Until the age of five, Brandon Lopez grew up in a house on the grounds of the Madonna Cemetery. When his family left Fort Lee, N.J., his father, the cemetery’s superintendent, kept the house as an office. Brandon took a job there when he was 14.
A decade later, he still works at the cemetery – digging graves, cleaning roads, throwing away old flowers.
Sometimes, on a slow day, he plays the organ in the empty church. Brandon is also a musician: in the past year, he’s played the contrabass in as many as twenty different groups. Now he’s cutting back on the gigging to focus on some pieces for guitar and ensemble that he’s been composing over the past four years. This Sunday, his primary band, Tongues, will present them at Manhattan Inn, in Greenpoint.
During a recent morning at the cemetery, Brandon — dressed in a uniform of a dark green shirt with the cemetery’s name tag, and ripped jeans — helped his coworkers move coffins from one part of the mausoleum to a newly opened wing. The cemetery felt almost empty. An old man was visiting his wife, and a mother and her daughter sat in front of a tomb right next to me. “My father is here,” the daughter told me as I moved to the next bench.For Brandon, dealing with the families is one of the most challenging aspects of his job (that, and the physical exhaustion). “It is very difficult for me to connect with a family that is grieving,” he says. “My own view on death makes it very hard to empathize with someone who is crying.”
One of Brandon’s earliest memories is of looking out from his house and seeing a funeral procession going down the street. “I feel fine about death,” he says calmly. “I think it is silly that it is such a negative, emotional thing for people. Death is wonderful. It has to be. It is one of those things that everyone, inevitably, is going to face.” For Brandon, death became routine. “It was like taking the subway every day.”
As we walked around the graves, I read one of the names out loud: “Wunsch.” It means “wish” in German, Brandon explained promptly. He doesn’t speak German, but he has picked up some words from reading composers such as Bach and Beethoven, two of his favorites. “I like baroque and very dynamic music,” he said. “There is a lot of variation in the decibel level: how loud it is and how quiet it can be. How it moved is what attracted me at first. Later on, as my ears developed, I liked harmony, the grouping of notes together. The way you can lead them in certain direction, it just kills me. It is very emotional.”
He studied contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory; though he plays mostly the contrabass, he’s skilled with the guitar and the piano, too. He can’t remember exactly when it was that he decided to be a musician, but he remembers clearly the day when he was in a car on the way to a football practice, and heard a song that made him cry. It was Nirvana.
During his childhood, his mother and father sang songs by Michael Jackson, or his boyhood favorite: “You Are My Sunshine.” His uncles and grandfather were musicians (some of them famous for playing salsa in Puerto Rico, where his family is originally from). “I have a Latin sense of rhythm,” he says.
Derek Baron, the drummer in Tongues, says Brandon’s pieces can’t be put into a genre. “It is a very personal melding of styles,” he insists. “He has a very singular approach to his instrument and to the way he writes songs.”
As they improvise together, Derek can hear Brandon struggle. “It is like torture, but in a positive way. He is fully bodily committed to solve the issues, whatever the issues are. He is one of the most high-energy players that I have seen.”
Brandon hugs his contrabass, playing the instrument with his whole body. His brow furrows, and his hands move frantically up and down the strings, blurring as he grabs the bow and moves it rapidly. When it falls on the floor, he keeps on playing with his fingers. He complains, gasps, sings the notes for himself. He plays furiously, and groans when he doesn’t hit the right note. “Sometimes it hurts when you hear yourself and think: This is not right!”He plays every day, but not nearly as much as he did when he studied at the conservatory. “I was unhealthily obsessed with music,” Brandon tells me with some concern. “That was all I thought about. It led to a pretty negative experience. Personal relationships were dissolved because I was so transfixed on a goal.”
During the two years after he started school, Brandon stopped seeing most of his friends, broke up with a couple of girlfriends, and his family life was strained. The more music, the less social interaction. “I was a bit misanthropic,” he says. Now he’s out of that phase, and he’s achieving his goal of coming to New York, playing the bass as competently as possible, and composing his music. “It takes a lot of time, and there is a lot of pain involved.”
At the end of the afternoon, Brandon stands in an open grave. He waits for the truck to bring more soil so he can finish covering the coffin and call it a day. On our way back to the train, exhausted from a long day’s work, he buys a scratch-and-win lottery ticket. No luck. “You see? Sometimes, life is sad,” he jokes.
He heads back home, where another struggle begins.
Below: Brandon Lopez plays bass with The Courtesy Gang Trio