Brett Farkas was just a white boy from the suburbs of Detroit when he was scooped up and anointed by the legendary King of Rock and Soul himself. Shortly after the wide-eyed guitar prodigy was hired into Solomon Burke’s band of long-toothed veterans, King Solomon took one look at the new recruit and decreed, “Your name’s Cookieman!”
Nine years later, Farkas [Hungarian for ‘the wolf’] is widely recognized as one of the most skilled and original guitar players in the Los Angeles music scene. From big name sessions to the fringes of the avant-garde, the Cookieman has been a major contributing force, playing in such influential groups as Aaron Embry’s hallucinogenic indie outfit, Amnion, and, most recently, Lord Huron. After two years of heavy touring with Huron and masterminding the guitars on their acclaimed breakthrough album, Farkas reached a point of clarity. It was time to step up and step out on his own.
“Over the course of doing it, living here for nine years, playing in different bands, where the world is this giant oyster, I was whittling things down, chiseling away.”
The essence he’s been seeking is no more clearly embodied than in the full-length debut of his new project Boys School. Clocking in at a brisk 34 minutes, the eponymous album is propelled by a buoyant exuberance, a sense of bottled up energies finally uncorked, as well as a wide inclusiveness of inspiration—from early rock & roll, 70s glam and punk, to 90s college radio and traditional song-smithery—with particular nods to young Elvis Costello, Nilsson, Spoon, and The Clash. True to the ethos of the name (if not as gender specific) Boys School may have started as Farkas’s unique vision, but it is infused with a communal energy, featuring luminaries from within the Cookieman’s circle, including Stella Mozgawa [Warpaint], Aaron Embry [Elliott Smith, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes], Andy Clockwise, and producer Luke Adams.
Songs alternate between high charged abandon and meditative plateaus, often within the same tune, a testament to Farkas’s strong belief in multi-faceted musical exploration.
“You’re trying to achieve the song. There’s a skeleton there, but within that are all these little pockets to expand.”
Lyrics navigate the pressure and release of frustration and heartbreak, coupled with wary hope and a near manic longing for freedom, all snaking their way through a colorful, sometimes sunny, sometimes snarling, and often humorous landscape. Medicated kicks off with a spry Texan two-step on steroids, issuing a warning of the changing face of conformity and societal insecurity, while Talking To Myself chugs along like a Scooby Doo chase before exploding into a New Wave chorus of straight up paranoia. There It Goes comes across like a gentlemanly response to the Motown girl groups of the 60s, and there’s even a skit, Andy Needs Fifty Bucks, calling to mind classic Beastie Boys’ hijinks, complete with custom background game show muzak.
There is just something undeniably, adolescently fun about Boys School, though a fun that’s tempered by a very grownup sense of foreboding. So Cool teeters on the edge of outright ferocity, while wistful Out To Sea blossoms into strange lush vocal arrangements that would fit in an old Disney cartoon when Disney still did creepy. Saturdays may bounce along as jauntily as a McCartney ditty, but it lists all the jailbirds, sailboats, and children who have “seen it all,” prompting a realization that the status quo, no matter how cheery, can only last so long.
The album closes with downright infectious 747, godchild to the fuzzy chomp and clomp of Marc Bolan at his grooviest. But the clearest shout-out to Farkas’s heroes of old comes in a surprising psychedelic cover of S.O.S. by the lords of Scandinavian Death Pop themselves, ABBA.
“They get a bad rap for being cheese ball or whatever, but the songwriting just knocks me out, just all this countermelody going on. It’s like Bach. And then how these songs can sound so uplifting and powerful and beautiful and pretty and happy, while lyrically they’re just turning your heart upside-down.”
Style and influence is one thing, but the biggest inspiration Boys School takes from the masters of yore is a very old school appreciation of spirited musicality, especially felt in their live shows. In an era of bands attempting to mimic their own recordings in live performance, playing along to pre-recorded tracks, Boys School takes the old road to reach new destinations.
“Musicality is being in the moment, playing the song to the means and capabilities of the group, and taking it to new places every time. And that’s all that matters, that there’s intention behind it, energy. Nobody’s gonna miss a thing if you’re playing hard. And I mean ‘hard’ not like loud and heavy, but intensely focused and giving everything that you've got. You just gotta do what’s true.”