By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
By A.H. Goldstein
It's natural for children to absorb musical talent from their parents. For St. Elias, though, music isn't just an inherited proclivity; it's also something that the band's three members — two brothers and their cousin — have cultivated among themselves since they were kids growing up together in Houston.
"We wanted to avoid this whole inevitable Partridge Family thing," jokes singer/guitarist Ted Alvarez, who, along with drummer Jeff Alvarez and bassist Jonathan Pease, make up St. Elias. "People are like, 'How do you guys know each other?' And we say, 'Oh, we go way back.' We don't really look alike, so we can kind of get away with it."
Joking aside, the men of St. Elias have nothing but brotherly (and cousinly) love for one another, a cohesion that comes across in the group's weighty yet ethereal music. Despite those ties, the path to its debut full-length, Believe It, has been an inordinately long one. Separated by seven years in age, Ted and his younger brother, Jeff, come from a highly musical family. But it's taken over ten years — and a handful of cities — for the pieces of St. Elias to finally snap into place.
"I sort of came into music reluctantly," Ted admits. "Everyone in my family is really musical except for me. My sister's an opera singer. My mom's a singer. Jeff grew up singing and playing piano and drums. I was always the non-musical one, myself and my dad. There was one Christmas, though, where everyone in the family was singing, and then my dad started singing. I was like, 'Oh, God, I'm the only one left! I can't be the only one in the family who doesn't make music.' So that's when I got a guitar."
Being the '90s, it was only natural that Ted gravitated toward the heavier end of that decade's rock spectrum — namely, grunge. "I was a child of the grunge era," he says. "Soundgarden and Helmet were probably my favorite bands in high school. Then a really good friend of mine introduced me to a lot of D.C. bands like Jawbox and Shudder to Think and Kansas City bands like Shiner and Season to Risk. I started moving in that direction toward the end of high school. That's the stuff I probably started sharing with Jeff."
While Ted was smelling teen spirit in high school, Jeff's age was barely cracking the double digits. Nonetheless, the elder sibling started feeding the younger a steady diet of cutting-edge '90s rock. Granted, he had a wholly selfish reason for doing so. "When Jeff was really young, I was like, 'You will grow up to play the drums,'" says Ted. "It's hard to find drummers." And even though the bands Ted was passing along to his little brother might have been just a bit complex and cryptic for a kid his age to truly fathom, Jeff absorbed it all. Soon enough, he was spitting it back out again in the form of beats.
"I got my first drum set when I was thirteen," remembers Jeff. "Before then, I was playing on pots and pans and pillows and cardboard boxes. Ted started giving me music when I was about ten: Failure, Jawbox, stuff like that." After a few months of getting up to speed on his new instrument, Jeff joined Ted in an outfit that wound up going through various names and incarnations, including Capitol of Thailand and the Ghostbusters-referencing Cross the Streams. Remarks Ted, "I don't mind being goofy or funny, but people were like, 'Cross the Streams — whoa, a funny band!' After a while, we figured it would be better to pick a name that was innocuous and didn't really say anything."
When the band formed, Ted was 21 and Jeff was fourteen. Hampered by having such a blatantly underage member, the group — which at times included the brothers' operatic sister, Elissa Alvarez, on bass — was forced to find alternative, youth-friendly venues in its native Houston.
"We played coffee shops," confesses Jeff, "way too loud. Nobody in coffee shops wants to hear anything as loud as we were." Confused cafe-goers may have been subjected to an early, raw prototype of what would become St. Elias's angelically crushing sound, but the songs themselves may have been a bit more instantly palatable. "That project definitely sounded more straightforward," says Jeff. "We weren't trying to be as hard and heavy and complex as Shiner or Shudder to Think, even though we loved those bands."
"I wasn't that great at playing, either," says Ted, laughing. "It's a lot easier to be straightforward when you aren't that good. I'd say we actually were trying to sound like those bands. I think we were just failing."
Not getting much traction in the Houston coffee-shop rock scene, the group broke up when Ted relocated to the Northeast to attend college. Half a continent, however, couldn't keep him and his brother — or their musical collaboration — apart. The two began trading riffs and song ideas long-distance, and even after Ted moved to New York after college, the old band would get together for a show whenever Ted was home. "Jeff and I would trade songs back and forth between Houston and New York," Ted explains. "In the interim, he moved to Colorado. Suddenly I was like, 'I can live in Colorado, too!'"