Family of the Year is promoted as a Los Angeles band despite the fact that only one member is actually from the area. But that's only where the contradictions begin.
They write some of the breeziest, beachy-keen pop-rock songs since the pre-Summer of Love era. While their lead singer takes one-word descriptions like "sunny" and "ebullient" as a compliment, he finds them "a little bit like maybe one-dimensional." And if the group name harkens back to the days of the New Christy Minstrels and Up With People that were parodied in A Mighty Wind, Joe Keefe is ready to set the record straight:
This quartet that once included six members is not always one big, happy family.
Welcome to the paradoxical world of one extraordinary Joe. The acoustic guitarist and primary writer of soaring songs with underlying themes of sadness is a frontman who would prefer to remain in the background long after forming the group in 2009 with his brother Sebastian as they transitioned from the East Coast to the West Coast.
A three-pronged tour that covered Europe, Canada and the U.S. dive-bar stops left them in a daze, but Joe Keefe found highlights in Paris ("wonderful summer evening"), Amsterdam ("naturally"), Regina, Saskatchewan ("very excitable crowds") and "a cool hang" with those "crazy Denver kids" at the Hi-Dive.
Taking a brief break before embarking on a new tour with Walk the Moon that begins Nov. 1 in Covington, Ky., Keefe showed a couple of conflicting sides during a 30-minute phone interview in late October from downtown Los Angeles. The freewheeling spirit persevered, occasionally pausing himself when his train of thought was about to go off track.
Willing to answer every question, whether it was about his beloved Red Sox ("It's been a terrible year") or rivalries with other L.A. groups ("We ended up kinda just basically just playing as much as possible and not worrying about what the other bands are doing"), Keefe was friendly but guarded in his responses. Not quite suspicious, he managed to prevent total access into the somewhat absent-minded skull of an endearing musician who must have a method to his creative madness.
Heading a band that produces delicious Hollies-like harmonies, power-pop guitar chords and simply beautiful melodies, Keefe doesn't waste words in describing their sound. "I think at the core it's rock music, just folk rock music," he said.
Choosing a group name might have been more complex. Just in case that first gig would happen sooner rather than later, Keefe came up with Family of the Year as an ironic twist chosen from a "dark song" he wrote with original member Vanessa Shaw about a dysfunctional family. Playing together while living together might have provided autobiographical inspiration, too.
According to Keefe, Shaw left the group about a year after they formed and on the heels of their first full-length release, Songbook, because "she wasn't really enjoying the touring lifestyle and kind of wanted to do her own thing." While they still stay in touch and continue to write together, Keefe said Shaw, now under the musical guise of Cillie Barnes, was seeking "probably a little less rock 'n' roll lifestyle."
The Keefe brothers apparently had little trouble adapting, making manic L.A. their home after enjoying a more natural upbringing. Born in Martha's Vineyard and raised in Wales since the age of 4 or 5, Joe described his home across the pond as a "wonderful place" where they stayed for nine years as he played soccer and other sports, took piano lessons and went hiking. Yet he found it far from idyllic.
"It was very outdoorsy," Keefe said. "But Wales was kinda, the town (Wrexham) was kind of a strange like coal mining town; so there's some darkness to it but... "
The Keefes, including an older sister, returned to the Vineyard with their mother, while their father eventually moved to France, built a stone cottage and began "kinda living off the grid."
After high school, "the Vineyard boys" went to Boston to start a music career, eventually landing in L.A. That's where Shaw's friend, Christina Schroeter (keyboards, vocals) of Huntington Beach, and Jacksonville, Florida's James "Jamesy" Buckey (guitars, vocals) remain surviving members of a Family of the Year that Joe Keefe admits isn't always that.
Asked if there's any friction within the band, Keefe sounded like he was joking, while also sharing some elements of truth.
"Oh, of course. Of course, there is. Terrible," he said, tongue-in-cheekily. "No, not as much as there has been in the past. Sometimes me and my brother get into it. Naturally, we're brothers and we have ... we're very close, so we have differing opinions on a lot of things. But we've learned to deal with it without punching each other in the face.
"It gets rough out there sometimes. ... When you're working hard to get something. ... There's a lot of dark days, too. Like playing empty shows and you're exhausted and someone thinks they know why it's not working out or something. ... It's just like any other job or group of individuals. There's always gonna be some nastiness, but ... I think that's the one thing we're getting good at as we're getting older is not letting it stick with us ... and talking things through."
Keefe gives in to the notion that they're like a real family. "Yeah, why not. Of course," he offered, before adding, "I guess we do spend every waking moment with each other. And we do have... sometimes there feels like there's a strange family hierarchy, but I think we kinda embrace it sometimes. It doesn't hurt that we're called Family of the Year. It definitely helps us fit together. We kinda feel like, 'All right, we called it that, we got to play that.' "
Not trying to be a copycat band of recent touring partners Milo Greene and Grouplove or the familial-fronted He's My Brother She's My Sister, Keefe said of Family of the Year, "We try to use our limitations in a way so that it makes us unique, I think. [...] Maybe it's... we... our... like we're all good at something, we're all terrible at other things. (laughs) Maybe we'll give someone a part that we know they can handle or that they can't handle.
