Brothers Past: OM to BP

Back in June, Brothers Past announced that a line-up change was in the works. Long-time drummer Rick Lowenberg had decided to go back to school to study law and environmental issues and a new drummer, Ilya Stemkovsky, was announced as the replacement. Line-up changes can be hard for a band, so as I walked into the Brother Past’s recent set at the University of Vermont I was very interested to see what this new drummer would bring to the band.

Right from the start of their set, what was most apparent was the looser feel of the music. Not that it was any less powerful, just less rigid and restricted. During the set it seemed like the music could turn on a dime and go in any direction. The obvious straight-up rock influence of Stemkovsky was pretty up front and led the band into the more open jammy sections of the set. This element of being truly open was a nice and welcome surprise. The Brothers Past of old could jam, but this latest version of the band could do it in so many newer ways.  After the set, I sat down with Stemkovsky for an interview about his new gig.

Tell me a little about your background.

I was born in Moscow Russia, came to America when I was five in 1981. Took piano lessons since the age of six or seven for about eight years. I was always a drummer, banging on pots and pans: holding straws and banging on things in baby pictures. So my parents broke down and got me a drum set. I went from Chopin to John Bonham in a week’s time. Not playing like John Bonham obviously! So that was about sixteen, pretty late. I wish I started when I was about three or four. So I played in high school metal bands and came of age with Nirvana and the whole Seattle scene. So I’m 16 when that stuff was coming out, talk about an impressionable age, plus Guns and Roses and all that stuff earlier than that. I was into a lot of heavy music. You know, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins. The music of our youth, you know?

Oh Yeah

And then after that I played in bands in college. A week after college ended, I moved out to the west coast. Out there, I formed a band that I was in for about seven years called the Om Trio. And the Om Trio played it’s heart out. We were doing 160 gigs a year. It didn’t catch on the way you need when you need a band to sustain. We got into a little bit of debt with the band. In 2004 we played our last gig. I went to New York to pay of some of the debt, working at an advertising agency. And just out of the blue Brothers Past called me; they’re like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And now this is like my ninth gig. I’m busy learning the tunes and busy gelling with the guys, musically and personally. And it’s going really great.

Tell me a little about the transition, learning the songs, and the first couple gigs.

I’d heard of the band but never heard the music. So it’s not like I was familiar with it, it’s not like U2 called. So they sent me “This Feelings Called Goodbye” which is just an awesome album. It’s above and beyond the jam band scene. It should be on the radio. It’s beautifully produced. The writing is great, the changes are interesting. Everything about it knocked me out. And this was before I heard any of the live stuff. So they called me and I learned a little bit of the album, and started listening to the live stuff which was a little bit different with their old drummer. There were a lot of break beats, drum and bass, things that they did a lot of which wasn’t as represented on the album. So that took me a little bit aback. I didn’t know where they wanted to go. But I learned a bunch of the tunes, went down to play with them one time and a couple days latter they were like, “We want you to join the band.” Then I started learning how they work and some of the songs. They sent me live versions of the tunes. I think they wanted to stray away from where they were, so they’re not doing just jungle music anymore or electronic music.

So they had a deliberate change in mind?

Absolutely. A lot of people think that it’s me and I’m imposing my will. And even though I’m a strong personality, I’m doing what I need to do. I just joined a new band; I’m not telling them what I want to do. And they were naturally going that route. Even “This Feelings Called Goodbye” has songs like “Too Late To Call,” and “Simple Gift Of Man,” that are straight up rock tunes. Then again it’s a lot of fun to play electronic music. A lot of the four on the floor and trancey stuff, all the different kinds of electronic music, the house, the techno… and the jungle stuff. And I’ve done it before, not to the extent that they did it and probably won’t because that’s not where the band is really at musically right now and they’re shying away from exclusively doing that. But it has been a lot of fun. The sets and shows have really opened, they are open to go anywhere and the guys are itching to go anywhere with them. So I’m enjoying influencing them with what I’m into and they’re influencing me with their musical upbringings.

Nice. So what’s the upcoming tour schedule like?

Were not going on anything extended. It’s just weekends in the fall because we’re busy rehearsing and writing some new material for the next record which I’ll be on. It will come out next year. So it’s weekend jaunts, were going to go on an extended tour when the new record comes out, maybe in the spring of 07.

Are you participating in the writing process?

Oh yeah. You know they have two pretty prolific guys writing music, Tom McKee and Tom Hamilton. They come in with a lot of finished stuff or stuff that’s malleable enough for everybody to interject. I’m not a lyric writer, I do write and I have contributed a little and we’ll see what happens with that. Those guys write a lot, so it’s not always like, I don’t know, The Rolling Stones, where everybody is jamming and out comes “Tumbling Dice.” It’s not really like that here. These guys do their homework on their own. But everybody’s got their own bits and pieces.

