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Music, Etc.: Family of the Year

Jacques Sonyieux talks with Family of the Year about questionable band getaways, working with producer Greg Wells and embracing darkness.

Family of the Year’s latest album is ‘Goodbye Sunshine Hello Nighttime’

The genesis of Family of the Year occurred in 2009 when brothers Joseph and Sebastian Keefe relocated to Los Angeles on a wing and a prayer; three years later, they had their first hit with “Hero” from their major-label debut, Loma Vista. And while not yet a household name, each of the band’s four albums thus far has shown a depth of songwriting, flawless harmony and emotional vulnerability. The band’s latest effort, Goodbye Sunshine Hello Nighttime, is fraught with introspective, singer/songwriter gems immaculately captured by Grammy winning producer Greg Wells. As a complete album, it highlights themes of growing up and loss against a luxurious bed of acoustic guitars, harmonies and Joe Keefe’s easygoing but spot-on lead vocals. Pro Sound News spoke to Joe about being in it for the long haul.

On darkness

It’s interesting because when people say, “It’s a darker record,” I was not aware of that darkness. I think a lot of people mistake us for this happy, hippy, jangly folk band. As we grew into ourselves as a group, we became a bit more honest. In the beginning, maybe we were just having a little bit of fun, and the fun became not so fun anymore as we got older. There are also different personalities in the band, and on this record, I kind of forced the guys to follow my direction a little more than on the others. So it is probably my darkness that is being heard.

On working with Greg Wells

We had a meeting with Greg and he was the first person who said, “I really want to make this record with you guys. Please work with me.” He was very open and honest about it. Immediately I thought, “That’s the person we’re supposed to work with.” I record a lot at home, so most of the songs were demoed and the vibe of the record was pretty fleshed out. Greg wanted to work on one song at a time until each one was finished rather than doing a bunch of basics in succession. Also, there was no sitting around, going through stuff and comping. Once it was done, it was done. We just added elements like a painting. Greg is such a talented musician—his pitch is amazing and his ear is absolutely phenomenal.

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On tracking vocals

For the vocals, Greg used multiple compressors that really put the vocal front and center. We tried a few mics including a Neumann U 47, a U 87, and we ultimately ended up using a Telefunken. It was really fun tracking with him. We were just in the zone, getting good takes and not overworking. Sometimes I wanted him to give me more input, but he just kept saying, “Joe, go with your gut. Always go with your gut.” Honestly, I’m not a great singer, but I’ve been working hard on my mic technique with large diaphragm microphones, and this has helped me a lot. For instance, on the really soft stuff where I have to get really close to the mic and get the doubles tight, I shine the most. Singing live is okay, but it’s really more fun and rewarding for me to be in the studio working those mics.

On band getaways

As a band, we started putting songs together that we had written and then we took a trip up to Bear Valley, the classic “band getaway.” We rented this big house and set up in the living room to write together. The first night was so fun: The power went out, we drank wine together and played guitars. It was so great. But then over the next two days, everyone started fighting and my brother ended up leaving and we got nothing done. We kind of ended up going stir crazy because it felt like there was too much pressure and we had to deliver a record. I think we ended up writing two songs up there in Bear Valley, and I finished writing those when I got back to L.A.

On chasing the dream

Honestly, we [Joe and brother Sebastian, drums] couldn’t be more different. We are absolutely opposite. He is really driven, career-minded—a “get up and go” kind of guy with so much energy. I am darker and I would probably still be at home recording demos if it weren’t for my brother. In fact, I don’t think this album would have gone anywhere without him. Honestly, Family of the Year started out as a mission for us—we left the Vineyard with $600 each in our pockets and drove to L.A. in a van with all our stuff in it. “Alright, let’s make it in L.A. Let’s do it!” I think we were hard workers who have battled through a lot of tough times. I love him to death, but we’ve definitely butted heads over a lot of stuff. We were just a ragtag bunch of kids who started a band, and that has never changed.

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On “Hero”

No one thought anything about “Hero” when we made it; it was just like, “Sure, let’s put this song on the record as well.” I don’t know what the catalyst was to have that song pressed as a single, but when it did, it started feeling really good to sing it. It’s probably the song I enjoy singing the most because it feels right. I kind of feel like I don’t have to write another song in my life because “Hero” says everything I wanted to say. It’s all right there. And honestly, that song changed all of our lives.

Family of the Year •