Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Theory of relativity

With many famous bands sporting family members, Sacha Molitoritz ponders why it works so well.

What do AC/DC have that Limp Bizkit lack? What have Oasis got that Poison don't?

Talent? Well, yes, but the answer we're after is siblings. Through the decades, more brothers can be found in the annals of rock than in Harlem or the Bronx. Sisters, too. And quite a few twins. This is more than coincidence; there are compelling reasons why siblings should excel at that ludicrous ''career'' known as rock'n'roll.

Not only do siblings share DNA but they are shaped by the same influences. ''I think the influence of the record collection, if you all grew up in a house listening to the same music, that's a huge thing,'' says the new head of contemporary music at the Sydney Opera House, Fergus Linehan.


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Also, siblings are particularly well-suited to weathering the highs and lows of the rock life.


''No matter how famous you get, if your brothers are in the band they're always going to tell you how stupid or ugly you are,'' Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon says.


Kings of Leon are a Nashville four-piece with three brothers: singer Caleb, bassist Jared and drummer Nathan. Guitarist Matthew is their cousin. Their bond is especially close because the brothers' childhood was spent travelling from tent to tent with their grandfather, a revivalist preacher.

''We had to be each others' best friends, whether we wanted to or not,'' Nathan said in 2009. ''I think that's what's enabled us to be a band of brothers and a cousin and still not kill each other.''


Not that they haven't tried. In 2009, there were reports of a punch-up between Matthew and Caleb after taunts that the cousin was always asked for autographs last.

''A band is a relationship and that relationship is very intense,'' says Stephen ''Pav'' Pavlovic, who runs Modular People, home of artists including brother-sister act the Bumblebeez. ''You need to have communication and understanding. It's like at Christmas where families get together and someone gets angry and walks out but then on Boxing Day they can all have lunch together again.


It's like that in bands. And with brothers, you're blood and that doesn't go away.''

Invariably, there are rivalries within bands and competition for the spotlight can be especially fierce.

There are two upsides, however: brothers tend to be well-practised at getting over their spats and their competitive streak can be a creative boon. Fraternal rivalry famously drove New Zealand's Finn brothers to write their best songs. Initially, Tim invited younger brother Neil to join Split Enz and later Neil reciprocated by inviting Tim to join Crowded House; later they formed Finn Brothers. But it wasn't all brotherly love. After one Byron Bay gig, the pair nearly came to blows.


''There is rivalry but it seems to work,'' Tim once said. ''Like when we get together and play we push each other because he digs what I do and I dig what he does, so there's a lot of respect. When we're together it's like fireworks, it just sparks.''

Sparks of aggro mixed with sparks of love. Presumably that's how it was in the Everly Brothers, the Pointer Sisters, the Jackson 5, Hanson and the Corrs.

In Australia, the sibling rockery extends from the Bee Gees to the Veronicas and includes the Triffids, the Sunnyboys, INXS, the Waifs and Jet.

In many cases, these bands have an uncanny ability to produce counter-melodies and interwoven rhythms that elevate songs to more than the sum of their parts. Often, there is a rich layering of vocal harmonies.


In the case of the National, there are the interlocking guitars and the subtle rhythms. A five-piece from Brooklyn, the National boast two pairs of brothers, including the Dessner twins, whose delicate pluckings require an interplay that suggests telepathy.

Twin brothers also feature in Blonde Redhead, a three-piece whose Japanese singer, Kazu Makino, used to date one twin but now dates the other. The 1980s pop confection known as Bros also boasted twins.

In any band, the rhythm section is the engine room. If bassist and drummer aren't working together, the band will bunny-hop and bumble. In the National, Bryan Devendorf plays drums and brother Scott plays bass. Their rhythms may be complex but they're seamless.


Seamless is not a word for Oasis, which combined Noel Gallagher's irresistible melodies with the nonchalant vocals of his brother, Liam. And his obnoxious antics.

''He's rude, arrogant, intimidating and lazy,'' Noel once said of his sibling. ''He's the angriest man you'll ever meet. He's like a man with a fork in a world of soup.''


Sometimes siblings tear strips off each other and sometimes they support each other. Whenever Gerard Way, lead singer of the emo five-piece My Chemical Romance, feels like crying, he can find the supportive shoulder of bass-playing brother Mikey. Whenever Jonny Greenwood, guitarist and knob-twiddler in experimental miserablists Radiohead, feels like a creep or loser, he can get a hug from bassist brother Colin.

Sadly, Richard Carpenter couldn't save his younger sister, Karen. As the Carpenters, the duo became one of the world's biggest music acts in the '70s, before Karen died in 1983 of heart failure after a tough battle with anorexia nervosa.


In 1973, the same year the Carpenters released their soft-rock hit Top of the World, two Aussie siblings named Angus and Malcolm Young were forming a band that was to be considerably louder. They named it AC/DC and their guitar interplay helped it to become one of the highest-grossing bands of all time. Twenty-seven years later, they're still sparking.


''We squabble but we come together in the music thing,'' Angus once said. ''We may have different interpretations of what we do but we both know at the end of the day that it's the result that counts. We'll sit and battle away but we probably get along better playing than we would if we were simply living together.''


Meanwhile, older brother George is involved, too. An ex-Easybeat, George co-produced several of AC/DC's best and biggest albums, helping to hone their seminal hard-rock sound. There were, by the way, eight Young siblings. Similarly, there were eight Davies siblings, including guitar-wielding brothers Ray and Dave, who formed the Kinks in 1964.



But Linehan says it's definitely no coincidence that so many bands have brothers and sisters.


''Bands are also just about grabbing whoever's nearest,'' he explains. ''When kids are playing guitar, they'll say [to each other], 'Here, this is a bass.'''


If a would-be band of teens needs someone to play or sing to complete the line-up, they're much more likely to enlist a younger brother than solicit a stranger in the street press. For fledgling rockers, the laziness factor should never be underestimated.

Hanson 2008

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