Lots of Weird Noises
An Interview with Keyboardist Tom Mckee
Words by Dan Petito — Philadelphia, PA
Since their inception in 2000, Philadelphia-based electronic group Brothers Past continues breaking new ground within the genre, blending rock, pop and next-level jamming into a unique smorgasbord of fun. With a Fall tour kicking off this week in Wilkes-Barre , PA then due south , keyboardist Tom McKee took some time to chat with us a little bit about BP’s summer festival stretch, the awesomeness that is BPM and his continued interests in fostering the young musicians of tomorrow.
We’ve seen BP overcome some obstacles in the past; Rick leaving, filling his shoes, the hiatus; in sort of the third iteration of BP, how are you guys feeling currently as a band?
I think the band will always be something that is very important to us and very special to us and that’s why we’re still doing it. That being said, there will be times during the year where it’s our main priority and there will be times where we are focusing our energies on other things. That is just the nature of the beast as we get a little older. We all have things we want to accomplish with our lives and some of them are music related and some of them aren’t and we are going after all of them!
But we’re still committed to being Brothers Past and playing a full schedule even though we’re not “touring” per se. We had a great summer where we basically just played festivals including a couple of the bigger ones like Electric Forest and Camp Bisco. We hit the Midwest and Colorado earlier this year and we will be heading back out to Colorado again this fall. We have a great five night run of the Southeast coming up with Papadosio that we are all looking forward to. So even though we’re not getting in the van for weeks at a time, we are still getting out to different parts of the country and getting a great response while we’re out there. And the music that we have been making has been as interesting as ever so everything is good right now.
The first time I saw BP it was in my friends backyard in my hometown in 2003 (Pudding-Palooza in Cranford, NJ). Looking back on the last 12 years as a band, how do you see the band growing/evolving in the next 12?
Pudding! What a great guy. You had a great first show experience man! That was a fun party. Twelve years is a long time from now and I really couldn’t even venture a guess as to what the future will bring. I’ll just say that I hope we’re still making music in some capacity by then.
Coming off the release of Everything Must Go 0111 back in March and seeing some new songs on there now obviously thrown into the live rotation, what is the band’s current creative process, and are you guys still actively writing new material?
Yes, there is a hard drive at my house with about 10-12 new tracks in various states of completion that could be the core of the next BP record. I was working on them pretty earnestly in the early part of the year – some with Tom Hamilton and some just on my own – but I put them away for a while. Summer is a pretty busy time for me at School of Rock and I wanted to step back a little bit from them and then come back to them with a fresh mind. Tommy has been pretty busy as well; he just did his first national tour with American Babies so it just felt right to put the stuff away for a while. But there are some good things there and we will get in a room soon and hammer them out.
So during BP’s hiatus everyone sort of went their separate ways and explored side-projects. You began teaching piano at the School of Rock in Downingtown, PA and are now acting Music Director. Could you share with us a little about that decision and perhaps why you went a different route than the others did during that time?
I worked at a newspaper for a few years while BP was touring and had done an article on the school when it opened and I was just really enamored with the whole concept. I think I was planning to teach one or two days a week while I continued to focus on performing and playing but it didn’t really work out that way. I became Music Director of a school with 150 students and 12 teachers on staff and things got busy quickly. It’s a really great situation because School of Rock places value on having teachers and directors that are working musicians, so it’s generally not a big deal if I go out on the road for a week at a time. But it’s a very rewarding thing to have in your life. I work with kids from 7-18 and I see their ability grow and their confidence increase. I have also directed the School of Rock All Stars for the past two summers, which means I am out on the road for a week with 25 kids who are the best of the best. We take them on the road in a bus and stay at hotels and do shows at clubs like World Cafe in Philly and the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and cap the whole thing off with a three-night performance at Gathering of the Vibes. The kids really get a taste of what life on the road is like. School of Rock is a really amazing thing to be a part of.
You guys had a busy summer on the festival circuit this year (Rock and Roll Resort, Electric Forrest, Cam Bisco, Camp Barefoot, MantraBash etc), a bigger presence than most years. How important do you see something like summer festivals contributing to a band like BP’s growth?
We decided early on in the year that we would just be doing festivals this summer. It’s a great way to get into a particular region of the country and play for a broad audience from around that region. We had some great moments this year, and some of them came at the smaller regional festivals like AURA FESTIVAL in FL and CAMP BAREFOOT in WV. We had good crowds at all of the fests we played this summer so it was a good year for sure. But there are limitations that a festival-only schedule presents you with. Some people just don’t want to go camping for the weekend so they don’t see the band for 3-4 months. And we def play a smaller pool of songs in festival settings because we have a shorter set time to fill and there are things the band does that we want to present to as large an audience as possible. Certain songs have an energy to them and you want to play them when you’re in front of a couple thousand people. When you’re doing two sets you have a little more room to do some of the songs that don’t quite reach those energy levels. So it will be nice to get back into some clubs and theaters this fall and play two set shows that let us vary things up again.
Tell us a little about the inception of BPM and how that came about…
We wanted to try some new tricks in terms of making electronic music but we wanted to do it over a better PA then we would use in a rehearsal setting. There is a great small club in Philly called Silk City that holds about 150 people but pound-for-pound might have the best PA system in the city. Clay had done some shows there with BioDiesel and Lo-Life and suggested we do kind of an informal thing there on an off-night. They mainly do a lot of DJ stuff so there are only so many channels on their mixer and we couldn’t have set vocal mikes up even if we wanted to so it was just us making electronic music. Lots of weird noises and trying things with our computers that maybe we wouldn’t have done in front of 800 people in a club. But we’ve learned a lot by doing them and that style of playing has definitely crept into the Brothers Past shows we play. I think 2011 has actually been a pretty amazing year of shows for us and part of it has been the BPM stuff.
We haven’t seen any NYE announcements yet — can fans expect any dates to surface for a NYE run this year?
It’s coming. The room is booked but we cannot announce yet for various reasons. We will be putting together a little run of shows though and NYE will be in a great venue that has hosted lots of amazing shows over the years. That’s really all I can say.
What are you currently listening to? To put it a bit differently, if I were to go to a show in the Northeast, where would I be most likely to bump into Tom McKee?
Most of what I listen to is what I am teaching and directing at School of Rock. Lately that has been Hair Metal and Summer of Love type stuff like the Doors and Janis Joplin. This fall it will be old school punk rock like the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys. I listen to such a huge range of music that I finally gave up on iTunes and got Spotify so that I can have everything. I got the new Dylan record and am taking that in right now and digesting it. I love what’s happening in the Philly music scene with Dr. Dog, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs and stuff like that. I saw Miike Snow recently and thought it was amazing. The last show I went to was JoJo Mayer at the Bockley in Philly. Believe it or not I had never seen him even though I’ve known about him since the Wetlands days in NYC. He is an amazing drummer and put on a great concert but Skerik’s Bandalabra opened and stole the show.
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