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Looking Back at Pink Reason’s ‘Cleaning the Mirror’, a Bona Fide Downer Classic

With its 10-year anniversary nearing we chat to Kevin DeBroux about one of the rawest and honest expressions of punk ever.
July 15, 2016, 1:29am

In 2009 Pink Reason’s debut album Cleaning the Mirror was continuing to receive glowing praise two years after its release on venerable indie label Siltbreeze. Described by critics as raw, honest and emotionally cold, the six-songs offered stark insight into the world of Kevin DeBroux, a young punk from rural Wisconsin, whose drug fuelled and chaotic past was becoming legend.

Outsider music in the truest sense, the lo-fi aesthetic, acoustic guitars, echoey reverb, busted percussion and DeBroux’s despondent and haunting lyrics were beautifully sad. This was folk music for solvent abusers and rough sleepers.

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DeBroux, is now a father and husband living in Columbus, Ohio, but when I spoke to him back then he was readying for an Australian tour and his lifestyle seemed as itinerant and turbid as his record.

“My reaction to hearing the album for the first time, was the same that I had listening to it today”, says Dan Stewart who helped organise the Australian tour. “The songs have retained a rare quality of intimacy, buried within dense narcotic fog. They are pure and direct and full of feeling."

Tom Lax from Siltbreeze tells me that he was immediately intrigued on hearing the album. “It sounded like some post Velvets German downer rock from the early 80s. Like 39 Clocks or the Painless Dirties but he was channeling influences from Ukranian punk and folk, music from his teens, and different scenes. It made for a most unique and singular album, in fact I would call it seminal."

Matt Kennedy, whose band Kitchen’s Floor played with Pink Reason on the Australian, tour says Cleaning the Mirror mined the depths of depression and futility like no other record. “It has its own sort of unique sonic language that's hard to describe in words and not everyone is going to understand it, but there's a lot of anti-social solidarity there among those who do. It's a broken masterpiece of art made by and for broken people and it has a timeless quality to it.”

As we closer to the 10-year anniversary of Cleaning ther Mirror I go in touch again with Kevin.

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Noisey: How different are you from when I spoke to you in 2009?
Kevin DeBroux: My circumstances are pretty different.Then I was strung out and playing "rock" music in New York City. Now I'm a married father. I don't abuse hard drugs, and my focus has moved to djing, playing synths and throwing all night dance parties. I generally avoid guitars whenever possible.

You’d released a few singles before Cleaning the Mirror. When did you realise that this record stood out as something special?
Cleaning the Mirror existed for quite some time before it ever saw release. It was initially supposed to be the final PR record, and to be frank, it was to be my last anything, as I was really serious about just wanting to get that album out before I died, which I saw as imminent, inevitable and welcome. It sounds really silly and over-dramatic to admit now, but I was completely sincere about that at the time. Achieving some recognition for my "art" very dramatically changed my life in a way that's difficult to explain.

The idea was to release this record, die and then achieve some sort of slow burning underground notoriety. I’d told myself that people would "get" the record in about 20 years which is funny since it was immediately well received well, on a modest, but really, for me, a pretty awesome scale.

What’s it like listening to it now?
I don't often listen to it these days. When I do I feel critical of the recording quality, as well as some of my playing and singing at times. At the time I was recording those songs, I recognized that the flaws were an important part of the music and that it was "honest" music, but I'm kind of passed that now. Sometimes I wish I could re-record some of the material, but I know that's sacrilege. I also find the album to be kind of depressing. There is a kind of nostalgia to it, but it's not a positive nostalgia, it makes me sad and transports me back to a place that I'm glad to have escaped from, even if I still love and miss the people I shared that time and those experiences with.

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It sounds such a lonely record. Like it was meant to be listened to alone.
It's definitely a party killer.

I love “Dead End”. The sounds of chains and your vocals make it a beautifully sad song.
The chains are actually my mother's wind chimes with a bunch of reverb thrown on top. The percussion was one of those cylindrical boxes of Quaker Oats and a snare drum. That song was about the strained relationship I had at the time with my oldest friend. I'm happy to say that things are much better between us these days, though we don't see each other but once every few years. Incidentally, the track “New Violence” was also written in tribute to him.

Do you have an album favourite?
“Up The Sleeve” and “Storming Heaven” were both songs I felt very good about when they were recorded. “Motherfucker” is probably my favorite song off the record, though I don't like the recording at all.

Listening back I can hear even more Jim Reid/Jesus and Mary Chain, Royal Trux, Jim Shepard than I remembered. I know everyone at the time was referencing Jandek.
I was a big fan of both Jesus and Mary Chain and Royal Trux. The influence of Royal Trux was more abstract. Obviously I don't have the chops of Haggerty. I wasn't aware of Jim Shepard until people started comparing my work to his but he became one of the biggest influences on the project. I can’t listen to much Shepard these days. His music has become tainted because of relationships I've developed with some of his friends/collaborators. I'm sure that would not make them very happy to hear, but it's simply the truth.

How accurate was your reputation at the time? The idea of you as a rejected, genius living in a car and strung out on meth. Do you think this kind of stuff helped fuel the myth or intrigue?
I can't vouch for the "genius" bit but the rest is wholly accurate. I absolutely consciously exploited that to my advantage. I took inspiration from Wu-Tang Clan and I considered the project alchemical magic. I wanted to immortalize myself and my friends, who were marginalized and voiceless. That is one of the things I am most proud of having accomplished and I think that as important as my music may be for some people that an equally important part of the legacy of Pink Reason is the push I gave the people around me.

The album was released when music blogs were hitting their peak. Tom Lax and Scott Soriano from SS Records were important in getting the word out but what about music nerds with WordPress?
I consider myself privileged to have gotten some exposure at the time that I did. Things like blogs and Myspace were essential in developing a touring network in the US. It's not necessarily something I'm proud of, or wish to be remembered for, but there was a brief window after the old traditional networks and methods kind of ceased being relevant and the total co-option of underground rock music where I was able to exploit these newly developing infrastructure for my own gain.

How was the Australian tour? You got to hang with Brendan from Negative Guest List.
I was brought over by James Vinciguerra and DX [Dan Stewart] for a festival. We had a bunch of friends from Australia already after playing with most good Australian bands that made it to the US back then. Brendan [Annersley] and I were also friends and fans of each other's work. Hanging with him was a highlight of that tour, and my life as a whole. Got some good stories from the time we spent together.