Rock ’n’ roll has been pretty good to Jake Brennan. His band the Confidence Men won the 2004 Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble, and he’s toured with the Pixies’ Frank Black and the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson.
But rock ’n’ roll has been battered and bruised in the digital age. No one buys records anymore, and it’s grown increasingly tough to make a living with an electric guitar. So Brennan braced himself for a career makeover.
Now he just needed to come up with one.
“If you could hire me to do one job,” he quizzed his wife, “what would it be?”
Without hesitating, she said she’d have him tell the kind of stories he’s always yammering on about at parties — the crazy tales of music-industry misbehavior and mayhem he’s heard and read about as a working musician and a connoisseur of the dark side of the business.
“OK,” Brennan replied. “But that’s not a job.”
So he put the question to his good friend Adam Taylor, an audio engineer who works in event management at Northeastern University. And Taylor said virtually the same thing.
Maybe there was some sort of calling in this, after all.
Back in February, without a lot of fanfare, Brennan dropped the first episode of his new podcast, “Disgraceland.” Borrowing the nickname locals have bestowed upon the longtime Mississippi residence of Jerry Lee Lewis — the incorrigible Rock and Roll Hall of Famer known, perhaps not just figuratively, as “The Killer” — the new podcast combined Brennan’s lifelong infatuation with rock history with the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for crime sagas.
Suddenly, like Tony Soprano on a college tour with his daughter, Brennan had a surprise hit on his hands. Much to his amazement, the first episode of “Disgraceland” — which recounted the disturbing tale of how Jerry Lee may have gotten away with the murders of his fourth and fifth wives – landed in the Top Ten of Apple’s podcast ranking within two days of release.
Brennan, the son of veteran Boston roots-rocker Dennis Brennan, has since sustained the positive energy of that auspicious debut with a whole lot more bad news from the world of rock ’n’ roll. He’s drawn exuberant word-of-mouth recommendations with biweekly episodes on the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, the Norwegian “black metal” murder and church burnings of the 1990s, and the mysterious death of Van Morrison’s guitar player during the singer’s “Astral Weeks” period in Boston in 1968, among others.
He’s been knocked out by the response.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘successful,’ ” says Brennan, the cuffs of his jeans rolled up above his heavy boots as he leans back on a couch in the control room at Somerville’s Q Division Studios. “But I was making music, and I didn’t have a day job. Now, with one podcast, I had more people listen in one week than heard my music in my entire career.”
Unlike podcasts that rely on rambling interviews or stream-of-consciousness diatribes, “Disgraceland” is a scripted, carefully constructed series. Each half-hour episode is crafted to elevate the listener’s sense of suspense, even if you think you already know the circumstances of, say, Sam Cooke’s fatal confrontation with a motel manager.
Brennan prefaces each installment with an instrumental recording, a tongue-in-cheek cover of the country’s top pop song from the week of the incident featured in the episode. He’s been joking that the podcast doesn’t have the money to license the actual song. But with advertisers lining up, he may not be able to sustain that excuse for long.
At Q Division, he’s listening in as Taylor mixes an original song they recorded for an upcoming two-part episode on the murder of John Lennon.
“Are you able to mix with me blabbing in your ear?” Brennan jokes.
Brennan’s mouth has apparently landed him in at least one pot of hot water since the launch. After promoting an episode that would have examined certain lurid rumors about Beck’s involvement with Scientology, the program never appeared. On the “Disgraceland” website, it’s now listed only as “The Lost Episode,” with no other information available.
Asked about it, Brennan smiles.
“It’s in my best interests to not expose myself right now,” he says.
As the first season progresses, the show is veering further from its initial classic rock vibe. Episode six featured the saga of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the late R&B artist who once burned down the mansion she shared with her NFL-star boyfriend. Future episodes will cover the Tupac and Biggie murders and Michael Alig’s infamous slaying of a fellow New York City “Club Kid” in 1996.
“We’re about to get into the deep cuts,” Brennan says.
Ryan Walsh, the Boston-based musician and author of the new book “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” sent Brennan an early chapter from his book for research on the Van Morrison episode.
“Jake’s always been a positive force around the Boston music scene,” Walsh says. “I was glad to help.”
The success of “Disgraceland,” Walsh says, is “indicative of people’s hunger for podcasts, including me. I think it’s because of the intimacy.” Brennan, he says, “delivers the stories like you met a stranger at a bar late at night and he told you a rock ’n’ roll myth you may not have heard.”
Now a suburban homeowner with a 4-year-old, a newborn, and a modest recording space in a former strip-mall massage parlor, Brennan welcomes the partnership proposals that have started landing in his inbox. He imagined he might get offers to do some simple voice-over work — “I thought it’d be Bernie and Phyl calling,” he jokes — but “Disgraceland” has the potential to inspire something much bigger than that.
The timing is right, as the public gobbles up the podcasts “Serial” and “Crimetown” and elaborate Netflix docuseries such as “Making a Murderer” and “Wormwood.” Besides Bernie and Phyl history, Brennan has always loved reading pulp fiction.
“James Ellroy kind of blew my mind,” he says. “People with real reading habits scoff at that stuff.”
But there’s clearly a market for pulp storytelling. With “Disgraceland,” he’s hit upon a winning formula.
“It’s a cool time to be making podcasts,” he says, citing the Spotify series “Mogul” and the country-music podcast “Cocaine & Rhinestones” as like-minded shows he admires. “It’s a cool, creative sandbox of an industry to be in right now.
“In the music industry,” he says, “you don’t have that luxury anymore.”
Some might call that a crime.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.