Snow fell steadily in the hours before the show. January in Philadelphia: cold enough for layers, warm enough for slush. It was the kind of snow that falls like water ice, squelching on impact.
We were opening for a much bigger band, local folk heroes Frog Holler. It was a favor Jonny had finagled after months of open mics and acoustic shows. “We need to make a good impression,” he said when the rest of us cackled at his handwritten itineraries. “They don’t have to know this is our first time playing together.”
It was technically true. Jonny, Brett, and I had recorded albums worth of material a decade ago, but it had been years since our last show. And we’d never played with our new lead guitarist, Brian. I’ve known Brian since we were kids—but until then, he’d always been Brett’s quiet little brother.
As I followed the imprints of Brian’s boots through the slippery snow banks, my jacket stuffed with cymbals, I was suddenly grateful for Jonny’s anxiety—the snow had slowed us down to the point we barely made it to sound check.
Three hours later, the panic had vanished. In its place, elation. The show had been packed with family and friends—Aaron even flew in from Denver. After the set, the four of us huddled backstage, the crowd howling on the other side of the door. In that moment, it was as if the decision had been made for us. This was going to be more than a one-off show.
18 months later I’m back in Philly, driving down Front Street, the Delaware River an inky glint on my right. Jonny’s in the passenger seat, talking about a sentence stuck in his brain since he woke up.
“What four of us started, three of us have to finish.”
The car went quiet after that. It had been ten days since the funeral, and any excitement about finishing the album we started last month was gone.
I turned towards North Philly, away from the river’s wobbling reflections. This new reality, the one without Brett, had us all reeling. But he had left us with something to remember him by.
The car went quiet after that. It had been ten days since the funeral, and any excitement about finishing the album we started last month was gone.
Piano lessons didn’t work on my siblings, but I kept at it, slowly conquering the sonatas prescribed by my ancient Greek teacher. I tried all the saxophones during elementary school’s compulsory music classes, and added guitar after my older sister discovered Elliott Smith.
I met Jonny in sixth grade. He had a different attitude about music—it wasn’t an academic subject for him. Jonny’s dad ran a small record label and has sold records in the Philly area for decades, and the hallways in their house were sometimes stacked to the ceilings with vinyls, CDs, and cassettes in transit. He introduced me to The Strokes, Dylan, and Dinosaur Jr. Jonny was a music historian by 12, with the lyric journals to prove it.
Brett and I grew up five blocks apart—he was in band class too, standing at the back with the rest of the percussion kids, claves in hand. Brett was the sensitive jock, a quarterback who could kickflip and wore studded belts. But it wasn’t until Jonny approached us about being in a band that I understood: Brett didn’t just “play percussion.” Brett was a drummer, one capable of giving our dinky chords some spine.
He was also our first hype man, insisting that every chord progression was incredible and that we should all be famous by now. I was a shaggy braceface, the disgruntled recital musician with an attic where we could record undisturbed. Jonny was our natural bandleader, a hyperactive comedian with four ideas at once.
It began as a line on the weekend’s itinerary: we would skateboard around the train station until the cops chased us out, play video games, then plunk out a Nirvana cover or two. I borrowed my aunt’s electric bass to fill the space underneath Jonny’s guitar and Brett’s percussion, and by seventh grade we were ready for the school’s talent show. We covered Jimmy Eat World. I wore a pirate hat and massive Reggie White Eagles jersey. Very smooth, very classy stuff.
By high school, there was a band name: Hot Moccasins started playing the Philly area and selling burned CD-Rs for $5. We joined up with a local label, (some friends in the grade above us), and started booking shows with other teenage rock bands orbiting Philadelphia. Some of them had access to unfinished basements, and we would take chunks out of the crumbly walls with guitar necks and shoved shoulders, pushing back against an audience that usually had us physically cornered.
During this time, Brett and I were content to complement Jonny’s songwriting. Jonny was in the midst of a long-distance situation that kept the pen active, and he was bringing poetry to every verse.
Hot Moccasins released two albums by graduation. Not-so-sadly, the only online evidence of the band’s existence is a Last.fm page and this devastating blog post, which concedes we gave it our “best shot” before handing down a “C” grade. Still, we’d parted ways happily, making vague promises to play together during vacations. Hot Moccasins never broke up, but we didn’t stay together, either.
In the years that followed, Jonny produced a still-good rap album under the pseudonym Mickey Cake, an obscure Maurice Sendak reference only elementary school teachers (might) get. Brett started sharing his loops online and getting placements through a new platform called SoundCloud. I obsessed over Chilly Gonzales and Fiona Apple, and started writing about music. And though we paid little attention at the time, Brett’s younger brother Brian was quickly becoming a guitar genius. He joined Jonny at Pitt after high school, and the two of them began songwriting together.
