Kids Play

The Moss Brothers are a novelty act -- until you hear them

"I just really liked guitar," Reuben says, struggling to explain why he began writing rock-and-roll songs for him and his brother to perform. He explains that his earliest heroes were Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. "I don't remember when I started writing songs, but I knew I could play guitar. I played a lot of guitar, and I figured, 'What's the point of playing guitar if all you can play is covers?' And Evan and I have this sort of psychic telepathy-type thing. That's what we describe it as. I can read his mind."

"We have the same type of mind," Evan says, sitting in The Ticket's studios. He shares a small seat with his little brother. "We can sorta..."

"...tell what the other one's thinking," Reuben says. "And that helps us get along."

Reuben Moss, left, and brother Evan are kids you ought to take seriously. Seriously.
Reuben Moss, left, and brother Evan are kids you ought to take seriously. Seriously.
When he's not playing with his other band -- Metallisomething -- Jason Newsted is the Moss Brothers' bassist.
When he's not playing with his other band -- Metallisomething -- Jason Newsted is the Moss Brothers' bassist.

"Yeah," Evan says, "Reuben writes the song..."

"...and then he helps me out."

"Our music is sorta a mix of the stuff we listen to," Evan says, "and then we put all our ideas into it that it changes it so much it doesn't sound like what we listen to."

When the brothers launch into their bare-bones punk rock, reminiscent of the Violent Femmes by way of Television at CBGB in 1977, or finger-pickin' blues that references Bessie Smith, or their back-porch country hymns, you begin to realize the Moss Brothers are the novelty act that transcends novelty. Gimmicks don't get to open for the beloved Holy Modal Rollers or play Jerry Brown's mayoral inaugural. Gimmicks don't get compared to the Meat Puppets and NRBQ. Gimmicks don't get Jason Newsted buying their equipment, offering to play on and produce their second album, and inviting them over to jam for the afternoon.

Theirs is a brand of rock and roll not yet tainted by cynicism and irony. They exist as if to prove brilliance and innocence can still exist when children strap on guitars, sit behind drum kits, and sing about that which they know -- say, how angry their mom gets when they refuse to do the dishes. This, in the end, is what attracted Newsted to the Moss Brothers: the limitless potential commingled with the fact that he can, for a moment, remove himself from the Metallica behemoth and just be the bass player in a rock-and-roll band, even one fronted by a child.

"It's purity, man," Newsted says, insisting he will help the brothers record their next disc but try to keep out of the way. He became involved with them after Lamm gave him a copy of On the North Side of the Tree. "In the music business, there's so much false representation and bullshit, and it's sad. I see it every day, because the monster I'm a part of is the biggest there is in rock. You can imagine all the details and all the shit that goes along with it, and I try to get away from it as much as I can, and this helps keep me sane and cleanse the palate -- wash out all that shit. This is so pure and so innocent, and at the same time, they have this great power."

The songs the brothers have begun demoing for their second album are darker and deeper than those on On The North Side of the Tree. One, titled "From This Place," is, as Reuben explains it from the blues club's stage, "about the devil going up to heaven"; "Heaven Is Overpopulated," which recalls early Police, recounts the names of people who died too young, from Jimi Hendrix to Euclid the Mathematician to blues songwriter Jimmy Cox, whose "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was recorded by Bessie Smith and, yes, the Moss Brothers. Turns out a child does a lot of maturing between 10 and 11: Instead of singing about sports and grandpa turning 80 and getting in trouble for not doing the dishes, Reuben now writes of death and demons, of contracting "Out of School Anti-Blues" and combating "Frustration." One new song, "Psycho Monkey," owes not a little to Devo's "Freedom of Choice"; another, "Whiner," is honky-tonk Velvet Underground. Or something.

"We're going off in a tiny bit of a different direction," says Evan.

"Yeah, it's more alternative," Reuben says.

"The new stuff? Forget it," Newsted says, speaking in a solemn tone reserved for speaking of the revered. "I learned a few of the new songs the other day when they came over to jam, but those were the easy songs. Some of them are so dark, with violins and dark, crazy shit going on -- it's weird, man. The only other records besides the classical stuff their parents own is Nine Inch Nails stuff, so they have this classical influence and Nine Inch Nails, and somewhere in between they come up with their own thing. I just try not to mess with anything."

Sitting at a back table at Blue Cat Blues, Lisa Moss nods her head in time with the music; Mark, sitting nearly still, stares straight ahead like a father watching his Little Leaguer bat with a 3-2 count. On stage, their 11-year-old son sings a song called "Frustration" in a voice so tiny it could surf on an atom: "Don't get frustrated," Reuben advises. "Just try it a different way." That song will appear on the band's second disc, which Lamm wanted to record before the brothers return to school in a few days; now, the Moss Brothers will have to wait until they have a few free weekends. They are, after all, just children. Rock and roll can wait.

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