Twenty years old and finishing his second year at Berklee, Marcus Brown vividly recalls when he first got into rock 'n' roll. Michael Jackson had just died. "They played Black or White, and Slash is playing in the video. I was like, 'Who's that guy, he looks really cool.' So I started listening to Guns 'N' Roses and Hendrix, and realized that black people could [play guitar]. If Hendrix could do it, I could do it. What I had been taught about rock 'n' roll was a lie. My dad had a guitar in the basement, so I started playing that." Seeing black representation in a predominately white genre was a revelation. He started digging into distortion-heavy bands like Nirvana. But when Brown got into Sly and the Family Stone's sixth album, Fresh, he got the inspiration to try his hand at songwriting.
Though he's been at it only four years, Brown's ability to selectively draw on different musical styles is one reason his band, Riley With Fire, boasts such a distinct sound. Among the influences he cited during our conversation were Carly Rae Jepsen, Jim Morrison, Frank Ocean, David Bowie, and Carl Lagerfeld. That he's new to writing music works to his advantage; in finding his own voice, Brown embraces seemingly disparate genres, distilling select elements before seamlessly blending them into a new sound. The resulting songs are friendly to rock, punk, pop, and R&B listeners alike.
“I really like melodic music, the catchier the better," says Brown. "I love when music is colorful and free and catchy.” Even so, Brown's instinct to get weird is apparent. Rather than suppress his eccentric impulses, Brown pushes against their boundaries, infusing his music with a dark, almost ominous undercurrent. In Got Hit By Furniture, a measured vocal introduction about violence and love dips into a dreamy sequence whose stylish bass and synth lines bring to mind artists like Ariel Pink and Joy Division. He sparsely employs elements like auto-tune and dueling vocals, creating a painterly, almost schizophrenic atmosphere.
"Sometimes I like visual art more than music," Brown admits. "So I started researching a bunch of painters and trying do what they do with music." This interest in visuals has led Brown to explore video making. “The first video I thought was amazing was Yonkers by Tyler, The Creator,” Brown tells me. “He does a bunch of stuff that makes you kind of cringe.” In his first-ever piece, a two-minute music video for Riley With Fire's TV, the influence of Yonkers is present, though not overtly appropriated. Brown is depicted in profiled silhouette, the elegant image occasionally disrupted with violent and grotesque acts.
Brown's commitment to developing his artistry is readily apparent. While his Riley With Fire bandmates head back to their hometowns for the summer, Brown will be sticking around Boston and maybe even developing a solo set in order to get some live shows under his belt. As he continues to develop his unique style, I hope Brown will continue to sink into the raw, moody elements of his music, rather than opt for something more polished. As evidenced by Riley With Fire's abstract approach to song crafting, there's plenty to explore in the unmanicured edges where pop meets other genres.