For any musician trying to get their footing, Covid-19 provided an opportunity to see how solid the ground was beneath them. Santa Cruz siblings Kellen and Jamie Coffis, or The Coffis Brothers, quickly found out their path forward is solid and ready for the adventure.
The Coffis Brothers latest release, “Turn My Radio Up,” further cements the road ahead for the band. It’s an homage to the variety of musical styles and a testament to how far the band has come since its 2011 debut album, “The Coffis Brothers and Mountain Men.”
Once again, Kellen and Jamie chose to work with The Mother Hips front man Tim Bluhm to produce the album, released on Blue Rose Records, the same label as their 2020 album “In the Cuts.” The instant bond and hard work between the three in front of and behind the microphone affords The Coffis Brothers the opportunity to take bigger strides with each release.
Slideandbanjo.com spoke with Kellen Coffis to discuss the making of the album. He starts by discussing how a cold call to Bluhm led to their musical marriage.
Kellen Coffis: There’s a confidence we have and lots of trust. This is our second album working with Tim. Our relationship has grown over that period. To get him to work on the previous album, we basically cold called him and told him we wanted to work together. We were just becoming friends at that point.
Now, we’ve become his backing band for his solo stuff. We’ve spent a lot of time with him. To have the familiarity and comfort with him going into the studio was nice. We both know how each other operates and we trust his opinion. He respects our work and we love his stuff a ton.
Slide & Banjo: With Tim on board, what was the process for creating songs for the album?
Kellen: It was me, my brother Jamie, our guitar player Kyle Poppen, and bass player Aiden Collins. Jamie would present three songs of his. I’d show three of mine and we’d make basic demos from that. Then, we started rehearsing. With all the down time, we put together our own recording rig. A lot of opportunities came from the lockdown and isolation. The band wanted to get together and play. We didn’t want to keep playing old stuff. So, we figured there’s no better time to make a new album. It was tough because getting seven people in the same room together at the time, wasn’t done.
S&B: With the new material under your belt, what was the response from Tim and Blue Rose?
Kellen: By the time we got to the studio, we probably had about 15 demos completed. We showed these to Tim. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth. In the past, we’ve focused on pre-production so we can go into the studio super prepared. This time our label asked us to be a little looser. That was nice to hear. We’ve gotten better at going in that direction. We have to be ok with mistakes or doing things on the fly. We’ve been doing this for over a decade and that was the first time we’ve been told to be more flexible.
When we went in, we had an idea which songs were the strongest. Jamie and I were both open to see how the process went. Our engineer wanted amps to bleed into each other. He wanted us to sing right on the floor. He wanted good takes as a complete band instead of piecing it together.
S&B: Obviously the connection between the band and Tim is strong and tight. How did that pay off in the studio and putting the finished product together?
Kellen: There were times we went in and said we don’t know how this song begins or ends, but we’ve got something here and we will figure it out with Tim. It was always super low key. Even if it took a while, we knew we would get something good and right. Having that trust and patience was nice.
Previous albums, we’d be more focused on how to get everything done before the clock runs out. This time, we were done with time to spare and still felt good about everything. It’s a good lesson. Trust your abilities and you can get something cool and open to change out of it. The studio is its own instrument and we have to adjust to that. We’ve gotten better and more confident with the studio process.
S&B: This is the fifth studio album for the band, and that confidence shows. It seems to start with a mutual respect for the different styles you and Jamie bring to the mix.
Kellen: We keep the same process. Jamie writes on the piano. By the time he brings it to me, I’ve heard it enough in the background to know how it goes. It’s vice versa for my songs. At this point, we bring everything to the whole band at once. From there, the arranging and collaboration takes off to complete these songs. Whether it’s adding another verse or a bridge, everyone is happy to do what it takes to complete the best version possible.
We’re comfortable giving feedback to each other. Not criticizing. It’s ok to critique and say, ”I’d change that line,” or ”put a new chord in here.”
We showed the band the song “Find Out the Hard Way.” We liked it, but Jamie wanted to rewrite the second verse. I couldn’t get the phrasing like I wanted to, so for the first time I believe we decided to trade verses of the same song. That’s a rocker, and a song I can see us doing a lot going forward.
S&B: Before we discuss a couple of more songs on the album, let’s talk about the obvious connection you have with Tom Petty. I know he’s a main musical influence for you and Jamie. That inspiration pours out of the both of you.
Kellen: Tom Petty impacts everything for us. I think I got into Petty’s music late – like when I was in high school. I showed his music to Jamie and even my parents. We didn’t have that kind of music growing up. We listened to the Beatles and The Traveling Wilburys.
Once I got into him, he put out the album “Highway Companion.” It’s a solo album and one of my favorites. It’s acoustic, you can strum through the whole thing while singing. It’s a super influencer on us. It’s obvious he’s an influence for us. Our choices are influenced by him. Not intentionally. It’s how we sing and play. His music is so ingrained in us it’s not conscious to us. That’s how we like songs and vocals to sound.
S&B: I want to talk about the song “Ramona.” The rhyming with the cities is so catchy. It feels like one of those songs that could blow up universally. There’s not a lot of depth, but man that could take off.
Kellen: Jamie showed me that song. He said, it’s silly and may not be anything. I told him it was good. It was all he needed to hear. So, we showed it our producer Joe Poletto who loved it. He was like ”that’s what I want. Don’t take yourself too seriously.” That’s a side we’ve never shown. We’re not super serious guys. We’re just trying to make music that is enjoyable and entertains us. That one had plenty of collaboration.
At the end of the song, there’s all those call and respond things with towns. Every week it seems we came up with a new rhyme…Samantha and Tampa. We thought it had a Willburys thing with those big background group vocals in there. I’m happy with that recording. It’s something different. It gets a great reaction. Most people think it’s funny and catchy.
S&B: Another song that really captures the harder edge sound you were looking for was “Good Enough.” That’s definitely a new path for the band to expand upon.
Kellen: There’s no overdubs on that one except for some of the vocals. With the two guitars there it blends nicely. There’s not a lot to it. This has the feel of Tim’s work with Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers.
We’re not trying to make songs that are just perfect for the radio. “Good Enough” would have been a good example of making it have a short ending with a radio edit. That’s not something we like songs to be. The radio is different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. We’re not trying to make it in pop radio. We’re just going to be ourselves. There will be stations our music works for.
S&B: You’re a little over a decade in with the band, are you where you thought you’d be at this point?
Kellen: When we started 10 years ago, I can’t say this is where I thought we would be. That’s not good or bad. The first few years I was like, ”this next year is going to be the one.” We have ambitions and goals and want to exceed what we’re doing.
To us, just going out and playing is the thing, if it’s a small place or big place. The two years off for Covid made me realize that. It wasn’t, ”I’m striving to be a musician one day. I am one.” We’re in a good place. We’re fortunate to go out and play. That’s what we do best. We’ve never been good at marketing ourselves or making cute videos. We sell most of our CDs and stuff at our shows.
All the hard work has really helped us. We’re in a fortunate place and stoked for anyone to come out to see us. Especially now. We’re super grateful to people for getting out and seeing us. It’s starting to get moving again which we’re psyched about.
“Turn My Radio Up” 2022 Blue Rose