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Published: 2004/09/30
by Mike Greenhaus

No Teams For Toms: Brothers Past’s Hamilton and McKee

Live, Brothers Past is known to look towards the future, twisting trance and fusion into a series of long, flowing jams. Yet, on their latest release, the Philadelphia-bred band tend to glance backwards, exchanging breezy solos for concise songs and reviving a retro-record format known as the EP. A five-song collection of dark singles and deep cuts, StatEPolice, is short, crisp, and layered with modern rock samples. A dramatic departure from the quartet’s previous effort, the spacey suite A Wonderful Day, StatEPolice owes more to post-Radiohead indie-rock than the Disco Biscuits' patented techno-jams. And, after years of unfair comparisons to their Philadelphia peers, Brothers Past isn't shy about embracing such stylistic changes. Heading past the Rockies for the first time on their cross-country Getaway T.O.R.R, Brothers Past is figuring out new ways to mesh their live repertoire with their new, studio sound. Before the group begins recording their next full-length album (due in stories this February) caught up with Tom Hamilton (guitar) and Tom McKee (keyboards) to get the scoop on their new EP, politics in pop, and why only words will do jam-nation justice.

MG- These days, it’s rare for any band, let alone a predominantly live act, to release an EP.

TH: We're trying to go back to the way people used to record—-putting out albums but also singles. People don't really do that anymore. I thing the EP is a really cool concept. It's basically putting out one side of a record instead of a whole album. It's focused. When we were recording, we had fourteen tunes and we knew we weren't going to put them all on the album. So, we were like, "let's take the two strong single-like songs ("Too Late to Call" and "State Police") and put them on a record with a few tracks we don't think will make the album.

MG- To what extent is StatEPolice a conscious departure from your live sound?

TH: When we play live it's a fucking party. But when we produce a studio album, we try to take our time and craft a piece of art that says something. I am a product of the jam-scene: I have been listening to the Dead and the Allmans since I popped out of my mom. I've lived and breathed this music my whole life. But, recently in this post-Phish world, it seems like jam-music lost what it was supposed to be about. Originally, the jams were secondary. Sure the Dead improvised, but their songs meant something. These days, I feel songs are vehicles for jams, instead of the other way around. The Dead's songs weren't based around throwaway lyrics or someone talking about stupid, asinine stuff. Their lyrics touched people. I remember being like ten and getting the Complete Lyrics of Robert Hunterall the guy's poetry. It was so special. I feel that if we are going to be part of this scene, I want to try and help fix it.

TM: We don't approach working on a song in the studio the way we would if we were performing it live. So, I think it's a natural reaction for us. If certain things work in both mediums we'll use them, but we're not going to force a bunch of sounds to work. I think that approach has really worked out well for us, especially on the new material. We always record more material than we need. Then we go back to mix, edit and mute things.

MG- How much of this material had been road-tested prior to recording?

TH: All the songs except "Too Late to Call" had been well road-tested. We'd been playing them for at least six months, working out all the kinks live. But, a song like "Throw Me Around" sounds completely different live than it does in the studio. Live, it has more of a full-band feel.

TM: With some of the songs we'd been playing live, we didn't necessarily strip them, but we did sort of get back to what they were when we first wrote them. On "Too Late to Call" we took a slightly different arrangement of the song and tweaked that in the studio. "Signs of Life" and "Throw Me Around" don't usually make it into our live repertoire. But in the studio they are really good songs. When we wrote them, we knew they were more in touch with our studio projects. It's never going to be the meat and potatoes of a live set and I think those songs are overlooked by our fans. After a live show, nobody is talking about the "crazy, four-minute Signs of Life' " [laughs].

MG- StatEPolice is definitely a modern-rock record. Do you cite Radiohead as a major songwriting influence?

TH: I don't really think there are many bands alive right now who don’t listen to Radiohead. I consider them to be our generation’s Beatles. Everyone in the band is a fanit’s hard not to be. Instead of looking at something as a journey, those guys are like "well, this is what we are trying to saylet’s just say it." That’s kind of the idea behind the EP. Our last album, A Wonderful Day, was a concept album with a lot less improvising. The idea is to listen to the full record at oncelike Dark Side, though obviously not on that level. So when we were making this record, we wanted to say things in smaller chunks. Instead of making the listener sit through "Any Colour You Like," they just get "Brain Damage."

