With a name like Family of the Year, you can’t help but wonder what the sextet from Silverlake, California are really about. Are they cousins? Are they all dating each other? (Hopefully not both.) What’s the deal? Well, some of them are brothers, but there’s more to this band than just their quirky stage name. With an EP and their 2009 debut, Songbook, under their belt, these West Coast hipsters are moving through the indie realm at record speed, kicking ass along the way, and capturing the hearts of new fans at every turn. Sebastian Keefe, drummer and occasional guitarist for the group, took the time out to speak candidly to Inyourspeakers about Family of the Year’s seemingly sudden appearance on the music radar, the influence of Bob Dylan and Nine Inch Nails, and Rosie, the group’s home away from home. More on the self-described “folk-acoustic power pop” group after the jump.
Inyourspeakers: Where in the world did the name “Family of the Year” come from? Was this your first choice for a moniker or what?
Sebastian Keefe: We initially had a different band name. It was actually kind of a complicated, unpronounceable, bizarre couple of words. It was just like, people had a hard time trying to remember it, write it down, search for it on the internet—you name it, you know? So, we kind of wanted to have something, not catchy, but at least memorable, something that would always fit with out music. And so, we spent some time thinking about it, and we actually had a song called “Family of the Year” that didn’t make it onto the EP or the LP. We really liked the sound of that and the images it creates, and we kind of chose that because in the period between the band’s inception and when we tried to change our name, we had actually become incredibly close as a group of individuals, as a band. It kind of fit perfectly: it had the right amount of irony in it, because, you know, family of the year is kind of seen as the perfect family in any community, but how there are so often so many problems on the inside of those kinds of families. We wear our problems on our sleeves, so to speak, and it kind of just came along, and we just grew into it, and it kind of just makes sense to us.
IYS: You were speaking about how you guys were so close—how did you six ever come to meet each other?
SK: Well, Joseph and I are brothers; we’ve been playing music together forever. Jamesy is an old friend of ours from Boston—he was a recording engineer and bandmate of Joe and I before we moved to Los Angeles several years ago, so we knew him forever, too. We had been in bands in the past together, so the three of us were probably going to end up in another group. Brent, Vanessa, and Christina were friends for a long time in L.A. before we ever met them. It all came together when Joe and Vanessa got together and started hanging out all the time and recording music, and all of the pieces kind of fit together in Los Angeles, I guess.
IYS: So you guys actually came from the East Coast, and you went to the West Coast, and everything just kind of fell into place for you?
SK: Yeah. A couple guys came from the South, Joe and I came from the Northeast, we’re originally from Martha’s Vineyard, and the two girls come from Orange County. So, it’s kind of an eclectic triangular section of the United States.
IYS: I actually just reviewed your album, and found it very enjoyable to listen to, something very different. How did you guys come together to create something so artistic and cohesive?
SK: Awesome! Well, the original album started as a project between Joe and Vanessa, actually. They had gotten close, and Joe and I were between bands, and he had just found this new love, so they were spending time writing music together on very simple home recording systems. A lot of the feelings and vibes came about from them trying to go for a particular sound—one might describe it as just experimenting with stuff—and the overall feeling of like—the group was never actually intended on being a group. It was just a fun thing that they had started recording, and they never intended on playing it out, so there was no real pressure on them to be a “this” kind of band, or “that” kind of band, or any specific genre of any music. They kind of just recorded what they wanted to do, and Joe is a very capable engineer and producer; he recorded the whole album himself and produced it. They came from different angles, but Joe produced it himself, so it does have that central force throughout the whole.
IYS: I hate to categorize you guys, as you were just saying about genres and whatnot, but I feel like the album has a very Americana vibe to it. Was this the sound you guys were aiming for, or were you not aiming for anything in particular?
SK: When it was recorded, there was no particular goal. We selected the actual album songs, and created the sequence out of about thirty-five songs total. There’s a ton of music that we haven’t released—and don’t know if we ever will release because we want to write more music. We didn’t go for anything, we wanted it to be eclectic-sounding, but we didn’t want it to be too far out. We kind of just tried to walk this line of keeping it interesting but just different enough, but we definitely have big Americana, kind of folky influences for sure.
IYS: Taking off on standing on the line between being Americana and eclectic, I’ve got to ask you about the track “Psyche or Like Scope”. It’s got this disco, ‘70s vibe to it. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?
SK: Yeah, it really is just another exploration for us to just explore the sounds. “Let’s do a song that sounds like this,” really. Joe is so very good at writing songs and writing music that basically is chords and melody, and it just depends on what kind of medium you want to put it on. So, yeah, “let’s write a fucking pop disco track that’s danceable, that you can hear in the club. Sure, let’s do it.” I think that’s where the continuity is in the album even though it all sounds so different, it is very eclectic-sounding, there is the basic framework of any good song, [which] would just be the melody and the chords, really, and the beat.
IYS: As a member, how would you describe Family of the Year’s music, in your own words?
SK: I would say that it’s kind of happy, folk-acoustic power pop.
IYS: How do you feel that the band’s sound has evolved since you six came together? What about the lyric-writing process—how has that changed?
