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Friday, 11 May 2012 09:25

'Let's see what feels good' An interview with Brothers Lazaroff

'Let's see what feels good' An interview with Brothers Lazaroff
Written by Robin Wheeler

It's been a big spring for Brothers Lazaroff. They stormed South by Southwest, armed with genre-bending remixes of Austin pal Elizabeth McQueen's retro jazz before returning to St. Louis to release their new album, "Science Won."

Rather, they launched the new album into the world with a series of three shows: an electric gig with Cree Rider at the Gramophone, an acoustic show in the Focal Point's Local Heroes series and a brunch set with JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound at Lola.

Recently, I shared lunch with David and Jeff Lazaroff at Market Grill to discuss the roots of their music, the making of the new album and new projects.

Robin Wheeler: One of my first experiences seeing you was at the Uncle Tupelo tribute in 2010. I was in the balcony with my friend, who was also at the original Uncle Tupelo shows, and we both said, "They get it. This is what Uncle Tupelo would have sounded like had they not imploded."

David Lazaroff: Honestly, we had to learn a lot about them. We didn't know the catalog because we're more Wilco fans. But we love old-time music. We didn't come at it so much from the punk angle. We came at it from the country angle. More the Dylan, folk side of the things.

RW: You did "No Depression," right?

DL: We did "Watch Me Fall."

Jeff Lazaroff: And then we did …

DL and JL: "I Wanna be Your Dog."

RW: You guys got it. Whether you'd done your research or came from the background.

JL: I think more than anything we are, as a band, we're friends, and it's not necessarily about our individual talents. It's about the sound we all make together. I think that's the one thing we got from them is a return to that spirit of getting into old time and folk music, but coming at it from a rock perspective. That's how we learned playing. Learning old Stanley Brothers and all the old bluegrass. And not having to be flat pickers. Not having to be bluegrass musicians, per se. That's why, when we found the song "No Depression," it really was an easy transition with the style we've developed with this unit over the past four years. We play old fiddle tunes and make them our own.

DL: Like a lot of other musicians we like to walk our influences backwards. Here's who we love. Who did they love? Walk it back a few generations. I got into the punkier side of things later. Like getting into Sonic Youth … I think "Sonic Nurse" was their first album I owned. It was kind of cool timing to do that thing. I had that Iggy Pop album with "I Wanna Be Your Dog," so when we were asked to do it, we were ready.

JL: We practice every Tuesday night. We make a meal and we practice. Every time one of these KDHX tribute nights has come, it's been a good excuse for us all to dive into that artist. We'll be geeky about them and learn six or seven tunes, do the ones that feel good and let the band decide.

DL: You can feel the ones you should do. I think for the Dylan one we ran through 20 tunes.

RW: Last night I listened to "American Artifact" back-to-back with "Science Won." How did you get from point A to point B? Listening to "American Artifact," there's the feel of this being what Uncle Tupelo might have sounded like had they not broken up, and now you're getting into more groovy and jazzy, but there's still slide guitar undertone. So, what happened?

DL: We used to use all Austin musicians for our recordings. That's where I lived for 13 years.

JL: He was still living in Austin with that recording.

DL: Yeah. That recording featured Gary Newcomb on pedal steel. He played with a band called Li'l Cap'n Travis that was Wilco-derived. The drummer was a woman named Stacy Hoobler who had more of a punk thing. We put that band together for that album, specifically. And then we recorded with Jacob Detering here at Red Pill, and we asked him for some recommendations for local musicians. He turned us on to [drummer] Grover [Stewart], and then Grover helped us find [bassist] Teddy [Brookins]. We went out to see Grover play one night and we found [keyboardist] Mo [Egeston]. And this all happened within a year. This is our fourth year with a solid unit. I think with the last album, "Give 'Em What They Need," we tried to throw it against the wall. We had developed this new style that was a combination of the groove-based styles Grover, Teddy and Mo brought, and our Americana, psychedelic thing.

