TAKING AIM The Houston Brothers

Sibling rockers – neither
of them surnamed “Houston,” incidentally – from North Carolina rediscover
their distinctive musical bloodline.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Musical chemistry is a volatile element, especially among siblings. Some
come out of the womb fighting and forever feed off that energy, their battles
as legendary as their names: Charlie and Ira Louvin, Ray and Dave Davies, Noel
and Liam Gallagher. For most, though, the Cain and Abel thing is a fast-pass to
nowhere.

 

And sometimes it’s sibling harmony that makes for
musical bliss. The distinctive indie pop of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Justin
and Matt Faircloth – who once again comprise the sum total of their band, the
Houston Brothers – may rely on the brothers’ intuitive kinship, but does so in ways most duos (sibling or
otherwise) would find daunting to duplicate.

 

Their new digital release, The Archer (out Jan. 26 on iTunes), offers a six-song primer on those
sibling bonds, but the Faircloths had to branch out into other incarnations to
rediscover how elemental those musical
bloodlines really were. That three-year journey, though filled with lessons learned and
new friends made, finds the brothers back on the career path best suited for
them and them alone – the fraternal one. 

 

***

 

The first time Charlotte multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lynch (of local twangers Lou Ford) caught the Houston Brothers live was at Café Bisou, a local venue so packed you couldn’t see the stage. So, like many, he
assumed he was listening to a four-piece: guitar, keys, drums and bass, with
two members of the band singing. But when another musician beckoned him up front, Lynch saw the Houston Brothers were just a duo:
Justin playing Rhodes melodies and synth accents with his right hand, laying behind the beat on a
snare and high hat with his left, riding a kick-drum, and singing
lead; Matt braiding
arpeggios and solos on his Telecaster, pushing bass
pedals with his stockinged feet, and harmonizing the high end. 

 

Lynch’s reaction, he says, was “the standard ‘Oh, shit!’ first impression they generate.”

 

His perspective
carries some extra heft because Lynch wound up playing drums for the Houston
Brothers from 2004-2005, when the Faircloths expanded to a trio to try and
duplicate their studio sound in a live setting. Lynch credits the experience
with adding more “dynamics and subtlety” to his drumming, and suggests he
became a more nuanced skins-man for it. But throughout his tenure he knew the
trio’s live act didn’t quite have the same impact.

 

“I was really grateful to get to play with Justin and Matt, but I’m
not surprised that they’ve come full circle,” Lynch says. “Their sound is
unique to them, the combination of just the two brothers. The harmony and synchronicity that brothers (or brothers and sisters)
possess is undeniable, and I think it’s a certain edge that those acts have
over non-related band members that you can’t duplicate otherwise.”

 

The Archer confirms that sentiment. Two of the songs
(“Confederate Dunce” and “Do What We Can”) have been in the brothers’ arsenal
since their first go-round as a duo, and the remaining four were written once
the Faircloths returned to their two-man incarnation. All six, says Justin, “had
been living together for a while and made sense to us as a body of work.”

 

They’d also gotten a workout in the brothers’
compelling two-man live setting. That led to the basic tracks being laid down
as live as possible, with some overdubs and mixing done at Mitch Easter’s
Fidelitorium studio. Inspired in part by revisiting classic recordings by the
Kinks and David Bowie, what resulted may be the Houston Brothers’ most
confident work: soaring melodies blanketed in guitar reverb, swirling synths
and keys (“All We Ever Wanted,” “Chimney Rock”); bar-room piano coloring sepia-tinged
narratives (“Boyfriend”); multi-textured sing-alongs (“Confederate Dunce”);
epic minor-key laments (“We Do What We Do”); and thrumming declarations of
survival like “Wasted Youth,” which was chosen for listening sampler of January’s
Utne Reader.

 

It’s a cap-feather for an act that just a few years
ago seemed destined for permanent hiatus. But for the reinvigorated Houston
Brothers, The Archer is just the
opening shot.

