The 5 Browns talk musical telepathy and “monster concerts”
We caught up with the sibling quintet (Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan) “somewhere in Virginia,” after their sixth stop on the newest tour.
The pianists split their year, half on the road and half back home in Utah with their own spouses and families. It breaks down to two weeks on and two off each month.
They just released their fourth album since 2004. This time around it’s filled with 13 pieces from Hollywood movies they loved growing up. Last year, they released a collective autobiography and even appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show.
For the Saturday concert at the Pabst Theater, they promise a mix of popular classical favorites and a few surprises. The two brothers and three sisters talked with TCD about life on the road, the monogamous love of piano as an instrument, and mental telepathy.
Deondra: You know, each album that we’ve done has been a little bit different and we feel like then we’re able to show different sides of who we are, different kinds of music that we love. We thought, why not try an album of our favorite film scores? So, we had to narrow it down because we’re really huge film buffs and there were a lot of songs to choose from. It was just something fun for us to record. It was also really challenging musically. We have some great arrangements, so even if you’ve heard these films scores a thousand times, hopefully something different will pop out at you.
TCD: Is there a particular case where anyone had to fight for one they wanted to do? Or was it all consensus?
Gregory: We have five piano pieces [in any one composition] that we have to play. So we have to make sure that everyone’s happy, you know. We don’t want anyone to get stuck playing something that doesn’t fulfill them or they don’t enjoy playing. So that’s one of the few things amongst the five of us that we actually have to make a decision on. Actually, for this album that wasn’t terribly hard because we grew up together and we have similar tastes in films. So that worked out pretty well.
TCD: When wandering around different cities, do you split up or gravitate together?
Deondra: When we’re on the road, once in awhile we’ll be lucky enough to have somebody’s spouse join us for a weekend. But most of the time, it’s just the five of us. So it’s nice to be able to travel around together, and we kind of like to hang out together. So, yes, we tend to gravitate together — if we’re going to eat a meal we do it together and if we’re going to do something fun it’s everybody.
TCD: That’s kind of funny to hear. I come from a close-knit set of siblings but there’s always a certain point where it’s like “okay, you guys. I have to go now.”
Deondra: You know, every once in awhile we kind of realize when we need space and we’re definitely understanding of that; so if somebody’s having a bad day or somebody’s really missing their spouse then we kind of let them do their own thing. But usually that doesn’t last too long. Even when we’re at home and we’re ready to do separate things, after a couple of days we end up calling each other up and hanging out.
Melody: It kind of [does happen] on stage, a lot times we liken it to reading each other’s minds. You can tell by somebody’s look or a cue that they’re giving you or something so you can tell what’s going on. Of course, you can also tell if somebody’s sort of jacking something up and they’re like…ready to go down in flames like in that one story. That was like the only time that’s ever happened and it was very obvious to all of us what was going to happen before it happened.
TCD: And when you’re not sitting in front of the pianos?
Melody: Yes, I suppose so. Because we have grown up together, we’re all so close in age, and we’ve done so much together, then yeah. It was like Deondra was saying earlier, you can tell when someone’s having a rough day — just by their mannerisms, that you just leave them alone. You also know what buttons you could push to really irritate somebody.
TCD: Has there always been agreement when discussing direction? Has anybody ever said “I’m going off to do Ben Folds music” or “I’m going to play the tuba?”
Desirae: (laughing) Well, nobody has said they want to go off and do Ben Folds yet. But you never know, we try to keep an open door if someone wants to pursue another project. We’re totally cool with that. I mean, we do have concerts scheduled out for a couple of years, so in some ways each one of us know we have to fulfill those obligations. But so far, everyone’s stayed happy. We’ve had to make sure to touch base with each other, constantly re-evaluate that everyone’s happy in the group.
TCD: You all went to Julliard, so I’m sure everyone probably knows other instruments, but is there anybody in the group that plays another instrument that they’re good at?
Ryan: Yes, obviously we’ll all started off on the piano and that isn’t actually the first thing we actually remember doing. Our parents tried buying us a couple of different instruments so we could try them out. We tried them out but you know it just wasn’t the same. We just somehow stuck to what we knew best which was the piano.
TCD: Have there been any other quintet acts historically speaking?
Gregory: Currently, no. We’re the only ones doing this. But, we realize that this is not a new concept. The way that we got this idea was that they used to do this kind of thing back in the 1800s. A lot of really famous pianist and composers of the day would get together and put a bunch of pianos together like an orchestra of pianos. They used to call these things “monster concerts.” So, studying music history made a big impact on us and we thought, why not try and revive this idea?
TCD: How do you make up the arrangements?
Deondra: The five of us actually have two or three people we’ve worked with over the course of four albums. We don’t really trust ourselves, it’s not our strong point — we’re more comfortable playing the music rather than arranging it ourselves. We have a really great friend from school named Greg Anderson who did several pieces off our last album as well as our newest album. And he’s amazing, he actually knows each one of us pretty well. So he takes the attitude of writing each part personally to our individual strengths.
TCD: Last question — out of the five of you, which one is the Chico Marx of piano playing?
Gregory: It’s funny you say that because we definitely grew up watching old movies, including a bunch of old Marx Brothers films. Some of the moves that Chico does on the piano are so funny, they make us laugh so hard. I guess…the boys in the family are the ones that mess around like that on the piano and make people laugh but I don’t know if we can pull it off quite like he did.
The 5 Browns appear at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Saturday night, Apr. 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be obtained by calling 414-286-3663 or through the Pabst website.