Led by Beck saxophonist David Brown, Brazzaville's exotic, globally minded indie pop was as much a product of Brown's extensive travels as it was the Los Angeles coffeehouse scene from whence most of its members came. Born in L.A., Brown had been a teenage runaway and heroin addict before cleaning up and finding a new lease on life from his love of traveling the world on the cheap. He criss-crossed Europe, South America, and Asia, picking up musical influences from the Far East, Brazil (bossa nova and Tropicalia), Africa, and France (cabaret pop), among others. Eventually, he returned to California, where he studied the saxophone at L.A. City College. There he first met Beck, and was introduced to a community of artists and musicians centered around the Los Feliz/Silver Lake area of L.A. When Beck hit the big time, he tapped Brown as the saxophonist in his touring band, and invited him to play on the Odelay album.
In 1997, during the world tour supporting Odelay, Brown conceived the idea for Brazzaville, taking the name from the capital of the Congo, which in a recent study had been branded with the worst quality of life of any major city in the world. Brown added guitar to his instrumental repertoire (which grew to include piano, trombone, and percussion as well), and when he returned to Los Angeles in 1998, he put together a diverse lineup of musicians -- scenesters and session men -- that reflected his own wide-ranging tastes. Trombonist/saxophonist David Ralicke worked with numerous acts, including Natalie Merchant, Ozomatli, Ben Harper, Macy Gray, and Ziggy Marley, and later joined the L.A.-based Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever. Guitarist/bassist Kenny Lyon, who'd grown up in Zaire and Spain, had performed with alternative bands like the Lemonheads and the Divinyls, as well as singer/songwriters like Mark Curry, Jann Arden, and David Baerwald. Guitarist Smokey Hormel was another Beck regular who also performed and recorded with Cibo Matto, Sam Phillips, John Doe, and Tom Waits, among others. Percussionist Danny Frankel had played with musicians from Victoria Williams to Luscious Jackson to bluesman Ted Hawkins. Pianist Mike Boito was another Beck cohort who'd also played with Ralicke in the ska band Jump With Joey.
Together with turntablist DJ Swamp and several other players, this version of Brazzaville recorded a self-titled debut album and released it on Brown's own South China Sea imprint in 1999. It received favorable reviews of its hybrid of indie pop, lounge jazz, world music, and noir-ish atmosphere, and was most often likened to Tom Waits or Morphine. Later that year, the Engine label picked up the record's distribution rights and reissued it under the title 2002. The follow-up Somnambulista, released in 2001 on South China Sea, welcomed several new members, including Guadalupe-born/Paris-raised percussionist Joel Virgel Vierset (who'd worked with Nina Hagen), bassist Joe Zimmerman, and Latin-influenced trumpeter/accordionist Mick Bolger. Brazzaville's third full-length, Rouge on Pockmarked Cheeks, appeared in 2002 with much the same cast of characters. Afterwards, Brown relocated to Barcelona and assembled an alternate European lineup of Brazzaville, which included guitarist Paco Jordi, keyboardist Richie Alvarez, bassist Brady Arthur Lynch, and drummer Ivan Knight. ~ Steve Huey