Nicholas Braun has been kind of busy lately with his day job as the easily-flustered Cousin Greg on Succession. But when COVID-19 hit, the 32-year-old actor — who just scored his first Emmy nomination for his role in the HBO dynastic drama on Tuesday (July 28) — was thinking maybe now was a good time to dive into the music career that had been bubbling on the back burner for years.
A lifelong singer, Braun has been writing and recording songs with his brother Christopher for years, with tracks clogging up his hard drive. And then the pandemic hit and he started hearing weird terms like “virus,” “testing” and “contact tracing” all over the place and the word salad kind of felt punk rock to him.
“The word ‘antibodies’ popped up and it was straight out of a science fiction movie,” he tells Billboard about the title of his just-released Atlantic Records debut single, “Antibodies (Do You Have The).”
Braun came up with a what felt like a super-catchy chorus, “Do you have the antibodies/ Do you want to be with me?/ Do you have the antibodies/ Cuz if you don’t you better stay away!” and on May 7, crowdsourced his idea by asking his 109,000 Instagram followers to take a shot at recording the track. Pretty soon, he had more than 100 responses and felt confident that he was on to something.
The song, an homage to his beloved late-’90s teen heyday soundtrack (Blink-182, Sum 41, P.O.D.), mixes a banging beat, growling guitars and a snarly vocal delivery with hilarious lyrics about pre-hookup testing, making sure his partner has clean blood and warning a potential lover to not come within six feet unless she has a mask on. But if she’s rocking those antibodies, it’s “pants off, pants off, pants off.” Even the single’s artwork is a throwback to the DIY look of old-school punk graphics.
Billboard spoke with Braun (and his Atlantic Records A&R team) about his earworm COVID chorus, shooting a low-budget, pandemic-safe video and his planned upcoming charitable EP with all-star covers of his unlikely corona-anthem. (This interview took place ahead of the Emmy nominations.)
What inspired you to even try to do this song?
Nicholas Braun: I just had four lines of the chorus and thought if I could make it punky and have romantic elements to it… I was single then and there was a girl I was talking to and wanted to go on a date with, but I felt like, “Is that responsible, maybe I shouldn’t do that?” But it had this romantic component tot it and I thought other people must be feeling this, but I’m not even sure if I can hug or touch or go on a date and sit with this person.
Were you surprised by the reaction? How many people sent you ideas?
Braun: Yeah, definitely, because I was feeling pretty isolated and I was staying at a friend’s back house in Los Angeles, not seeing many people — and then all of a sudden to get all these versions from people — it very quickly showed me that everybody else was going crazy, too. They immediately went to their guitars and keyboards and synths to make cool stuff, so I realized there are a lot of people out there feeling wonky, too.
How did Atlantic Records get involved?
Ian Hunter (Atlantic Records A&R): I was sitting in bed on a Sunday morning scrolling through Instagram (very hungover) and my buddy sent the video of Nick making the call to the wild about the song idea he had created. I watched it about 100 times and I couldn’t stop laughing. I just decided to DM him and said, “Hey man – I don’t know where you live but I’m an A&R at Atlantic – I think you wrote a hit song. If you’re up for it, I have a studio at my house and I could get a top rock producer [Collin Brittan] and my engineer [Tylor Bondar] and we could try to make a real record out of this – and if it goes well, we could put it out on Atlantic.”
He called me 10 minutes later, and he was at my house the next day. This was the absolute most fun I’ve had in quarantine. I’ve never done anything like this in my career – we were completely starting from scratch. Nick is an incredibly creative guy and also super down to earth.
Derek Davies (Atlantic Records A&R): When Ian first brought the song to me it was a no brainer — beyond drawing inspiration from all the same early ’00s punk/emo touchstones I was raised on, it’s an exceptional song for an exceptional cause.
And while there’s obviously this brilliant comedic tilt to it, it’s genuinely incredible songwriting. From the moment that first chorus hits, it’s just one 10 out of 10 hook after another, built around the very question that’s been asked more than any other these past few months: “Do you have the antibodies?” You know that running joke about A&Rs always asking for “hit songs with a universal chorus”… well, in 2020 it doesn’t get much more universal than that.
Where did you shoot the video, and what were the challenges of filming it during the COVID lockdown?
Braun: The challenge is you can’t shoot in any professional way, so in mid-June there was no way to get more than a friend to help me out. I have this one buddy who doesn’t have a family or kids, so it wouldn’t threaten anyone if we gave it to each other, but we were also hanging out and knew we had to be responsible.
