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.