Modern rock duos are all about gimmicks. The Black Keys twist their guitar-and-drums combo into a sort of indie version of the blues. Mates of State got the whole cute-couple thing going on. And the White Stripes had a drummer who couldn't play the drums.
Nashville's Jeff the Brotherhood are indeed brothers: Jake and Jamin Orrall. But their family connection isn't their gimmick. Neither is the fact that they're a garage-punk band raised and based in a city best known for cowboy-hat-wearing country singers. (Their dad, Robert Ellis Orrall, is a singer-songwriter who's released a handful of country albums and co-produced Taylor Swift's debut.)
Jeff the Brotherhood's gimmick has to do with the way Jake plays his guitar. He uses only the lower three strings, which, depending on how you feel about that, is either limiting in the amount of notes, chords, and sounds he's able to bring to each song or it's liberating in its simplicity. From the positively big noise he makes on the band's new album, We Are the Champions, we're gonna go with the latter.
But like most rock-duo gimmicks, Jeff the Brotherhood's three-string assault came out of necessity, not any sort of overwhelming desire to change the way things are usually done. "I taught myself to play guitar, and to simplify it I tried to learn just three strings," says Jake. "I figured if I ever needed to, I'd learn all six. It's limited, but it makes you come up with your own shit that doesn't sound like anything else."
He's a lot more open talking about his instrument than he is discussing the musical journey he's taken with his brother over the years. Jake is 25, drummer Jamin is 23. Their first album came out in 2002. We Are the Champions is their sixth album, but the first to get some major-label help with distribution. All of their records have been released on the family-owned Infinity Cat label. And they were founding members of Be Your Own Pet, a Nashville band that made some waves a few years back when they anchored the city's indie-rock scene.
But Jake doesn't have a whole lot to say about his formative years. Ask him when he and his brother first started playing music together and he pauses for a long time, ums and ahs his way around the start of a couple answers, before finally mumbling "10 and 12, maybe." It's not the first time he's been asked this, which at first may explain his hesitating tone. But almost every question about something that happened before, say, 2010, is basically shrugged off.
Who picked up an instrument first? "I don't remember. We were pretty young."
Were there ever any fights about musical direction? "Uh, not really."
When did you guys realize this was something you wanted to do with your lives? "Um, I'm not sure."
He's a little more forthcoming about Jeff the Brotherhood's future. After spending most of the past year on the road (and they're not done yet), Jake says he'd like to spend a little more time in the studio on the band's next album. And for a group so dedicated to touring — Jeff's ferocious live shows have made them one of 2011's buzz bands — Jake takes more comfort in the studio these days. "I'm really starting to enjoy the process," he says.
Then he pauses, starts to say something, and stops. After several seconds of more ums and ahs, he adds, "Recording is more a form of my self-expression."
Maybe Jake prefers to let the music do the talking for him. Which is understandable, considering the primal garage thud, Ramones-like thump, and psychedelic shadings of We Are the Champions. This isn't rock & roll you think about. This is rock & roll you drink to, raise your fist to, and bob your head to. It's not thinking-man's music, so maybe Jake sees no reason to analyze what he does or why he does it or what it was about Nashville and his childhood that drove him to this point.
"The only kids I knew growing up were listening to rock music," he says. "I didn't even know anybody who listened to country music. Country music is an industry in Nashville, it's not a scene. It's this thing that adults did, like work."