"Or if we need somewhere to go in a song or something, we just use our group mentality to kind of power through it or something. By just kinda throwing everything at it that we can, since we can get very insecure when it comes to individual instrumentation or something like that. But I think that does lend itself sometimes to being a little unorthodox when it comes to our sound."
Starting out, the group shared several residences around L.A., including Silver Lake and El Sereno, south of Pasadena.
"Not anymore, though," Keefe said. "We moved up in the world."
The last comment dripped of sarcasm, too, as the nomadic lifestyle of a traveling musician seemed anything but glamorous as he was asked where everyone is living these days.
"Actually, nowhere," Keefe said, chuckling about his current arrangement as he stays with a friend who's an artist. "You know, it's kinda strange. We have like 10 days off, but we're all kind of just house-surfing or whatever. [...] We've been gone since March pretty much on and off. So it doesn't really make much sense to be paying rent when you're not there."
Keefe doesn't want any pity but admits it can be a tough way to live. "I wouldn't complain, but it's definitely ... when you get dropped off in a van and got nowhere to go, it's kinda strange," he said, relieved to know there's always a chance to "crash with family" since his sister lives in L.A.
Family of the Year, whose Twitter intro is "trying to find the words to describe ourselves without being disrespectful," should be going places besides their next tour stop, though. Loma Vista, the July 10 Wally Gagel-produced release (Nettwerk Records) named after the Silver Lake street where they all lived in a one-bedroom apartment, is pure pop bliss. Enhanced by Keefe's acerbic wit, it deserves to appear on many year-end Top 10 lists.
The band shares writing credits on five of the 11 songs, but the other six emanate from Keefe's tortured soul. "Buried" has a light, bouncy, folksy beat, but his lyrics carry significantly more weight:
Nothing ever changes
I'll be happier than hell in hell
Waiting for my friends and family
Yea alright I said it
I think you're a bunch of crazies (love you)
I'm taking you all down with me
And the achingly wistful "Hey Ma" swells with its hopeless message -- "Hey Ma, I'm up in space. It seems I can't come down. There's nowhere to land, there's nowhere to land, nowhere to land."
Even on the group-written "Living on Love," which on the surface starts out so joyfully, Keefe digs Buckey's angry electric guitar, saying, "It has some attitude."
At least the anti-hero who wrote "Hero" can be encouraged that his ballad with the telling line -- "I just wanna fight with everyone else" -- will be heard in an upcoming film that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Obviously not reading his own press releases, the news caught Keefe by surprise during this exchange:
It must be nice to know that "Hero" is on closing credits of a movie.
Joe: "What movie?"
Oh, you don't know about that?
Joe: "I don't know. What is it?"
It's called Thanks for Sharing with Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim Robbins.
Joe: "Oh, shit! It sounds familiar."
Yeah, it's supposedly coming out in November.
Joe: "No way. That's awesome! That's one of my favorite things in the world is having songs in good movies."
Hopefully, it's a good movie.
Joe: "Well, yeah. I like the cast. I like Mark Ruffalo a lot. He's awesome."
Just hope audiences will stay till the end.
Joe: "Exactly. Exactly. I will. I'll stay till the end. I'll rent it and fast-forward it."
He might have to wait a while since the movie release has been pushed back to 2013. But Keefe perks up while discussing music placement in movies, TV and, yes, even those dreaded commercials.
He certainly prefers the former, saying, "I think everyone loves a good soundtrack. A good song, a good part in a movie. I think that's really exciting. ... Yeah, of course. Yes, yes, definitely something that is fun, exciting."
But more fun than showing up in an Advil commercial, where Family of the Year's "ChugJug" was used?
"Ten-hundred times more exciting," Keefe said without hesitation. "It doesn't pay quite as well. I don't think it does. I don't know. I think a lot of movies, independent movies, they pay you kinda ... it's more about like -- 'Do you like the movie? Do you want to be a part of it?' -- than it is like, you know ... I think they spend all of their money like getting Rolling Stones songs."
Not that he'll turn up his nose at the chance for more ad space. "I mean, it's really good business. I don't want to sound like I don't care about it," Keefe said, his addendum possibly revealing where his true feelings lie.
"It's amazing how much of that music it's just kinda people go buy it up and put it in grocery stores and stuff like that," he said. "And you're like, 'Oh, boy.' ... But it's also like if you've got a lot of those ... you always feel like you're shit, feel bad turning things down. ... It's hard to say no to it. "
Whether preserving artistic integrity or achieving commercial success is more important to Keefe is hard to figure out. Much like he is.
Asked to share something about himself that most people don't know, Keefe pondered the question for a few moments before answering, "I wish I was a drummer. Yeah, I don't really ... I wish I was a drummer so I could be in the back and just have a good time instead of standing up front."
Big brother is jealous of little brother? "Of course I am," Joe said of Sebastian. "But he's jealous of me, too. He loves coming up in front of the stage. He loves it."
So switching places would be the next logical move.
"I know," said Keefe, thinking about another pair of brothers who became successful after trading places -- and instruments. "Van Halen, right? Yeah, I would love that."
Love, joy, sorrow, irony, envy. Just another day in the life of Family of the Year's Man of the Half-Hour.
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas