Prior to heading to my first Mighty Brother show late last year, I turned on their most recent EP, The Vibe. While it only consists of five songs, by the time the last song was ending, I was in awe. Their music is energetic but calming and spatial. It has the hypnotic elements of Alt-J, the Midwestern warmth of JT and The Clouds, the rock tones of Allen Stone, and musical interludes that nod to Old Hollywood. Top it all off with classically New Orleans horn lines.
The last five years have seen some significant shifts for band members Nick Hüster, Ari Carter, Quinn Sternberg, and Jonah Tarver. It’s not hard to imagine how they’ve been influenced by new music styles along the way. What is impressive is the dexterity with which the group has been able to genre-bend. It’s either that or they have discerned very early on how to highlight their strengths. Both scenarios show confidence and maturity with their music. The members credit New Orleans with the genesis of their sound. “There is a community around almost anything you’re into and there are very devoted groups of people doing grassroots work. There’s not a lot of money coming into the city aside from tourist spending so you pretty much have to love what you do for its own sake,” says Carter. Mighty Brother’s new album The Rabbit. The Owl. is due out later this spring and I had the chance to speak with guitarists and frontmen Nick Hüster and Ari Carter ahead of its release.
Katie Sikora: Where did y’all grow up, and how did you end up in New Orleans?
Nick: We’re all from Indiana except Jonah who’s from Seattle. We all attended Indiana University, but shortly after recording our debut record, Ari and I decided to move south.
Ari: Yeah, Nick was torn between Portland and New Orleans for a Masters program, but we only had to visit once to decide. The guys joined us the following year and are now pretty situated in the music scene, Quinn as a staple bassist and Jonah just made manager at Preservation Hall.
KS: How and when did you start playing music together?
N: We met after college in Bloomington, Indiana almost six years ago, but we didn’t really start playing music until a chance encounter at a plasma donation center nearly a year later.
A: I was a phlebotomist at the time, and I think I actually met everyone on our first record there. Broke musicians unite! Anyway, we spent a summer skateboarding together and Nick moved into my basement in the fall. That’s when we started serious work on an album, jamming with musicians around town, assembling the A-Team.
N: We’ve played half the continental states since then, as well as abroad in New Zealand this past year.
KS: Describe your music.
A: Our 2017 EP was described as “a genre-bending repertoire of upbeat originals ranging from Avett-inspired Americana to Radiohead-esque art rock.” And we’ve pretty much stuck with that. Nick and I love vocal harmonies, storytelling, and great lyrics, and we enjoy brushing shoulders with pop rock arrangements.
N: Yep, and we dig the more heady arrangements of bands like Radiohead and Grizzly Bear, and that’s where the genres collide for us.
A: When I see NOLA bands perform, I’m like, “This is cool, but how are you weird?” New Orleans embraces diversity, and it has really encouraged us to think outside the box. We are about to drop a double album that really spans a ton of local inspirations.
KS: What has been your favorite performance experience in New Orleans thus far?
N: One time we got booked at House of Blues during an important Saints game. They were showing the game on a big screen during the show. It was just something really special to play for a jam-packed room full of excited football fans! Who Dat!
A: He’s failing to mention how no one was paying attention. Which was fine! Everyone eventually plays a gig during a Saints or LSU game. There’s a lot of energy in the room, I’ll say that.
N: We released the video for [our song] “Menagerie” at The Art Garage and that was pretty sweet. We were able to project the video and hang with friends in a sweet space. Our friend Braden runs the place, so hit her up!
KS: Which New Orleans musicians most inspire you?
N: The local scene is full of amazing musicians and songwriters. We were lucky enough to play with Tarriona from Tank and the Bangas shortly after arriving in New Orleans, and her stage presence was ridiculously good. Sweet Crude was an early inspiration too, and we even included some French in our songwriting on the EP. Their live performances were impressive and catalyzing.
A: We essentially went to every open mic when we first moved down and busked every weekend. It was a very broke and exciting time! We met Shane Avrard at Neutral Ground Coffee House and his music with Noise Complaints and now Kelly Duplex has been a staple of my NOLA existence.
N: Pretty much every project Jonathan Arceneaux was in!
A: Yeah! Toonces still blows my mind whenever they get together for a show. Oh, also Micah McKee has a style that really resonates with us. He’s wonderful as hell besides! New favs include People Museum and MoPodna, Matron, and Kuwaisiana. All great performers and great people. That’s really the most inspiring thing to me locally, the people. Folks seem a bit guarded initially, like, “Should I be knowing you? Are you sticking around?” But when you’ve been here a bit, those friendships really flourish.
KS: Favorite place to catch live music in NOLA?
N: We’ve all been living near the Marigny for the past couple of years, so are quite partial to the St. Claude scene. Carnaval (previously Siberia) has a great stage, and Hi-Ho Lounge is always a good time.
A: The St. Bernard strip is really starting to pick up, and I dig the grungier scene. Saturn Bar finally got a new sound system, and People Museum’s album release show last month was awesome. Love that space.
KS: What is your favorite non-musical activity to do in New Orleans?
N: Eat! Seriously the food in this city is so good. Beyond that, we’re all into different things, but generally when we get together outside of rehearsal it is to go out for drinks, see shows (musical and non-musical), go to art openings, hit the parades, etc. We all enjoy walking or biking around and turning every corner of the city to new and exciting surprises and experiences. There’s always something fresh happening. As individuals, Ari is deeply integrated in the climbing scene through New Orleans Boulder Lounge, Quinn can often be found at Broad Theater, Jonah’s usually somewhere grabbing a coffee or a cocktail, and I like playing disc golf at City Park or hanging out in the sculpture garden.
