Siblings Ethan and Barbara Gruska comprise Los Angeles duo the Belle Brigade. Coming from a long line of influential L.A. musicians, Barbara played drums for Jenny Lewis and Inara George before joining forces with her younger brother in 2008. They released their eponymous debut in 2011, and its sunny, Cali-pop harmonies were given a sonic upgrade on this year’s "Just Because." From late April to August, the band both opened for Ray LaMontagne and served as his backing band on each night of the tour.
The band stops at SDSU’s Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre on Friday during their 5-week second leg with LaMontagne. SoundDiego recently spoke with the younger Gruska about their new change in sound and life on the road with Mr. Ray.
Scott McDonald: Tell me about the direction you took on "Just Because."
Ethan Gruska: There was just so much time in between albums and a lot of life happened. We changed as people. We were on tour for almost two years. But after playing those same songs every night, I think we really just wanted to branch out and get a little more modern. We wanted some variety.
SM: Was the process any different?
EG: It’s funny, but the songwriting process for both of the albums wasn’t different at all. We wrote them in the same way and if you listen to both of the demos, they don’t sound like they’d be very different. It came down to the zone we got into while recording. We were really trying to push ourselves and not just do the Steely Dan/Fleetwood Mac strum sound that we love so much. I think we spent too much time listening to old music and not keeping up with what’s going on now. And it’s not that we wanted to do something that was keeping up with what’s going on now, realizing it just made us want to do something different. And that was that. We don’t think about any of it when we’re making the music. It’s always afterwards that we’re like, "oh, s--t, maybe we should try this here instead."
SM: So much of your family is in music. Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
EG: It was different for Barbara than it was for me. Her rebellion was the "I’m not going to be a musician" route. Like you said, everyone in the family is a musician, and she definitely loved it, but she wanted to do something different. But she’s just so naturally amazing and talented - it was inevitable. And she’d never say anything like that because she’s also totally humble. One day, she just realized it was what she loved to do and decided to go for it. And when that happened, she practiced drums for something like eight hours a day and played with a hundred L.A. bands. It was when she started to go for it that I was first starting to get into music. I was always listening to and loving music, but I started by just dabbling on the piano. But when Barb started playing at clubs and sneaking me in, I thought it was so cool and started to get more serious about it. Later on, we combined a few songs and just ended up saying, "why don’t we just start a band?" It moved pretty quickly after that and we started working on the first record. [laughs] That’s the long-winded, but extremely sped-up version right there.
SM: It had to be crazy growing up in a house with so much going on.
EG: When I was little, I used to think I didn’t have to pay attention in music class. I always thought ‘my dad does this’ or ‘I’ve seen this done a million times’ and I really thought I knew everything. So of course, by the time I did start paying attention, I really wished that I’d been doing it the entire time. But from the very start it’s felt comfortable. I’ve always felt comfortable with all of it, including being in the studio. And that continues to help me even now.
SM: You guys do a bunch of other stuff as well.
EG: Belle Brigade is the main priority for us. We put it first. But last year, around this time, when we were just waiting on the album artwork and the other stuff that could be done by email, Barb got the call to go play drums with Fiona Apple and Blake Mills. So when it matches up with downtime for the band, we definitely do other things. And it hasn’t been a problem. Like this opportunity to play with Ray, it’s the both of us.
SM: You guys get the best of both worlds – club dates and festival seating.
EG: It’s really great. We’ve never both been in a backing band together before and it’s been incredibly cool. It’s just so nice to get to play for so long each night. We’re in such awesome venues and we get to play them twice each night. It’s been really fun.
SM: So it’s like, "Thank you! Goodnight! We’ll see you in… a half hour!"
EG: Yeah, totally. [laughs] It’s pretty weird.
SM: But I imagine Ray’s audience loves you.
EG: I don’t know. It’s a great audience to get in front of, for sure. It’s great exposure and the music definitely has a common thread. Also, his new record is very similar to ours in the respect that he’s also trying to break out and try a different sonic approach. But there’s no real way to know what they think of us. That said, we’re learning so much. Ray is such a badass at playing festivals and big outdoor venues. And you have to adjust your set for that. Or, at least, find another way to approach it. Figuring all of that out has been such a learning experience for Belle Brigade on this tour.
SM: Kabuki masks and pyrotechnics next headlining tour?
EG: Totally! [laughs] We’ve hit a wall and it’s time to bust out the Halloween costumes! Absolutely.
SM: What’s next?
EG: Well, it’ll be awesome to finish this tour up with Ray. And then we’ll do a couple of little runs by ourselves. Then, unless something important comes up, I think we’ll be taking the rest of the year off. We’re already talking about logistics for next year, but it’ll be the first part of it when we really work on timing for recording some new material. But really, for right now, we’re just thinking about executing these next few months.