On a morning in July 2011, Brett Newski woke up alone in a Bangkok airport.
He was two years out of college and had been living a fine life in Milwaukee, where he had grown up. He worked a bit in advertising, played in a couple bands and managed a few others. But Newski didn’t feel grounded. When one of his bands broke up, “everything was up in the air,” he says. “An in-between-exits kind of thing. Post-graduation, and with the economy… it was a tough time. A big slap across the face from reality.”
Faced with the same problems as so many recent college grads, Newski didn’t get complacent. But he didn’t exactly get practical, either. He had been to Japan once, when he was younger, and had always wanted to go back to Asia. So, with nothing to lose, he bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. He had vague intentions of making music, but mostly, he says, it was an escape.
It was a startlingly clean getaway. In Bangkok, 8,000 miles from home, he didn’t know a soul, speak the language or have any employment prospects. As scary as that sounds, Newski was “completely jazzed about it.” He would eventually work through those other obstacles, but most immediately, he had no way to get around. So he flew to Ho Chi Minh City and bought a motor scooter.
He made his way up Highway 1 with an acoustic guitar on his back, improvising gigs in houses, on rooftops and motel porches. One night he was playing in the street when a group of locals dragged him into what he describes as an “unconventional massage parlor.” Inside, he played to a crowd of 20 or 25 people. “They went bonkers,” he says.
According to Newski, metal and “K-Pop” (short for Korean Pop) are the most popular genres in Vietnam. Compared to other parts of Asia, American rock music is not as popular, but it’s making a comeback after being stamped out by government regulations during the war. Still, Newski has found an audience, playing some of the biggest Asian festivals and being featured on MTV Asia. “It was cool for locals to see foreigners come in and play a new kind of music, with more of an indie flavor,” he says. “But it’s also more difficult because you don’t have that infrastructure. The artistic community there is developing, but it’s still very small.”
Newski went from Vietnam to Hong Kong to the Philippines, crashing on couches and playing gigs. All the while, he was writing songs and recording them whenever he got the chance. Sessions took place at makeshift studios in houses and hotels. The songs recorded during that period of transience became the aptly named In Between Exits, an album of jangly, lo-fi pop with an understandably tossed-together feel. The sparse “Wet Pavement,” with its quick tempo and desperate plea to “loan me all your love/ I swear I’ll pay it back” feels fundamentally hurried, as if he recorded it with one foot already out the door, looking ahead to the next unfamiliar city, gig and couch.
After meandering across Asia for six months during what he calls the “Homeless in Asia Tour,” Newski settled into music full-time in Vietnam. In between gigs, he found teaching jobs and voiceover work. He formed a band with two other transplants – drummer Matt Green from England and bassist Jeff Gantner from Vancouver – called Brett Newski And The Corruption. They went to Saigon and recorded a proper studio album, Tiny Victories. Like In Between Exits, Newski says it’s a road album, good for anyone “in between jobs, cities, relationships, phases in life.”
The album carries the sharp pop sense hinted at by In Between Exits, and its songs are as well-traveled as the band itself, with titles like “Eau Claire” (Newski’s birthplace), “New York Apartment” and “Buenos Aires.” Although it is geographically minded, it never romanticizes traveling. On the restless “Junkyard,” Newski captures the absurdity of travel, singing, “skip church on Sunday/ and camp out in the camping store on Monday/ sweet crap we are running out of gas/ on a highway in suburban Saigon.” Newski is no stranger to the ups and downs of the road. “It’s the most freedom you could ever have, but then it’s the trade-off of just being so isolated,” he says. That emotional complexity comes through on Tiny Victories, which focuses just as much on failed dreams as it does on realized ones.
Late last month the band embarked on a lengthy US tour in support of Tiny Victories. Compared to the scooters and taxis they use to tour Vietnam, Newski is happy to be cruising the spacious US interstates in a full-size van. They may be big in Asia, but Newski says they still feel like underdogs. “It’s definitely daunting trying to build an indie band from the ground up,” he says. “But there are those tiny victories along the way that keep you going through the low points.”
Like the young man from Milwaukee who woke up in Bangkok one day in 2011, the future of the Corruption is wide open: promising, but uncertain. Luckily, Brett Newski feels most at home when he’s nowhere near it.
Brett Newski And The Corruption play at Art Bar Friday, May 24 and The Up And Under Pub Saturday, May 25.