Now based in Los Angeles, Don Breithaupt is a Canadian songwriter, composer, keyboardist and bandleader who has long had a notable impact on the scene here. His group project Monkey House has put out a series of acclaimed albums over the past 25 years, the latest being Left, released on ALMA Records in June.
Don and brother Jeff, a skilled lyricist, have also made a mark in Toronto and New York City as The Breithaupt Brothers, writing classic Songbook-style compositions that they recorded with a star-studded list of vocalists (Ron Sexsmith, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Ian Thomas, Sarah Slean and more) on 2014’s Just Passing Through: The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook Vol. II.
During his recent summer break back in the Great White North, Don took time out for a chat.
Bill King: You're back in Canada. Why?
Don Breithaupt: It's summertime and my wife's a teacher. We usually come up for July. We've been to Montreal and Georgian Bay and all points in between.
B.K: What does she teach?
D.B: Third grade in a hoity toity school in Pacific Palisades. Also here to see family and a few gigs.
B.K: When you say a few gigs what does that mean?
D.B: I've got this band Brass Transit and we are playing a rare four in a row this week.
D.B: No, this time of the year, festivals.
B.K: The rest of the year?
D.B: Living in Los Angeles doing television music, writing with people and always as I go accumulating Monkey House songs that sound like I should do as opposed to somebody else.
B.K: What do you mean by that?
D.B: That project started back when I was working with good old Rich Dodson back in the 90s and I was writing a lot of songs for other peoples projects and occasionally there would be one that had to many chords or sounded to specifically jazzy to pitch to a pop artist and I'd put those aside. That first batch of songs was kind of my thing as opposed to someone else's thing and became the first Monkey House album and that's over twenty years now.
B.K: You attended Berklee College of Music. Did you complete it?
D.B: No! I looked at the school history and Quincy Jones didn't finish, Donald Fagen didn't finish I'm not finishing either. I remember my first week at Berklee and recruiters would come from all of the big bands and raid the first year students. These kids have been in school for one week out of high school - lead trumpeters and they'd end up with Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Toshiko - all those bands.
B.K: If you went there you were already labeled a top "up and coming" jazz musician.
D.B: It's a good thing.
B.K: After returning from Boston how did you get your career going?
D.B: During that period there were so many gigs. I sound like an old timer. Both my kids are in the music business now and there isn't that kind of infrastructure of five and six night gigs that would go on for a couple months at a time and you'd learn tunes, meet people and make the rent doing music. I began by doing gigs within weeks of getting back from Berklee. I started hooking up with people, joining bands and being a knucklehead.
B.K: How did that work out?
D.B: I'm still a knucklehead but more experienced.
B.K: What was your first big success - that entry point?
D.B: You do need an entry point where someone will ask you to pitch on a show and that's what happened. I did a lot work with Anthony Vanderberg and we pitched as a team on a number of things and got a cartoon called "Sixteen," with Nelvana and it went almost a hundred episodes, went into every country in the free world and did very well for us - won an Emmy Award and that was a springboard to the next thing. When you win an Emmy you think there's something good for my tombstone.
B.K: It certifies your success.
D.B: It does, it gives you credibility. When I was getting my papers to move to the U.S. the lawyer said , well, you've got an Emmy that's something they understand here, you're a lock.
B.K: How long have you lived there?
D.B: It will be four years soon.
B.K: Man, did you pick a time for change. Last four years of Obama.
D.B: The last four years of western civilization.
B.K: You watched both conventions?
D.B: This is where I ask if I can crash on your front porch.
B.K: Absolutely, we spruced up a bit, flower pots, chairs, and a gate.
D.B: It's a bit of a mind bender. I live in a dependably blue district in a dependably blue state so it all seems quite abstract to me there is that kind of support for Trump out there.
B.K: The latest Monkey House album, you went knocking on doors for singers; Kim Mitchell, Sass Jordan.
D.B: I have some Steely Dan alumni on there too. I've gradually made friends with people over the years. Kim Mitchell, played in his band for five years.
B.K: You have a serious crush on Steely Dan?
D.B: It's no secret.
B.K: You've written for Alfie Zappacosta, Denzal Sinclaire, Sarah Slean, Patricia O'Callaghan, Wendy Lands. It must feel good.
D.B: It does feel good. I consider myself first and foremost a songwriter. The more covers, more credibility - the more it feels like you are doing something meaningful.
B.K: How long was this recording in the works?
D.B: I drove to L.A. when I moved there over five days. As you know it gets very flat and featureless through the middle part of the USA. I was frantically writing song ideas down on gas receipts, gum wrappers and stuff as I drove and voice memos. By the time I got to L.A. I had what is the basis for this album. They were little fragments that got developed over the next two and three years. With Monkey House I do a record when I've built up ten to twelve songs I think deserve to be on a record. There's no time line other than when I'm happy with the newest batch, I record them.
All of the principal recording was done in Toronto at John Bailey's place Drive Shed, overdubs like horns and things at Phase One. The stuff outside of Canada I will send to an artist doing overdubs and say give some takes. The core part of it felt authentic getting into the studio with the band.
B.K: This is on ALMA Records?
B.K: Did Peter Cardinali mix?
D.B: Yes, with John, who co-produced with me and played bass on a track.
B.K: Do you step away from the mixing?
D.B: No, I'm in there like a dirty shirt. There's always that directing traffic stuff - I'd like to hear more bend on guitar, get out of the way of my little Rhodes thing - just drawing the ears to where it's supposed to go.
B.K: Picking a voice for your projects?
D.B: I don't have the luxury choosing a voice for who covers my tunes, they come to me.
B.K: Your albums.
D.B: On the Breithaupt Brothers albums - the last one two years ago, it's much like casting a movie. You think about who would sound good on this and let's see if they are in, kind of assembling the vocal team. With Monkey House I'm the lead singer and there are other voices in for back up; David Blamires. Lucy Woodward who people know from her Snarky Puppy association is all the female vocals on this one.
B.K: Once done and it's all there, you still have to get airplay. Then what happens?
D.B: You have to alert the faithful there's something new out. There are fans of Monkey House for over twenty years now and I make a big effort to stay in touch; mailing list and social media now. Sort of the equivalent - the day the new record drops people will buy, they've been waiting for it. That gets you on the iTunes chart for about a half hour. We went to #2 in Canada the first day and #9 in U.S. which is the strongest start yet for a Monkey House record. Having the corporate might of Peter's label ALMA and distribution with Universal on our side, publicity and radio tracking.
B.K: It's still difficult selling CDs so in some ways it's a must artist project.
D.B: You have to get it out of your system one way or another.