After years of opening for other bands, the brothers Joe and Sebastian Keefe recently headlined a sold-out club in Minneapolis with their group, Family of the Year. “That felt really good,” says Joe Keefe, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard. “It wasn’t overly promoted. That’s all I ever really wanted.”
Of course, reaching one goal only means they’ll set their sights higher. The band has been boosted by the success of their plaintive acoustic single, “Hero,” which recently sat just below songs by the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons on Billboard’s “adult album alternative” (Triple A) chart. As they emerge from the shadow of other acts, expectations for the band will naturally grow.
“That’s the scariest part,” says Keefe, on the phone from a road stop in Atlanta. Family of the Year plays the Brighton Music Hall on Thursday. “We’ve had a lot of those moments in the past few months,” including several late-night television appearances. “All this exciting stuff ends up being professional. It is a lot more stressful. You really want to do a good job. There have been many instances where we’ve had to look at each other and say, OK, let’s take a deep breath.”
There’s less fresh air to breathe in Los Angeles, where the band is based, than there was on the Vineyard or in Wales, where the Keefe brothers lived for a time when they were kids (their dad is Welsh, their mother a Vineyarder). Band member James Buckey, who is from Florida, met Joe Keefe while living in Boston; “He was the first friend I made off-island,” says Keefe. They met Christina Schroeter, whose sweet voice counters Keefe’s on many of the band’s songs, in an LA bar.
Family of the Year
The band grew out of the ashes of a couple of earlier groups. Keefe’s first, Unbusted, caught a lucky break when they recorded with then-Vineyard resident Danny Kortchmar, the session guitarist who performed on seemingly every album of the singer-songwriter era of the ’70s (including records by Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and many others). Kortchmar helped the fledgling band get three songs on the soundtrack to the Farrelly brothers’ 2003 comedy, “Stuck on You.”
“I heard them play a real early gig,” says Kortchmar, who lives in Connecticut and will accompany King when she accepts the Library of Congress’s prestigious Gershwin Award in Washington, D.C., this spring. “They were really ragged, but it was obvious that Joe had something going on. I liked Joe’s stance, his attitude. He was a rock ’n’ roller from the ground up.”
Joe Keefe, now 31, eventually convinced his little brother Sebastian, 28, to move to California together. “My sister had moved out the year before, so it felt safe,” he recalls. “We spent one last summer on the Vineyard, and got in the van and drove. I don’t know how my brother trusted me, but he did. I wasn’t that old.”
After a false start with a new band called the Billionaires, the Keefes regrouped. “I was really disappointed,” says Keefe. “I was just kind of tired of the whole thing. You have to pay for rehearsal space and rehearse all the time, and you have to work full time to pay for all that stuff.
“Emotionally, I learned a lot from that band. At times, we didn’t get along so well. After that, I wasn’t super gung-ho about starting a new project.”
By contrast, Family of the Year seems well-named. The bandmates’ mutual affinity shines through in the music, which features a lot of upbeat group singing and handclapping, and they write sunny songs about each other (“Jamesy”) and somber piano ballads about missing their families (“Hey Ma”). New fan Steven Tyler went so far as to call them “The Mamas and the Papas on acid.”
There were at least six bands among the students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School when Keefe attended, he says. One of Sebastian’s best friends was Willy Mason, who has gone onto a notable songwriting career of his own. Between the sometimes bitter winters, when the island community comes together to provide after-school music programs, all-ages coffee shop shows, and other outlets, and the summer influx, which gives the locals a readymade audience to prepare for, the island was a good incubator for young musicians, Keefe says. Family of the Year named their record label in tribute — it’s called Washashore, after the islanders’ tongue-in-cheek nickname for a nonnative.
Now that they’ve settled into LA, though, it feels like a home away from home. They recorded their new album, “Loma Vista,” with producer Wally Gagel, another ex-Bostonian who was in the band Orbit before working on records by bands ranging from the Folk Implosion to the Rolling Stones.
“There are all these people in LA who’ve moved from other places, and everyone’s kind of chasing down the dream,” says Keefe. “It’s fun.”
His band, he says, “is just trying to soak it all up. We don’t have world domination on our minds. We just want to look forward to the next sold-out show.”