Rehearsals for My Brothers & Sisters are always a joyful, if not slightly chaotic, affair. Jamie Searle, the founder, guitarist and lead male singer for the 14-piece ensemble, manages the chaos in a rotating schedule.
"The only time the entire group is together is when we're onstage," Searle says with a laugh. "There are just too many of us to practice altogether."
On an early Friday evening, Searle is running through songs from the band's debut album, Violet Music: Volume I, with his four female singers: Tianna Echevannia, Angel Gibson, Kimberley Newsom and his wife, Melissa Backstrom. Bassist Dylan McGonigle is there, too, as is Searle's 5-month-old daughter, Nezra. The group is spread out in Searle's cozy Brookside living room.
As a subtle orange light filters through the windows, Searle commands his mini-choir with a conductor's precision, striding across the room from his guitar to his piano, punching keys and holding chords to the harmonies. Four voices merge together in "Pillow Bella," rising against the spicy, adventurous rhythm. (The song could be the next James Bond theme.) Shoulders groove. Gibson laughs as she misses a note. Baby Nezra coos from Backstrom's arms. Despite the flurry of energies and voices, the scene is serene.
Serenity has been a long time coming. Before there was My Brothers & Sisters, there was It's Over — a four-piece band with a sound that Searle calls "post-punk math rock." With a smile and a shake of his head, he recalls being on tour with that band while also taking music-theory classes from Johnson County Community College.
"I would be on the road from Thursday through Sunday, playing shows, and Monday I would be studying formal music," Searle tells me as he sits in a patio chair in his backyard. "So you know there would be times where I would be in the sleaziest, greasiest bar, and I would be studying my theory book, and it would be hilarious to be in those moments — such a juxtaposition."
Searle began writing the material for My Brothers & Sisters in 2008, just as It's Over disbanded and he began coursework at the University of Missouri–Kansas City's Conservatory of Music. As Searle's studies expanded his musical vocabulary, he began to form an idea for a new project.
"I had just been writing a bunch of music, and I knew it was going to have horns," Searle says. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, I know some guy that plays horns,' or whatever. I had heard the music in my mind, wrote it out, and then gathered all these people together. Our first show in 2011 was actually with 18 people. Originally, there were six female singers and a full string quartet. I narrowed it down to just two violins and four female singers."
My Brothers & Sisters, with its two violinists and full horn section in addition to the small army of female soul singers, is a fusion of sounds unlike anything Searle has been a part of. Since picking up the guitar at age 14, Searle had been trying to define who he was as a musician; his well-rounded resume starts with leading garage bands and runs to his present-day gigs as the hired gun for Sunday worship at a couple of local churches. Now, at 32, Searle believes he has finally found the sound that he has always been searching for.
But My Brothers & Sisters is not just one sound. The nature of Searle's homespun orchestra comes from his relentless pursuit of diverse music and his desire to represent the symphonies he hears in his head. On Violet Music: Volume I, smoky blues guitar roughens up smooth R&B notes ("I'll Be Leavin' With You"), hand-clapped choruses give pop songs a flamenco flair ("You Should Have Known") and various horns swell up for a storm of funk ("Fall Winter Spring & Summer").
The only thing that's more impressive than the mass of styles Searle incorporates in Violet Music is the way he merges them for a unified product. My Brothers & Sisters' debut is crafted with meticulous layers, and every song rolls beautifully into another.
"This album is the most creative, best thing I've ever done," Searle says without hesitation. "What I'm really interested in is doing music that's never been done — doing something that's really palatable, that sounds so familiar, but it's something else."
Searle hopes to break down a few more sonic boundaries with Violet Music: Volumes II and III.
"I would really like to work with Bollywood orchestras," Searle tells me, grinning at the thought. "If I could take traditional orchestra and blend it with Balinese music, and blend that with dubstep, and have this gorgeous melody."
When I tell Searle how impossible this sounds, he laughs and agrees. "But I know it can be done," he says. "That's what I'm going for — smooshing everything together."
He goes on: "I think what's difficult is that everyone puts themselves in, like, a place of, 'I'm only going to understand this in this context.' No one's really wanting to push all of these sounds together and figure out how to do it, and I'm starting to figure out how to do that."