When it comes to melding minds in service of a song, certainly familial collaborators must have a leg up on the competition. While the non-blood-related partnerships Lennon-McCartney and the “Glimmer Twins” (Jagger-Richards) remain inarguably the most notable of all time, sibling teams like Motown royalty Brian and Eddie Holland, falsetto disco trio Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, and cheeky-alt rockers Noel and Liam Gallagher each left an indelible mark on the decade in which they wrote tunes. Today, there are songwriting teams featuring members with similar DNA sequences enjoying success in nearly every genre, from pop-punks P.S. Eliot to banjo-brigadiers The Avett Brothers. Thus, anyone looking for a magical musical partnership should remember this credo to nepotism: Keep it in the family!
As the name suggests, Tampa-based indie band Brother Cephus was born of literal kinship. Though Seth and Gabriel Davis have a long way to go to be added to the pantheon of famous sibling pen-pals, at 23 and 24 years old, respectively, the brothers’ partnership has already yielded a trio of regionally well-regarded EPs since 2014 — the latest, a five-song collection called Noise, being the best of the bunch.
Brother Cephus’ moody, layered sound fits neatly among atmosphere-heavy contemporary acts like Ducktails, The War on Drugs, Real Estate, and others often categorized using the confounding, contradictory, yet somehow appropriate label of “Indie.” The brothers’ share duties of singing, songwriting and guitar playing, applying a brooding, emotive vocal style to topical (if not First World-centric) lyrics, while interweaving chime-y, intricate guitar parts over mellow rock grooves.
Just because they’re splitting the obligations of crafting the songs doesn’t mean one brother treats the other’s tunes with indifference, says older brother Gabriel.
“It’s interesting that one of us will introduce a song with a certain intent and then the other will naturally attach his own meaning,” Davis says. “It may not end up changing the original meaning, but it helps us improve on the idea. And at the end of the day, we both have to play and perform these songs with feeling, so we better connect to it.”
The progeny of a pastor, the Davis boys cut their teeth playing music in a nondenominational church.
“It was honestly a great experience because we were able to play and perform music a couple times a week, every week,” says Davis.
Musically, however, the brothers’ rearing strayed from the ecclesiastical.
“Our dad was a teenager in the ’70s and had a soft spot for folk-influenced rock,” says Davis. “We grew up listening to a lot of James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, other kinds of singer-songwriter stuff.”
As teenagers, the brothers dived into Tampa’s vibrant punk and hardcore scene, which led them down a well-traversed rabbit-hole where they discovered highly cited modern punk and indie influencers like Fugazi, Joy Division, The Smiths … the list goes on.
Mixing in a little new wave, some grunge and emo, their eclectic musical tutelage resulted in a sound that, while easily (if not lazily) categorized as “indie,” does have a recognizable and refreshing depth.
Lyrically, Seth and Gabriel wrestle with (and articulate quite well) many of the same issues indie-peers tend to bring to light — the implications of an over-stimulated youth culture, the false or fabricated narratives people present through the Internet and social media, a decaying trust in traditional institutions. But, unlike songwriters critical of the pop cultural hangover from Generation X (Father John Misty, St. Vincent, Kurt Vile or Cass McCombs come to mind) — who tend to employ sharp-tongued sarcasm, cynicism or irreverence as weapons of choice, shaming those who aren’t quite as introspective — the Davis brothers tend to look inward, penning lyrics that are critical, yet earnest and sincere in their optimism.
“A lot of times, I think our own self-criticisms cloud our interactions or the way we view others,” says Davis. “[Seth and I] are interested in addressing those things, but also moving past them.”
“I’m not happy that I personally spend an inordinate amount of my day on Facebook instead of writing music,” Davis continues. “But I’m not going to criticize someone who struggles to get away from that. I think it’s better to say, ‘OK, this is happening, let’s fix it.’”
“At the same time, we’d like to say, ‘Fuck it. Let’s have some fun.’”
With Noise, that sanguine outlook is front and center.
On the album’s title track, the elder Davis brother sings, “My mind screams like an ocean of sound/ Forget what you’ve learned, forget what you know/ All these things I’m hearing they’re taking me further and further away.” As Seth delivers the lyric, he draws out each line, leaving ample space for reflection, before belting the chorus: “What’s all that noise?/ What’s all this shit in my head?/ Stop all that noise.”
“My dad always said the fear of something can be worse than the reality,” Davis says of the track’s technology-focused broodings. “There are obvious negative by-products of the technology we are using. There is a lot of stimulation, white noise, stuff that can cloud your vision. At the same time, if you really look at things and you can confront your fears and doubts, you can make progress. I’m trying to confront that throughout the album.”
The EP’s second track, “The Disconnect,” traverses similar terrain. With his vocals drenched in reverb, over similarly reverb-heavy, punchy guitar strums, Gabriel sings, “We pack this house like sardines./ Try to keep the bills low./ The rising cost of electricity./ I can’t pay it on my own.” Then, in another drawn-out chorus, sings, “The disconnect, the Internet./ The gap between who I am and who I want to be.”
“That song in particular, a lot of those lyrics are pretty literal to the situation of where we were living at the time I wrote it,” Davis says of “The Disconnect.” “Part of what I was thinking about was how little silence I actually experienced on a day-to-day basis. We were living with five dudes in the same house. We were living on top of each other, kind of suffocating one another. And whenever I had space to myself, I’d put on Netflix, or a podcast, or listen to music.”
“I started thinking that part of me was a little afraid to sit in silence.”
Even on a song like the fifth track “Matrimony,” in which younger brother Seth casts a critical eye on the inclination of the young, Southern Christians the brothers grew up with to rush into early marriage (“I’m tired of matrimony. Tied now to a crooked home”), the song’s up-tempo backbone, shimmery guitars and refrain (“I know this life is hard./ I know this life is good”) all point the song directly toward reconciliation.
It’s the kind of self-aware, self-betterment focused outlook that would sound at home if it were woven into a Sunday sermon. And the Davis brothers don’t shy away from the fact that their upbringing – both in the church and in the modern American Worship music scene (as teens, they played in older brother Ben’s Christian Rock band Ascend The Hill) – continues to shape the way they see the world.
“It’s influenced Seth and me in different ways, both positive and negative,” Davis says.
Far from stepping on the fumie, Davis says he now relates to his faith as more of an ongoing search. That current search includes heading back in the studio to work on new Brother Cephus material this month, and plotting a more extensive U.S. tour for spring 2017.
“The existential thought process is something that’s hard to ignore,” he says.
“I still align with a lot of what we grew up to believe. But I’ll never stop searching, that’s for sure.”