Sure, everyone loves coed sibling harmonies and the adorable factor of Rachel and Robert Kolar's band, He's My Brother, She's My Sister. And, yes, it's freaking awesome that Lauren Brown tap dances while she's playing drums. Not to mention, the four-piece is from Los Angeles, so of course, one of them--cellist Satya Bhabha--is a busy film actor, playing an ex-boyfriend in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. But with that back story out of the way, perhaps we can get down to the most important thing: The band makes damn good music.
Music. Not rock, chamber pop, Americana or glam-psych, though all of those styles figure in the mix. It's elegant without being stuffy, catchy and propulsive but still rather low-key. Sounding a little like Britt Daniel, Robert brings a baritone like a sidelong glance. Rachel's sultry, shoulder-shimmying vocals go from airy folk warble to steamy jazz-blues coo with a twist of the thermostat. Though the lyrics are somewhat dark, the music possesses the kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm one wouldn't expect to come out of Los Angeles.
"I'm filled with joy that you described us as 'wide-eyed' because we are such children in a way. That's because while Rob and I were born and raised in L.A., we were raised by these sort of expat parents in the expat artist bohemian culture of L.A. ... which does exist," Rachel said with a laugh.
The Kolar's parents are from England and the Czech Republic. Both kids went their own ways--he into music, she into theater--but they remained close. Rachel and percussionist Brown founded Post Fact Productions, an experimental theater company in Echo Park. As it turns out, theater is a much-devalued institution there, given that it's the acting center of the universe.
"I was one of the few people doing theater because everyone was doing music. But when everyone is doing something, it's like a virus, you just got to try it out. I got inspired by an ex-girlfriend of Rob's that I was not into, and I wrote this little ditty song," recalled Rachel, referring to "Wilted Rose."
The 40-second musical slam closes the band's 2010 eponymous debut EP, with the biting lyrics: "Wallow and whine with a heart of black gold / filthy saloon girl looking haggard, looking old / Ain't no man giving you a diamond ring."
"What's great about Rob is he's really open to doing anything with anyone, even someone like myself, who is not a musician. ... The same thing happened with Lauren's tap-dancing," said Rachel. "It's just about being open-minded because there are infinite potentials."
It's difficult to see He's My Brother perform for the first time and not want to talk about Brown, clicking her feet on a riser that looks like a bass drum, while banging away with mallets on two drums and cymbals.
Of course, it didn't start like that. For a while, her tap dancing was additional percussion while the group tried to find a good drummer. Finally they let Brown take a swing at fulfilling both roles.
"There was just a slight resistance. We were wary of what limitations that would have, so we went ahead and played with a couple drummers," Rachel said. "We went through all these drummers and it just didn't feel right because it was a strange makeup anyway and we're like, 'we have to be consistent with the motif of this band to embrace a message and motif that was sort of quirk and arrangements and difference.'"
The EP is only six songs long (excluding "Wilted Rose") but displays plenty of diversity. Bhabha's cello imbues smoky blues-folk ballads like "The House That Isn't Mine" with a shadowy presence. "Coattails" blazes a ragged, harmonica-abetted garage-blues trial, and the group offers up a sweetly moody take on Bowie's "Moonage Daydream." The foursome also covers Ace of Base's "All That She Wants" and the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" live.
Arguably, the band's finest tune is "Tales That I Tell," the first song that the Kolars ever collaborated on. It moves with a supple rockabilly stomp fueled by the spunky Memphis soul sashay of Rachel's vocals. The rat-a-tat of Brown's heels add to the song's dirty front porch swing. It's so good, He's My Brother, She's My Sister have rerecorded it for an upcoming full-length debut and recently released a video of the new version.
One big change for fans and the band's sound is the addition of slide guitarist Aaron Robinson. Robinson essentially replaces the cellist, Bhabha, who's on location in Sri Lanka filming Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Bhabha continues to play with the band when his schedule allows.
"[Robinson] adds a slightly Western-country element but also a psychedelic element because of the way he plays it. It's kind of a swelling melody with some reverb," said Rachel.
The songs--which have been getting a workout live for the last year--cover even more territory this time out, according to Robert. That's a suggestion borne out by the first two leaked tracks. "Can't See the Stars" features a '40s gospel-blues vamp with a rootsy energy reminiscent of The Band, while bluesy rock rave-up "Let It Be Free" sounds like the Felice Brothers throwing rocks at Stray Cats.
"This next record, we're trying to almost pull a little bit from every era. Because I'd say we're just as influenced by Howling Wolf and blues and jazz of the '50s and '60s as we were '70s glam rock like T-Rex, '80s bands like The Smiths on into modern bands like The Black Keys and White Stripes," said Robert.
There's really no telling how far He's My Brother, She's My Sister can go. The shows are practically happenings, and the music sends fans home smiling and humming. It's a winning combo.
"We just have so much magic at our fingertips," said Rachel. "It's very alchemical in that when we get together, all the right elements fall into place."[ Video is no longer available. ]