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Brandon Cattle with the Branding Irons drop a lo-fi cowpunk album

Jon Norton

Bloomington-Normal native Brandon Bayles says seeing the Ramones at age 15 had the same impact on him as seeing The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" had on those now in their 60s and 70s.

Bayles saw them in Florida, six years before he moved to Chicago to immerse himself into that city’s vibrant music scene.

Now 42, he’s back in the Twin Cities to be closer to his father. But his love of punk and country are on full display through his alter-ego Brandon Cattle on the new album “I Love Living in the Country.”

Album cover for "I Love Living in the Country"
Art by Dustin Michael Mertz
Album cover for "I Love Living in the Country"

Bayles told WGLT he knew country music would be part of his new persona in Central Illinois when he chose the pseudonym “Brandon Irons” as his persona.

“’Brandon Irons’ was supposed to sound like ‘branding iron,’ but that was taken by an adult film star. So, I came up with ‘Brandon Cattle’ and then the whole ex-con background story … it was just to kind of explain why there was this 40-year-old guy that was just starting to make music. So, it came about abruptly. I like performing as a character, I'm more comfortable out of my own skin,” said Bayles, who characterizes himself as an introvert.

So, he moved the “Brandon Irons” idea to his band, calling them The Branding Irons. As in, “Brandon Cattle with the Branding Irons.”

“And then it's supposed to sound like a sentence,” explained Bayles. “Like Brandon Cattle with the branding irons … like your branding, it actually was supposed to sound like you’re branding cattle with a branding iron.”

Is there a little bit of Brandon Cattle in Brandon Bayles?

“There are certain details,” he said. “Like I'm very introverted and I don't drink or party anymore and he still hits it pretty hard. And he likes the attention, I do not. I feel like I just write the songs and I just have to get them out there somehow.”

The first song on the album is “Barnstorming." It's a throbbing rock track with sirens and other noise throughout. Almost like it could be the soundtrack to a car-chase in a low-fi indie flick.

“I think this was my attempt at writing a wrestlers entrance music, like when they take the ring. That's what I was kind of going for here. There's certainly a lot of wrestling influence to this character. I feel like the whole thing is almost like me pretending I'm a professional wrestler,” said Bayles.

Would you be a good guy, bad guy or something else?

“Probably a bad guy,” replied Bayles. “I feel like I'm more comfortable in that role. I'm detestable as it is, I guess."

A trait he gave to his alter-ego.

“I like playing the bad guy. I like playing the heel,” said Bayles, adding that he identified with the anti-establishment ethos of bands like The Sex Pistols.

Bayles limited press material notes that the fictional Brandon Cattle is a Pekin High School dropout who later worked as a custodian at his old school.

“Yeah. And I had somebody at our last show asked me about living in Pekin. And I was like, ‘I've never even actually been there,” he said.

Why Pekin?

“I feel like it has a certain reputation. And I thought that fit the character,” explained Bayles.

So, what’s the fictional dropout and former custodian doing now besides making music?

“Just living on his grandma's farm sleeping until noon,” said Bayles about Cattle. “Drinking every night making music.”

Going nowhere fast?

“Yeah, I mean, living the dream, I guess though,” he added.

Brandon Cattle’s ex-wife is referenced on several of the songs, including “Gum Flap” which Cattle dedicates to his ex-wife’s aunt Linda.

“Aunt Linda actually is my real ex-wife's aunt that never did stop talking,” said Bayles. So that was a touch of reality to the character,” he said.

Did you ever have a conversation with Aunt Linda about that?

“Not really. I usually just stayed in my room when she was around,” he said.

Bayles as Cattle gives a low-fi, rockin’, buried-vocal treatment to the 1959 Conway Twitty song “It's Only Make Believe.” It’s a choice that could be interpreted as a nostalgic look back on his relationship with his ex-wife.

“Honestly, this was just a song I've loved my whole life and always wanted to cover. Same with ‘I Like Beer (which closes the album). So, those were two things I was able to check off. I always knew that I would get into some kind of country influenced project at some point in my life when I got older, and those are just two songs that I've wanted to cover probably for over 20 years,” said Bayles.

Two songs stand out musically on the album. “Dirtbag Doug” has a hint of a hip-hop feel mashed with a 60s “Big John” feel. And “Cowboy Boy Toy” sounds like a pop-ish Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon."

“I like to throw curveballs in my work,” said Bayles. “I like to make songs that don't sound like the rest of the album. So that's kind of, I guess you would call it the ballad and the slow song. It’s actually got drums programmed from a Gameboy. I like to mix it up, like not every song has live drums on it. I tried to mix-up the arrangements.”

Cowpunk isn’t a new label, but it’s one that seems to be able to accommodate wide array of styles. Bayles likes the label, though he doesn’t feel constrained by it.

“The music's definitely different. Like it's not straightforward punk or country. It's got a psychedelic feel to it. I used a lot of flanger and a lot of distortion and it's all recorded on old Tascam cassettes. We do a lot of tape manipulation and a lot of weird stuff. It certainly gets experimental at times,” said Bayles.

And the lo-fi sheen is intentional.

“There's a local musician, and that goes by Jimona. She bought this old Tascam four track I had years ago. And then when I was starting this project, I got ahold her to record me. This was supposed to be a straightforward country thing, but actually her influence is what made it a little more experimental and weird,” he said.

Brandon Cattle with the Branding Irons' “I Love Living in the Country” is available on most streaming services and can be purchased on Bandcamp.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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