SK; We actually came together this summer, actually. Yeah, it’s all kind of happened really fast. The sound has evolved, but more so in live performances. We kind of hit the ground running, because we had a lot of support for the album when it first started coming to the surface, before we put it out and when people were hearing it, they were very excited about it. We’ve almost been, not playing catch up, but we’ve had a lot of work to do to get up to a certain level of playing live, which wasn’t really a problem because we’ve all been playing in bands together or separate for most of our lives. So, it really didn’t take very long, but that’s probably where the music has evolved the most. Our newest music we’re recording is kind of the same process, a lot of the same things, so, it really hasn’t evolved much, considering that we have kind of always do go for different-sounding things. On any given night, we’ll record a different-sounding song, so, it’s kind of always going to have this eclectic, upbeat feeling. I’m sure we have those downbeat songs that are more serious, but overall, it will obviously evolve, as all art does, but we’re probably going to stay on the same course for a little while.
IYS: What are some of your biggest influences?
SK: The biggest influences, I would have to say, are like, bonfires on beaches, and crazy camping trips, and big bottles of wine. But, musically, I’d have to say the biggest musical influences are along the lines of Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and maybe Blur, Supergrass . . . I don’t even know, the list could go on forever and ever! Just lots of good music, I guess. We draw from so many different areas—it’s kind of crazy—from ABBA to Pink Floyd, to Taylor Swift to Nine Inch Nails, really.
IYS: Like you said, everything has happened so fast, but you guys have already opened for Ben Folds. What was that experience like for you guys?
SK: It was huge. He was the person, when I got my first drum kit and I first started to play the guitar and sing and stuff, I would just spend hours and hours just playing along to Whatever and Ever, Amen. He was a huge influence on my brother and I, for sure, growing up. I know everyone is a huge fan, so it was a profoundly huge moment for us. He chose us to play in Symphony Hall, in Boston, which was, coming from Massachusetts, as well, is a double-whammy, because it’s such a world-famous stage, and it’s such a beautiful room. The whole thing was kind of surreal, especially because it was so early on in the game for us—we had probably played maybe a half dozen shows before that, maybe a dozen. So, it was, like I said before, we really had to hit the ground running with this band. We rose to the challenge, and it was such a wonderful beginning for us, we were so honored.
IYS: That’s so amazing for you guys, to have something like that happen so early on in your guys’ career.
SK: It certainly must be said, for anybody that might be reading this, that it is so early on for this band, but we have all been chasing this dream since we were probably ten years old, in so many bands, and playing out and touring different groups for years and years, waiting for these kinds of opportunities. So, it has happened so fast, but not without a lot of hard work and practice, and playing to empty rooms all over the freaking world.
IYS: I’m sure you guys have worked hard to get where you are right now. You were just speaking about your first drum kit, playing guitar, and singing—do you just play drums or do you guys collaborate with different instruments?
SK: We do some switching around. We do a lot of switching around when we’re practicing and rehearsing around in our studio, because we spend pretty much every waking hour there, but typically onstage we kind of keep it stationary, although there are times when I’ll be playing the guitar. At certain points I’ll be playing the guitar, there’s a couple moments when I switch and Vanessa goes and plays the drum kit, which is really fun. I go up front and sing, and play the tambourine. So, we definitely switch, and we all love to explore each other’s instruments, but we kind of have our own roles that we’re working on.
IYS: I’ve heard that you guys tour in this RV/Winnebago-type of van. Was this your first choice?
SK: (laughter) We had to find a vehicle, and we had to find it fast, because we booked a tour and had about, I think, five or six days to figure out what we were going to tour in. So, the first choice, and what we’d always done, was Joe, Jamesy, and I had a typical van and trailer. Vanessa was kind of like, “Why don’t we go for something different?” So, we started looking at these funky old vehicles and different kinds of things, conversion beds and whatnot. We kind of settled on the idea of an RV, for various reasons, like to save money on hotel rooms we can party outside of the club in it, we have a dressing room, we can live more on our own terms, we can cook our own meals, we could slip out to state parks on days off and live there . . . I guess it was a first choice, once we decided on it, and we just had to find the right one. So, we found this really beautiful 1986 Ford teal RV that was in immaculate condition, that had been owned by this old couple that said it was brand new. They were an elderly couple, so it was in perfect shape and it was just beautiful. Her name is Rosie, and she’s our home away from home.
IYS: You guys have done a couple shows on the East Coast, like you were saying, up in Boston with Ben Folds. Do you have any plans to tour on this side of the country in the future?
SK: Yeah! Yeah, definitely! We actually did the East Coast . . . we did the Northeast pretty extensively this fall—we did CMJ week in New York, we played four shows in New York that week. We’ve played in Boston three times, we’ve played Philadelphia . . . so we’ve played a whole bunch this fall. We definitely plan on coming back in the springtime. Next time we tour around, we’re going to be going to South by Southwest, and we’re going to be touring to and from that [to] either end, so I’m sure we’re going to be in the Northeast.
IYS: What’s on tap for Family of the Year in 2010?
SK: Well, like I said, we’re going to be touring. We’ll be touring in March. We have South by Southwest, and we’re basically looking forward to covering more ground in the U.S. and we’re going abroad; I think we might be going to the U.K. and Europe in the spring and summer, and then, hopefully, we’ll be playing some festivals. Getting our album out to a wider audience is kind of the priority. We’re basically going to be traveling and working hard at it.
Photography By Derek Duoba