Not long ago, Barbara and Ethan Gruska — the fresh-faced siblings at the core of L.A.'s Belle Brigade — were deep in a rehearsal with their two bandmates. The goal that afternoon was reworking the songs on the Belle Brigade's self-titled 2011 debut so that they fit alongside tunes from the group's just-finished follow-up.
It took some doing.
A sunny blast of retro West Coast folk-pop, "The Belle Brigade" pulled deeply (and openly) from crowd-pleasing forebears such as the Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac. The new album, by contrast, begins with a digitally processed train whistle laid atop a booming drumbeat.
"In a moment of frustration, I remember saying, 'I hate that first record!'" said Ethan Gruska recently, recounting the rehearsal in conversation with his sister. "And you were like, 'I don't hate it — I like some of those songs. I just feel bad for them.'"
From the outside, there's not much to pity about the Belle Brigade's debut, which earned rave reviews and led to a coveted spot on the soundtrack for one of the hit "Twilight" movies. Produced by Matthew Wilder, known for his work on No Doubt's 10-times-platinum "Tragic Kingdom," the album launched the Gruskas to instant tastemaker renown, a cozy spot for two grandchildren of the hugely successful film composer John Williams.
Today, though, singer-drummer Barbara, 31, and singer-guitarist Ethan, 24, say that all those echoes of older acts combined to drown out signs of the young lives they were writing about.
"My friends told me, 'I can't hear you in this record,'" Barbara recalled during a talk at the neatly appointed Silver Lake home she shares with her wife. "The album kind of defined us to the world — or the part of the world that's heard us — but in a way it was actually kind of uncharacteristic."
You get a much more vivid sense of who the Gruskas are from "Just Because," the Belle Brigade's knockout of a new album. Due March 25, it channels the ringing guitars and precise vocal harmonies that define so much classic L.A. pop, from the Eagles to that other rising family band, Haim.
But songs like "Miss You in My Life" and the synthed-up "Not the One You Want" thump and shimmer with off-kilter textures that reflect their fixation on strange sounds. And the siblings' lyrics provide an uncommonly thoughtful vision of real-world romance, as in the album's gorgeous lead single, "Ashes."
"All the ashes in the air can be collected / And confined to the shape we used to make," Barbara sings over a tick-tocking groove, "But the weight is gone."
"They've grown into such great performers and songwriters," said Liz Garo, senior talent buyer at the popular Echo club in Echo Park. Last month she booked the Belle Brigade — rounded out onstage by bassist Keith Karman and keyboardist John Wood — for an extended residency in which the group played every Tuesday night in February.
"In one sense they're another local band slugging it out," Garo continued. "But at the same time they're a step beyond the rest."
The siblings started early, learning to play while growing up in the San Fernando Valley under the eye of their father, Jay Gruska, a prolific film and television composer. Barbara established herself first as a drummer for artists such as Jenny Lewis and Inara George, then teamed with her younger brother in 2008.
After building a following around town, the Belle Brigade signed to Warner Bros. Records, the company that had released many of their favorite albums by Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac. "Lenny Waronker alone sold us — just the fact that we got to sit in a room with him," Barbara said with a laugh, referring to the veteran producer and executive known for his work with Randy Newman and Elvis Costello.
The jump, though, was disorienting for a band still figuring itself out. "We were on a major label, and that sounded like a really big deal," said Barbara. "People were telling us 'Radio this' and 'Radio that,' but I had never written with the intention of being a radio band. I had never even considered that to be a possibility."
The voice on the group's debut "was ours," Ethan said, "but funneled through the idea of what other people might want."
When the Gruskas turned their attention to a follow-up record, they were determined to "get back to our natural instincts," Barbara said, meaning a sound that was less polished and folky. Or as Ethan put it: "We wanted to get away from the cute thing."
For help they enlisted Shawn Everett, a friend of the guitarist Blake Mills, who'd played on the Belle Brigade's debut. (Now an in-demand session guitarist, Mills appears again on "Just Because," along with Bram Inscore, who plays regularly with Beck.)
Everett encouraged the siblings to experiment and try new approaches to recording, including using samples in several songs. But the producer insisted he wasn't consciously veering from the band's first record. "I think we were just making something to excite one another," he said. "And maybe excite our friends."
Ethan described the sessions, which took place at the producer Tony Berg's studio in Brentwood, as being about "capturing this time in our lives rather than making this timeless statement," as they'd done previously.
But Warner Bros., the band said, was after timelessness. "They didn't like the record, and we didn't want to change it," Barbara explained. So in an unexpected move for a group on its upward trajectory — and with its insider connections — the Belle Brigade left Warner Bros. and took "Just Because" to ATO Records, a smaller indie label that's also home to My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes.
Jon Salter, ATO's general manager, said he intends to market the band like a new act, emphasizing the Gruskas' "charisma and magnetism" through social media and having them "tour their brains out." "It's getting some dirt under their fingernails," he said.
In part that means more intimate club dates like the recent Echo shows, where the group remade strummy old tunes such as "Losers" and "Where Not to Look for Freedom" with a darker, more insistent edge.
"Some big things came at the band early on with Warners, and there were some steps that we kind of skipped over," said the group's manager, Phil Costello. "We need to go touch down at the beginning and establish ourselves where we didn't last time."
But the Belle Brigade isn't ignoring larger-scale opportunities like a North American tour, set to kick off May 27, with Ray LaMontagne. In addition to opening for the Grammy-winning singer, the Gruskas will serve as LaMontagne's backing band, an indication that even as they establish themselves outside a tradition of old-school music-biz professionalism, their talent puts them squarely inside it.
Back at Barbara's apartment, where the TV was turned off though it was Oscar night and the Gruskas' grandfather was up for an award, the siblings talked enthusiastically about spending 2014 shoring up their foundation, winning over new fans one by one.
But they also seemed satisfied with what they'd already accomplished: an album they said all their friends love. And that wasn't all.
"I lived at my wife's mom's house for two years while we were on the road, and now between her and me we can afford this," Barbara said, indicating her modest living room. "And Ethan used to live at our dad's house, and now he has his own place. That's huge!"
Ethan nodded, then said with a shrug, "Moving on up."