A band and a disc jockey all rolled into one – that is how Brothers Past’s keyboardist Tom McKee described the band’s sound. It combines electronic sounds with the traditional rock instrument setup. Brothers Past formed in the late 1990s and is still going strong.
The band had a home show at the Theatre of Living Arts on March 26. Keeping in the spirit of the band/DJ combination, the show was almost a nonstop dance party for the audience. McKee said the band plays two one-hour sets with a break in between. Brothers Past has been called an electronic-indie jam band that improvises a lot in its shows but in a way that makes them sound like well-crafted songs.
The Temple News talked with McKee about how the band has sustained for more than a decade and how the term “jam band” has changed.
The Temple News: Prior to this past Saturday night, when was last time you played a show in Philly?
Tom McKee: Before the TLA show, the last Philly show was at the Electric Factory. We were the opening band at the New Year Eve’s 2010 party. Occasionally, we play informal shows on Tuesday nights at Silk City. We also played [on] New Year’s Eve in 2009 at Silk City.
TTN: So Brothers Past has been a band for more than 10 years?
TM: Yeah, I met the guitar player Tommy one month before college graduation in 1998. We moved to a house in West Chester, [Pa., and] we found the bass player through the Internet. He was living in North Carolina and was looking to relocate to Philly or New York. We found the drummer a few months after that. This is talking around 2000-2001. [The] first few years we were figuring out stuff still.
TTN: What do you think keeps everyone going? What keeps the audiences and you interested in the music?
TM: Interpersonally within [the] band. We were literally together 24 hours, seven days a week. All of us were in that one house [in West Chester]. I mean, we were around each other as much as you could be. There was where we took off.
But, I feel really blessed to still be in this band. I will be turning 35 this summer. Many of my friends are all married. Nine out of 10 times they say they never pick up their guitars anymore. Most of the time I wake up happy that I am able to do this. So I feel really blessed that I am still playing, and it looks like it isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
TTN: What types of effects do you use? I noticed you had a Mac on stage. How are you incorporating that?
TM: I use a program called “Mainstage.” [It] lets you build from the ground up. You can program sounds and manipulate them. The guitarist uses a Mac program called “Reason” for loops and sequences.
The bass player uses “Ableton” live [which is the] best to use to incorporate samples. We’re all using different software. Sometimes the guitarist will make a drum sound with his laptop. The audience is not sure who’s making what sound, and that’s what we like. We built on that idea.
TTN: So would you say you are a jam band?
TM: Yeah, in the beginning we would just jam. We thought, “what if we could improvise in a way that builds on layers of sound?” Really in the last five years, jam band has become a sound that is many genres.
TTN: How much of your live show is improvised?
TM: A lot of our live stuff is improvised with our instruments and computers. We start in a certain key and transition to a song where another key could work with it. It’s a lot of listening and looking at each other. Sometimes Tommy will conduct a bit and say drop out here.
TTN: How do you prepare for a show if a lot of it is improvised? What are your practices like and how often do you rehearse?
TM: When we all lived together we were playing constantly. So we’ve done a lot of playing together. When we rehearse, we run through songs and think how one [transitions] well into another. We’re always writing new songs [but] don’t over rehearse. Everyone has other projects. We just try to be prepared and practiced.
TTN: What else do you like about Philadelphia and the music scene?
TM: Philadelphia is an epicenter of this type of music. Other Philly bands like the Disco Biscuits are doing similar stuff, and we’re great friends with them. It kind of reminds me of bands like the Grateful Dead in San Francisco in the ‘60s. They improvised, and we brought that idea into the new millennium. There is a good sense of musicianship and brotherhood. It’s a great vibe, unlike anything we first thought.
Maura Filoromo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.