Band of Brothers
When he got the phone call, Salim Nourallah was not getting along with his brother--again.
"You gotta read the paper," his friend told him, and the blood drained from Salim's face.
In those days, news about the Nourallah brothers was generally bad news. More than a decade earlier, he and his younger brother Faris had come to the city with delusions of art-rock greatness, but those crumbled under the weight of a thousand musical failures and imploded relationships, including the one they once had with each other. Salim opened the paper that day with all his defenses at the quick.
Except that wasn't what the story was about at all. Instead, it was an interview with a guy named Brian Sampson who'd started a local music label called Western Vinyl. He talked about driving down an Austin highway, listening to college radio, and hearing a song by two brothers so stirring, so singular that he had to pull off to the side of the road. This was years ago, before the Internet could satisfy everyone's curiosity with one lazy Google search, and Sampson had been wondering about these brothers for a year. He wasn't sure of the name, but he wanted to sign them: the Neurala Brothers? The Noorollow Brothers?
Five months after that article ran, Western Vinyl released The Nourallah Brothers, 16 tracks written and sung alternately by Salim and Faris. It wasn't the indie rock stuff they played with their band on a Friday night at Trees, but hushed harmonies, wide-eyed lyrics and delicate instrumentation, like the Beatles albums they loved as kids. They'd done it as a lark, as a way to take their mind off the shitstorm their lives had become. When Salim sent the CD-R off to friends and labels and radio stations, he didn't even tell his brother. It's possible they weren't speaking then.
Although The Nourallah Brothers was less than a sensation locally, it got distribution in Europe, thanks to a deal Western Vinyl inked with Secretly Canadian, a boutique label home to such respected artists as Damien Jurado and Songs: Ohia. It also launched the brothers' (separate) recording careers; in the years that followed, Faris recorded three albums for the label, and Salim, now a husband and father, recently finished his second. Though modest by all measures of success, a few thousand CDs sold here and there, their work has been ecstatically reviewed in the alternative press and found cultish fan bases in Europe.
It's miles away from where they were on that day Salim got the call. "Our lives were falling apart," Salim says now. "We'd been rotting in a band for nearly 15 years. We thought everything was over. And it was just beginning."
All families have complicated stories, but the Nourallah brothers have a story more complicated than most. They grew up in El Paso, two oddball Arab kids with a funny name. Their father was Syrian, one of 13 children and a first-generation immigrant who hoped they'd grow up to be something safe and respectable, like doctors or lawyers, but they took after their mother, a free-spirited painter with a master's in fine arts. They had a younger sister and brother they adored, but Faris and Salim, only 18 months apart, were as close-knit as twins. They taped songs off the radio, spent evenings at the turntable in the living room surrounded by the Beatles and the Clash and the Kinks. Eventually they started making their own music--Salim singing and writing the tunes, Faris on drums--and Salim can remember sitting on his bed trying to spin some melody as drum beats drifted through the vents of his brother's room. All the pictures they have from those days are of the two of them together: holding hands, making goofy faces, their mouths open in silly smiles.
After high school, Salim and Faris moved to Denton to join the music scene and scramble for their scrap of sunshine. "We never questioned that we would have a happy ending," Salim says. "We would stay up till all hours of the night plotting and planning our band--what kind of gear we were gonna have and our album covers and what kind of clothes we were gonna wear."
Salim grew out his hair and changed up his wardrobe. Once a certifiable dork, shy and withdrawn, he donned the aloof mantle of elitist art snob. He was an asshole then, and he knows it. "I used to have dreams that someone would take my disguise off," he says, "and see who I really was."
Worse, though, their band The Moon Festival wasn't working out. "Long story short? The Moon Festival was cursed," Salim says. Faris' equipment got stolen. They were banned from clubs for their lousy draw.