We loved "Give 'Em What They Need," but we felt it was a little too dense. We did a lot of overdubs. Then we wanted to do the opposite. We developed an acoustic sound for certain gigs, and people really responded to it. It was a natural thing: "Oh, we have this acoustic feel where Grover uses brushes, but still being Grover. Teddy's playing acoustic bass, but still being Teddy. And Mo's a piano player to start. We just went in there and had this thought of, let's see if we can do no overdubs. It had a jazzier feel. A lot of it is the grooves. Being an acoustic instrumentation, we all played the same instrument for every song, the same miking techniques, and we didn't do any overdubs. They're kind of folky instrumentation, but challenging ourselves to not do standard grooves on any tune.

JL: And also, I think, challenging ourselves to keep them with the folky instrumentation. David and I write the same way with acoustic guitars. Not that we were trying to make an acoustic record but we wanted to stick with acoustic instruments. We hadn't done that in awhile. Especially, like David said, after "Give 'Em What They Need" we said, let's do something really different. We wanted to keep that acoustic feel in the studio, so we committed to five instruments, not changing instruments and not plugging in. We wanted to keep the improvisation short. That was a part of it to.

DL: The whole thing clocks in at under 40 minutes. On "American Artifact" there are some ten-minute songs. And we'll do that again, but we really wanted to challenge ourselves to be a little on the poppy side of things.

RW: The first time I listened to it, I had it on the background and I was surprised when it ended so quickly. "It's over? I want more."

DL: We have outtakes from it.

JL: We did fifteen songs altogether.

RW: With going lower on the production on your own album, there's the recent remixes you've done for Elizabeth McQueen, which is the total opposite. I know you've been trying to work together for a long time. What's next?

DL: We're getting ready to do a Kickstarter program to finish the remix of [McQueen's album] "The Laziest Girl in Town."

RW: The whole album?

DL: No, I think we're going to pick three more songs, a total of five and put an EP out.

JL: That was really fun. We want to keep doing what we did with those first two songs.

RW: What was the reaction to the remixes at South by Southwest?

JL: It was great. I think people love seeing Elizabeth in that context. They love seeing Elizabeth back out front. She's been in Asleep at the Wheel for the last six years. Whenever we go down there we've always received such nice feedback for our style and our band, because it is quite different from a lot of the stuff they see in Austin. Specifically our rhythm section. Grover and Teddy are awesome musicians.

RW: That's what makes you guys different -- combining every form of American music. It's not just folk and country. It's jazz. And blues are in there, too. People don't necessarily see that, but you guys are embodying that.

DL: It's been a fun process of teaching each other the styles that we like. With the Dylan tribute or the Uncle Tupelo tribute, or Townes van Zandt, we got to teach the guys some of these tunes on the folky Americana side, and yet we've learned all sorts of new styles of electronic-based music and different hip-hop grooves. It's been a pretty cool learning exchange. That's the fun part for us. Over the years we've had a lot of different units of musicians we've recorded with and toured with. I think everyone can just be themselves with our music. That's the one thing when we write a song -- the most fun part is being able to do that. The video project we're doing highlights that.

We asked 12 different artists to do their versions of each song on the record. A lot of St. Louis artists, a lot of Austin folks, and a few from New York and one from Lexington, Kentucky. It's a chance to expose each other. Because we don't really have a genre we have one [cover] that's a straight-up hip-hop track. We have another that changed some verses but kept the hook. A straight-up neo-soul version. We had a guy who did a lyrical Renaissance version of one of the songs.

JL: A capella Renaissance-style singing.

DL: Elizabeth McQueen did a country version. By the time it's all done, all these people will be exposed to each others' scenes.

JL: Chris Grabau and John Horton [of Magnolia Summer] did the title track.

DL: It sounds great.

JL: We love hearing versions of our tunes done by other people. We do. We've always loved that. That's one thing for us. The other thing, though, is we really like the idea of music as community and musicians promoting each other, and not so much always competing against each other, which happens so much. Yeah, it's part of promoting the record, but in turn it's, look how great these people are. Look how great DJ Nune and Thelonious Kryptonite are. Look how great Chris Grabau and John Horton are. Look how great Coco Soul is. We wanted to be able to show their talents as well as getting the kick out of hearing them doing our tunes.

RW: I'm a sucker for covers. I like seeing how many interpretations musicians can come up with.

