Sibling revelry: an interview with Oliver Newell of He’s My Brother She’s My Sister
Thu. April 18, 2013 by Gregg Shapiro
HMBSMS is one of the bands, such as the Grammy Award-winning Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, working in the neo-folk revival genre. The music that HMBSMS makes is deliriously celebratory and joyous. It's the gleeful feel-good music of the early 21st century. For a band renowned for their otherworldly and infinitely entertaining live performances, they have managed to capture a delightful energy on their studio album Nobody Dances In This Town (Park The Van). In fact, one listen to songs such as "The Same Old Ground," "Slow It Down" and "Touch The Lightning" and it's almost certain that nobody will be able to remain seated. I spoke with Oliver about the band in early 2013. (He's My Brother She's My Sister performs on Apr. 26 at Schuba's.)
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Robert Kolar and Rachel Kolar are the brother and sister in He's My Brother She's My Sister. Do you have siblings?
ON: (Oliver Newell) Yes, I do. I'm from Austin, Texas. I have an older brother living in Austin and a younger sister who has gone out into the world and is living in Australia now. She's kind of exploring and is part of the Burning Man scene. She's really good with bikes. She was managing this natural food co-op in Austin. Recently she's taking to the road and she's wandering. I'm excited for her.
GS: Did you ever play music with your siblings?
ON: I have, yes. My brother and I grew up playing music together. He plays guitar and sings. We learned music together. I was doing an orchestral, more formal training in school. But as far as having guitars at home and learning Red Hot Chili Peppers songs and stuff as teenagers, we did that together. For a couple of years, when I first moved out to LA, he was living in LA and we had a band together called The Ghost Lullaby. It was his band that I was playing bass in. He relocated back to Austin and we haven't played together much the past couple of years. It was a really awesome experience for us to travel and be on stage together.
GS: How did you come to be a part of the musical family that is HMBSMS?
ON: We have some mutual friends in the East Side LA music scene. I had met probably everybody in the group here and there over the first couple of years I was in LA and knew them very casually. At one point, I did a show with my friend Henry Wolfe (son of Meryl Streep) and we were on the same bill with He's My Brother She's My Sister. I was conducting these arrangements I had done with a string ensemble and Rachel (Kolar) and Lauren (Brown) were working on a play at that time. They used to have a theater company together. They were excited about bringing me in as a composer in their play. That was our initial connection. I ended up doing some light composition for a couple of scenes in the play, as well as my primary role as a dancer in the play. I perform as a dancer as well as play music.
GS: I'm glad that you mentioned dancing because like (the band) Tilly & The Wall, HMBSMS features a tap dancer – Lauren – as part of the band. Do you also own a pair of tap shoes?
ON: That's actually been a little bit of a dream of mine that I haven't come across yet. I've wanted to play along with her a little more on that level. But no, I don't own a pair of tap shoes.
GS: The cover of Nobody Dances in this Town disc features the band members brushing their teeth in a parking lot. Is this meant to be a public service announcement promoting good dental hygiene?
ON: [Laughs] Maybe we hope that it could function that way [laughs]. The crazy thing about that picture is that it was a totally spontaneous occasion. We were brushing our teeth in St. Louis before a gig and our friend Courtney (Ellis) snapped that shot with her iPhone. We thought it was funny and we kept it. I think that also with the name He's My Brother She's My Sister, it was funny to have this wholesome activity depicted on the cover [laughs].
GS: How would you describe your role in the band's songwriting process?
ON: I've been in the group for just under two years. Most of the material that we're doing now we've been doing for those two years. The songs were intact, but they've developed a lot. Aaron (Robinson), the slide guitar player, and I joined at the same time. I like to bring more of a funky side to things. I'm really into dancing and creating an ecstatic experience on stage, which I also think Rachel is in on with me. Aaron has a psychedelic flavor with his guitar. He and Rob have more of a rock edge. From where the songs started two years ago to where they are now is quite a journey for the songs. I think it had a lot to do with the energy level and the things we talk about while we are on tour and the experiences we have in the places we go. I think over time that comes in to the music more and more. Moving forward, we have intentions as a group to collaboratively create the new material more. But we'll see how that comes. I'm a little more drawn to rhythms and arrangements, much less to lyrics and melodies. Especially in this group, I don't mind the role that I have. I think that Rob and Rachel are both fantastic songwriters. I think the most I have to contribute to the group is what we do on stage.
