October 24, 2006

Brothers & Sisters

Austin, Texas' Brothers and Sisters remind me of a lot of great bands: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Whiskeytown, Beachwood Sparks, and even a little bit of the Grateful Dead. But that's not a bad thing; this country-rock collective make some seriously good music. Their debut album is merely the beginning for these folk-loving folk, and we were happy to get the chance to speak to Brother Will Courtney, the mastermind behind the band, shortly after he completed the band's first West Coast tour. His tale is an interesting one, and if you get a chance to see them on tour, I'm sure they'd appreciate it if you'd come and see them live.

How are you doing?

I'm great! We just got back from tour yesterday, so I'm kinda recovering today.

Catching up on your sleep?

Yeah. (Laughs)

How was the tour?

It was great, man! It was our first time going out as a band to the West Coast.

Who did you tour with?

It was just us, doing our own thing, playing with the bands they put us with. It was very low key, a little tour before the record release.

Did you have a good crowd response?

Yeah! (Excited) There were some really good shows, like our show in LA at the Echo; that one went incredibly well.

Was Conrad with you?

No, he's in New York right now; he'll be here in a couple of days, but he's in New York this summer. So he couldn't come out with us.

Do you think people came out to see you because of him? There's been a little bit of a spin that Brothers & Sisters is a side project for Conrad Keely…

(Laughs) I actually had a couple of people say, "Hey, you know, somebody here tonight said Conrad is in the band…where is he?" I haven't really felt that at all, but yeah, it could be the way some kids are feeling, but for the most part, no. It's mainly been people who've heard our stuff on the internet and they'll show up. Some people are surprised Conrad's even in it. He's kind of like our eighth member! (Laughs)

So he's more of an auxiliary member in the band?

Yeah. He was living down the street until a few months ago, so it was really easy. Now he's in New York, but we're going to be touring together, and he'll be playing on all of those shows. Whenever he's in town, he'll play. I hope he doesn't live in New York forever.

I don't want to give the impression that I think of you as a …Trail of Dead side project.

Yeah, we're definitely not. (Laugh)

So, how did the band get together?

I was actually living in LA, and I moved to Austin last year. I wanted to start a band with my sister, and we were going to call it Brother & Sister, because hey, that's what we call each other. But then when I started making the record last summer, I started to realize it was going to take a lot more people, so I put out some Craig's List ads for band members. I found a drummer through there, and it led to the domino effect, and we found our people.

You come from a musical family, and it seems your family was geared towards the Contemporary Christian market…

Well, I'd say more gospel than Contemporary Christian, because my mom has been completely shunned from Christian radio, and she's definitely not what you would consider a Contemporary Christian artist. She leans towards Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim—more dramatic and theatrical kinds of performers. Like, she'll often sing Tom Waits songs in concert.

Wow! That's cool.

Yeah, she's really cool. (Laughs)

So, growing up, was there an idea that you and your sister would be following in your parents' footsteps, making music?

I started singing in boys' choirs and I recorded for children's records when I was a kid. Me and my sister, we listened to the same music. We're two years apart, but we're really close; we've got the same taste in music, so growing up we were always listening to that kind of music, but I was always leaning towards making music. It wasn't until a few years ago that she got interested, and I really insisted that she do a band with me—I almost forced her into it. But I'm glad she chose to do this with me.

Were you in other bands before Brothers & Sisters?

Well, I'd call them more "projects" than bands. In LA, I'd play shows solo, and I was working with a lot of really great musicians. But they were in other, bigger bands, and it was more that we were making demos. I lived in Austin years ago, and I had bands here, but Brothers & Sisters is the most real, most serious band out of anything I've done.

There's obviously a country-rock element to your music. Coming from LA, how much of that LA sound influences what you do?

Yeah, there's definitely the California sound that I'm heavily influenced by. Bands like the Millennium, Association, the Beach Boys—a lot of 60s harmonies bands, like the Byrds, the Band, Neil Young. I'm also into people like Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb. My parents, too--my dad is a songwriter and my mom is a singer, so being raised by musicians, we had access to some really good records and artists growing up.

Are they supportive of the music you make?

Oh, absolutely. They're our number one fans! (Laugh) They've done everything they can to help us out.

I know some parents in the music business or parents who have a higher profile tend to want their kids to avoid the industry. Were your parents of the "Don't go into the music industry!" mindset, or were they much more supportive as you started making music?

I have been warned all my life about how evil this industry is! (Laughs) I've chosen to do it. I've been raised around it, and I'm aware of all the bullshit. I don't put up with it and I try to stay as far away from it as much as I can. We're putting out our record on our own label and trying to do everything we can on our own before we even begin to consider record deals. Certainly we talk to labels about money and the things they have to offer, but they just don't interest me. I'd rather take it on in my own way, to avoid that bullshit.

