Brothers Past, the indie-electronic quartet from Philadelphia, is a forward thinking breath of fresh air in a scene full of invariable acts. They weave the strongest of songwriting skills with hallucinatory exploration; giving the audience a danceable chimera of musical refreshment. Live they can launch into the darkest corners of the imagination at one point, and then have the whole room dancing at another. Throw on headphones and wrap your mind around their albums and chances are you'll find new sounds that you like and/or hadn't noticed the past 50 times that you've listened. Their work is complex yet straightforward, telling soulful stories of life's tribulations and what comes after. At the center of their universe is respectable songwriting craftsmanship, and balance is what solidifies them as a rare breed that can put on a mind-bending live show AND have the ability to make timeless records.
Having taken some necessary time off, 2009 has officially brought the four back together on stage again. Now with some shows under their belt and on the verge of completing a brand new album, bassist Clay Parnell, guitarist Tom Hamilton, keyboard operator Tom McKee, and drummer Rick Lowenberg take a break to answer some questions.
What initially set the reunion in motion?
Clay Parnell: Basically, I had been invited to sit in with a band at a party at our friend Morgan's house. I knew that Tom McKee had planned on stopping by there and also knew that Rick and Tommy were more or less around. I thought it might be fun to try to lure everyone there and see if maybe, just maybe I could get all of us on stage together... somehow (with a little help from our friends) we were able to get us all up there for an impromptu mini-set. It had been over a year since Tom, Tommy and I had played together and much longer since Rick had played with us. My only real intention at the time was to do something fun and unexpected; I didn't really realize what I was setting in motion but am glad that it happened.
Tom Hamilton: I thought it would be funny to reunite at some BBQ in West Chester, PA where no one would know. So I put my guitar in the car and drove over.
Tom McKee: It was kind of strange to see this all going down in someone's backyard, but anyway we kind of got coaxed into playing a few songs and the jams were actually really good considering we were playing on gear that wasn't ours. But what made it really crazy was that the set was being broadcast online in real time and no one had told us that. I knew something was up after the set when I looked at my phone and had something like 10 text messages and 5 missed calls. But it was a good little mini set and kind of got the four of us talking about playing music again. We all live in the same neighborhood in Philly and it's just been kind of fun to hang out and be friends again. Making music with friends is definitely more rewarding than making music.
You are looking and sounding more comfortable up on stage, what has helped the most?
Hamilton: I guess just time. More shows.
Parnell: Rehearsal is very important but the only way to actually improve (for the most part) is in front of an audience.
Hamilton: At first I think we were just trying to get our feet back under us and now I feel like we are doing some really interesting things. Definitely moving forward with new tricks and sounds.
Rick Lowenberg: Everyone has spent some time exploring their musical potential outside of the confines of Brothers Past. Tommy's been honing his songwriting and production skills with his band, American Babies, but he's also remained connected to electronic music, playing in Younger Brother. Clay's in a serious touring band with Johnny Rabb. Obviously, Johnny is absolutely world-class. Tom is the musical director at the School of Rock in Downingtown, and has spent a lot of time expanding his skills as an instrumentalist. I've been playing in a soul/RnB band called Natural Selection. Although I play guitar in the band, I've been able to perform and learn from some of the best jazz and soul musicians in Philly. Everyone has brought their musical experiences to the table, and it shows in the playing. We were road warriors there for a little while; we were more or less constantly on the road for about 6 years. While the focus of the band is to combine great songwriting with electronic/dance music, the live set has always been heavily improvised. Lots of the bands who play electronica don't really rely on spontaneity. When we launch into an improvised section, we really don't know where it will go. We take chances (and occasionally succeed). We don't know what tempo or feel we'll wind up playing, or even sometimes, the key. To fly by the seat of the pants like that every night is mentally and creatively taxing. In that sense, it's much easier to be playing only a few shows a month, rather than 15 or 20.
What show from this year are you most proud of?
McKee: I don't think we've played our best yet since we've come back but I'm proud of all the shows we play. We're taking chances every night and some of the stuff works and some of it doesn't. We've made a lot of little changes to our gear and we're all getting used to that. But it's definitely starting to get more consistent, and the creativity is still there, so I think the shows this fall are going to be some of the best music we've ever made together.
Lowenberg: We played some KILLIN' stuff at the Church in Acme. One section was really great, I think going into "Astphadel." Tommy was on the laptop and guitar. It was the perfect balance between playing in our distinctive style, while still playing in a way that is informed and influenced by electronic music, particularly late 90s/early 00s drum n bass. Tommy's been honing a skill where he uses loops and whatnot, but programs them and actually improvises with them on the fly. I know some djs do that live, Squarepusher for example, but BP is the only live band I'm aware of that does anything like that.
Hamilton: I think the Hampton show in March was the breakthrough for us. We remembered how to relax at that show and since then I think we've been pretty consistent.
Parnell: I really liked the show at the School of Rock (where Tom is the music
director and I have taught) in Downingtown PA. It was great because it was an all ages show with the SOR house band opening and there was no bar or anything like that. It seemed more about the music and the vibe there was incredible. We announced it only a few days out as sort of a surprise, last-minute thing and were really psyched to basically fill the room with little to no promotion.
After the unfortunate shutdown of The Projekt Festival, you guys played a makeup show in Baltimore, I'm sure many fans were thankful…
Hamilton: Well, when we found out it was getting shut down we just felt awful. I mean, those poor people shelled out their hard earned cash for a weekend getaway and were getting shafted because some "promoter" couldn't cross his 't's and dot his 'i's. When we got the call from the venue in Baltimore to try and salvage something for the fans that were still around we jumped at the chance. It was the least we could do.
Your camp [Camp Bisco] set was very good… it's factual to say you made some new fans that day. To quote one ex-nonbeliever: "…this sounds fucking incredible." What did you think of your set/camp overall?
McKee: Great set, great weekend altogether. We had Johnny Rabb sit in and Johnny is just a sexy bitch. The guy kills it on the drums and it's always just a great hang with him. Camp in general is just a great hang. We know most of the bands involved at this point and have played with a lot of them. So it's a chance to connect. I wanted to go out and send a message to all of the people there that BP was back and I think we did that. Now I'm looking forward to finishing the new record and playing some shows this fall.