We overlapped some in the summers, but it was rare: Jonny worked as a camp counselor upstate, and I was transcribing interviews in the pitiless world of documentary film. Brett and I sometimes worked together at the beginning or end of the summer, ferrying event equipment across town in a passenger van. When the three of us did get together to play music, all-night sessions worked best. We learned to grab any opportunity to play as a group.
That started to change after college. Jonny and Brian moved back to the Philly area and started teaching and brand strategizing, respectively. Instead of letting music sink down their list of priorities, however, the two of them started recording demos and playing open mics.
The writing process began to change: Jonny’s mantra had always been to write songs that would last forever, the kind of stuff that could have been written yesterday or last century. (“Chuck Taylors,” he says). But now Jonny was incorporating Brian’s knowledge of music theory and pedalboards into the equation.
First came “Only.” Then “Parakeet” and “Always On Time” in quick succession. I was listening to it unfold from New York, now editing blurbs at Pigeons & Planes. My own band was playing shows at the time, but when Jonny asked me to play on the nearly-finished EP he was recording with Chet Delcampo, I realized how much I missed both my friends and our music. This cozy, earnest folk rock felt like home. We weren’t trying to find the cutting edge—the goal was to make songs that could fit into a canon of something timeless.
Brett wasn’t involved in that EP, or the open mics before it. From my understanding, he was rising fast in the sales world. Jonny and Brian even started trying out other drummers at one point, but to hear them tell it, everybody else kinda stunk compared to their brother and friend. The energy was all off, so Delcampo had asked one of his friends instead—Charlie Hall, probably better known for his work with The War On Drugs.
When the time came to play a release show, Jonny and Brian went about convincing Brett. He was reluctant at first—it had been a while. But it took all of 10 minutes to shake the rust. And after the wild energy of the snow show at Johnny Brenda’s, Brett was as excited as the rest of us for more practices and shows.
I started taking the Chinatown bus between NYC and Philly with regularity. We developed a patchwork following: Jonny was working as an autism support aide at an elementary school at the time, and his fellow teachers would show up en masse, loose and eager by the time we went onstage. We were also an excuse for our high school friends to see one another. Another childhood friend, Ryan Putnam, had evolved into an incredible graphic designer. He cooked up a new poster for each show, and is behind all our album art to date.
Philly’s vibrant midsize venue community welcomed us into the fold, through friends old and new like Jonny’s “Uncle Pat” Feeney at Main Street Music, Scooter at The Grape Room, Steve at Bridgeset Music, and the folks at Boot & Saddle. We started calling ourselves Mickey Cake, an ode to Jonny’s previous producer moniker. Best of all, the music continued to evolve—Jonny’s love interest from camp was 9,000 miles away, and the insurmountable distance made for a feverish writing pace.
We started taking more time to study our songs’ textures—Brian’s writing had introduced a slew of guitar solos to the live set, and we tried to strike a balance between Jonny’s earthy, woodier folk songs and the metallic roar of the new ideas. But after a couple of years, life started to get in the way again. Brian’s work compelled him to San Francisco for 18 months, and a new job cut into my trips to Philly. We had only released two songs as Mickey Cake, and new material was starting to pile up.
Fate finally forced our hand when Jonny’s patience (and songwriting) paid off: his friend from camp started to visit America more often. In early 2019, Jonny flew to Auckland, ostensibly “just to visit.” The next time we saw him was on the internet, still in his signature long-sleeve and red Phillies hat, grinning wide across the aisle from his new wife. It was a euphoric twist, and no one was shocked when Jonny announced that he was moving to Auckland in the coming months.
Jonny returned to Philadelphia a married man, and we played a sold out show at Boot & Saddle with Andrew a week later. After the show, the four of us counted up the money we’d made from shirts, pins, and records, and talked about priorities. At the top of the list: record the set.
We had tried a variety of home demos, but adding parts one by one sapped the songs of their live energy. The four of us began to make different cutdowns of the twenty-odd songs we had on hand. Our conversations on texture resurfaced, as we tried to strike a balance between Jonny’s Dylan and Brian’s Dilla.
After Jonny and Brian made the “Jeff Beck” demo in May, the reality of our timeline hit home. Jonny’s flight was six weeks away. I insisted, as usual, that the best choice left was a marathon weekend. Our text chain from that time is full of conflicting schedules and frustration. But the clock made our decision for us, and I booked a weekend at Philly’s Boom Room Studios for early June on Brett’s recommendation.
When we walked into the space, Brett burst out laughing. “Definitely not the place I thought it was,” he said. Too late now. Thankfully the Boom Room staff swiftly rose to the challenge. We cranked out a pile of takes over the next 36 hours, surviving on Liberty Kitchen hoagies. The weekend already felt like a culmination, and I’ll never forget the relief I felt that Sunday night as we listened back. Brett texted the group afterwards, calling it our “best experience playing, ever.”
