Kids' Play

The Moss Brothers are a novelty act -- until you hear them

What you see before you -- two brothers sharing a stage in front of the adoring handful, two boys singing songs about football, their grandfather's birthday and doing the dishes -- is the opening few minutes of any episode of VH1's Behind the Music, the happy tale before it mudslides into horror stories of car wrecks, coke binges, drunken fistfights onstage and ill-fated comebacks. It's a familiar tableau reduced to a miniature: Reuben Moss -- singer, songwriter, guitarist, violinist -- is 11 years old, though he might easily be mistaken for a child much younger, because he stands no taller than the instrument he clutches in his tiny hands. Big brother Evan, only 14, looks his age behind the drum kit, though he seems much older, most likely because he will mutter the occasional curse word to himself whenever he misses a beat, which is not often. Together, they are known as the Moss Brothers -- recording artists and, on this early August night at Dallas' Blue Cat Blues club, a novelty act.

"Man, they're just kids," sneers one patron just beneath his beer breath. His buddies share a cynical giggle, which is soon enough drowned out by the diminutive guitarist, who merges the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" until the two songs become one. It does not take long before smirks of amusement give way to smiles of amazement: Damn, these kids can play.

"This next one we wrote," Reuben says in a child's sweet, high voice, "and it's called 'Heaven Got Overpopulated.'" He and Evan begin performing a new-wave-tinged anthem about how death is the great equalizer, even though it claims too many too soon: "Too many people went up there/When I go up there will be no room there," Reuben sings, with whatever rage an 11-year-old can muster. "Yeah, and it's just not fair." And a child shall lead them, indeed.

Reuben Moss (left) and brother Evan are kids you ought to take seriously. Seriously.
Reuben Moss (left) and brother Evan are kids you ought to take seriously. Seriously.
When he's not playing with his other band -- Metallisomething -- former Valley resident Jason Newsted (right) is the Moss Brothers' bassist.
When he's not playing with his other band -- Metallisomething -- former Valley resident Jason Newsted (right) is the Moss Brothers' bassist.

Thanks to their Dallas-born, Oakland-based manager, Marshall Lamm, who runs a jazz club called Yoshi's in the Bay Area, the Moss Brothers are children suddenly flirting with the music business -- a most tenuous relationship even among consenting adults. The brothers have performed some 50 gigs and have, in recent months, made the sports talk radio circuit, where their songs "Football All the Way" and "Baseball" -- both found on their CD, On the North Side of the Tree, available through mossbrothers.com or Amazon.com -- are slowly becoming ubiquitous intros and outros. Their Dallas trip, in fact, was sponsored by a local sports talk radio station, which has made those two songs minor hits on the AM band; it's impossible to listen for any length of time without "Football All the Way" turning up, burning itself into your brain until you know it better than your own name.

In early August, the station flew the brothers in for an in-studio appearance, for which they were joined by their occasional bassist -- a grown man who ties his face into an angry knot whenever he performs. His name is Jason Newsted, and he also plays with a band named Metallica.

It has always been so easy to overpraise children for acting so much like adults. If the Moss Brothers were 21 and 24, Jason Newsted would most likely find his schedule too busy to lend his guidance and gear. When grading on a curve, it's easy to fly right off the cliff and tumble down a hill of hyperbole, landing at the bottom in a flaming heap of bull. In 1989, accolades were heaped upon three 9-year-olds from California who thrashed under the moniker Old Skull: They "win a hardcore novelty prize on aptness of sound alone," wrote Robert Christgau in The Village Voice. The band graduated only to obscurity, lasting as long as footprints on a beach.

Most young musicians -- at least those at the top of the pops, those assembly-line belly buttons and manufactured haircuts who would have once made suitable Solid Gold dancers -- are, at best, mimics who imitate their heroes. Theirs are usually vacant echoes, the sound of a handful of CDs being played again and again until they've left a mark -- a bruise in the shape of, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Every town has its blues wunderkind, its post-fetal guitar god racking up gee-whiz points in local clubs.

But Reuben, who reminds with deadpan accuracy that he picked up the guitar at the age of 4 3/4, and Evan overcome the gimmick of youth; they are no underage freak show, destined to travel rock's carny circuit until puberty sidelines them for good. They're the products of classically trained parents: Mother Lisa, a published author of a book and magazine articles about families, plays piano; father Mark, a real estate developer around the Bay Area, plays clarinet. And the boys both have a private-school education: Reuben attends the Crowden Music School in Berkeley, where chamber music is taught to most of its students; on September 10, 1998 -- he is very precise about his dates -- he began playing violin, which appears on the new album and on demos for the forthcoming second disc. Evan studied classical piano before switching to the drum kit.

