Making music is a family affair for St. Elias
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!'"
Moving to Colorado was even more of a bonus for the songwriting siblings: Living in Colorado Springs was Jonathan, their cousin from Houston whose family had moved north a few years earlier. Three years younger than Jeff and ten below Ted, Jonathan was the perfect partner in crime, and he was right under their noses. Not that it should have come as any surprise: Much as Ted had indoctrinated Jeff into the world of rock, Jeff had been an influence on Jonathan. "I started listening to the same stuff as those guys," Jonathan recalls, "whether I wanted to or not."
Says Ted, "We were filtering an eight-year-old this music that eight-year-olds can't comprehend. But I guess Jonathan did." So in November of 2007, Jonathan — who had, much like the rest of the family, been playing everything from clarinet to saxophone as a grade-schooler before picking up guitar and bass as a teen — sat in on what wound up being St. Elias's first rehearsal.
"We were like, "Okay, the little kid can come up and jam with us," says Ted. "Then he did. It fit perfectly."
Months of gigs, short tours and hours of studio time — not to mention more than a decade of gestation — later, Believe It has come into being. The disc is a dreamy yet aggressive blend of the artier, more cerebral end of '90s rock, particularly bands like Hum, Sunny Day Real Estate and Shudder to Think, whose frontman, Craig Wedren, seems to have had a pronounced influence on Ted's soaring, often downright pretty vocals, as well as the seamless harmonies provided by Jeff, Jonathan and even their former bandmate, sister Elissa. Besides the natural, almost instinctive affinity that comes from growing up and into music fans and musicians together, there's the basic fact that St. Elias is, above all else, a family affair.
"I've seen so many talented bands just not get along, or they let little misunderstandings torpedo the whole thing. That doesn't really happen to us," says Ted." After all," he adds with a laugh, "I have to see them at Christmas."
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