ANDREW MCKELLAR - GUITAR
STEVEN MCKELLAR - BASS,PIANO,VOCALS
RICHARD WOUTERS - DRUMS
Depending on your background, the term "power trio" may bring to mind the '60s sonic depth-charges launched by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream; the twisty prog-rock styles of mid-'70s King Crimson and Rush; or the post-grunge bash of Seether and Wolfmother.
In the case of Civil Twilight, as evidenced on their self-titled debut album, the term means all of that – and much more.
"We like to write together, and jam for hours at a time," says singer/bassist/pianist Steven McKellar, who joined his brother Andrew (guitar) and childhood friend Richard Wouters (drums) to form the group in 1996. "We’ll play together in a studio, record all our jam sessions, and then listen back to them and pick the sections to work on that we think could turn into songs."
Each member also writes on his own. "It’s a very sensitive thing," Steven remarks. "Each of us approaches it in a different way. It’s really all about learning to read your creative flow."
"I think honesty is really important when creating," adds Richard. "Whether it be lyrically or musically, we want it to be true and heartfelt. We want to be saying something we really mean."
That creative honesty and flow is very much in evidence on Civil Twilight, from the pop-smart, piano-led "Next to Me" to the chiming, soaring "Anybody Out There," from the cod-reggae rocker "Soldier" to the sweeping grandeur of "Quiet in My Town."
And while comparisons to the arena-filling likes of U2 and Radiohead may be inevitable, Civil Twilight have without doubt found a niche all their own.
Friends since childhood, Andrew McKellar and Richard Wouters both started out on guitar in their native Cape Town, South Africa. By age 15, Wouters had switched to drums; during an early rehearsal, Andrew showed up with his younger brother, the then-13-year-old Steven, who quickly proved his
mettle as an emotive songwriter and soon after developed as a solid bassist.
"We were all friends; it was pretty much that simple," says Andrew. "We just got into enjoying it, practicing once a week on Sunday and having fun."
Growing up, the three young men took advantage of the musical eclecticism that surrounded them in Cape Town. "My mother would play the piano every few days," Steven says. "That was my first experience of really sensitive, soulful music. When I first started playing bass, I got into jazz and studied that for awhile, but eventually realized that was not what I wanted to do."
American and European bands like Nirvana, Blur and Oasis were making the same inroads in South Africa that they were in their native lands, and the McKellar brothers were quickly drawn in.
"Nirvana really changed everything for me," says Andrew. "Here was a guy who sounded – and, as it turns out, was – pretty desperate, singing in a way that was very real. That band was really blowing people's minds; we’d never heard anything like that."
At the same time, native dance music and the mbaqanga and township jive styles popularized worldwide by Paul Simon’s Graceland album were inescapable influences.
"South Africa can be a hard place to explain," Richard reflects. "It’s very heavily influenced by American and British bands, but it also has this aspect to it that’s totally unique. Being situated at the tip of Africa, and with its history as both a British and Dutch colony, we kind of create our own worlds."
Constant gigging eventually led Civil Twilight to conquer the local club scene, at which point the decision was made in 2005 to relocate to Los Angeles.
"My mom is actually American," remarks Andrew, "and we’d kind of always wanted to come and live here. Musically it’s so huge and there’s so much going on. America is an incredible place to start something new, to start over. It has an air about it that makes dreaming big possible."
And they don’t get much bigger for a "new" act than placing no fewer than four songs in one year on major network TV shows: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which featured "Letters from the Sky"), One Tree Hill ("Quiet in My Town"), House ("Human"), and "Without A Trace" ("Human").
Hearing his music on television is, Richard says, "kind of a surreal thing. Being on the radio is one thing, but suddenly hearing one of your songs pop up on TV is just kind of bizarre. But it’s obviously a great way to gain exposure."
"Our music seems to suit a lot of the emotive type scenes on those shows," adds Steven. "Our lyrics are, I think, ambiguous enough, and our music fits in with the themes some of those shows explore."
And in case you think that that ambiguity is indicative of a lack of focus or storytelling skills, think again. "Next to Me" and "Something She Said" both illustrate the pain of someone who's loved and lost to an intimate degree.
"It's not necessarily an autobiographical thing," Steven explains, "but it’s obviously a subject I’m interested in. I draw from what I’ve observed in other
people. And I love the idea of second chances - of getting the opportunity to make things better."
The grandiose “Quiet in My Town," inspired by the death of his grandmother, makes for a poignant exploration of a universal theme, leading ultimately
to an uplifting finale.
"It’s the idea of someone old looking back at what they did with their life, realizing they haven't accomplished everything they wanted to," adds Steven.
"It's kind of sobering, but at the same time it's freeing, encouraging people to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way - that it’s never too late to change or start over."
That, in a nutshell, is what Civil Twilight – both the band and the album – are all about.
"We'd like people to come away from this album feeling the weight of emotion behind it," Steven says, as the other two echo similar sentiments. "You should be able to enjoy feeling these different emotions as you listen. And through the experience of these different emotions and stories, we hope the listener might discover something of the goodness of life."