GS: I'm also glad you mentioned what happens on stage because HMBSMS is becoming legendary for their live shows. Do you think it's due to some of the members' theater backgrounds, that that's what makes it a different experience than a show where the band just stands there, singing and playing?
ON: I do think that has something to do with it. That, in conjunction with an intention on our parts to want to create a really exciting stage show. Having the theatrical background, which pretty much all of us have to some degree, frees you up as a performer. Maybe there's a little less inhibition than somebody who's spent their whole life just playing music. I also think we're all into style, so we like to experiment and go to exaggerated lengths with our costuming and presentation on that level. Our instruments are all decorated uniquely. My bass is hand-painted bright vibrant colors. Lauren's drums are sparkling and shimmering and she's standing and tap dancing. Rob has really awesome outfits, too. Rachel has probably the most exciting style in the band, she has all kinds of unique pieces and she's very brave how she presents herself. And Aaron is in virtuosic control of his instrument. Everybody in the band has a pretty high level of musical experience and that's also part of what's going on. It's not just all the stuff around the music but the actual music is as exciting as well. We're improvising, feeding off of each other, interacting with the audience. We're not doing that much premeditated performance stuff. We have a set list and that's about it.
GS: Fifty years after the folk music scene initiated by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, HMBSMS is part of a folk revival, along with, The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, among others. Why do you think this is happening now?
ON: I think there are a couple of things in there. One might be that the DJ culture is exploding and electronic music is so popular, it's everywhere, it's pervasive. I love it, myself. I love dancing to house music, I love all the ideas and engineering techniques that are being developed in the bass music and dubstep worlds. I really admire and enjoy that. But I think that as that emerges there's a renewed interest in actually seeing people touching instruments and having a more organic music-making experience. Beyond that, I think that it has a little bit to do with, and I hate to use this term, but in the postmodern world the interest in retro is super-validated. A lot of people are interested in all kinds of movements that have come in the past and re-expressing them in a new way, pulling from different traditions. I definitely think that we have the sound you're talking about, this neo-folk revival. We're pulling a lot of influences from The Mamas & The Papas, the Rolling Stones and other groups. There's also a little bit of a sense of the golden age of folk music and without burning all those records into our minds, it's fun to participate in that musical tradition, but also adapting it to a contemporary world. I think there are some distinguishable things about what we're doing that's different from what people were doing in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. But we are using some elements from that time too and we like that aesthetic, for sure.
GS: These days, we are seeing a lot more openly queer musicians playing in bands that are not necessarily queer. As one of those queer musicians, please comment.
ON: It's amazing to see this not only in New York and Los Angeles, but in so many other places around the country. Not only do I think that I, and probably also to different degrees some other people in our band having queer identities, I think we're a very flamboyant band [laughs]. Our dancing and our scarves and tight pants [laughs], I think we turn a lot of heads that way. But I feel like even on that level that so many people are excited about that vibrance and that color. It's not like it's only the queer community that's into that kind of thing, but I think the queer community definitely has a historical correlation to this kind of vibrant living. Maybe part of it is because some of the people who have been more willing to have the courage to face their identities and express who they are to the world at large are people who would naturally have an extra amount of confidence and an extra expressiveness to offer. Maybe that's the source of the correlation, I don't really know. But I definitely see and feel this change coming. I think you can see it in other realms too, outside of music.
GS: HBMSMS sings about "Electric Love" on the song of the same name. Have you ever experienced "electric love" and what was it like?
ON: [Laughs] Electrifying [laughs]! I have, yes. Actually, I was just having a conversation about love with a good friend of mine who had dropped the L-bomb, as I call it, in a scientific discussion we were having. We were talking about what he's calling "the home circuit," which is this circuit of hormones for the Oxytocin that feeds into the serotonin which feeds into the melatonin… I didn't quite retain all the information [laughs]. He was talking about how it's related to love in this sense of connection. When he first said love, it's hard to know what he meant by love because there are so many ideas of what could be. There's the romantic, person to person love. Then there's also the expanded spiritual love, love for all beings, love for yourself and love for the universe. If I were to think about "electric love," I would be more drawn to think about that spiritual love. That feeling of being so engaged and connected by the world around me, which includes some of the people who I love. I think the time I feel that the most is when I'm on the dance floor, feeling absolutely free to engage with people and for them to engage with me and to be inside the music; letting my body unfold in these movements that I'm less than conscious of. To me, that's where I'd say my electric love is.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.