 

***

 

The Faircloths did
not play music together much growing up. The age difference – at 35, Justin is
five years Matt’s senior – doesn’t amount to much now, but it did early
on. What self-respecting teenager wants to rock out with their pipsqueak
brother? So it wasn’t
until Justin and Matt had both left home and were living in Wilmington in the
mid-‘90s that their musical collaboration began.

 

“We were just surf buddies, really, working shitty jobs and spending a lot of time making music,” Justin remembers. Packs of punk kids hung around the house, and practices in the brothers’ living room were just another element in the scene. One of their regular guests was a hard-hitting punk
drummer, and the trio began experimenting with synth bass to provide more low
end. That may have been out of necessity, but it was key to what followed.

 

“That’s when we first
started developing our sound,” Justin says.

 

Yet it would be some time before the Faircloths developed it fully.
Justin got married, became a father and relocated to Asheville in 1998, then moved to Charlotte a
year later. Matt moved up to the mountains shortly
after Justin did to attend school in Asheville; both were fixtures at a scene centered around the memorable Asheville
venue Vincent’s Ear, where the Houston Brothers played their first gig.

 

Once in the Queen City,
Justin played with a few local bands and soon met Benji Hughes, fresh off his stint with Sire Records’ Muscadine.
Together with (then ex-, now
current) Lou Ford bassist Mark Lynch, drummer
David Kim, and guitarist Randolph
Lewis, they formed the Goldenrods in 2000. Soon
after, they recruited Matt – who would drive down weekly for practice and gigs – for the sextet’s
second guitar chair.

 

The Goldenrods were best known for Hughes’ country-tinged ballads and rockers, but partied so notoriously
they never managed to release
anything they recorded (bootlegs of full-band demos made the rounds in
Charlotte). But what Justin
and Matt did remember of their
time in the Goldenrods proved crucial to the Houston Brothers.

 

“We were pretty heavily influenced, not only by Benji’s work, but just
our time spent with him,” says Justin. “He’s a really discriminate songwriter. That
was something new for me — even though I’d grown up listening to discriminate
songwriters, I didn’t know what that was really all about. And if we weren’t playing
music, we were talking about music.”

 

Justin and some of the other Goldenrods also played in Les Dirt Clods,
a Stones-y roots-rock sextet led by Lewis. He also filled in as
keys-for-hire with other friends’ bands, too. But when the
opportunity arose to do something on their own, the Faircloths jumped at it.

 

In 2001, a mutual friend in Asheville asked the brothers to play live accompaniment to a local theatre
production. The brothers wound up putting the
compositions to tape a few weeks later in Justin’s attic, and released I Take Care of You later that summer. Despite limited distribution, the music – mostly sparse
keys-and-guitars instrumental vignettes, many with a noir-ish undertow – won
over many who heard it.

 

It also created demand for more live performances. The brothers had
played out as a duo only once before, and were christened The Houston
Brothers by a friend just to have a name other than their own to put on the
bill. “By the time we got around to wanting to book another show, the name was
already there, we liked it, and there it was,” Justin laughs.

 

I Take Care Of You also provided the recording blueprint the Faircloths used for their
next release, 2003’s The Houston Brothers, released on the
local label Liquilab and usually referred
to as The Blue Record. Recording again in Justin’s attic, the brothers played
nearly everything and often worked apart from each other. By now, their
evolving musical camaraderie made it easier to anticipate what each needed from
the other to complete the songs.

 

“A lot of times when bands write together and actually come up with
the song structure, that stuff is unbelievably time-consuming and really
tedious,” says Matt.

 

“There may be a formula for that, but that’s not us,” Justin says.
“It’s Matt’s song or it’s my song…. I’m there to support Matt on his, and
Matt’s there to support me on mine. It’s an intuitive thing, and clearly understood between us.”

 

“That’s what’s kept us playing together this long,” Matt adds with a
chuckle.

