More than 10 years ago, Tom Hamilton and Tom McKee came together in eastern Pennsylvania to create their own unique genre of jammed-out electronic music. With a headlining slot at Aura and a series of CD Release shows for the release of their upcoming double album in March up and down the East Coast, things are looking brighter for Brothers Past. I had a chance to talk with Tom McKee, founding member and keys player, in the band about their career and the future of the band.
Can you give a brief history of the band and how you guys came together?

Tom McKee: I met Tom Hamilton in 1998 and basically thought he was one of the best guitarists I had heard that wasn’t on a big stage somewhere. We started making music together and found Clay and Rick in 2000 and moved into a house together and started making music. We basically built the band up locally by playing a weekly residency in West Chester, PA and eventually we bought a van and started driving hundreds of miles for no real money. It wasn’t glamorous but we kept at it and eventually found a following. We’ve put out three full length CDs at this point and have a double album coming out at the end of March, so it’s been quite the rewarding journey.

Who are your greatest influences?

Tom McKee: My parents. If you’re talking musically, there really isn’t enough space to fit them. Huge Beatles fan, Dylan, the Beach Boys, etc. I love jazz, prog, acoustic music. I could go on but what would be the point? I don’t want people to listen to Brothers Past and be able to pick out our influences. I want them to listen and have no idea where this music came from.

How does your songwriting process work (Collaborative or on your own)?

Tom McKee: There are two primary songwriters in the band and it used to be that I wrote my songs and Tommy wrote his. We would teach them to the other three guys in the band and kind of flesh them out on the road. It’s a much more collaborative process now, thanks to the computer. Basically I look at my computer as a big giant sketchbook for musical ideas. I will put a bunch of things together and start working on them and then Tommy and I go through them and pick out things that will work for BP. From there anything can happen. We start tweaking the original demo and it may get fleshed out further or it could be changed completely. I’ve learned at this point it’s good to not come in too attached to anything because sometimes that can really impede progress, ya know? Tommy is a great producer and I can play him something and he can see the song in it immediately when there is something there. So sometimes I need to just get out of the way and let him do his thing. He is really good at finishing things and I am really good at starting them and that formula has worked well for us recently. Basically the last 6-7 songs we’ve written have happened that way and it’s organic and it feels good to be collaborating with someone you have a lot of respect for.

What kind of music is on in the tour bus?

Tom McKee: No tour bus but we listen to a pretty wide variety of stuff in the van: Dylan, The Dead, Bruce, Motown, Fleet Foxes, Dr. Dog, etc. Basically, stuff that doesn’t sound anything like Brothers Past, which is exactly what we are looking for when we are in a van together.

Growing up, was there a lot of music on in the house? If so, what genre? What effect did that have on the music you play today?

Tom McKee: In my house, no. My parents are not what you would call very musical people. My dad played a little guitar growing up and he has been playing piano the past few years but it wasn’t like I grew up in an environment that was super cultural as far as music was concerned. No one handed me the soundtrack to Tommy and told me to burn a candle when I listen to it. I didn’t discover a lot of the music I love until high school and college, but once I found something I liked I dove into it. I had an older cousin who would play the piano and we would sing together and that kept me pretty into music as a little kid. As I got older, I just found more to love. I still get this amazing feeling when I discover a new band that I fall in love with.

What is your favorite festival to play?

Tom McKee: No favorites. They’re all fun for different reasons. Bonnaroo was unlike anything I have ever experienced. SXSW is a crazy awesome clusterfuck in the middle of Texas and you literally can’t throw a rock without hitting a band playing somewhere. Camp Bisco is thrown by our friends and it’s always a great hang. It’s been a lot of fun to watch that festival grow. We have played it semi-consistently since year two, and it just keeps getting bigger and better.

On your upcoming tour, you play a lot of legendary venues in the Northeast (The 8×10, the Westcott, the Bowery Ballroom, and the great new Union Transfer to name a few). What is your favorite venue to play?

