May 9, 2003

Blood Brothers resist categories, define themselves

I'm supposed to boil The Blood Brothers' music down to a phrase, an easy to swallow sub-genre that encompasses their entire being. This single expression is supposed to explain to you, the reader, what they are all about, and give you a good idea of what they sound like. This really shouldn't be a challenging task, considering that there are about a hundred journalistic terms ending with the "-core" suffix, right? Wrong. The Blood Brothers' music is an amalgam of punk, hardcore, pop, metal, and even dance music. These aspects are so artfully and inventively blended that the band consistently defies definition.

I had a chance to talk with vocalist Johnny Whitney and bassist/keyboardist Morgan Henderson before the show. These days, a lot of journalists seem to be using the term "post-hardcore" to make sense of the band. "What era of hardcore are you talking about?" Henderson asked me. "Hasn't there already been a post-hardcore? Are we post-post-hardcore?" Let's leave this problem of categorization for a minute, as there's still the small matter of their live show to address.

Whenever The Blood Brothers take the stage, the entire venue becomes like one living body, with the band feeding off of the energy of the fans and vice versa. This formula works best in an intimate setting like the Fireside Bowl, where the majority of the audience is there specifically to see the Brothers. This is in stark contrast to recent tours of larger venues, opening up for more conventional bands such as Glassjaw and AFI, tours Whitney obliquely referred to as "a fucking uphill battle." On Sunday night, however, the Brothers were in their element, exploding onstage as if possessed. Don't let me mislead you, though; this isn't the same testosterone-driven energy you're likely to find at most hardcore or punk shows. The Blood Brothers exude something that most describe as a very "effeminate" energy, which has led many to hail the Brothers as a challenge to our conceptions of what hardcore music is. This is not the band's conscious effort to associate itself with a greater mission, though. "None of us really listen to hardcore music," explained Whitney. "We listen to a lot of effeminate stuff like David Bowie and T-Rex." Onstage, Whitney and fellow vocalist Jordan Billie cavort about the stage and gesture suggestively, alternating between gentle serenades and ear-piercing screams. The songs themselves elevate anti-conventionalism to an art form; amorphous and unpredictable, the listener never knows what to expect. Morgan explained their song-writing process to me through a metaphor he had constructed in the shower: "Writing a song is like knowing the answer but not the question; you know what you want to express, you just don't know how to get there."

For now, the Brothers still have a whole world to conquer. Fresh off the heels of their first major label release, Burn Piano Island, Burn, recorded for ARTISTdirect records (their experience with the label has apparently been "good for a majority of the time"), the Brothers have been touring non-stop. Up next is a stint in Europe with fellow Seattleites Pretty Girls Make Graves, followed by some time in the studio, with the hopes that recording sessions for their next full length can start this winter. The band hopes to take a different approach than they did for Piano Island, a record that they feel may have been "overthought." They hope to work on a majority of the songs while in the studio (a luxury afforded by major-label money), hopefully allowing for a "more organic" process of writing. Johnny promised me that "it'll sound a lot different."

So what of the classification problem? Can we call them a hardcore band? A "screamo" band? Should we invent a new genre such as "dance-core" (I actually saw this term used to describe them on a flyer once)? If we limit the Brothers to any of these imaginary sub-genres, not only are we ignoring songs that don't fit that particular mold (listen to "The Salesman, Denver Max," "The Shame," or "American Vultures"), we're also ignoring the band's future possibilities. Does it even matter? After all, classification never helps anyone make music; it only helps to sell it. "A lot of people say that we're pushing the boundaries of hardcore," Morgan told me. "I'm just trying to push the boundaries of what music is."