JC Brooks steers a conversation in much the way he drives a stage performance. In both instances, his voice reflects a restless but soulful vigor, an almost orchestral fluidity and, above all, a seemingly caffeinated urgency that comes from filling every open space with a consistently evolving idea or sound.
"Obviously, I'm a bit of a talker," Brooks said as our interview drew to a close last week, ahead of his Crave Lexington performance Saturday at Masterson Station Park. "I hope you were recording everything, because I just shoved a lot down your earhole."
Since forming and fronting the Chicago-based Uptown Sound band in 2007, Brooks has been at the center of an R&B sound both modern and retro in design that has played out on a pair of dramatically different albums for the indie Bloodshot label: 2012's traditionally slanted, soul revue-style Want More and 2013's more modern punk-funk infested Howl. But when it comes to spreading the word on his cross-generational soul blend, Brooks and his band do things with an old-fashioned work ethic: specifically, a high-octane live show and a desire for serious road work.
"I scream and jump around and stuff like that onstage," Brooks said. "But all of that aside, even if I was more of a stand-up performer, what we do is pretty uptempo dancing music. If people are going out with the intention of having a good time, then it's hard for them not to at one of our shows, unless they straight-up don't like our music, which is entirely possible.
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"Generally, after the first song or two, we get them going. We try to start with more traditional soul — something uptempo to serve as an inroad to what we do. Then we throw some of newer stuff in there, a lot of the stuff from Howl.
"Want More was pretty much a party soul album. With Howl, we decided to include some of our other influences. We added synths and just did stuff that sounded less like traditional soul. It was more in the vein of a post-punk thing, so that's a little less accessible for people. But I think once they're in there, they get it. Then by the end of the set, we bring them back out, too, with let-your-body-move type stuff. It's just a good place and a good time to come and forget your troubles for however long we're playing. The troubles will be waiting for you afterward. You don't have to worry about that."
Aside from the stylistic disparity between Want More and Howl, Brooks is a walking vocabulary of soul-pop vocal references, from Wilson Pickett-style gusto to James Brown falsetto runs to a level of performance daring that wouldn't be out of place (albeit with some stylistic adjustments) at a Bad Brains concert.
Naturally, the question of influences surfaces when addressing his stage stance. With a background in musical theatre, Brooks mentions Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle, but more as performance inspirations than specific singing guides.
"I'm more into performing than vocals," Brooks said. "I think it's way more important to give a great performance than to just get up there and sound good. As far as vocal inspirations, that's especially hard to say with us, because when I started doing bands, I was listening to a lot of rock and punk stuff — Eddie Vedder and Ben Folds, guys like that."
A new album with a new Uptown Sound lineup is in the works that should expand even further on the modern soul charge of Howl.
"As we recorded and brought in these songs, the music has shifted direction so many times, so we all decided, 'Let's not make a declaration here. Let's just make songs and then find out what they have in common later on.' That's sort of the way Howl worked, too," Brooks says. "This time, we have a hard-rock song, we have a disco song, we have a Pixies-esque song, we have something that sounds like old Stones, we have something like that sounds adult contemporary R&B. We're kind of all over the place right now."