DL: Even if it's just the 20 something musicians that are involved in this project, digging on each others' versions and what they do … It's been interesting because we gave very vague instructions. Everyone's coming back with different levels of production, different approaches.

RW: Tell me about upcoming shows.

DL: We played a lot locally last year and I think we were feeling like we wanted to play more out of town this year, and when we did play in town, make it an event.

We do brunches at Lola, and we wanted to stop doing them every month by ourselves. So when Elizabeth [McQueen] came to town, we did that one with her. It was so successful that we said, let's do this as a regular thing.

JL: It's something Chris Hanson, the owner of Lola, has wanted to do, too. We're good friends with him and have been bouncing around ideas about bringing in the roots scene there more, and tying that into Lola. He's got a great vision. He's really smart and he's got a great place, a unique place. We think of it as the kind of place you find in Austin or New Orleans, a place that's not just a nightclub you go to late at night, but families can be there, have great food. It's a bar, it's a venue, it's a restaurant. Ever since the Elizabeth one went so well we've been trying to get sponsorship. We're going to be sponsored by Urban Chestnut Brewing Company. It's the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company Sessions Featuring Brothers Lazaroff, with, every six to eight weeks, a special national touring artist. And it's free. That was the whole thing with getting sponsorship; we wanted to keep it free for the community. When you're in Austin and you go to a restaurant, there's some amazing band that's there.

DL: It's good for Chris because sometimes a ten dollar cover can deter someone. If it's free, they come in and spend their money on the food and tipping the band. That's another thing in Austin - everyone tips the band. Tipping culture. Urban Chestnut has put up the money for KDHX sponsorship and to pay the talent. It's a really cool thing they've done. David [Wolfe] at Urban Chestnut was looking for a way to be involved with KDHX and support the music scene. We came to him at the right time. And with Urban Chestnut, there's kind of a city/country thing going on, and that's Lola. Urban Chestnut was already on tap at Lola, it was a real good fit. KDHX agreed to sponsor the event with Urban Chestnut underwriting.

Every time we play live, we want it to be something where we bring units together that wouldn't have been brought together otherwise, as well as a chance for us to bring people together in a way beyond just coming to see our show. Be a part of the community. That day with Elizabeth at brunch was the coolest group of people.

JL: The thing that works with Rick Woods' concert series is that, you can't really ask Off Broadway or Old Rock House, "Can they do a free show the next morning?" even though I don't think it would necessarily hurt anything in a serious way. But you know.

In Austin on Sunday morning you have four or five options -- more than that -- of bands you can see at brunch.

DL: Music and food, pun intended, feed off each other.

For us, we enjoy the process of writing, so it's fun to have an outlet. Jeff and I could write and play in a room and be content. Play for the family. We enjoy that, and we enjoy recording and practicing with the guys. For us, when we wrote this album, Jeff and I would get together an hour and a half before everyone would come over [for rehearsal], and we would just write. Sometimes we'd come with nothing and create. Being each other's audience can be instant inspiration because I did what he does, and he digs what I do, so we wind up writing on the spot. We feel lucky that we still have that. That part is still there and a part of it. We still enjoy that initial spark of why we started this in the first place, playing for each other.

JL: Oh yeah.

DL: Digging each other, and then the writing part. It's easy to lose track of that. That's why we keep each other motivated and focused in that way. There's a lot of noise and a lot of challenge, and we're lucky as brothers to bounce ideas off each other and be each others' fans.

RW: If you clash, you're stuck with each other.

JL: We've had a strong belief in that. Sometimes you're stuck with people and you don't always have to ditch each other. Sometimes it's good to have long-term relationships. It's good to be able to overcome because nothing is perfect.

DL: Grover, Mo and Teddy are all guys who get that as far as people. They're good guys as friends, so we're real lucky. When we're on the road together, it's fairly stupid fun. We dig each other. We like each other as friends. That emotional component is there. Then when they bring a song, they inherently know where the emotions are coming from because we all know each others' internal lives. Sometimes we're writing about each other, indirectly.

RW: When we initially talked about the songwriting on the new album, you mentioned that yeah, one song was written on a napkin on your honeymoon. Another was written by Jeff for your wedding. Tell me more about that.