"I just really liked guitar," Reuben says, struggling to explain why he began writing rock 'n' roll songs for him and his brother to perform. He explains that his earliest heroes were Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. "I don't remember when I started writing songs, but I knew I could play guitar. I played a lot of guitar, and I figured, 'What's the point of playing guitar if all you can play is covers?' And Evan and I have this sort of psychic telepathy-type thing. That's what we describe it as. I can read his mind."

"We have the same type of mind," Evan says, sitting in the station's studio. He shares a small seat with his little brother. "We can sorta . . ."

". . . tell what the other one's thinking," Reuben says. "And that helps us get along."

"Yeah," Evan says, "Reuben writes the song . . ."

". . . and then he helps me out."

"Our music is sorta a mix of the stuff we listen to," Evan says, "and then we put all our ideas into it that it changes it so much it doesn't sound like what we listen to."

When the brothers launch into their bare-bones punk rock, reminiscent of the Violent Femmes by way of Television at CBGB in 1977, or finger-pickin' blues that reference Bessie Smith, or their back-porch country hymns, you begin to realize the Moss Brothers are the novelty act that transcends novelty. Gimmicks don't get to open for the beloved Holy Modal Rollers or play Jerry Brown's mayoral inaugural. Gimmicks don't get compared to the Meat Puppets and NRBQ. Gimmicks don't get Jason Newsted buying their equipment, offering to play on and produce their second album and inviting them over to jam for the afternoon.

Theirs is a brand of rock 'n' roll not yet tainted by cynicism and irony. They exist as if to prove brilliance and innocence can still exist when children strap on guitars, sit behind drum kits and sing about that which they know -- say, how angry their mom gets when they refuse to do the dishes. This, in the end, is what attracted Newsted to the Moss Brothers: the limitless potential commingled with the fact that he can, for a moment, remove himself from the Metallica behemoth and just be the bass player in a rock 'n' roll band, even one fronted by a child.

"It's purity, man," Newsted says, insisting he will help the brothers record their next disc but try to keep out of the way. He became involved with them after Lamm gave him a copy of On the North Side of the Tree. "In the music business, there's so much false representation and bullshit, and it's sad. I see it every day, because the monster I'm a part of is the biggest there is in rock. You can imagine all the details and all the shit that goes along with it, and I try to get away from it as much as I can, and this helps keep me sane and cleanse the palate -- wash out all that shit. This is so pure and so innocent, and at the same time, they have this great power."

The songs the brothers have begun demoing for their second album are darker and deeper than those on On The North Side of the Tree. One, titled "From This Place," is, as Reuben explains it from the blues club's stage, "about the devil going up to heaven"; "Heaven Is Overpopulated," which recalls early Police, recounts the names of people who died too young, from Jimi Hendrix to Euclid the Mathematician to blues songwriter Jimmy Cox, whose "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was recorded by Bessie Smith and, yes, the Moss Brothers. Turns out a child does a lot of maturing between 10 and 11: Instead of singing about sports and grandpa turning 80 and getting in trouble for not doing the dishes, Reuben now writes of death and demons, of contracting "Out of School Anti-Blues" and combating "Frustration." One new song, "Psycho Monkey," owes not a little to Devo's "Freedom of Choice"; another, "Whiner," is honky-tonk Velvet Underground. Or something.

"We're going off in a tiny bit of a different direction," says Evan.

"Yeah, it's more alternative," Reuben says.

"The new stuff? Forget it," Newsted says, speaking in a solemn tone reserved for speaking of the revered. "I learned a few of the new songs the other day when they came over to jam, but those were the easy songs. Some of them are so dark, with violins and dark, crazy shit going on -- it's weird, man. The only other records besides the classical stuff their parents own is Nine Inch Nails stuff, so they have this classical influence and Nine Inch Nails, and somewhere in between they come up with their own thing. I just try not to mess with anything."

Sitting at a back table at Blue Cat Blues, Lisa Moss nods her head in time with the music; Mark, sitting nearly still, stares straight ahead like a father watching his Little Leaguer bat with a 3-2 count. Onstage, their 11-year-old son sings a song called "Frustration" in a voice so tiny it could surf on an atom: "Don't get frustrated," Reuben advises. "Just try it a different way." That song will appear on the band's second disc, which Lamm wanted to record before the brothers return to school in a few days; now, the Moss Brothers will have to wait until they have a few free weekends. They are, after all, just children. Rock 'n' roll can wait.

"I think it's very creative," Lisa says. "That has always been the premise for me, because if you think about it as, 'Oh, my kids are going into rock 'n' roll,' it's pretty terrifying. But if you think of it as, 'They're making their own music and they're writing about things they're interested in,' that's where the creativity comes in, and it's the wonderful part."

"We knew from the beginning that Reuben had a relationship with music and with his instrument that was unusual," Mark says. "And all I did was tell him he was doing a good job and get out of the way. I remain in awe of him."

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