 

It resulted in the band’s finest music to date, and helped land the brothers CMJ dates in
New York two years running (2003-4). The
lush, atmospheric minor-key pop was such a radical transformation of I Take Care Of You‘s skeletal
soundscapes you could forgive a listener for assuming it was done by a
different – and bigger — band. Layers of Rhodes, Hammond, and synth coat everything in the gauzy haze of Tar
Heel summers, and the relaxed beats – processed and natural – rock gently like
hammocks in ocean breezes. Matt’s guitars are just as textured: delay providing tension, reverb adding depth, and
the acoustics organic contrast. The brothers’ vocals, too, share that innate congeniality only siblings
seem to tap into, Matt’s high harmonies the sunny complement to Justin’s husky, night-time tenor.

 

You probably wouldn’t call it Southern rock in the traditional (and outdated) sense, but the songs are
steeped in their native
state’s ambience. Regional signposts abound from sand dunes to foothills and mountains, but these
tales of carefree days and ne’er-do-welling nights reverberate beyond
home-state pandering.

 

The songs instead
read like an itinerant’s state-wide wanderings, restless characters gamely —
but vainly – trying to
out-drive their memories in more than one song (“Rusty Chevy, I think it’s time
go,” Justin sings on “Tranquility”). Matt’s “Air Travel” is an amusing look at
going nowhere fast – “Matt’s a great foil to me because he’s got a really great sense of humor and
a wry way of looking at the world,” Justin says — but it’s the
country-flavored waltz “Portland” that ironically anchors the record in a
Carolina state of mind.

 

The song is a perfect pop melody written about the brief time Justin spent in the rainy, hipster-friendly Oregon city, and the contrasts with the
South are stark: “Was it memory that held me down?/As I lie around most every
day,” he laments over barrelhouse-flavored piano lines and Matt’s twangy fills,
“Because I used to walk down to the park/But now I stay home/Sunlight and
exercise, so underrated/And I’d rather leave now than make you think that I
waited.”

 

Regional reaction to The Blue
Record
was again positive. Creative
Loafing
‘s Tim Davis praised the songs for their laid-back harmonies and stories “comprised of equal parts resignation
and rejoicing,” as well
as the “mid-tempo shuffle of songs that work perfectly whether one’s settling in for the evening or preparing
to take the town by storm.”

 

The brothers’ increasingly polished two-man rock show/high wire-act earned them new converts, too. They set up Cougar
Camp, a kind of co-op studio near downtown Charlotte they shared with friends, and immersed themselves in the alternate
universe of studio life. Over the next couple of years they knocked out “about
20 records,” Justin says, including albums by Elevator Action, David Childers & the Modern Don Juans, Nicole Atkins, Kenny Roby, and 12,000 Armies, among others. The Faircloths were busy
working on their own material at Cougar Camp as well, and eventually added
Shawn Lynch to the live line-up in their first attempt at recreating the studio
versions’ many textures.

 

“We learned a lot about music there,” Justin says. “It was definitely
a cool gathering place for creativity, and it was definitely a wild time.”

 

Probably too wild, in hindsight. In early 2005, Justin pulled the
plug on Cougar Camp, put the Houston Brothers on indefinite hiatus, and stepped
away from music all together. He quit drinking, and after taking stock for more
than a year, emerged with a new set of songs written in the bright light of
sobriety.

 

Reinvigorated, the Faircloths signed to local imprint MoRisen Records,
which released Still in the winter of 2007.
As different as The Blue Record had
been from I Take Care of You, Still did away with almost all of the brothers’ previous formulas:  the Faircloths
recorded with a full band, toured as a sextet, and even dropped the “Brothers”
from their band-name to become simply The Houstons.

 

In an interview with Shuffle magazine shortly after the record’s release, Justin suggested the two-piece had
simply run its creative course. He doesn’t disown that sentiment now, but
provides better context.

 

“I felt like, for whatever reasons at that point, we had reached our
limitations in what we could do with it,” he says. “There were things that I
wanted to do with the live show especially that I couldn’t put my hands on. And
it was something that we had never done, and I wanted to give it a shot. And we
did have a lot of really awesome musicians that were interested in being a part
of it.”