We shot it on my iPhone and with a tripod. We found this part of the L.A. River that was weird and overgrown and old and cement-y and had this aesthetic like this Instagram account I follow called Catatonic Youths, which posts the best homemade emo videos. I tried to find a location and vibe that felt like the stuff I grew up on in the late ’90s — Blink-182, Sum 41, P.O.D. Papa Roach, Yellowcard. The best thing is the song was very homemade and the Instagram videos were all people setting up their phones and shooting at home, so for me to a shoot video with a big budget wouldn’t have made sense.
I’m not a doctor, but based on your lyrics, just because you have the antibodies doesn’t mean you should drop trou, right?
Braun: No, it needs a full disclaimer. Put that disclaimer out there now.
Tell me about how your dad — who is well-known for his iconic album cover designs for the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones — inspired this song.
Braun: He did. He’s 81 and he had COVID in March and was really sick for a month. He’s doing better now and he’s made a recovery and has no longterm damage to his lungs, but he got wrecked by it. I also knew a few people who passed away in the early days. It was hard because I was in L.A. and he was in N.Y., so even if I flew back I couldn’t be in the hospital and see him. It was a really hard few weeks at the beginning of this thing It was really hard few weeks at the beginning of this thing, so I’ve definitely had some personal experience with it.
What were you hoping would happen when you put it out there and how many responses did you get?
Braun: I was hoping that people would think, “Oh, Nick looks like he’s losing his mind and coming up with weird stuff.” But I didn’t expect it to be the thing it was. I was kind of throwing it out there in a way to gauge where people were at. It felt like people wanted to make some music because they were sending out all these versions, I probably got 100-150. That inspired the next step and the next step.
What’s funny is that most of the fan-submitted ones were kind of folky, not nearly as rocking as your final version.
Braun: Playing an acoustic guitar sitting on your bed and slowing it down felt really right. Those lyrics — “do you want to be with me?” — are really the most direct way of saying you want to be with someone. There’s obviously a comedic element, but it’s also a real longing people were tapping into.
I love that you got producer Colin Brittain (Papa Roach) to help you complete your TRL fantasy by giving the song that perfect Papa Roach, Nü-metal vibe.
Braun: This A&R rep from Atlantic, Ian [Hunter] DM’d me and said, “Hey man, I know it’s a bit of a joke and it’s funny, but the bridge and second verse are really catchy and I can’t get it out of my head. Do you want to make the song?” I thought to myself, “is this too crazy? To go from an Instagram video to going into the studio and making the song? That could turn out really badly.”
So I said, “Let’s just try making it,” and he had a few people he thought might want to do it. I said it should be someone in the punk rock realm and he said, “I got the guy for you.” I met Colin and we hit it off right away and he understood exactly what I wanted to do. It all happened in a blur of a week… and Atlantic were like, “We’re in.”
Did you really get an antibody test just for the video?
Braun: Yeah. That’s me getting the antibody test and nasal swab test. I didn’t think about filming it until I was in the room. I thought, “This is pretty unique,” because every day we’re talking about antibodies, so maybe this is useful.
Hmm, is this all just a big ruse to get a test?
Braun: Yeah, that’s it. I started showing up at urgent care and said, “Please get me a test.”
How did you get Mark Ronson involved working on his own version?
Braun: Mark has been a buddy for a while, we met last year. We didn’t make music together, but we became friends and as I was going through this process he was a good sounding board, “what do you think about this?” He’s been fun to have as an ally in making music and obviously he’s a legend.
And your plan is to release an EP with a bunch of different versions from other artists that will be released later this year?
Braun: Yeah, the hope is to have a bunch of different versions in different genres from people who can also give a cut of their royalties to the charities of their choice. My goal is to have four or five versions that are different sonically and really special and also to help raise money for different demographics and fan bases. Mark is cooking up a version and we’re reaching out to other bands to see what they can do.
And you have designated two charities to send your proceeds to, right? Tell me about them.
Braun: One is Partners in Health, and the other is COPE. I was looking for charities that deal with healthcare and with people who are having trouble accessing good healthcare during a time when we are in potential danger. Partners in Health is more global, dealing in communities that get struck hard by something, but also offering more longterm helping to underserved communities to help get them health care during COVID. COPE is more specific to the Navajo Nation, which has been the hardest hit with the highest death rate of COVID.
Davies: With so many of our planned 2020 releases constantly being delayed or rescheduled, “Antibodies” was this great opportunity to really sink our teeth into something that was timely and of the moment, something we all knew had to come out now and had an opportunity to not only really resonate with people, but bring some much-needed levity into their lives, and do so while drawing attention to and raising money for a great cause.
Listen to “Antibodies” below.