Bright Brown Breathes New Life into the Chapman Stick in “Aimless”

The Chapman Stick is the instrument of the absurd, of the surreal, even the extraterrestrial. It encompassed the strangeness of King Crimson when Tony Levin played it on “Elephant Talk.” It encompassed the strangeness of space when Gurney played it in David Lynch’s original “Dune.” In “Aimless,” by Chapman Stick specialist Bright Brown, the instrument encompasses the strangeness of just being alive. 

Bright Brown is Alex Nahas’ solo project, where he focuses on recasting the Chapman Stick from its previous role as novelty instrument of the prog-rock era to spine of a song and counterpart to a songwriter. 

Alex Nahas chapman stick
Alex Nahas

The Chapman Stick was devised in the late ’70s by Emmet Chapman, a jazz guitarist who wanted to expand his two-handed tapping technique on guitar. Think of the Stick as a guitar and a bass at once, but also a piano, and also a drum. The instrument has 10 to 12 strings, each tuned differently, and no sound hole, just a long neck that can adhere to a belt loop. The fretboard is flatter than a guitar with sensitive pickups, because it is mostly tapped rather than strung. 

The Stick first found its way into Nahas’ hands 30 years ago, at Pierce Community College in California, in California, where Emmet Chapman connected him with a Stick seller after Chapman gave a performance on campus. 

Nahas started bringing the instrument to band practice. He was still figuring out how to use it and integrate it into songs, with not much to go off of, since the instrument isn’t really brought out in contemporary music as much as it was closer to its invention. Nahas said the Stick was often overshadowed in the mainstream because rock music was so defined by its band structure: guitar, bass, keyboard, lead singer.

“As a result, a lot of music sounds kind of formulaic, and the Stick allowed me to break the rules,” Nahas said.

But there is a new generation of Chapman Stick players swimming upstream to keep the eclectic instrument alive. 

Dan “Chef” Zahal, a second year bass student at Berklee, has been teaching himself to play a Chapman Stick with 12 strings since he was a senior in highschool. He said he hasn’t been able to find any faculty at the music school to integrate his studies on the Chapman Stick into any legitimate classroom environment, but Zahal plays the stick in his band, Trophy Husband. He said part of a reason for the rarity of Stick players is because of the dizzying prospects for inventing sound through electronic music production.

“The whole technical aspect was a lot bigger in the 70s and the 80s with bands like King Crimson and Rush. It was all about who could play the coolest lines, the flashiest, the cleanest,” Zahal said. “A lot of more modern music is based on, because we have a lot of shortcuts in production and studio, who can manipulate those the best.”

In the way that producers can employ techniques from a variety of instrumental groups on an electronic program such as Ableton or Logic, the Chapman Stick employs dexterity and intricacy to create new sounds using both rhythm and melody in tandem. Because of its multifunctionality, both musicians found the instrument’s capabilities keep expanding as they study it. Zahal has been using drum rudiments in his playing recently, treating each hand — one on the guitar side of the Stick and one on the bass — as a hand in a drum line. Nahas also is inspired by the percussive elements of the Stick.

“Its very nature is percussive because you hammer onto it. So there’s that attack from the fingers,” Nahas said. “You can emphasize that and be really simple and routine, or you can move the notes around and, by playing a little lighter, make it sound more melodic.”

Alex Nahas has released three albums and two EPs under Bright Brown; “Aimless” is the first single to come from his next album, releasing in January. But when Nahas picked up the Stick it wasn’t immediately apparent to him how best to express his art with it, until he started letting the Stick lead. 

“As I started writing, I thought ‘Oh, what if I approach this instrument as the core of the song, as the thing I write on, like it was a piano. And as soon as I started doing that, it made a lot more sense to me, and I haven’t put it down since,” Nahas said.

Gurney Halleck plays an Emmet Chapman piece on the Chapman Stick (called in the film a ‘Baliset’) in an extended scene from David Lynch’s “Dune.”

Nahas began forming bands around songs he wrote on the Stick, and Nahas’ playing took on its own life. While Tony Levin plays the Stick mostly on the bass side, so the sound can sometimes be twangy and rapid, Nahas’ playing more resembles a piano; it’s tender and earnest.

That tenderness is what makes the instrumental loops in “Aimless” so addicting. It’s a vague, wandering, circular song, that exploits both sides of the Stick, to fill you up with emotion and let you down easy with cathartic lyricism. Nahas started the song as just a little improvised lick back in early 2020, before the pandemic even started. 

Once the pandemic settled in, the song’s lyrics took on new life: “Why take aim / because aimless is drifting / and drifting’s easier / easier brings peace / till it lies in pieces / and so we go / into our silence.” 

He recorded the song and his upcoming album at his friend’s studio in Joshua Tree, California. Members of his first band, Eddie Avakian and Jamie Muhoberac played drums and keyboards, respectively; and Ava Nahas, Alex’s sister, was on percussion. This intimate group and the flat, stark, vast landscape of Joshua Tree is infused into “Aimless;” heard in the clarity of production and seen in the album’s cover art — an iPhone picture Nahas himself took on a break from recording. 

“It has a real openness to it, that I probably wouldn’t have gotten writing in my tiny little apartment and recording it there,” Nahas said. “ The songs have patience to them. And, a sort of ease about them. It’s always been my goal to just let the song lead me through it.” 

Aimless” is out Friday, November 11.

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