 

Drawing from Charlotte’s burgeoning pool of local talent (including
members of Pyramid, the Sea of Cortez, and others), Justin rehearsed the band
for the live show and then brought them directly into the studio to record Still‘s songs. Even a casual listen reveals crucial changes within the first few measures: real strings take most
of the synth parts; co-ed harmonies flesh out the vocals; the keys are more
subdued and the guitars more prominent in the mix (Justin wrote all 12 songs,
most on guitar); there are fewer processed beats, and the organic ones are more
nuanced and less direct;
and the arrangements in general sound more airier and less textured.

 

Maybe the most obvious change though is in Justin’s lyrics. The narratives dig openly into his recent
past, sacrificing some of The Blue Record’s humor and colorful characters for a more personal viewpoint. Sometimes
it works, as it does on the blistering “Providence,” the Faircloths’ hardest
rocking song to date, where the confessions sound better than any drunkalogue,
and on “Promise of Gold,” where the brutal honesty cuts right through cliché (“you’re just a
selfish sonuvabitch”). But in other places it reads rote: “Expecting different results from the
same behavior,” from “Thinking It Over,” is reminiscent of the language of recovery.

 

To complicate matters, the big band never completely gelled on stage, despite top-notch
musicians and the full attention Matt and Justin could devote to guitar and
keys. Turns out their “secondary” instruments, and the rhythm and energy Justin and Matt generated with them, were impossible to reproduce any other
way.  Still, for a while it seemed easier to tweak the roster and expect
different results (to borrow a phrase) rather than concede what was obvious to
those less invested in it. And that’s when it helps to have friends who won’t
sling bullshit.

 

“What did it for me,” Matt muses, “was that after we had played this
one show at the Milestone and almost everybody had left, Neal (Harper, the club’s owner and soundman) said, ‘man, how much do I have to pay you to bring back the
two-piece?’ We had a couple people like that, kind of chirping in our ears over
the years. Finally, we said, ‘alright, let’s do it.'”

 

That decision in early 2008 made not only the path forward obvious, it
put the past in context. The big band flirtation had been like stepping out on
a mate only to realize where you were meant to be together all along.

 

“The bigger band was just hard to wrap our arms around and make it ours,” Justin says.
“It was hard to recreate that sort of intuitive sound that Matt and I find so
easily. That’s just a magic quality that bands have or they don’t. I’ll never
regret that we did it, because it taught us a lot and I feel like it situated
us to do what we’re doing now.”

 

If fans were worried the Faircloths couldn’t recapture the duo magic
they’d left behind years earlier, they needn’t have. Coming out of the big band
experience, the brothers discovered they were even better equipped to pull off the
two-piece. Matt says he is technically a better guitarist now, but insists his
brother’s drumming is still at “the heart of what we’re doing.”

 

“I’ve worked hard on becoming a better drummer,” Justin says. “My goal is
still to be a simple drummer always, but I do want to create a danceable groove
to our songs and really turn the beat over…we really wanted to put a big focus on trying to get a
lot of energy into our two-person show again. We just want it to be better than
ever.”

 

The brothers even hope to integrate more instruments into their
two-man act. That way, if things work out, they’ll be able to
translate their sound and considerable energy into bigger venues. “Back in the day, it was a more sedate sort of thing,” Justin says
of the Houston Brothers, Mach 1. “Now one lasting effect of that big band was
that we were able to feel that dynamic and remind ourselves what it felt like
to be loud and to carry ourselves like a rock band. We want some of that with
the two-piece.”

 

So the next time you’re in a packed club where you can’t see the
stage, and what sounds like a quartet is bashing out Indian summer indie pop
with mercurial crescendos and transcendent middle eights, you better take a look-see because it could just be the Houston Brothers –
both of ‘em.

 

[Photo Credit: Jeff Cravotta]

On the web:

 

http://www.houstonsmusic.com
http://www.myspace.com/thehoustons

 

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