Around that time, Faris got married, but the union quickly faltered. Hoping to get a fresh start, he and his wife moved to Portland, but Faris found himself even more depressed and lonely. Heartened by the news that Western Vinyl was releasing The Nourallah Brothers, Faris returned home and agreed to play with his brother's new band, ironically called the Happiness Factor. But when he expressed a sudden reluctance to play in front of an audience--maybe a cry for help, maybe nerves--Salim ignored him and booked a show anyway. Faris quit the band, and he never played live again. It was July 13, 2001; Salim can tell you the date. That's the moment both brothers return to when they think about how their relationship changed. For Faris, it was a sign that his brother wouldn't support him. For Salim, it was a sign that his brother's anxiety would spill over into just about everything.
These days, Salim describes his brother's condition like this: "My brother basically doesn't leave the house." In coarse terms, he's a hermit. Faris isn't proud of this fact, although it's hard to resist the marketing appeal of such eccentricity. The promotional one-sheet for his solo album, I Love Faris, reads, "Faris Nourallah lives in his own world. He exists almost exclusively within the confines of his one-bedroom home and backyard studio; he doesn't go out to shows and hasn't bought a new record in years. This self-imposed isolation has allowed Faris to develop his unique and endearing style of songwriting."
It's odd, because when they were kids, Faris was the outgoing one. Sure, Faris stayed back on drums (and, later, guitar) while his brother wrote the music and sang, but Faris was the one who dated in high school. He was the one who rebelled against their father. Wasn't it Faris who first dropped the F-bomb in the Nourallah household? Wasn't it Faris who brazenly traded in the car his father bought him for graduation in order to buy his first drum kit?
"Faris would go through these crazy rock-and-roll crucifixions--that's what I call them," Salim says. "Going down in a blaze of...whatever. Probably not glory."
But by his early 30s, the world had become a dangerous place for Faris Nourallah. He could hardly leave the house without dissolving into a mess of cold sweats and heart palpitations. Partly as therapy, partly out of boredom, he started making music by himself--without his brother for the first time. While Salim continued business as usual with the Happiness Factor--rehearsals, gigging, blah blah blah--Faris quietly put together a solo album of songs filled with Tinkertoy melodies, made-up words ("brogadiccio") and fantastic imagery ("lemon-pie moons"). He eventually built a studio behind his house, and he followed that debut with Problematico, which continued to sketch out an imagined universe where catchy pop collides with wondrous visions.
Virtually unknown and almost entirely unseen in Dallas, Faris became something of an underground celebrity in Europe. In Sweden, a woman became so enamored of his music that she flew to Texas to meet him (which led to the tongue-in-cheek name of his third solo album, King of Sweden). In Spain, there are plans to release a best-of compilation of his work. The overseas popularity of Faris' music has led to a resurgence of interest in The Nourallah Brothers and a curiosity about these two boys from Texas, making music that has nothing to do with spurs and cowboy hats. And all of this without Faris leaving home. Literally.
"There's been a whole slew of singer-songwriters in the past few years who are mysterious, who don't play live," Salim says. "Whereas I think 10 years ago, record labels would be like, 'You don't play live? Get out of here.'"
But technology has changed all that. Computer-based programs make quality home recording cheap and easy, while big-studio production, once the carrot on the stick for any serious artist, has become tainted by pitch correction and a thousand other cheats. The old paradigm for getting a major label's attention--tour your ass off, draw big crowds--isn't as stringent in a world of MP3s and e-mail. Sam Beam, aka Iron and Wine, was signed to Sub Pop based on lo-fi tapes he made in his Florida home. And Western Vinyl can draw a bridge between a Dallas shut-in and fans in a country he's never visited. That's the story, Faris will tell me when I finally meet him. That's beauty.
There are some things technology can't do for you, however. When a festival in Amsterdam offered to fly both brothers over to play, Faris declined. He just couldn't do it. So Salim went by himself and made up some excuse.
There are 18 people at the restaurant, about one for every year Salim Nourallah has played music in this town. It's a friendly weeknight crowd, a smattering of old buddies and strangers with encouraging smiles, but it's the kind of gig that, at 38 years old, Salim probably wouldn't take if he didn't have to.
He clears his throat. "I wrote this song as I watched my 1-year-old son Gavin lie on the couch." He speaks slowly, weighing the words. "He seemed so happy and safe, but then I thought about how there were all these little kids out there being abused, and they would grow up to hurt him someday."
