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New Groove

Published: 2002/07/24
by Jesse Jarnow

Brothers Past

Tommy Hamilton must be in paradise. The Brothers Past guitarist is in sunny,
edenic Florida, sitting in an air conditioned van, on his first real tour
with his band, and he’s rightfully happy. " A bunch of kids came on tour
with us, which is the coolest thing I’ve heard. They’re having a blast.
We’re having a blast. We can be playing to an empty room and we won’t care,
‘cause we’re in Florida and our music brought us here, so who cares?" He
pauses and ponders. "Well, the test will be, like, Tuesday night in
Florida." I can’t imagine it’d matter, though. Like Tommy said, they’re
giddy.
Which is sort of odd, I suppose. Brothers Past are one of the darker bands
this scene has produced, lagging only slightly behind Lake Trout in the
gloom factor. Hamilton himself describes his band’s recently completed
concept album, A Wonderful Day, with phrases like "paranoia",
"uncertainty", and "frustration". On some level, it’s a contradiction.
Brothers Past are predominantly a live band, and the music they produce
certainly isn’t the kind that makes one wanna gaze glumly at his boots. It’s
more upbeat than that, for sure. It’s still dancing music of the live
electronic kind that we’ve seen plenty of in recent years. So what makes it
depressing?
Well, some of the songs are. The title track – with swirling washes below a
gentle, almost Smashing Pumpkins-like vocal – plods slowly and is one
tentative step (for both the singer and the band) from a melancholy majesty.
"The Ceiling" begins in much the same vein before Rick Lowenberg’s drums
kick in, and we are clearly in the domain of a live band. Like other bands – the Disco Biscuits, Lake Trout, and others – they deal in loops. Where the
Biscuits are elegant in their repetitiveness and Lake Trout resigned to
their fate, the Brothers Past come on like a rising panic attack. I’m not
sure if the music is designed like this or not, but there’s a sharp edge in
the band’s tones that seems to scrape the edge of comfort. I don’t always
enjoy the sensation it produces, but it’s a definite vibe.
And it’s a concept album. "It’s about night, it’s about sleeping, it’s about
insomnia, it’s about the uncertainties of what happens when you can’t sleep
and your mind starts racing, the paranoia that sets in, or just the flat out
frustration of not being able to sleep," says Hamilton. "We took some of the
songs we already had and figured out what the common theme was, and then
developed it a little more, and a little more, and wrote four more songs
specifically for the record. That’s basically what makes it deliberate. We
were going in with a definite concept of music and lyrics and art.
Everything’s gonna have to do with this one concept that we wanted to
convey."
Brothers Past try really, really hard, and you can’t really fault them for
that. Even if I don’t dig on everything they do, I’m glad they’re doing it,
‘cause it’s nice to see bands put some kinda effort into their broader
aesthetic. One of the primary problems with this scene, I think, is that so
much of it has become too lackadaisical. There’s a lot to be said for
earnest, down-to-earth musicianship, and that’s cool, but there’s lot more
to be said for a band that wants to make Art-with-a-capital-A. Now, a lot of
what’s to be said about that might involve bloody insults, unintelligible
cackles, and the like, but there’s room in whatever’s leftover to speak of
intelligent, good music.
The Philadelphia quartet’s Elements, released earlier this year, was
a concept album too, at least in the sense that it had a game plan: the band
recorded a three set show live in the studio. They sliced and diced it in
the post-production, tweaking it, adding echoes here and there. The final
product, with its ponderous, weighty, cosmic musing was a little
heavy-handed at times, but always ambitious. A Wonderful Day – recorded just as Elements was seeing the light of day – pushes the
concept a little further into the realm of the personal.
"I listen to a lot of Beatles and Springsteen and stuff like that and some
indie rock," Hamilton says. "The common theme among that is that it’s just
straight from these people’s hearts. It’s the most honest music you could
ever hear. It’s 100 percent that person, what they want to express, and what
they’re feeling at the time." For all of that, intimacy (at least in that
personal sense of the word) is an awfully hard thing to achieve in a
four-man improvisation. There are times in their jamming where Brothers Past
music feels absolutely lonely, something about the disconnectedness of some
of Hamilton’s screeching guitar washes or keyboardist Tom McKee’s subliminal
texturing.
I’ll dance for a while, wondering what compelled me to do it in the first
place. It’s dancing to ward off fear, I suppose — which, if you happen to
look at like that – is really the subtext for a lot of art: it is some kind
of existential space-filler. And I think that’s sort of how I feel about
Brothers Past sometimes. That’s not meant as an insult. They’ve successfully
produced the vibe they want to produce — unfortunately it’s a vibe that
happens to push me away sometimes instead of drawing me closer. But, in
strange moments, it suddenly pulls me in, and their depression is
momentarily mine (or mine their’s). When that happens – as it does in
varying places on A Wonderful Day – I am suddenly oddly reassured,
maybe even momentarily redeemed.
"Life is hard," Hamilton says. "It causes all these things. It’s what
happens. It’s not like we’re trying to be a depressing band. I have this
recurring memory of when I was 13. I got into a huge fight with my parents
‘cause I got into a shit-ton of trouble at school, and it was a ‘you’re 13,
you’re confused’, [combined with] the whole puberty/adolescence thing. I was
so pissed off. I went upstairs and I put on Rubber Soul by the
Beatles and I listened to it, like, 1000 times. Albums were always something
I could clutch onto and love. That’s my goal, to make some kid in Boise,
Idaho, that’s 13 years old and listening to an album, and clutches it and
loves it. [I want] to make it so that somebody else can feel okay at some
point in their life because of my music — if it makes the next hour of
their lives bearable."
There is a reaching, searching quality to Brothers Past’s music, arms
stretching out, looking for reassurance and completion through the discovery
of others who share in the same emotions. That is what makes it
simultaneously solemn and joyful. Hamilton mentions the boy in Boise, Idaho
twice in the course of our conversation. He is a figure that exists
somewhere in Hamilton. Hamilton has not met him. Maybe someday. Brothers
Past have not yet played Boise, Idaho. They’re in Florida. Tommy Hamilton
must be in paradise.
Jesse Jarnow sees Sarasota, Florida
in his dreams

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