Band of Brothers

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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.
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Sarah Hepola

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