Tom McKee: Again, no real favorites. There are some great clubs/theaters across the country and we love a bunch of them for various reasons. You can have a place like Brooklyn Bowl, which is a pretty huge club in New York, and they treat the bands great and you can bowl and have great food etc and that’s an amazing night. Or you could go to the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains, PA, which is run by a promoter named Tom Moran who has always been a tremendous supporter of the band and really treats us well. They are both very different show experiences but the people in each venue put a lot of time and energy into making sure their artists are treated with love and respect and as a guy who has done a lot of driving around the country to play shows in venues where that is sometimes not the case, I can tell you that that means a lot to me personally.

I read an article of yours (Tom McKee) about the effect Pink Floyd had on your music, what is it about Pink Floyd that made such a profound effect on you?

Tom McKee: I think you’d be hard pressed to find an artist that Pink Floyd wasn’t a huge influence on but certainly for what we do I think they kind of blazed the trail. I mean they were a rock band with songs who were exploring textures and moods long before most other bands were. There are parts of their songs that sound a lot like various styles of electronic music long before those genres were “invented.” I feel like if I wrote down the words I associate with Pink Floyd’s music and I asked a fan of BP to write down the words they associate with ours, there would be a lot of the same words, ya know? So they are basically just a band that I can connect with when it comes to thinking about BP.

Being from Philadelphia, are there any new local bands that you see taking off in the foreseeable future?

Tom McKee: Great music scene in Philly right now. Most of the bands are blowing up already though: Dr. Dog, Kurt Vile, War on Drugs, Disco Biscuits, Lotus, etc, Quite a few bands from this area with national audiences and that most certainly was not the case this time ten years ago. I don’t know much about the up and comers though. I don’t really go out and see much music believe it or not.

You guys came out of Philadelphia at the same time as bands like the Disco Biscuits and Lotus, how is your relationship with those bands? Do you feel a “brotherly love” connection of sorts?

Tom McKee: We have great relationships with both bands and have collaborated with members of each in various capacities. That being said I think all three bands bring something very different to the table and I think we all would like to see our music stand on its own merit rather than get lumped in to a specific genre with other bands. But yeah in general we all know one another and are friendly when we cross paths. Obviously the bands have performed together many many times over the years so there is a history.

What is it like working with the School of Rock?

Tom McKee: It is basically the most rewarding thing I have been a part of outside my own music. I have 140 students at my school and we are constantly working on putting together shows that the kids will perform as part of their lessons. Last season I did Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti and this season I am doing Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. The kids learn to play three or four songs on their respective instruments and then we put them all in a room together and start working together on piecing the songs together. First rehearsal is always one of the worst sounding things you can imagine, but it gets better and three months later they are doing it on a stage with lights and a smoke machine, etc. I have worked with many, many amazing kids from all over the country and it really is an incredibly rewarding feeling to watch them improve and gain self-confidence etc.

Where do you see the music industry going in the next 5 years? 10 years?

Tom McKee: Don’t think about it much to be honest. I am more than content to just write songs and play them with Tom, Clay and Rick. I used to wake up every day and the goal was to do a bunch of shit to make the band bigger. Now I really am happy to just play music with guys I love and respect. That means a whole lot more to me than how many tickets we’ve sold, how many albums we’ve sold, etc. I would love BP to be the biggest band in the world but I go to sleep every night just happy that BP is still a band. I love our music, I love my band mates and I love what we do when we get onstage and that is more than enough for me.

In 10 years, where do you see the band?

Tom McKee: I really don’t know man. I never expected any band I’ve played in to make it ten years. The fact that we are still here kinda blows my mind sometimes. When I think back to high school, there are a lot of kids I would have bet would still be playing music for a living into their mid-30s. I didn’t necessarily think I would be one of them but here I am and here we are. I’d love to be doing the same thing but I appreciate it for what it is. I just want to keep trying to write better songs, to become a better player, to be a better band mate. If I do that, hopefully everything else takes care of itself. That’s all I got.