JL: Sometimes it's like that. It's real specific, if you have a specific inspiration or a specific thing you're writing something for. But sometimes it's just like, here's a cool title. Here's an interesting topic, then use that spark of inspiration, but not have it over-dominate the writing. Allow yourself to be surprised in what comes up. Allow yourself to say, okay, if we're going to work within a structure and try to make it rhyme or have a certain number of syllables, then that dictates, so meaning can sometime be secondary, and meaning can sometimes come afterwards, which I think are the coolest songs. When you get surprised, it's really refreshing.

DL: I'll email Jeff titles or specific concepts, and sometimes taking it from the specific to the general, or vice versa, is a fun thing with having a writing partner.

JL: Because he might have meant this, but I don't even know. Here's a cool concept or a cool line. He might have meant something totally different, but to me it meant this. I will play off that.

DL: On "American Artifact" we had some songs that people think are relationship songs. People have said to us that they really connected because of something in a relationship.

JL: One writer even wrote, "This is a breakup song," and we're like, no, that's not a breakup song at all!

DL: That's the fun part, when it works. Or he'll write something by itself and it'll have its own meaning to me, but he was thinking about something different. Or vice versa. More and more as we've been writing together, we'll get in the room and things will come. That's been really fun, to show up with no idea and make something out of nothing and to really go in there and say, "Let's see what feels good." Pick up the guitars, have some coffee, and all of a sudden you've got the start to a song. Then maybe Jeff will go home and finish a couple of verses, and then I'll write a bridge. Then next Tuesday we'll get together and …

JL: We can finalize it. It's been really funny, word-wise, with the title of this record, "Science Won." Everyone's been like, science won?

DL: No it didn't.

JL: Yes it did! Or no, it totally didn't.

RW: That was my reaction, because my brain was going in 20 directions. Then, at the end of the album with the title track -- that's an excellent ending track -- because it left me sitting there, thinking. I went into it with a notion, based solely on the title, and I'm not sure I'm still there anymore. I went someplace different.

DL: And the album ends with, "She never would admit that science won."

JL: Honestly, because we've been asked it since we handed out the advance copies in Austin, and obviously friends and family, they've all been, what does this mean? We're like, let us know. That line came out of nowhere and it doesn't really have anything yet. There's some element of science has won in positive ways with the environmental things, and then there's negative ways with how we're all addicted to our phones.

DL: Spirituality and technology.

RW: That's where I took it - taking the mechanical and scientific over the emotional and human. That's what I started with. But then, listening to "I Could Stay Here For the Rest of My Life," that puts a whole different twist on it.

DL: Spirit is winning!

JL: Or sometimes you can look at it like, dammit, science won. Let's stop this bullshit of pretending like we're not losing cities to rising climate change. There's an emotional side to that side of science. Then there's this other side where, I was watching this special about the Amish and how they got phones but decided to get rid of them because they realized people had stopped visiting each other because they had phones. So the community banned phones. Science won in that way, but it's negative. We're not staying in actual touching contact with people as much as we used to because we can Facebook our friends.

RW: In listening to the album I thought, there's been a journey and I want to know where they went. I like the complexity of the new stuff.

JL: With this record, and this unit, it's really refreshing. David and I come from a history of loving everything, like a lot of people. We'd go from a rock record to a reggae record. And these guys have such great skills that they can play all styles.

DL: They can start with a reggae feel and turn it into something different.

RW: That's one of the things that I like about the new album. There's grooves, and then all of a sudden there's slide guitar. Where did that come from? You have to be paying attention to get that all these little bits and pieces from all these different genres are in there.

DL: On "I Could Stay Here," Elizabeth did the original version as straight-up honky tonk. So let's do like and African honky tonk. And Grover's able to say, okay, how about a little Fela groove.

JL: We're all the same that way in that we don't all love just one thing.

RW: But you guys manage to keep it tight, instead of having different genres all over the place.

JL: The Americana fans tend to like the funkier side of us, and the folks that you'd think would like the funkier stuff love the rootsier stuff. Down in Austin they love the funky stuff.

RW: I think people who are actually listening to music, instead of just having it as background noise, get it.

JL: For us, more than any kind of style, we've always tried to put the words in the center of the tune. That's a big thing for us.

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