPT: It’s just gotten better and better: more focused, stronger direction, better production. I was still doing a lot of drum programming and that ’80s-hangover kind of stuff when we made the first album. Now everything’s live. Left has multiple vocalists, guitarists, a core rhythm section, seven horns, percussion, even a full string section on the last track.


PRESTON FRAZIER: Your family has a very rich musical upbringing. Please tell our readers more about that.
DON BREITHAUPT: I grew up in Toronto, the eldest of three very musical brothers. My father was a jazz piano aficionado, so I heard a lot of Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck, Art Tatum, George Shearing, Count Basie and Duke Ellington as a kid. No one taught me to swing — I just had it in my bones. Meanwhile, my mother was a very accomplished classical soprano, so I had that side going as well. My folks indulged my love of pop and rock too, taking me to concerts, buying me records. I can’t remember a time when music was anything but all-encompassing.

PRESTON FRAZIER: When did you first start playing? Was piano your first instrument?
DON BREITHAUPT: I took piano lessons as a little kid, but really hated it; my mother says my teacher sensed I had a lot of promise and drove me way too hard. When I was about eight, I quit. I just wanted to play road hockey, like any other Canadian boy. Then, when I was about 12, Elton John and Billy Joel were the biggest thing going. Piano became cool. So, I started lifting their stuff by ear and teaching myself to play. I moved on to the Beatles, Chicago, Steely Dan. Around the same time, I took up the drums, and played drums in rock bands all through high school. Eventually piano won the day — you can’t write songs on a drum set — and I spent much of my time as a university English undergrad goofing off in the music building, practicing, learning to orchestrate and record in a studio.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I understand you attended Berklee College of Music. Did you intend to pursue a performing career?
DON BREITHAUPT: By the time I applied to Berklee College of Music at 21, I actually had a lot of stuff going on musically — more than most kids going there straight out of high school. I had film soundtracks, jazz pieces, songs, original scores. Berklee offered me a full scholarship. I got into Eastman, North Texas and a few other places, but I already knew I was going to love Boston. I was living there by the next fall, and I’ve never looked back. I wasn’t a performance major at Berklee. I studied composition and arranging, really soaked it up. But my playing improved a lot because of what I was listening to. When you’re spinning Herbie, Chick, Jarrett, Monk — the best in the world — you just get better. It imprints a way of hearing upon you. I’m not talking about superficial listening, I’m talking about really getting in there under the hood. 

PRESTON FRAZIER: A lot of our readers may not be aware of your production credits. What were some of your recent projects behind the board?
DON BREITHAUPT: I’m always producing. I’m currently helming a massive project for singer Eleanor McCain. She’s doing a 33-song disc called True North. It’s all Canadian songs, done with Eleanor plus a core rhythm section plus ten different orchestras. Amazing guest soloists too. Really elegant, really fresh. All the iconic Canadian songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Robbie Robertson, plus a few you wouldn’t expect. I’m also in pre-production for a pop record with Stephanie Welton, who is just an extraordinary young singer.


PRESTON FRAZIER: One of my 10 best 2014 albums was the Breithaupt Brothers release Just Passing Through: Songbook Vol. II. How did that come about?
DON BREITHAUPT: My brother Jeff and I have been co-writing stuff for about 15 years now. He’s an incredible lyricist, tender but funny as hell. He’s based in New York City. Over the years, we’ve had some really star-studded shows in NYC and Toronto where maybe a dozen well-known singers will cover songs we’ve written. People like Carolyn Leonhart, Kate McGarry, Catherine Russell. Finally, we thought: Why don’t we do an album like that? Sort of a musical variety show where the common thread is our music? It came out great and was very well received, which put us on a lot of people’s radar. Michael Bourne at WGBO (the jazz station in New York) really championed us. There will be another Breithaupt Brothers record, for sure.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Could you tell our readers about your published work?
DON BREITHAUPT: My brother Jeff and I wrote a couple of books about ’70s music for St. Martin’s Press: Precious and Few, covering 1971-1975; and Night Moves, covering 1976-1979. My Steely Dan book happened in 2007. I cold-called David Barker, the editor of the very popular 33 1/3 series on classic rock and soul albums, and gave him hell about not having done a Steely Dan volume yet! He took it well, suggested I might be the man to write it, and invited me to submit a proposal the next time they were planning new titles. My Aja proposal was accepted, and I got to sit with Donald Fagen one afternoon in his New York studio and discuss the nuts and bolts of making my all-time favorite record. Nice work if you can get it! The book also allowed me to make contact with Chuck Findley, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon and several of the other studio musicians involved in Aja. It was, for me, a labor of love. The advantage of being part of a long-running series like 33 1/3 — which began in 2003 and is still going — is that your book never goes out of print. I still get emails, Facebook messages and tweets from Dan fans who have just discovered it.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are your Top five favorite albums?
DON BREITHAUPT: Aja by Steely Dan; Pirates by Rickie Lee Jones; Hejira by Joni Mitchell; Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder and Spilt Milk by Jellyfish.