Most bands function like a family, seeing how touring, writing, and studio time force them to share a lot of small spaces for extended periods of time. But Family of the Year has taken that familial feeling a step further, and not just with its moniker. The members of the Los Angeles outfit have formed unbreakable bonds amongst themselves that come from cohabitating in a run-down house and relying on each other for inspiration and support, which has led to the kind of camaraderie that allows members to finish each other’s sentences. It also doesn’t hurt that frontman Joe Keefe and drummer Sebastian Keefe are real-life siblings.
Not surprisingly, many of the group’s songs feature numerous voices, and more than a few include a chorus of joyous handclaps. Some even sound like they should be sung by the tight-knit group around the campfire while the s’mores are melting and the wine is flowing, especially the ones that name-drop members of the band. Guitarist Jamesy Buckey, in particular, has received the lion’s share of shout-outs in FOTY songs, to the point where it’s become a Family tradition.
Family of the Year’s story began in 2009, when Joe assembled a band around an album, Songbook, that he completed while decompressing from a five-year stint with Unbusted, the alt-rock trio he started in Boston with Sebastian that gained some notoriety for its inclusion on the soundtrack to the Farrelly brothers’ film Stuck On You. Instead of relying on the distortion of his past, suddenly pianos, horns, acoustic guitars, and other assorted instrumentation were being used to display a more sophisticated—yet equally as playful—indie-rock sound that brings to mind classic pop bands like The Smiths, The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, and The Go-Betweens.
To say that Family of the Year has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time would be an understatement. In addition to Songbook, the band has issued a pair of EPs on its own Washashore Records imprint – 2009’s Where’s The Sun, 2010’s Through The Trees – in addition to last year’s 2011’s St. Croix. Songs from all four discs have made their way onto various international releases. Media attention has come from various corners of the world, including heavy rotation on French radio as well as glowing reviews from NME, BBC, IFC, Rolling Stone and Spin.
Now the group is preparing for its busiest schedule yet, with shows and tours being planned around the forthcoming full-length Loma Vista, which is due July 10, 2012 on Nettwerk Records. In addition to plenty of stateside dates, the Family plans to return overseas, where it has already developed a significant fanbase. In 2011, the band played sold-out shows in England and across Europe, including a triumphant set at France’s largest music festival, Les Vieilles Charrues.
The list of artists that FOTY has played with over the years is notable, including Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (who took the band on tour early in its career), Mumford & Sons, Gomez, Good Old War, Belle Brigade and The Antlers, though arguably the most impressive opening gig so far was when the band warmed up a Ben Folds performance with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Handpicked by Folds and Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, Family of the Year beat out 700 other hopeful artists to open the Oct. 2009 event. Not a bad way to spend your third show ever.
“We went back home to Boston to play at Symphony Hall, which was the sweetest homecoming ever,” says Joe. “The show was amazing. Our mom got to stay at a nice hotel and get dressed up and come see us play. Musically we were a bit shaky, it being our third gig, but it was a great room to play in.”
Proving its versatility, the Family has made fans of a couple of fellow Massachusetts-bred musicians who, on the surface at least, don’t have much in common: singer-songwriter Willy Mason and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. Mason contributed to the reggae-tinged “The Princess And The Pea” on Through The Trees, while the demon of screamin’ discovered Family of the Year through a mutual connection and compared what he heard to “The Mamas And The Papas on acid.” Interestingly enough, the Keefe brothers used to live next to the apartment in Boston that once housed Aerosmith.
“I don’t think Steven Tyler is getting a tattoo anytime soon, but he likes our music,” says Sebastian. “We had the opportunity to meet him once, and he was really cool.”
But a band is only as good as its most recent output, which is why it’s fair to say that Family of the Year has positioned itself for greatness. Recorded by what now constitutes the core of FOTY—Joe (vocals, guitar), Sebastian (drums, vocals), Buckey (guitar, vocals), and Christina Schroeter (keyboards, vocals)—the group completed 14 songs with producer Wally Gagel at his new studio in Hollywood, 10 of which made it onto Loma Vista. This is the first time that the band has worked with a producer and gone outside their own camp to release their music.
With Gagel’s assistance, the band has crafted a stirring set of songs teeming with catchy melodies, clever ruminations on love, heartbreak, and staying up late enough to watch the sun rise, and a cosmopolitan flavor enhanced by the fact that the members of Family of the Year hail from all over the globe. After being born in Martha’s Vineyard, the Keefe brothers followed their father’s bloodline back to Wales during their formative years (during which time Britpop was booming); Buckey is from Jacksonville, Florida, where he familiarized himself with that town’s all-ages punk scene; and Schroeter is the lone Southern California native, having grown up in Huntington Beach, where she inevitably became enamored with the ska scene led by No Doubt. Though still only in their 20s, the members of this Family are music veterans, and the precision with which they play is a testament to all of the hard work that got them here.
Gagel is another Boston native, having played with ’90s power trio Orbit prior to his current status as half of the hit-making production duo Wax Ltd (he and Xandy Barry have collectively and individually worked with artists like Folk Implosion, Muse, New Order, and The Rolling Stones). Joe had already developed strong ties with Gagel before the band entered the studio.
“Having him be a really close friend instead of a random producer assigned to us was really helpful, because you have to be pushed to edit yourself and be better, be stronger, work harder on things,” says Joe. “Working with someone like that who knows exactly what we wanted it to sound like with the same exact vision, it was really kind of a no-brainer.”
As a collection, the album is a lively slice of indie, dance- and psych-rock. Most songs highlight the perennial backdrop of California sunbeams – “St. Croix” is a dreamy tune about “a boy from Florida / took a trip to the Caribbean … he came to get over her,” (and yes, it’s about Jamesy), the strummy, 5-part harmonic “Stairs” and propulsive keyboard-laden “Diversity” are lovely servings of the band’s signature exuberance. But, don’t be misguided in thinking the band is only about cheerful, jangly tunes. Family Of The Year opens the album up to down-tempo tracks that ache a little and leave sepia-filtered images in your mind – e.g. “Hero” and “Hey Ma.”
“It feels like the first time in so many ways, because it’s the first time things have really clicked,” says Joe.
“We inspire each other,” says Sebastian. “It was important for this record to be something that would stand up as one piece, rather than something that sounded like songs strung together. We really wanted to have a record with a clear identity.”
And Family of the Year’s future is clearly a bright one. Playing every show like it’s a special occasional and writing each song with complete conviction has allowed the band to accomplish everything it has set its sights on. As “Living On Love” notes, “they say that you can’t get every little thing that you want … it’s such a lie.”