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Local Listens: Bluebrain

Welcome (back) to Local Listens, where we profile some of our favorite Washington musicians. This week, we shine the spotlight on Bluebrain. Artistic stunts, iPhone apps, and political-show setups are the tools of this indie-electronic pair of brothers.

Hays and Ryan Holladay.

The Washington-based band Bluebrain takes audience participation very seriously. During this year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, founding brothers Hays and Ryan Holladay organized a performance built around a walk at the Mall, with participants bearing boom boxes playing Bluebrain-provided cassette tapes, creating what Ryan called a “walking orchestra.” The band also recorded a soundtrack for the Sant Ocean Hall in the National Museum of Natural History. Saturday at 8 PM, audience members will interact with the band’s dark indie electronica at the Fridge (516 Eighth St., SE, rear alley) by using the iPhone app TouchOSC to contribute to the concert. Contributors get half-price tickets; without the app, admission is $10.

Ryan, a former Obama campaign organizer, chatted with us about a revitalized Washington music scene, “stoner” music, soft power, and scooters.

Name: Bluebrain

Ages: Ryan, 28, Hays, 27.

Who does what? 
“We both sing, although Hays is the lead singer. When we record, we both play piano, guitar, and drums. But when we play live, it’s all electronics—like synthesizers and drum machines.”

How long have you been in Washington?
“We grew up here. We moved to New York for a while and then moved back to DC about two years ago.”

How did Bluebrain get together? “Hays had been working on a bunch of songs. We didn’t know what to do with them, so we finished them up and decided to put them out under something new, just the two of us. We had our first show a little under a year ago and then signed a label out in California.”

Any story behind the name? “It’s the name of a project to recreate the human brain—a project that we’ve sort of followed. We liked the association of artificial intelligence.”

Does your band have a political bent? Your first full-length album is called Soft Power.  “We’re not really political—my friend named the album, and I liked the term because it implies something sinister when applied to music. The record is kind of dark, so putting the word ‘soft’ in there worked well. Of course, the idea of being in DC and having a title like that certainly appealed to us as well. Our live shows play around with the idea of DC and power—our concert stage is flanked by two large lecterns and tons of mikes, like a weird, bizarro press conference.”

Now for the lightening round. First song that made you want to play music:  “ ‘La Bamba.’ ”

First instrument: “Piano.”

Most inspiring local spot for writing music: “Nowhere in particular for music inspiration, but the FDR Memorial at night is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Best local venue: “The 9:30 Club is the first venue I ever went to, and it’s still the best-sounding place anywhere.”

Best local bar to hear music: The Raven has an incredible jukebox. It’s a little temperamental, but when it works, it’s fantastic.”

Sum up Washington’s music scene:  “It’s been a bit of a vacuum for the last ten years. It took a long time for us as a city to figure out what we were doing, post-punk scene. What’s cool now is there’s a diversity of style that hasn’t existed for a long time. People are now more excited about investing creative capital in DC. I’m not sure why, although electing a new President and the influence of that can’t be overstated.”

Best thing about Washington’s music scene:  “It’s overwhelmingly supportive, for better or for worse.”

Worst thing: “There needs to be more people doing things to support music—I’d like to see more record labels.”

Finish this sentence: “When I’m not making music, you can find me . . .” “Scooting around the city. I have a scooter, so I love riding along Rock Creek Parkway all the way up to the Tidal Basin.”

Rolling Stones or the Beatles? “It’s a tough choice and age-old question, but I’ll come down on the side of the Beatles.”

Rolling Stone or Spin? “Uh . . . do they still exist?”

Club shows or festivals?  “Festivals.”

Craziest tour memory:  “We’ve stayed hyper-local. We’d definitely be open to doing tours, but so far we’ve enjoyed concentrating on making everything we do here count and really investing in this city.”

The first song you play for people when introducing them to your music:
“ ‘Ten by Ten’—it has a really out-there video, so there’d be a visual companion to it.”

If you could listen to only one album for the rest of your life, what would it be? “I might go with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. That’s a bit of a stoner answer there, but I’ve only realized how complex and rich it is as I get older. If that trend continues, I imagine it’d be a good one to keep with me for a long time.”

Best thing about being in a band?  “Indulging a creative side every single day that most people don’t get to exercise, and getting to play in a band with my brother.”

Check Hays and Ryan out at

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