TM: To be honest with you, I think Radiohead was almost two years ago for us. But, I think we are listening to a lot of music which has been created in a post-Radiohead world. Tommy's been listening to Postal Service, and a lot of guitar driven indie-rock. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of electronic mixes and instrumental musicstuff without lyrics, so nothing seeps into psyche. I feel that if you listen to nothing but Radiohead for a year, you start to write songs that sound a lot like Radiohead.

MG- Releasing an album called StatEPolice a month before election day conjures up any number political connotations.

TH: Everybody is always looking for a political connection these days [laughs]. But any political connection is completely coincidental. We are part of the HeadCount organization, but my music stays clear of any blanket political statement. I say, "let people do their own thing when it comes to politics, man." I don't want to sit there and tell anyone yes or no anything. I tend to write more about everyday life.

MG- Lyrically, what is StatEPolice’s most poignant track?

TH: "Too Late to Call" is my favorite lyrical track on the album. Obviously, it has a personal message to me—-but that's the point. I'm proud of it because I think it's impossible not to get the lyrical message. There is no hidden message and there won't be any kids sitting around their dorm rooms with black lights trying to figure out what I mean [laughs]. I say what I am talking about and then we move on to the next topic.

TM: I like how epic "Throw Me Around" came out. I also like how creepy and jaded "Signs of Life" is. But, for me, I think "Dead Clowns" is still the best track and the one people are gravitating the most towards. There is something really good about how the guitar mixes with the synth melody. It's also one of the shortest songs on the albumthree minutes. There is something cool about that.

MG- How do you respond to the frequent comparisons between Brothers Past and the Disco Biscuits?

TH: It's unbelievably frustrating, without a doubt. I mean, we're all friends with those guys: I play in Electron with Marc [Brownstein] and I play acoustic shows with Aron [Magner]. But, it's definitely frustrating to be pigeonholed. The people who know both of our music, know what the score is. Fine, we play four on the floor,' they play four on the floor.' But they write compositions that I couldn’t in a million years write. On the flip side, I write some songs they could never write. It's a product of our environment. We're both from Philadelphia and grew up in the same scene. But, I really believe with this EP, especially, we are overcoming that stigma.

MG- Do you think this EP will serve as a blueprint of sorts for your forthcoming full-length album?

TM: I think it bridges the gap between where we were and where we will be in a few months. We've also written a few songs which might be included on the new album since we finished the EP. But, if we decide to include any songs from the EP on the full-length album, we can sort of use that as a test. For example, if there is not enough bass or guitar on a track, we can remix it—-ensure it's a better product. So it's a good bridge from A Wonderful Day to where we are going. It's a snapshot of our sound during the summer and fall of 2004.

MG- What’s the current status of Philadelphia’s jamband scene?

TM: There definitely seems that there are more bands playing electronic music, but that's not limited to the jamband scene. I think post 1995 everything started to become a little more Pro Tools oriented. I think there's something going on in music in general. As far as the Philly jamband scene, we see a lot of those bands out on tour, so it's not like we are high-fiving each other at Penn's Landing [laughs]. But, when we cross paths, there is always catching up to do. People sort of think there is this cool, trancefusion clubhouse in Philadelphia, where we all pay our dues and hang out [laughs].

MG- As a band, are you moving away from the jamband scene?

TH: It's a great thing to be a part of and embraced by the jamband scene. But, on the flipside, when some people hear "jamband scene," they cringe. They think granola, they think dreadlocks, and they think thirty-minute guitar solos. But, hay, we have no dreadlocks, not much granola, and the way we improvise isn't about thirty-minute guitar solos. I don't wank off on my guitar for hours on end. Some bands do it well, but that's not what we do. One of the goals of the EP was to say, "Look man, we're a jamband, but we came out with a record based around songs." I'd put this record against almost anything right now. I think it's a solid record that anyone can get into, not just kids who are pissed that Phish broke up or the snobby indie-rock kids. Music doesn't have to be about picking a team and sticking with it.

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