Norwegian black metal murderers, bloodthirsty cannibal rappers, a meth-loving funk paranoiac, the most debauched band in hard rock history and a soul superfreak whose actual epitaph might as well have been “cocaine is a helluva drug” — those and many more stories have been told on Jake Brennan’s ripped-from-the-headlines podcast Disgraceland, a true crime serial that focuses on some of the most outrageous, felonious, bloody stories in music history, including last year’s profiles of Mayhem and Barzum, Big Lurch, James Brown, Mötley Crüe and Rick James.
Brennan, who recently announced a partnership with iHeartMedia to bring two more seasons of Disgraceland to the iHeartPodcast network, is kicking off season 3 on Thursday (March 14) with a two-episode story on late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain and wife Courtney Love.
“What hooks me is partly responsible for why people like [the podcast]. … I need a hook I can bite into that will keep me interested,” Brennan, 44, tells Billboard about his unique way of re-creating the sometimes oft-told stories of rock ‘n’ roll trangression. The upcoming season will feature more of Brennan’s purposely cheesy pre-programmed Mellotron beats instead of snippets of actual chart-topping hits and the host’s often profane, no-holds-barred delivery, which aims to capture the sweaty, drug-fueled, frantic excesses of our most beloved and bedeviled music stars.
“I know the made-for-TV versions [of these stories] like the back of my hand, but with any story, if you look a bit deeper or read between the lines you can find the story behind the story,” he says, pointing to last year’s recounting of the Tupac vs. Biggie East Coast/West Coast feud, which he reframed by looking at the media’s culpability in whipping up the rivalry narritive between the two legendary rappers in the year before their respective murders. “That was a way to tell the story that was interesting to me and provided a new way to frame it up.”
Brennan, who grew up around the music industry as the son of Boston roots rock player Dennis Brennan and played in a series of his own punk and Americana bands, stumbled into podcasting after his playing days dried up and he quickly burned out on an advertising/branding agency gig. “I knew I wanted to do something in audio and somehow make a living, so I decided I wanted to do a podcast and I knew I wanted to do something with music,” says Brennan, who found quick success last year mixing his lifelong love of true crime novels and music, a combo he was confident would help him stand out in the increasingly crowded pod space.
“I think I’m assisted by the medium and the format, which forced me to tell the story differently,” he says of the 30-ish-minute length of most episodes, which mixes concision, precision and a streetwise, knowing voice that he swears just kind of happened. “In my head when I’m writing, the voice I often hear is Wil Wheaton telling the pie-eating story in [Stephen King’s] The Body [which was made into the beloved 1986 Rob Reiner movie Stand By Me]. One thing I have going for me is that there are not a lot of single-voice, narrative storytelling podcasts [amid] all the ones with a lot of commentary, or true crime shows with two or three people trading facts.”
Instead, his shows feature just his voice, strong audio design and enough murder, mayhem and maniacal behavior to keep you on the edge of your seat even if he’s retelling a story you might know (Marvin Gaye’s murder at the hands of his own father) or have likely never heard (country singer Spade Cooley’s jealous, murderous mean streak).
Call him what you want, but Brennan is very admant that one thing he is not is a journalist. Instead, he’s a voracious reader and watcher who combs over countless biographies, autobiographies, biopics, documentaries and magazine articles in compiling the episodes he mostly writes on his own from his myriad sources. Each episode is broken into what he describes as “five blocks,” the first one being his patented introduction with the Mellotron loop and the other four parts marked by “one signature super-dramatic event per block” that he uses to propel the story, unconcerned with chronological order or linear structure in favor of creating a more “cinematic” tone.
That leads him to some personal discoveries, such as the one he stumbled on while researching an upcoming episode on Amy Winehouse. Aware that the tragic British soul star was considered a peerless singer, Brennan rediscovered how deliberate Winehouse was in her vocal choices during a career marked as much by chaos, public meltdowns and drama as it was by stunning songs and performances. That’s why you might find out more than you knew about Amy’s favorite night, Trash, at a late ’90s/early 2000s Camden club called The End, where Winehouse went to see shows and soak in the electro/post-punk British debuts of bands including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem.
Similarly, in the two-part season 3 opener, Brennan zeroes in on the utter hopelessness and brokenness of Cobain’s home life and how that chaos led to a bruised heart that could never be healed. “There was just no hope, even in fame; he didn’t have a home or anywhere to go,” he says. “And with Courtney, I thought I would hate her, and in a lot of ways she enabled him, but also took care of him and did care for him and I believe that more than the nutty stuff out there.” Each episode takes about a week of writing and another of production — including a new original song for each show — following, of course, many hours of research and digging around to find fresh takes.
“I was a pain-in-the-ass juvenile delinquent who was grounded all the time and spent all my time locked in my room with my stereo and cassettes,” says Brennan, who adds that his mother’s only other way of punishing him was to take his music away. “So I was left with books and magazines, and the book I was reading when I decided to do the podcast was Legs McNeil’s [punk oral history] Please Kill Me. That was the seed for Disgraceland, just realizing how many of my favorite artists are total fucking animals.”
New biweekly Disgraceland episodes will be released on Tuesdays starting March 26 with a show on Snoop Dogg, with the iHeart partnership also offering up two more original shows: a serialized 10-episode deep dive into the creative genius/madness of producer Phil Spector, Rocka Rolla, and The 27 Club, a look at the legendary list of rock stars who’ve died at that critical age, including Cobain and Winehouse.
“[The iHeart deal] allows me mainly human resources to expand and grow and hire a few additional writers and a full-time audio engineer and expand the Disgraceland universe of shows,” Brennan says. “Instead of just riding Disgraceland into the sunset — there are only so many of these stories to go around that are actually true crime and music — this is a way for me to stay in the same universe and still talk about musicians and scandal.” The Spector show is due out later this year, along with another 10-episode run of Disgraceland, with the 27 Club series slated for early 2020.
Check out the first episode of season 3 below.