Strange things stand out about the day Jonny called to tell me Brett had passed. I remember the time of day, the room I was in, and thinking at first that he was kidding. I remember walking around with what felt like cotton balls in my ears.
In the days following, we gathered back in Philadelphia for Brett’s memorial service. Pictures of Jonny, Brett, and me as kids stared back at the endless line of mourners. Brian and his family were waiting at the end, people I had known for decades suddenly transformed into the bereaved. Jonny spoke at the service, and we spent that night drinking beers with those closest to Brett. It still feels unreal, like it’s someone else’s story. There’s not even a moral, just a refrain: check in with your people. Show love whenever it crosses your mind, because you never know what’s going on in theirs.
We’ve all had to confront death, but that never makes it any easier. When you lose someone close to you, there’s an insatiable hunger to amplify their memory. To tell their stories, and keep telling them.
After the service, after the long night of memories with Brett’s family, Jonny, Brian, and I talked about what would happen next.
Ten days later, Jonny and I drove back to the studio. His flight to Auckland was officially imminent, regardless of our grieving process. We muted the drums and started tracking vocals. I don’t know how he got through it, but it was thanks in no small part to The Boom Room’s founder Gary Dann. Gary had engineered the original session, too—and though I didn’t know it at the time, he was breaking his own rules to do so.
“A year before you guys walked into the door, I’d decided I wasn’t going to engineer anymore,” Gary said. “I was going to focus on my band, and give all the engineering jobs to Eric [Bogacz]. And when that booking came through for that Saturday morning, I asked Eric if he could—but he was traveling. To be honest, I was just feeling lazy. I didn’t want to get up early. But within 15 minutes of meeting you guys, I remembered everything I had loved about my 20 years in music.
“I was almost surprised that Jonny wanted to track vocals so soon [after Brett’s passing]. But once the session started I realized this was the perfect time. He didn’t know it at the time but I had just split up with my partner only two weeks before the sessions...He walked in, and we hugged each other. I asked if he really wanted to do it, and he did. That song ‘No Suffering’ was really intense in the most beautiful way, but there was a lot of pain in his voice at the end of that song.
“I’ve been engineering and producing artists for 20 years, and I’ve never had a time like this. I was at the boards, and he was in the booth, and we were both crying. In total silence. Here’s two people that just experienced the loss of a close person in their life, in very different situations obviously, but coming together to use music to heal.
“It helped to heal my wounds, and I hope the music—which will live on forever, which is awesome—will help to heal people who have gone through similar stuff. I don’t really know the pain Brett was going through, and what he was suffering through, but that song…it still makes me tear up. I’ve never had that with a client. What job lets you have that kind of connection?”
Jonny flew to New Zealand a few days after those sessions. Brian and I took over from there, adding guitar overdubs, saxophone, and keys alongside Eric who added mellotron, Echoplex, and mixed the whole album. He also pointed us towards Alex Santilli for mastering.
Those Boom Room sessions were our only shot at recording the songs. All the other weekends were booked with inanities: camping trips, weddings, dinner plans. It was our one chance to record together before Jonny left, and Brett delivered.
There’s not even a moral, just a refrain: check in with your people. Show love whenever it crosses your mind, because you never know what’s going on in theirs.
Musicians are drawn to their instruments for a reason, and Brett was our drummer in every sense. One part of Jonny’s eulogy said it perfectly: “He was ALWAYS so encouraging to me. He pushed me to take creative risks and inspired me to believe in myself. When I didn’t want to play a new song at our show last summer he said, ‘It’s good. You’ll regret it if you don’t. Trust me.’ He was right.”
I never wanted to reduce a 20-year friendship to an essay. Yet the alternative—to keep the music and story to ourselves—feels incomplete. This is an album decades in the making, and though it’s hard to accept, it’s an album that can’t be replicated.
These days, Jonny’s teaching kindergarten in Auckland and just got his motorcycle license. Brian’s in Center City Philadelphia, where he’s used quarantine to become a beat machine. I have a folder with hundreds of his creations, and they’re all incredible. I’m in Los Angeles, editing videos and staring out the window. Bri and I plan to visit Jon as soon as they let Americans back into New Zealand. There’s a lot more music to make, and the next Mickey Cake album is already taking shape.
But we’ll get to that later. For now, we have an album to celebrate and a friend to remember. We’re calling it So That You Know, a line from the last track, “No Suffering.” Like everything these days, the lyrics feel different in retrospect: So that you know, your suffering / it don’t wanna grow / Happiness is reaching out / You’re not alone, no suffering.