Tom (Hamilton) has spoken about writing on the road and taking little pieces and working on them throughout a tour. Are you guys doing that now?

We’re doing that now because there is no real tour. I don’t know if you saw our sound check today but everything is so rushed. So it’s basically coming together in rehearsal. We rehearse for like seven or eight hours a day for three days straight. There’s a lot of jamming going on there. These guys, what I liked about them from the very beginning, they jammed and went into different tunes just throwing them at me in rehearsal, which is very interesting and good because they respect me as a musician and know that I’m game for it. It’s not like we’re a band starting out, everybody’s coming together at a developed point already. I know how to play my instrument and they know how to play theirs. So were jamming in rehearsal and tha’s  bringing about a lot of different cool stuff.

And they are a band that have gone through personnel changes in the past.

Sure, but they did have the line-up with the last drummer for about six years. Rush changed drummers. But you really don’t think of it that way because they had the same guys for 30 years. Neil Peart, he wasn’t the original drummer! That’s what’s so funny about it.

So who are some of your favorite drummers?

Oh man, I love so many. So many rock guys, so many jazz guys. I love Neil Peart, I love John Bonham, I love all kinds of guys. You name a famous band and they had a great drummer. It really works like that. I love a band named Jawbox from back in the early 90’s. They had a great drummer Zach Barocas. I love Vinnie Colaiuta, Joey Barron, Dennis Chambers, and all the fusion guys. I don’t fancy myself in their league obviously. I fancy myself a player but I don’t hold myself in that regard. Those guys inspire me. Vinnie, all of Zappa’s drummers, all those kind of bands… Phil Collins I really love. Genesis, Bill Bruford, a lot of jazz guys.

Tony Williams?

Yeah of course. Elvin Jones. Brian Blade and a lot of the newer guys like Bill Stewart, Peter Erskine. John Scofield plays with Bill Stewart, he’s got a live album called EnRoute. Oh my goodness, if you wanna hear some drumming, get that record. He’s just putting people to shame.

So tell me, what do you want to get out of Brothers Past?

Well my last situation was an instrumental keyboard trio. We wanted to be… not be Medeski, Martin and Wood, but achieve what they achieved. $25 ticket, 1000 people a night; and we never got there. They’re awesome… They played with Phish in 95… There’s a million reasons why they’ve made it and we didn’t. But the sky’s the limit with this band. There’s vocals, there’s guitars and arena rock hooks. Whatever’s on the radio, The Killers or The Strokes or whatever pop band, it could be “Too Late To Call”. It could be on the radio and we could be huge. Nobody’s motivation is, “I wanna play arenas” but I’m 30 years old, I would like to play some theaters and I’d like to expose a larger audience to this music cuz it deserves to be heard. So what I’m trying to get out of it is just to have fun and be in a band that really can resonate with a lot of people.

So far during your time with Brothers Past, what have been some of your favorite moments?

Ah that’s a good question. I really loved the very first gig, the All Good Festival. It was a really tight set, really rocking. There was another show a few weeks later, NuGroove Festival, a really great show. The very last show we played before this one was Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, excellent show. A lot of improvising, kind of jumping into the deep end. Everybody not really worried about nailing all the parts, it sounded like Phish, kind of, but obviously we’re not playing anything as complicated as what they were doing. But the aspect of improvising and trusting each other, and when you have faith in each other, great things can happen on stage when you’re an improving band. Sometimes it’s a train wreck but these shows I’ve mentioned, you can hear them all on, they are great. Maybe in a year from now I will think they’re week compared to what we sound like then, but at this point in the young stages of where we are at, those are the shows that are standing out.

 So what were some of your favorite moments with the OM Trio?

Oh I don’t know. We played with and opened for so many different bands. We opened for Scofield, Tower of Power. We played with Dave Fiuczynski from the Screaming Headless Torsos. Played with Wayne Krantz… All kinds of guys sat in with us. High Sierra Music Festival, we always had a great time at. Jake Cinninger from Umphrey’s McGee sat in with us a lot and so did Brendan Bayliss. We played with Umphrey’s McGee a lot. They sat in with us on many occasions when we opened for them, 30 or 35 gigs over the years. Jake flew out and played our CD release party at the Great American Music Hall. A lot of great moments with the Om Trio, those guys are my brothers. It was a lot of fun to be in that band but… BP now, BP all the way!

Contributing writer Joe Adler is a musician and freelance writer based out of Burlington, Vermont. He performs regularly with his band The Joe Adler Group.

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