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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014

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In Music Commentary

Barbara and Ethan Gruska of The Belle Brigade come from a strong lineage of musicians. (Photo: Glynis Selina Arban)

In Music Commentary

Their album is a clever mix of folk, rock, alt-country and '60s pop.

The Belle Brigade transforms music lineage into original sound


Sometimes, music is a family affair passed down through several generations of a lineage.

T. S. Monk, Jakob Dylan, Julian and Sean Lennon, a seemingly never-ending line of Marleys, are all examples of children that took the musical environment they either grew up around or were associated with because of their parents and absorbed it to the point that they too wanted to pursue a career slinging tunes.

Americana pop band The Belle Brigade's Barbara and Ethan Gruska, daughter and son of TV and film composer Jay Gruska, grandchildren of multi-Oscar-winning composer John Williams and great-grandchildren of jazz drummer Johnny Williams, are certainly the products of a family whose history in music runs deep, says Ethan.

"I think that a lot of the influence from our family basically was subconscious because as kids we just kind of grew up around music and it was always in our lives and in our house, and we had great musicians walking through all the time. Then as we got older and started actually playing more I think that our family, especially our dad, had some great things to say just about our musicality and our choices and our focus. So, it's pretty great to have had that kind of musical history behind us."

With a family that has award-winning composers and jazz musicians in it, it's no wonder that the music Ethan and Barbara put forth as The Belle Brigade has more of a '60s and '70s pop feel to it, which was a time when popular music had much more texture to it than today's mass-produced computer pop.

Barbara, who sings and plays drums and guitar, isn't 100 percent certain as to why their sound went in that direction for their first album.

"I really don't know. Ethan wrote music separately before we formed the band and I wrote music separately before we formed the band, and I think when we started playing that's just what kind of came out, and who knows why? It's funny because a lot of people say that (our songs have a '60s/'70s feel), but there's I think about four songs on the record that are like a real throwback, but there are a lot that aren't.

We have a bunch of new songs for our next record that we're planning on doing and it's kind of a different feel of stuff. I think we listen to a lot of different styles of music and we have a very eclectic taste in music so maybe it came off like that because that's just one of our influences, rock and pop from the '60s and '70s. We love it."

The writing process for their self-titled debut actually began as a slightly collaborative solo project for Barbara that blossomed into what would become The Belle Brigade, recalls Ethan.

"Well we, like Barbara said, were writing music on our own and Barbara went up to record a little solo record in this place in Sacramento that I went and kind of tagged along and helped out to engineer a tiny bit and sang on, and it turned out really good. Towards the end of that process I was kind of playing Barb a few of my songs that I had written and we kind of just decided on the idea of, instead of making her record, just taking some of my songs and then just making it a band. That's just kind of how it started, and I'm really glad that it did because then we kind of started writing stuff together and that turned out to be a way more fulfilling, kind of artistic statement to have both of our input in there."

The name The Belle Brigade also has roots in their family, Barbara stated.

"That's a lyric from an old song that we wrote. It's about our little brother Eli."

Their album, which is a clever mix of folk, rock, alt-country and '60s pop, was written and arranged as organically as it feels, says Ethan, who handles singing, piano and guitar.

"We kind of just tried to follow our instincts and kind of see what the songs needed. As we went on we kind of said that we wanted to add some more modern elements to the arrangements and to the sounds. We didn't really have much of a thought of what it was going to be going into it because we really wanted to keep our minds open and let other people have their input just on musical ideas."

Though not wanting to come off as a pushy salesperson when it comes to their music, Barbara thinks that what she and Ethan have created on "The Belle Brigade" is something worth listening to.

"I know that I think (that it's fun to listen to) and I know that the people who are fans of the music think this. There's serious lyrics on there and the music can feel uplifting behind them and I think that if somebody wants to enjoy a long-distance ride or something like that, that it'll be a great thing to listen to."

Being sister and brother also adds an interesting sound to their vocal tones that are of course similar, but just different enough to make the singing worth sincerely listening to for how they complement each other. Ethan recognizes the similarity.

"Yeah, it's often a thing with your sibling. You know, you have the same, very similar DNA, you say words the same. Our voices just sound similar."

The duo looks at performing their tunes as being a serious exchange of energy between them and the crowd, and they look at that exchange as being something fun instead of daunting, Ethan assures.

"We try to bring 100 percent of our energy every night. We look at it like we're basketball players or just athletes. Every night we want to give 100 percent so that other people feel our fun and our energy, because we don't really do anything special during our shows besides play. We don't have any cool gimmicks. So, if people are going to have a good time we just know that we have to have a good time ourselves so people can pick up on that. Other than that, we don't really do anything else besides just focus and play our music."

Though they are siblings, there will be no Noel and Liam Gallagher-like fireworks on stage between the two, promises Barbara.

"I used to be able to pick on him more because I used to be bigger than him but he's definitely bigger than I am now, so I can't really mess with that because you have to be able to back yourself up."

Just as every new artist finds, there are people who enjoy the music that's put forth and there are people that will dislike it for a number of reasons. The Belle Brigade's debut was met with mostly favorable reviews and kind words, but it also had its detractors, something that Ethan said took some getting used to.

"It's always scary to put yourself out there, especially when it's art, because you know it's obviously just an opinion – whether it's good or not – but it was definitely awesome to hear the good write-ups that we got. It was an incredible honor and very flattering. To hear the stuff that was bad was really hard and it takes time to learn how to deal with that because you always want everybody to like what you do. But, as I said, it's just all an opinion and it's actually not an earth-shattering thing if somebody doesn't love what you do, so it's just always important to be grounded and to not read into it too much."

As far as what's next for the band, it's more touring and the preparation of a new album – one that Ethan believes will show their growth as a band.

"In terms of our songs I think that there's not a huge difference in terms of the style, except for they're more mature, as they should be as being your later material. I think that we just feel more connected with them and feel like we have a little bit of experience under our belt to make them just better – more clean, more meaningful songs."

The Belle Brigade is performing at Turner Hall Nov. 5 with headliners Blitzen Trapper and Dawes.

Check out the music video for their song "Losers" here.


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