"Oh, my God," whispers the woman behind me. "That's so depressing."
The song, "The World Is Full of People Who Want To Hurt You," is a bit depressing, actually. It's also beautiful and naked, the kind of song a father writes for a son whose tiny feet he still considers a revelation. The song doesn't go over brilliantly live, because a lot of Salim's music doesn't. It's music meant for long nights and drives alone, when the violins and heartbreak can settle in and take hold. In a city known for metal gods and the world's most eccentric choral rock band, Salim Nourallah is an anomaly. He makes understated chamber pop, short and lovely as a curling sigh. "Rare is the songwriter who can stop time," read the review of his 2004 debut solo album, Polaroid, on Rollingstone.com, "but Salim Nourallah does just that."
The accolades have rarely translated into financial success, however, and these days--as Salim and his wife, Jayme, close the deal on a new house--he's been taking more and more of these kinds of gigs. They don't pay much, and they keep him out late during the hours when he'd rather be home, the hours when his wife and only son are tucked snugly into bed.
Like his brother, Salim has also built a studio behind his house, which he calls Pleasantry Lane. He is a sought-after producer in this town and has recorded The Deathray Davies, The Damnwells and the Old 97's. He loves it, and he needs the money, but it takes time, and often that means time away from the things he loves the most--his family, his own music, his life.
At 36, Faris Nourallah has never had a job. He lives with his girlfriend, who helps support him. In a bizarre twist, she also happens to be the high-school best friend of his first wife.
"I'm an exotic house pet," he tells me at one point. "You know, you don't want to come home to an empty house." He leaves the room to get something and returns. "Maybe that was a little harsh," he says. "I've been known to be dramatic."
For a while, it was not clear that Faris Nourallah would participate in this story. The brothers are on speaking terms these days, but, in Faris' words, things are "dicey."
One afternoon, at about 5 o'clock, I received a call from Salim, asking me if I could accompany him in two hours to Faris' house, without my tape recorder, just to meet. Faris was having a good day, and if he didn't meet me soon, he suspected too much anxiety would build, and he might refuse to meet me altogether.
By that point, Faris Nourallah had become a mythic figure to me. I suppose I expected some kind of Boo Radley character--pale and cowering, gentle as a baby lamb. What I didn't expect was Faris: tall, articulate and deeply opinionated, handsome. We talked on the porch for a while, and he toured Salim and me around his tastefully designed back house and his small studio, a string of Danelectro guitars hanging on the wall. Whatever problems he may have, he has learned to disguise them. Only hints remain: his impulsive speech, the fact that months earlier, all his Danelectro guitars had been Rickenbackers until he traded them in.
A few days later, I called Faris to arrange our interview and was again surprised at how easy, enjoyable even, it was to speak with him. But about an hour after we hung up, he called back to ask, a bit randomly, what kind of beer I drink. And when I arrived at his place, he had dimmed the lights and lined the walls with a hundred lit votive candles. A bucket of iced beer sat in the center of the room.
"I figure if I'm gonna do an interview, I might as well be comfortable," he says.
Faris has never sought a clinical diagnosis for his agoraphobia, but he's not in denial about his condition. He rarely speaks to anyone except his mother and his girlfriend. "It's hard to describe in rational terms," he says. "It just isn't an option. I mean, who doesn't want a free trip to Europe?"
No one knows for sure what kick-started this panic disorder, although Faris often points to what he terms his "triple whammy": a devastating divorce, a humiliating return to living with Mom and Dad, the episode with his brother and the band. His life had been turned on its head, and when he perceived that his brother wouldn't help him, emotionally or creatively, he was crushed.
To this day, he hasn't collaborated with any musician besides Salim. Once dependent on his brother's partnership, he has learned to thrive as sole creator, as mastermind of his own music. And, as he puts it, "No one can leave my band."