KS: Favorite food to eat in NOLA?
N: Rice and beans! It’s something I learned how to prepare down here, and I make it just about every week. When I go out, I’m usually looking for a good Vietnamese place, and my favorite restaurant in New Orleans is Red’s Chinese on St. Claude. Something about their Cajun Asian fusion food just speaks to me.
A: Cake Cafe and Bakery was the first cafe I went to in New Orleans, and it’s still one of my favorites. Easy spot to take visitors and affordable. Fantastic staff.
KS: When is your next performance in New Orleans?
N: We’ve been enjoying a biweekly (every other week, not twice a week) residency at Carnaval Lounge. Our next shows there are February 4 and 18.
KS: Where do you see your careers as musicians going in the future?
A: We’re all pretty excited to finally release our double album this spring, and we’re already writing the next one.
N: We’re hoping that will catapult us into more touring opportunities and forge some new professional connections. There’s going to be a little publicity money behind this one, and we’re hoping that helps.
A: We’d love to be traveling the festival circuit, and we’re planning a Eurotour. We’ve booked all our tours by ourselves, and I think we imagine that process getting easier.
N: Yeah, we’re all invested in making music for the long haul, and we’re always looking for ways to grow our careers and to share and collaborate with others. Mighty Brother has taught us a lot of skills, and it’s definitely not done teaching.
A: Realistically, we know we’ll get better doing what we’re doing, touring and releasing new music, making videos and seeing the world as we go. The leap from DIY touring rock band to some type of mainstream breakthrough success is weird to hope for. I don’t know what that looks like. It seems like our team will continue to grow as we continue to work hard, making the process that much easier and more efficient, more enjoyable and effective. That’s already what we see each time we head out on the road.
N: Yeah, I think we see Mighty Brother’s success in terms of the people who support it. We have a pretty close relationship with our friends and fans. They see us when we roll through, support us by buying our merch, and interact with us on social media. That means the world, and it’s hard to ask for anything more than that. We love performing for people, and they seem to enjoy it too.
A: We all work together outside of Mighty Brother on our other musical projects. Nick is putting out videos, I have a solo record coming out January 12, Quinn is always putting out amazing original jazz tunes, Jonah is collaborating on sax with everyone under the sun it seems. I can’t imagine anything changing creatively despite who notices. Maybe we’d be able to involve more artists in the process and that’s an inspiring prospect.
KS: What would be your dream gig or collaboration?
N: I’ve always dreamed of playing Red Rocks. The venue is amazing and there’s a special connection between people, nature, and music.
A: I don’t really have a gig in mind, but Nick and I are always trying to collaborate hard. We are always trying to extend our message beyond the music and address social issues through creative projects. Mostly that’s been music videos. We always have two dozen videos we’d love to produce. Being able to collaborate with all our favorite local filmmakers, editors, engineers, musicians, that’s what I’m always dreaming of.
KS: In terms of your performance style, where do you pull inspiration from?
N: As frontmen, Ari and I try to be as honest and welcoming as we can be. We try to have a good time and encourage everyone to have a good time with us, while still putting on a musically inspiring set.
A: Yeah, it’s funny, I’m pretty particular about wanting every section to land, but I probably make the most mistakes out of anyone. I get really engaged in the performance and make a bunch of mistakes. I just enjoy interacting with the guys onstage and creating that feedback loop with the audience. I dream of one day having the presence of someone like Freddie Mercury.
N: [We both] really idolize storytelling. An early favorite was a Bloomington band called Busman’s Holiday. You’d almost be more excited for the storytelling than the song, but both were delivered so powerfully. I also love comedic banter like Flight of the Conchords, and we try to not take ourselves so seriously between songs if the audience is vibing.
A: Yeah, laughing always helps my nerves. There are some funny moments on the double album that really capture that comedic tendency. We’re excited to share those.
KS: Tell me about the upcoming album. What is it about and what do you want people to take away from it?
N: Well, it’s something we’ve been working on for the better part of 2 years. It’s kind of a deeper dive into the songwriting concepts and musical styles we touched on our first album and refined on our recent EP. It’s going to be called The Rabbit. The Owl. The artwork for our first record included a rabbit and an owl, and folks were always asking us, “Who’s the rabbit and who’s the owl?” It was clearly a duo-written project at the time, so they thought we each identified with one of the animals. To some extent, yes, but we turned the question back around and made two tee-shirt designs featuring one or the other.
A: Yeah, Nick’s bit at the mic went something like, “If you like rabbits or owls, orange or blue, or…shirts, then you should check out the merch table.” Folks were more or less evenly divided.
There’s an emphasis on duality and ambiguity on the double album, the introspective versus extroverted, the poetic versus the colloquial, and we put all that under two categories, sort of constructed our own archetypes. They are two different moods that the band embodies, a seriousness about crafting good music that is true to us with a relevant message, and also a need to explore the world through action, by undertaking the challenges that come with touring life.
N: But we hope folks walk away feeling inspired to express themselves and pursue their passions, to explore and to be open to inner-exploration. That’s when all the good stuff happens.
KS: What do you love most about this city?
A: The creative community, hands down, [is the] best in the country. It feels like there is a lack of professional connections, but that’s not really what it’s about here. It’s an incubator, a place to hone your craft. Folks pay little mind to anyone who fancies themselves important or any sort of hotshot. People here are real, and they are really into expressing themselves, their art, their music, whatever they’re into. If you’re trying to express yourself, pretty much in any way, the city supports that. I think perhaps the sense of community is what I love most.