It’s Friday night at The Engine Room, a Millyard storefront church that serves as a weekend live music venue. Though the crowd could be bigger, Brien Sweet is enjoying himself. Tomorrow his band Mugshot will energize a barroom full of revelers hungry for U2 and Tom Petty covers, but tonight belongs to his own musical vision. Strumming guitar and blowing a harmonica, backed by the drummer and bassist of local band The Genuine Nokovs, Sweet is all smiles.
In fits and starts, original music is finding a way back into Manchester nightlife. Local showcases happen most evenings at the Jam Factory, and farther down Elm Street, regional acts are at the Shaskeen every weekend. Sweet and his band, Safer By The Shore, are set to play at Mad Bob’s the week after their Engine Room gig.
Sweet picked up a guitar at age 13 and almost immediately began creating his own songs, spurred by an early obsession with Kurt Cobain.
“I thought that’s what you do,” he explained in a recent phone interview. “I always wondered why people didn’t start writing their own stuff right away.”
The first Safer By The Shore effort was fully a solo project. We Belong to the Sky, released in 2010, features Sweet playing everything from guitar to Theremin. A blend of atmospheric synth-pop and Bowie-esque vocals, it was completed in just a month as part of the annual RPM Challenge.
His follow-up, Through the Darkness, We Will Find the Light, is taking a bit longer.
“I’m at one extreme or the other,” Sweet says. “I’m trying to finish a chapter in my life, and when it’s over that’s when it will be released.” Two early tracks are available as free downloads, the aching “Mistakes” and “Winter Solstice,” a folk-pop confection with local singer/songwriter Charlie Christos contributing lead guitar and lap steel.
The subject matter of the record is personal.
“It’s about my journey through a lot of third-shift jobs,” says Sweet, “the deconstruction of a person’s mind by living in the night time and sleeping through the day.” He hopes to complete it in the next couple of months. One of the big challenges of the project is planning and scheduling around other musicians.
Sweet returned to the hit-and-run RPM Challenge formula in February, recording an eight-song album.
“I’d been working so long on Through the Darkness and I wanted to take a break, get unstuck and try something different,” he says. “But it ended up sounding like three different bands.”
So it’s shelved for the moment, though a couple of songs may end up on the new record. What is moving forward is Safer By The Shore as a live band, with a brand new lineup: Sweet on guitar, keys, harp and vocals, with Rich Delmonico on drums, bass player Jinsoo Kim and second guitarist J. Sjostrom. The group’s first official show was May 12 at Mad Bob’s.
In the meantime, Sweet continues to work with Mugshot, which may be a cover band but does provide space to stretch.
“I can bring my originality to the songs,” he says. “I sing in my own voice, I’m not trying to sound like Bon Jovi. Play to your strengths.”
The group formed in 2008, when Sweet’s solo work began to slow down.
“The economy tanked and I was losing Wednesday night supper gigs. I joined a cover band because you gotta get out and play,” says Sweet, who also does occasional acoustic shows with Delmonico at places like the Derryfield in Manchester. “No set list, and we do a lot of songs that won’t be on our regular show. It’s a blast, because we improv off each other.”
For Safer By The Shore, Sweet is taking things slowly and being selective.
“When there are too many bands, no one knows when they’ll play and the only ones making money are the promoters — I have no interest in doing those shows,” he says. “I like to hang out — bands have to support each other.”
He admits it’s an uphill battle. “It’s really hard to get people to come out and see songs they don’t know,” says Sweet. “We’re hermits in New Hampshire; everybody’s home watching Netflix.” But he’ll continue to follow his original muse, content with the hope that people will listen. For rowdy barroom crowds, there’s Mugshot.
“I’m not interested in making money with the original band,” he says. “I go out for the artistic freedom, for sharing my music and handing out download cards — for free, to get people into it. Maybe the money comes later.”