Choice Cuts is where we explore the space where music and food commingle. Everybody loves food and music. Both can be a feast for the senses. But how do they intersect? Chefs have been called the new rock stars for years now. Musicians have tuning forks and chefs have, well, forks. Records are pressed on plates and food is served on plates. You get the idea. There have even been studies that prove that music can affect the way people taste food. The Australian novelist Gregory David Roberts wrote “Food is music to the body, music food to the heart.” We couldn’t agree more.
Steve Brown has spent his life mastering the art of timing. As the former drummer of the band The Innocence Mission and the current owner of Lily’s On Main, Brown has held it down behind the drum kit and in the kitchen.
“My life is all about time,” says Brown. “One of the things you have to have a talent for with music, especially drums, and with cooking, is time. You have to be very precise.”
From a young age, Brown found that he had a natural ability for the drums.
“Somehow I always just knew,” he says. “From the time I was in fifth grade I was pounding on my brother’s head and just wanting to play drums. I remember on a field trip to Lancaster Catholic High, we went through the band room and I sat behind the drums and just played. I just knew what to do.”
His interest in cooking came a few years later and happened just as naturally.
“My Dad had absolutely no interest in making meals,” says Brown “His idea [for meals] was TV dinner and pizza burgers. I figured out really quickly that if I watched a couple of cooking shows, he would give me a $100 a week for groceries. I could go buy fresh ingredients and make better food for $60 and pocket $40.”
Brown turned his interest in music and cooking into a lifelong career path. First, as the drummer for the Lancaster-based folk rock band The Innocence Mission, and then, as the owner of Ephrata-based Lily’s on Main – the restaurant/movie theater.
The Innocence Mission found a national audience right off the bat with their eponymous debut album (produced by Larry Klein, who was married to Joni Mitchell at the time). And their song “Bright as Yellow” – from their acclaimed third album, 1995’s Glow – was featured in the 1995 film Empire Records and brought them even more recognition.
The band toured the country for much of the mid-‘80s and ‘90s. And while some musicians turn their time on tour into 24/7 parties, Brown – an avid enthusiast of all things culinary – used his time traveling the U.S. to read cookbooks and magazines, visit restaurants and immerse himself in regional cuisines from all corners of the country, essentially discovering what it was that made up the American palate.
“I added it up one time and we did 20 coast-to-coast tours. Whatever city we were in, I made sure to take the time to go to a restaurant or at least go steal a menu,” Brown says. “Back then we didn’t have the Internet so I couldn’t look up menus online. I had to ask for menus and if they didn’t give me one, I’d find a way to sneak one out.”
After Glow was released, A&M Records dissolved and dropped everyone except Sting and Janet Jackson, and The Innocence Mission found themselves without a label. Brown – who was then working his first head chef job – decided that since his wife was pregnant with their first child, he needed a more stable lifestyle and it was a good time to make an amicable break with the band.
He went on to open Lily’s on Main – named after his first daughter. Just about every day you hear someone say that they’re “living the dream.” It’s a phrase that’s usually served up with a heaping side of sarcasm, but Brown can say that and mean it.
“If there was one perfect job in the world that was created for me, it would be this,” says Brown. “Because I get to do the music, I get to do the cooking, I get to do the concerts and I get to do movies.”
Brown’s wife calls his cooking “American fare with flair,” and it’s a direct product of everything that he saw during his time traveling the country with The Innocence Mission. Traveling the country and sampling regional cuisines continues to be a source of inspiration that provides him with new ideas to incorporate into Lily’s menu.
“I put my own little twist on things,” says Brown. “Just like when you hear a drum pattern like, ‘Hey, that sounds cool when that guy does it, but what can I do to make it my own?'”
For Brown, both music and food are a way of communicating with people. It’s a way to convey emotion and share a common experience.
“Music is communication in a different language,” he says. “Cooking, to me, is that exact same thing. I’m communicating to you in a different language with different senses. It may not be hearing, but the look of the dish, the texture, the taste.”
Some evenings Brown heads into the basement at Lily’s to bang away at the drums, occasionally listening to Buddy Rich to try to comprehend the complexities of swing. He still plays with just about anyone who asks him and has collaborated with his old band The Innocence Mission on occasion.
Typically, Brown doesn’t turn his kitchen into a DJ booth, there’s already enough of a cacophony of cooks banging pots and pans around, but he has some favorite songs when he wants to add a dash of music to the atmosphere.
“I have some hearing loss, and I don’t care what anybody says, it’s not from playing drums. It’s from listening to loud music in kitchens over the years,” he says “You’d be surprised how much noise there is in a kitchen from fans, to vents, to clanging pots and pans and that percussive sound bothers me a lot more than when I go down and bang on the drums at the end of the night. When I walk into the kitchen, the guys always switch it up and put a Rush song on.”
Steve Brown serves up a few Choice Cuts from some of his favorite albums
Losing It – Rush
“I love Rush. I’ve seen them so many times. My daughter Lily has been with me to see my favorite three groups and that’s Rush, Brian Setzer Orchestra and The 1975. “Losing It” from Signals is about a dancer and a writer that are losing their talents as they get older and are having a bit of a hard time with it. The writer is getting writer’s block and the words don’t flow anymore and he’s forgetful, and now that I’m getting older that kind of hits home.”
The Nutcracker Suite – Brian Setzer Orchestra
“I play Brian Setzer’s Christmas music in the restaurant a lot. I’ve seen his Christmas tour three times. I love big band stuff. I think my fascination with what Brian’s doing and the big band stuff is that I’ve always wanted to have that feeling of swing and it’s not something that comes naturally to me.”
Big Swing Face – Buddy Rich
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Buddy Rich and swing music and trying to emulate that to see what that feels like. I can go through the motions, like, my body can do what Buddy Rich’s body can do, but my mind can’t do what his mind did. He had a certain insight into that language that I don’t have and I’m trying to understand.”
Girls – The 1975
“My daughter Lily turned me on to them. When I first heard the album, I was blown away. It’s one of the best debut records I’ve ever heard in my life. She begged me to go see them and we saw them in Philadelphia, Baltimore and then again in Philadelphia. That record is absolutely phenomenal. I’m still not tired of hearing it.”
That Was Another Country – The Innocence Mission
“The songs “Spinning” and “That was Another Country” [from Glow] are two good examples of me playing off of Karen’s vocal melody. The opening part of “That Was Another Country” was the most fun and the most unique thing that ever came out of me. I was listening to the melody and not the rhythm. When she starts singing “rowing out” the drums are meant to sound like [the sounds of] rowing. When you listen to it, I don’t want you to think ‘drums’ I want you to think ‘rowing on a boat.'”
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