Brother Act

The Aluminum Group's Frank and John Navin make sedative-laced cotton-candy music for thinking people

Oct 10, 2001 at 4:00 am
The poster that accompanies the Aluminum Group's most recent album, last year's Pelo (Hefty), depicts tablets of Valium being ground up and added to cotton-candy mix. It's a perfect metaphor for the Aluminum Group's music -- at once innocuous and toxic, fluffy and sinister, sweet and bitter. With its skittery beats and luscious orchestration, its cold computerized clicks and thrumming guitars, Pelo is a graceful balancing act between opposing forces, a candy-coated pill (or, as the poster would have it, a pill-coated candy). Over the course of four studio albums, the Aluminum Group has created a sound that's simultaneously futuristic and retro, a potent cocktail of atmospheric electronica, slinky soul and old-school easy-listening. Ironic without being campy, intellectual without being pretentious, the Aluminum Group's entire catalog is like elevator music for a perfect world.

The Aluminum Group's lineup shifts subtly with each release, but the core of the band is always brothers Frank and John Navin, who have been playing together in various groups since the early '80s. Unlike so many other, more notorious sibling bands (Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis), the Navin brothers, who live in Chicago, thrive on cooperation, not conflict. "We have our ups and downs, like everybody else, but we're really lucky because when we have our downs we talk about it," John Navin explains. "We've always been in the same group. When we began the Aluminum Group, we had a very strong idea of what we wanted it to be: a group very interested in song structures and blending traditional ideas and reinterpreting to some degree -- and bringing a newness, a contemporary feel, to a lot of things. We were really into songs. We wanted songs that had stories and that were melodically and lyrically very nice."

The youngest of six siblings and less than two years apart in age, the Navin brothers, who are both openly gay, shared a lot of the same interests growing up, especially when it came to music: "All through the '80s, we were very much into a lot of the Cherry Red artists -- Everything but the Girl, the Marine Girls, the Monochrome Set and a lot of the post-new-wave bands that came from England," John recalls. "We were also very obsessed with the Carpenters and Claudine Longet, which is now, you know, like, 'Who cares?' But we were really into it, and it sort of set us apart from our peers. We were considered geeky or weird. In '87, Frankie and I went to Europe. We went to Les Halles, and we just went crazy in one of the record stores, buying Serge Gainsbourg, Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Hardy, France Gall. That stuff was so beautiful to us."

Besides sharing a taste for French pop, both brothers have similar speech inflections and tend to use the first-person plural habitually. They write their songs separately but collaborate during the recording process, and no individual songwriting credits are provided in the liner notes. "I'm more prolific than John," Frank admits in a separate conversation. "I don't know why -- I just get the job done. I'm very myopic in a way. John is the greatest brother because he loves everything I do. There's a couple of songs that he's not been crazy about, and you'll never hear them. But mostly he's just, like, 'You're the greatest, most talented person in the world!' So then I end up believing it, and I end up writing more stuff," Frank laughs.

"We don't really get along all the time," Frank admits. "I was totally furious with him this summer. But he's my brother -- he's not going anywhere; I'm not going anywhere. John is always a catalyst for new knowledge. I can write a song, but a lot of it's because of him. He gets me interested in other things."

The Aluminum Group has used different producers for each album (previously they've worked with such Chicago post-rock luminaries as Jim O'Rourke, John McEntire and John Herndon), but the Navin brothers plan to co-produce their next project, a double-CD called Happyness, themselves. The misspelled title is intentional, inspired by some crudely painted railroad ties that the brothers spotted during a drive through a dilapidated neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. "I saw it first, and it moved me so much because, first of all, it was just such a beautiful thing, to see these words that are such fundamental archetype words from the Christian faith. I don't want to sound judgmental, but to me it's what our society is all about. I work as a schoolteacher in the Chicago public schools. This person spent all this time doing these signs and is probably a functional illiterate. I showed Frankie, and he felt the same way immediately."

Both brothers agree that Happyness, which they've been recording since January, will be their best album yet. "I just can't wait until this new album is done," Frank exclaims. "I'd like it to be a masterpiece -- maybe an epic is what I'm trying to say, or a sonic concept album. Pelo was very close to it. I'd like this new album to be the Frank Lloyd Wright of modern-day music. He was a craftsman before he was anything else. We're modernists at heart, but we're not going to give up the craftsmanship."

"We just keep going," John says cheerfully. "For Frankie and me, it's obviously not about money. It's just about doing stuff we love and to put out a product we're proud of. I think on Happyness, the songs are the strongest. We'll see."