How has the response been to the band around Austin?

Oh, it's been incredible, man. We sold out our record release party, and there was an hour wait to get in to see it, and it's weird, man. It's all happened really, really quickly. We started playing only last fall, and we've just been fortunate to have really big crowds. I don't know if that's from the bands we are playing with or what, I dunno. They're playing us on the college radio here, and it's been getting a lot of good response.

How many are in the band right now?

There's eight, if you count Conrad, but most of the time it's usually seven.

Is it difficult managing a band of that size?

Going out on this road was kind of a test to see how being out together for over two weeks would work and it wasn't hard at all. I tried my best to get a bunch of people who aren't pretentious egomaniacs, just people who would be honest, laidback, and cool. I feel like people who grew up listening to or appreciating the music we do are probably going to be on that same kind of wavelength. We kind of got a whole bunch of laid-back people, so it was real easy to do and everyone's been easygoing about it, so touring hasn't been too difficult.

You said a moment ago that when you put together this band, you realized that you would need more than just you and your sister, and then you stated that you grew up performing in choirs. So would you say that from an early age you were trained to think that when you write music, you do so for a large ensemble or combination that's more than just your standard guitar/bass/drums arrangement?

Harmonies have always been what I have responded to and worked with all of my life. The first show I went to see was a Beach Boys concert when I was six. Bands like that, those Sixties harmonies-based bands had an influence, and the boys' choir was training for me in hearing all those different parts. So when I'm playing music, I usually hear those harmonies in my head. Lily and I initially were going to do a duet-based sort of thing, but I really love three- and four-part harmonies, so we had to have another band. On the record, a lot of it is me stacking my voice, but now we can sing it all together.

So what's next for you guys?

We're going to do this big tour with Blood Brothers and Trail of Dead. We'll be touring for six weeks across America and into Canada, and then we'll be starting on the new record. We're probably going to tour in February and March. But I've written so many songs lately, I've got three albums ready, so now we've got to start putting it on tape. I'm ready, and we are all very anxious to do that. Unfortunately, I've been sitting on this record for a year and it's just now coming out in October, so it's new to most people outside of this immediate area. So we're going to have to tour it for a little while, but we're definitely ready to start recording.

Would you say that this record that it's a true, full 'band' record, or is it simply an extension of your solo projects, with songs already written and the band simply coming in and fulfilling your needs for the songs?

If you listen to us live, you can see a huge change. We're playing the same songs, but there's definitely more of a band feel to our music now. We hang out together, we practice all the time, we're doing all of these things together, so it's evolved into more of a band than what was on the record. On the album, often times it's just me and a couple of friends playing on it. Now, and for the next album, it's much more of a band. I'd written the songs on this record back in LA, way before I even knew these guys.

If there was a criticism I had, a few times it felt stiff, but it makes sense now, after hearing you describe the background of making it.

Yeah, I agree. I listened to it and I have so many critiques of my own, but then again I did it all in six days! (Laughs) I did it really quickly, and I did everything I could for the money I had and the time I had. I wish I'd had the band to do more on there.

So tell me a little bit about the band.

We've got Dan Wilcox, who plays lead guitar and pedal steel. He's great. He was introduced to me by our drummer, who we met on Craig's List, Greg McArthur. They were friends back in Asheville, so they're a really great team to work with. James Olson is the other guitar player, and he sings with us, and he's the one who introduced us to Conrad. They were friends growing up in Hawaii; they've known each other a long time, and he introduced us to our bass player, Dave Morgan. He's definitely got this McCartney/Rick Danko style that I'm simply crazy about, and I'm glad we have him now. Then there are the girls, my sister and Marie Butcher, and they definitely round out the sound and the harmonies.

Has this new combination done any recording?

We actually cut a song in LA last week, and we've done some radio shows that have turned out pretty well. We've got some live versions of new songs, too. But our first actual recording session together was this past week. And on "Sunday Living" and "One Night," those two songs have most of the band on them; everybody except the bass player is on those songs.

To me, those are the two best songs on the record.

(Excited) I know! Aren't they great? You can definitely feel the energy on them.

Were they written as a band?

No, I'd written those. They were kind of left over, but after we started working on the record I decided at the last minute that we should go back and cut those songs. We learned those songs, we practiced them for a week or so, then we went up and did it.

In the future, will we be seeing any other members taking the lead on singing and songwriting?

James has been singing a little bit, and we've done a couple of his songs, but we're not real sure what will be on this next record. I'd love to hear my sister sing some songs, too. I'm going to encourage her to do that, so we'll see.

Good luck with your tour, have fun out there, and I look forward to hearing more from you guys!

Thanks, man!

Brothers & Sisters' self-titled debut record is out now on I Eat Records.

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