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Local Men Evolved from Munkey Juice!

Nelson and Robert Heise enjoy grilling out, but that doesn't mean they get all excited about it

Nelson and Robert Heise enjoy grilling out, but that doesn't mean they get all excited about it

The Heise Bros.
The Continuing Saga of...
the Heise Bros.

Choose to Lose Music

The Heise Brothers are uncooperative. Bands of brothers are supposed to generate tons of media-ready drama. Think the Davies, the Reids, the Gallaghers. But not Nelson and Robert Heise—this is the Midwest, after all, and we do sangfroid up here.

Nelson Heise, the elder of the brothers and the singer and principal songwriter of the Minneapolis folk-rock outfit that bears their name, says, "We get along for the most part. You know, we're pretty close. I mean, nobody's ever come to blows, like punching each other onstage or anything like that. Just a couple walk-offs in practice or recording sessions."

Younger brother Robert doesn't take to my baiting questions either: Which one of them does he think is cooler? "He is. He is." No hesitation at all. Okay—how hard is it to balance family and bandmate dynamics; is it hard to be a brother and a musician at the same time? "No...I don't really think of myself as a musician!" Well, that's settled.

The other thing we do up here is loose-limbed country-fried pop rock. For better or worse, there's an endless stream of jangly, hazy, psych-tinged sounds in the regional psyche, something we turn to when riskier music disappoints. After more than a decade toiling away in Munkey Juice, a rough-edged rock band that the brothers brought from Ohio to the Twin Cities without hitting even the small-time, Nelson figured it was time for a shift: "From 2002 to 2005 we made, like, ten records. And sold none, you know? And we were like, maybe we should try something else, to sell some to pay back for all the printing and stuff we did!" Munkey Juice was jettisoned, and the softer-focus, retro-leaning Brothers started work.

"I think we're a little bit more serious about it now," says Robert. "[We thought] hey, we can write pop songs, too. The product has turned out a lot better. And you know, I guess it's something where we had to give a little bit to get it." Nelson is unflinching about the reality of a life making music, even on the micro scale of self-produced records and local bar gigs. "The switch [was] kind of a marketing thing to sell some records. Plus, we're getting older. We were 16 and 17 when we started, and I'm getting close to 30 now, so I wanted to be a little bit more mature."

Their recently released second album, The Continuing Story of the Heise Bros., is an easy, ambling record with mid-tempo strumming, bar-worthy songcraft, and familiar '70s atmospherics like organs, tambourines, and flanged-out guitars. "I'm pretty heavily influenced by the Kinks and stuff like that," Nelson explains. "I wanted it to sound like a Stones record or whatnot. Sort of loose." One of the album's shorter, poppier songs, "Zodiac," is breezy and surrealist, where longer, heavier tracks like "Island Wake" are brooding and murky.

As coastal writers never get tired of pointing out: There's darkness in Middle America, too, and Nelson and Robert have seen their share. Their mother died before they were teenagers. Nelson's songwriting tries to make sense of his years of bad behavior, and the band itself is a kind of project in staying straight. "Basically why we did this band is because it helps me stay sober. My brother and I played music for the last 11 years together, but there was a period where I was drinking and drugging a lot, where we didn't play music." Nelson and Robert evince a self-effacement and honesty about all this that makes you want to root for them—two guys with a little ambition and a few troubles, no more than some, who love to make records with their friends. It's what we do up here.