The Family Jewels
If Michael and Katie Gaughan ruled the world, we'd spend our lunch hours climbing trees and building forts out of cardboard boxes and sleeping bags. We'd chase ice-cream trucks and dribble electric-blue Popsicle juice all over our grown-up clothes. And then we'd go back to work and spend the rest of the afternoon dreaming about lining the office hallways with Slip 'n' Slides. The Gaughans are musicians, impresarios, camp counselors, presenters of site-specific theater. Brother and Sister, their metal-tinged guitar-and-drums combo, trucks in what you might call rock 'n' roll recess. At the group's shows, audiences have been encouraged to enjoy the set while swimming, skating, or playing capture the flag. While chatting with the pair at the downtown Minneapolis Pizza Luce, I offer that prior to discovering Brother and Sister I hadn't gone to a pool party or had a water balloon fight in ages. "Oh, we do that stuff all the time!" Katie insists.
"People might say it's a gimmick, but that's what all entertainment is," says guitarist-vocalist Michael, who at 25 is five years older than his drummer sister. "That's why bands have pyrotechnics or fancy outfits or strippers or do stunts or fake their own death. The goal is fun. Fun first. The best advertising is through word of mouth and this is a solid way to give people something to talk about."
The philosophy apparently works. Brother and Sister's shows are often described in gleeful, incredulous tones. Their early gigs are already regarded as somewhat legendary. This past March, the siblings staged their first real spectacle, an impeccably orchestrated high-concept record-release show. The premise? An evil witch had kidnapped Brother and Sister. Rescue them and be rewarded with a show. One hundred fans went on a scavenger hunt that led them to a Laundromat, a hotel room, a parking ramp, and finally, the pool at the downtown Minneapolis YWCA. While the fans swam, Katie's drums rang deafeningly off the tiles and Michael broke out his most bitchin' Axel Rose moves.
Every member of the search team walked away with a copy of the band's five-song self-titled EP. The disc opens with Michael growling the cheerleader chant, "B-E-S-T S-I-S-T-E-R E-V-E-R." It quickly segues into "Never Gonna See Me Alive," wherein he's "decomposing, dying to death!" As silly as the songs may seem, they also have an underlying sincerity. "Stupidly clever," Michael calls them. "Give It Away to the Dogs" mocks consumerism and waste--bacon bits, a Ford Focus, and a Valley Fair commemorative photo (taken on the Wild Thing) are purchased, only to be thrown to the canines. Despite Michael's penchant for Nugent riffs and so-macho-they're-hilarious snarls, the pair frequently encounter unwelcome comparisons to that candy-striped pseudo-sibling act. "Some people assume we're not even brother and sister," says Katie. But personality-wise, they're not so different from the White Stripes. Michael, the eccentric front man, stands out with his wild head-banger mane and '80s apparel (everyday attire--Converse All-Stars and a pair of neon-orange shorts). And while Katie may be quiet like Meg when you first meet her, her drumming is rowdier. Holding back just isn't an option for these two.
KATIE AND MICHAEL started working out their act as kids in Wonder Lake, Illinois (it seems appropriate that the two spent formative years in a place called Wonder Lake), and Ringwood, Illinois, a town an hour northwest of Chicago. During high school, they started performing for their friends at skate parks. "We were playing goofier songs," says Katie. "We did a lot of skits and interpretive dances to No Doubt and Will Smith."
"Our favorite show was in a church basement, and there was a skinhead band, us, and a pop-punk band," says Michael. "We did a really cool dance to [Smith's] "Miami" and these skinheads were standing there with their arms crossed, looking really mad. We did it and said, 'Well, let's do it again.' And then again. And we just did the dance five times and that was our whole show."
Much to the relief of their parents, their show evolved. "They were pretty happy when we started playing actual songs," says Michael. "Our mom's an Irish-folk guitarist," adds Katie. Both Gaughans eventually moved to the Twin Cities to attend school, Michael graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and Katie starting at the University of Minnesota last year.
Michael first got some attention in Minneapolis when he started performing as the rat-tailed rapper Ice-Rod, blowing away skeptics at MC battles and taking hip-hop audience participation beyond the realm of "throw your hands in the air...." A crowd favorite involved him handing out paper and rapping instructions on how to fold airplanes.
That impulse to engage the audience by unusual means has only intensified. A few weeks ago, Brother and Sister presented a special warm-weather event: Rock 'n' Roll Summer Camp. Perhaps inspired by their recent work with kids (Michael's teaching drawing classes at MCAD and Katie's a counselor for Campfire), they organized a biking tour of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park that featured 11 bands and assorted Meatballs-inspired activities. About 60 campers ate watermelon during Bridge Club's set, roller-skated to Knifeworld, and played water balloon Capture the Flag while listening to Mute Era. The camp even had an official flag--a swatch of camouflage fabric, hand-painted with "Rock 'n' Roll Summer Camp" and a pair of shades. Leading the caravan of bikes between venues, Michael waved it over his head. He paused in the middle of busy intersections and held it out like a crossing guard's stop sign, halting the oncoming traffic. When a white SUV stopped so close that Michael could have stuck a flower in its grill, the guitarist held his ground. Rock 'n' Roll Summer Camp could not be stopped.
Campers caught Brother and Sister's set at the Roller Garden. DJ James Leonardo introduced them with a homemade mash-up that included the all-star remake of "Lady Marmalade," Beck's "Debra," and Junior Senior's "Shake Me Baby"--but just the bits that involved the words "brother" and "sister." When Michael and Katie finally entered the rink, he played a wireless guitar and skated circles around his drum kit-bound sis. The performance was sloppier than usual but, hey, the guy was on skates. In general, the duo isn't ashamed when their technical flaws are showing. "I don't think it's important for the style of music," says Michael. "You shouldn't go to our show to be impressed musically, like Whoa, look at that."
But that's exactly what people think when they see a smashed guitar reconstructed with vegan Rice Krispie treats and eaten onstage, or a guy playing an entire set while hanging upside down. In addition to planning another local music extravaganza for October, Brother and Sister are preparing the debut of Michael's guitar/helicopter hybrid. He says he'll have to unveil the contraption outdoors, since it runs on gasoline, and its rotor blades, which reach speeds of up to 500 miles per hour, "could kill someone." He's also been collecting broken drumsticks from fellow musicians for an upcoming art project. He's making a 13-by-10-foot portrait--of his sister.
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