In an early homemade video made by the L.A. band the Belle Brigade for its song "Losers," from the sibling duo's self-titled debut, Barbara and Ethan Gruska, ages 28 and 21, respectively, sit holding acoustic guitars in an empty bathtub. They're wearing white robes and Barbara has a towel wrapped around her head, as though she's just gotten out of the shower.
Ethan strums a few foundational chords, they start singing in harmony, and echoes of genetically intertwined voices throughout the ages come pouring out: the Everly Brothers, the Davies brothers of the Kinks, the Carter Family. Even in its initial lyrical defeatism, the song expresses joy: "There will always be someone better than you / even if you're the best," they sing, "So let's stop the competition now / or we will both be losers."
The two move through "Losers," one of a dozen California pop gems created by the Gruskas, whose lineage in the Los Angeles music world stretches back four generations and includes their grandfather, film composer John Williams. Their new record, released on April 19, was put out on Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise, created in collaboration with an experienced team that included Lenny Waronker, the legendary former Warner Bros. head, and producer-songwriter Matthew Wilder, whose credits include producing No Doubt's multi-platinum "Tragic Kingdom" and writing and performing the 1983 hit "Break My Stride."
The two, along with their four-piece backing band, just concluded a tour on which they opened dates for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and are continuing a string of dates with G. Love & Special Sauce. They'll kick off a tour supporting k.d. lang on June 17. They are slated to perform Wednesday on "Conan."
A defiant, classically structured song about being sick of social games, pretense and irony, "Losers" feels like one of those works of alienation that's existed forever, one that would ring true just as clearly had it been released in 1957 or 1974. "Don't care about being a winner / or being smooth with women / or going out on Friday / or being the life of the party / No more."
As the two strum with more and more intensity, Barbara's head towel begins to shake loose, then flops over her face. She stops to brush it back, and they keep going, now with big, honest smiles. "No more!," they sing over and over, and when the strumming's done, they turn to each other scrunched in the bathtub and explode into laughter.
Such is the introduction to the Belle Brigade, whose music and story is a perfect reflection of the spontaneous joy of the amateur "Losers" video, and whose familial, familiar sound makes it seem as though Barbara and Ethan were destined from the start to be singing siblings.
Barbara started out on drums at age 10, she explains, but maybe she didn't have a choice. When she sits behind the kit, says Ethan, she assumes the same position as their great-grandfather, longtime Raymond Scott Quintette drummer Johnny Williams. "My great-grandfather was a drummer," says Barbara, "my two great-uncles -- my grandfather's brothers, they're both drummers, and my mom's brother, Mark, is also a drummer. He toured with Tina Turner, Air Supply and Crosby, Stills and Nash."
Their father, film and television composer Jay Gruska (whose credits include "Beverly Hills 90210," "21 Jump Street" and "thirtysomething"), gave Ethan his first guitar at age 8, but the young composer gravitated to the piano. Barbara and Ethan studied music in high school and college, and formed a band in 2008 after Barbara had returned from a stint as touring drummer for L.A. singer Jenny Lewis. Ethan, still in his late teens, had started writing songs, and during a visit to Israel the two decided to team up after he heard some of Barbara's new songs. They were listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," and Paul Simon's "There Goes Rhymin' Simon."
They hooked up with family friend Wilder to make demos of the songs they'd finished -- and connected so strongly with him that he became central to the creative process and the maneuvering necessary to get the music into the hands of professionals who could help them.
One of them was Warner Bros. A&R; man Andy Olyphant, who was smitten after a single song. "I was absolutely charmed," Olyphant recalls. "You could feel the passion, and you got a real aura from the two of them. They were so intoxicating. I was immediately like, 'I love these kids. I want to be involved.' "
Olyphant, in turn, played it for Waronker, who'd just signed on as a Warner Bros. consultant after being away from the company for decades. The first Belle Brigade song he heard, "Sweet Louise," is the first song on the album, and sounds like a lost Lindsey Buckingham classic from Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" -- as interpreted by the Everlys. "When I heard the harmonies click in for the first time," recalls Waronker, "I remember raising my hand trying to get Andy's attention, saying, 'Wait, stop! Who is this?' "
The team set up shop at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where artists such as Frank Sinatra, Beach Boys and Green Day have recorded, and began putting the songs to tape. Their musical palette excluded any synthetic sounds, preferring more natural tones of pedal steel guitar, strings, the occasional Hammond B-3 organ and standard bass, drum and guitar.
Barbara says the sessions with Waronker were memorable. "He would drop in on the recording process every now and then. We'd go in to meet with Lenny and Andy and just play them our demos. They're very intimately involved in our writing process -- not the process of our writing, but they know what we're working on when we're working on it. And we just love showing our songs to them, because they're so supportive."
Adds Waronker, "What I started to focus on was the vocal sound. It was so unique, and so important to have that sound, because so few people have it, and when it's really good it sets you apart, and you have a relationship to the sound of them."
But, then, that kind of relationship to music -- and to Warners -- runs deep, Barbara says. "My mom listened to 'Graceland' in the car every morning on my way to kindergarten."