When Faris talks about his brother now, he uses terms like "salesman" and "starfucker," and I find it hard to connect those terms to the Salim I know--a fine musician, a hardworking producer, modest to a fault. But as I listen to Faris, I begin to suspect it's not Salim he's talking about so much as all musicians out there willing to play The Game. He hates what the industry asks them to do, and he hates that they're willing to do it. "Salim will throw as many fucking pies on the wall as you want," he says, "just like every other thirtysomething father musician under the sun. They just want to feed the baby. So he'll put out five records in one year, and maybe one of them will fucking stick. And I know Salim would just downplay me, saying that I'm just a using lech, I don't have a real job and I can afford that attitude. I don't know. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between."
Faris Nourallah refuses to play The Game. He will not throw a pie on a wall. He will not wear a suit, or cut his hair, or get a job in some shitty cubicle just to make the mortgage. He will not even soften his language for an interviewer if he doesn't feel like it. "Life on my terms is being able to make my records," he says. "I control this. My studio can't be taken away." For all these reasons, he is essentially unsignable, but the great irony is that he does have a record deal, and that deal enables him to continue living like this. In one way, he is keeping his art pure. In another, he's rationalizing his illness.
But whatever you think about Faris Nourallah--genius or nut case--he is deeply devoted to his craft. "I want to make the best record you've never heard," he says, "because it proves that the system's fucked up."
About a year ago, Faris read Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and like many others, he found in its excoriation of phonies and rat-racers a kind of salvation. He claims the book has become a bigger influence on his work than the Beatles and that he will dedicate his next album to the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. "Because," he says, "he taught me that I'm not the only one."
I asked him what he knew about the book's author, J.D. Salinger.
"Nothing," he said. "And I don't care. It doesn't have any relevance to me."
"Ask him what he thinks about the fact that Mark David Chapman was carrying that book when he shot John Lennon," Salim says to me later. But at the time, I was thinking about something else entirely, something curious, almost eerie given Faris' identification with the book.
"Would it be interesting if I told you J.D. Salinger became a hermit?" I ask.
"It wouldn't be interesting," says Faris. "It would be disturbing."
Last December, Western Vinyl re-released The Nourallah Brothers with a bonus CD of added tracks. Both brothers have solo albums coming out later in the year--Faris' King of Sweden , due in April, and Salim's Beautiful Noise , due this summer. Every once in a while, they play around with the idea of recording another Nourallah Brothers album, but the plans get procrastinated upon, groused about and eventually scrapped. Which is too bad, not only because it could be musically fruitful, but also because sibling artists are so much more compelling and marketable when they come in pairs. People want a Noel and Liam Gallagher, a Ray and Dave Davies--and if their stories are dark and twisted, full of bruises and spilled blood, then hey, all the better.
Even if they never record an album together again, their shadows float through each other's music. Faris' "I Can Run Faster Than You," off King of Sweden, is a classic tale of sibling rivalry, in which his brother joins in on vocals. Salim's "Model Brothers," from Polaroid, tells the story of how he and Faris came together and fell apart through music. "Now 34, and 32," it concludes, "can't remember when I last saw you."
In that song, Salim remembers the day music first set their hearts aflame, the day they bought The White Album. It's a day Salim has come to curse, because it took them down such a difficult path. He wonders if things would have been different had they not come to Denton. He wonders if things would have been different had they just played it safe.
There's no point in this train of thought, and Salim knows it. Music was the best thing they had together, and no matter how their relationship stumbles, it's the one thing they will still understand. When Salim plays live, he performs songs that Faris wrote.
When Salim had an opportunity to shoot a video in Los Angeles, Faris sold a bass on eBay to pay for the ticket.
"When I was a scared kid inventing music in my head, my brother was the only person who believed in me," Salim says. "And after that, he was the only person who believed in me...for ever."
Things between them may get better eventually. After all, Faris made a rare appearance at Christmas. He even agreed to sit for the photos in this article, despite adamantly (and repeatedly) refusing to do so. And on a chilly fall evening, the two of them can sit on Faris' porch, in the company of an interviewer, and talk about the years they spent worshiping music, studying music, loving it as deeply as each other. Of course, the discussion turns to disagreement and discord. And then they argue--like only brothers can.
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