He's My Brother, She's My Sister: The Best of What's Next

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When a band is fronted by siblings, it’s not unnatural to assume they grew up playing music together—that they adopted complementary instruments, that they jammed in their garage, that maybe at one point they even put on a living room show for their parents with hairbrush microphones. None of this was the case with Rob and Rachel Kolar, though, the ring leaders of Los Angeles quintet He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister. The Kolar kids were the first in a family with a rich theatrical tradition to have any musical inclinations, and even those weren’t cultivated until later in life. Growing up, the closest they came to playing music together was squaring off in rock and roll dance competitions judged by their babysitter.

The point is, He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister is about far more than just the music they make, which is eclectic in the truest sense with elements of psych, folk, country, western, gypsy, vaudeville and several other adjectives that probably are more likely to be used to describe fashion movements or underground burlesque shows. Above all else, and owing to their theatrical roots, they’re about putting on an entertaining show. Music is one component of this, but so are the band’s clothes, so is their movement on stage, so is their energy, so are the opening acts, so is the venue and, perhaps most importantly, so are the audience members.

“I think a lot of bands these days are reluctant to put on a live show,” says Rob. “I respect that, to each their own, but if we’re going to go on stage and people are going to come out and see us, if they’re going for a night out, we like the idea of giving them something a little extra special in terms of experience. And we like it when our fans also dress up and yell certain things between songs, as long as they’re pretty positive. We like that exchange so we’ve always aimed to have shows that are a little bit larger than life.”

Before forming He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister, Rob played in a band called Lemon Sun and Rachel studied playwriting at NYU before going into fashion. She’d just moved back to southern California from Barcelona when they began taking “musical excursions” throughout California, reveling in the majesty of regions like Big Sur and Joshua Tree and participating in gatherings like the little-known Clean Air Clear Stars Festival in Pioneertown, California, just east of San Bernadino. “We saw bands playing music that was country but dark, spaghetti western and rock and shoegaze and I fell in love with it,” remembers Rachel. “I was like, this is the kind of music I want to do if I’m going to do music at all.”

After writing a song about one of Rob’s girlfriends she wasn’t particularly fond of (and recording it with Rob), they began to play shows not only in small venues and spaces around Echo Park and Silver Lake in L.A., but also in more unconventional locations. “We played for homeless people downtown, we went to Flag City and played for all sorts of people with no teeth who would make homes out of garbage, the story just keeps on going,” recalls Rachel. “It all sort of rolled out quite naturally.” In 2010 they put out a self-titled EP, and their debut full length, Nobody Dances In This Town, was released in January on Park the Van.

On full display on the cover of their new LP is the band’s flamboyant style of dress, most notably Rob’s plaid pants, teal blazer and trademark showman’s top hat. Their fashion sense is largely derived from Rachel’s experience in the industry, which includes styling the likes of Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga and doing editorial work for the LA Times Magazine. “I was hanging around a lot of vaudevillian, French boudoir [fashion],” she recalls. “There’s something tattered about that look, but also glamourous. I think that’s the seed I originally planted when we got the band together, but from there everybody grew and has their own thing.” Also featured on the album cover are all five band members brushing their teeth. It can only be a testament to their live show that this taking place on stage at some point, though I can’t imagine the circumstances, doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

Despite their eye-catching visual presentation, the first thing most people notice about He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister’s live show is that their drummer, Lauren Brown, is not actually a drummer but a tap-dancer who also drums. It’s kind of complicated. “Rob and Rachel were looking for a drummer and they couldn’t find one that worked, so I just started tap-dancing with them,” says Brown, who has tapped since she was young. “We didn’t know how it was going to turn out, if people were going to like it, if I was going to be okay at it or any of that. It seemed like people responded well to it, though. There’s something about tap-dancing that has an innocence to it, or it reminds people of their childhood. It’s a happy dance. It’s a happy sound.”

Eventually the band added an actual drummer, but when he quit they turned to Lauren again. “Instead of getting a new drummer we all decided I would kind of pick up the drums to go along with the tap-dancing. So I kept all my tap steps but just added in playing a kit at the same time.” In addition to Brown’s tap-dancing He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister feature Oliver Newell’s (sometimes colorfully painted) upright bass and Aaron Robinson’s lap-steel slide guitar, which imbues their music with a desolate, western expansiveness, perfect for any starry night across the California countryside. Rob and Rachel share the vocal duties and play rhythm guitar and hand percussion, respectively.

So tap-dancing, top hats, a vibrant visual aesthetic, a colorfully painted stand up bass—it all makes for a live experience that renders words like “concert” and “performance” inadequate. It also distracts attention from the quality of He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister’s actual music, which is just as moving and relatable through stereo speakers as it is in a live setting (there just isn’t as much sweat involved). The myriad styles they incorporate combine with storytelling lyricism to create a universality that would fit in just as easily at a Tennessee dive bar as it would at Pioneertown, California’s Clean Skies, Clear Stars Festival, which is rebooting this year after taking 2012 off. Don’t be surprised if He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister are on the bill this time instead of in the audience.