It's lunchtime, and Hodak's in south St. Louis is jumping. Jeff and Dave, the Brothers Lazaroff, are having fried chicken, cod, beets and iced tea, and their interviewer is having the same — hold the fried chicken, but add a side of awkward questions. Dave reaches for the pause button on the tape recorder. They've got family in town, after all.
Question: What are two nice Jewish boys from the Midwest doing messing around with country music?
Answer: I don't know. Go ask Dylan that! Or Ray Benson or Junior Brown or Robbie Robertson.
Point taken, and besides, the Brothers Lazaroff doesn't play country, not anymore, not the kind you'd recognize as alt, progressive, Americana or otherwise, though the departure isn't a simple casting-off. One listen to the Brothers' new self-released album, American Artifact — with its stinging and expressive pedal steel, plaintive melodies, waltz and shuffle rhythms, and close harmonies — makes clear its affection for and mastery of American roots idioms. It's a connection that has served the band well as it's built an audience in Austin, Texas, where brother Dave has lived over the last ten years. But the way the Lazaroffs approach roots — with psychedelic layers and rhythmic force — isn't the way it's usually done in Austin.
"Down in Austin the roots and the psychedelic don't mix," Dave says. "Maybe they do in a Cosmic Cowboy kind of way, but not in that Dylan and the Dead, Midwestern funky thing."
Though separated by five years, Jeff (lead lyricist, singer and elder) and Dave (lead guitarist, singer, sonic guide) are often mistaken for twins. Their Bob Dylan beards, dark shades, wiry builds and manner of holding a stage — with relaxed cool and intuitive responses — are artifacts of a lifetime of filial music. However, the pair's career as a band — the brothers have always seen their music in a group context — has been a slow burn and build, in part because of its long-distance relationship.
The Lazaroffs have been largely associated with the Austin scene, where Dave attended school, pursued a solo career, played in bluegrass bands, and worked as a side man for the likes of Elizabeth McQueen and Michael Fracasso, while Jeff, who was also recording and performing as a "solo" artist, traveled down to Texas to assemble their first album (2007's Pure Delight, which was produced by David Sanger of Asleep at the Wheel), and work the Austin clubs with what musicians they could hire.
This year, the brothers decided to bring it all back home to St. Louis (they grew up in Creve Coeur) and have put together one of the more striking, tight and steady bands in town, in keyboardist Mo Egeston, drummer Grover Stewart and bassist Teddy Brookins. The veterans of the funk, jazz, drum & bass, swing and world-music scenes in town had never played with singer-songwriters before, but they've radically altered the Lazaroffs' sound. The trio adds muscle to the rhythms, expands arrangements with funk and jazz, and grooves without ever descending into aimless jams — all while daring the brothers to jump out of their literate, open-ended songwriting skins.
The band was gathered via MySpace after the sessions for American Artifact, starting with Stewart. Brookins was cherry-picked from Stewart's friends list, and Egeston, whom the brothers first saw playing the keytar with Lamar Harris at the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge, came onboard last. "We're all from St. Louis," Jeff says. "And that gives us that thump, that driving, live sound. Our stuff can be done so rootsy, but we'd rather destroy it a little bit."
The Lazaroffs are reluctant to take credit for one side or the other of songwriting — the process is open, though it often starts with lyrics and basic chords from Jeff, structures that are always subject to revision and criticism.
"Usually, if you play something for the other person, you'll know yourself that, er, it sucks," Dave says. "You'll know that you have something, but it's not good yet," Jeff interjects. "Honesty isn't the issue. Everything is up for discussion, for saying, 'Let's just mess with it.' It's never, 'Here's the song, don't change it.' I'm always hesitant to say I've written something. I don't think I could do what I've done without David. The song has always felt somewhat superficial until it gets manifested together."
Adds Dave: "We have roles. If Jeff doesn't think something is strong, I believe him. If musically, I'm bothered by something, he'll defer."
American Artifact, their second album under the Brothers Lazaroff name, was recorded at Sawhorse Studios with Jacob Detering. They tracked twelve songs over the course of two days, with minimal overdubs. "It was fast, but Dave and I have recorded a lot together," Jeff says. "And the bass player [Lindsay Greene] has worked with us for a long time." Gary Newcomb, of Austin rock band Lil' Cap'n Travis and Bruce Robison's touring band, adds mandolin, twelve-string guitar and the distinctive pedal steel that ups the psychedelic feel. The result pays homage to Daniel Lanois' soundscapes (think Oh Mercy and Yellow Moon) and a Cohen-esque mix of existential poetry and social anxiety.
"We're Jewish. What do you want?" Jeff laughs. "But, really, I lost my mother-in-law a few years ago. She was sick for a long time. We lost our grandparents, who we were very close to, over the last five years. And relationships. It's not all personal, but also recognizing the anxiety out there." Dave clarifies: "This is definitely a George Bush-era record. We're numbing the pain. With Jeff's lyrics, I don't think he does it consciously, but they make me feel better about the situation. The songs address it, face it, releasing those anxieties. We can't just make party music."
Adds Jeff: "I think there's a certain spiritual element to creative work, and we've been open to each other that way. Our oldest brother [Josh] talks about how rhythm and movement allow you to incorporate the intellectual side of things. When you're dancing, you really get the meaning."