Charleston power pop foursome, A Fragile Tomorrow, has all the goods to make it well beyond the Lowcountry’s nebulous borders. Their fourth CD, Be Nice Be Careful, is set for release January 8 on Piewillie records, and was produced by Hall of Famer Mitch Easter, who lent his iconic guitar-playing to the record. Other luminaries on the the record include Don Dixon, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, and a couple of Bangles. The songs feature terrific guitar hooks, tight arrangements, smart writing, and a summery organ bouncing through standout tracks such as the opener, "Don’t Need Saving".
Above it all are the vocals of Sean Kelley, who sounds a lot like a young Elvis Costello, matched with the tight harmonies from his brothers Dominic (drums) and Brandon (guitar). The first single, "Kernersville" is a perfect power pop confection, recalling the best of so many '60s bands filtered through '80s-era college rock such as REM. Considering three fourths of the band is not even 21, this is one you want to keep your eyes on. Catch them live if you can. For a short time, you can get a free download of "Kernersville" here if you can’t wait for the CD release.
I mentioned there was a story behind it all. Isn't there always? So I sat down with members of the band to learn how they hooked up with Mitch Easter and the Indigo Girls. Sure, the band and these recordings are good enough to stand up on their own, but I’m always looking for a little more... In this case, it was more than I imagined.
Sitting down with Sean, I quickly realized there was something different about him. His legs seem to direct his body to walk to the left while his eyes drift to the right. This left-to-right twist reminded me that someone once told me Sean and his brother Dominic were born with cerebral palsy. On one hand, I was embarrassed to show up for an interview and not know something that critical. On the other, I was pleased that it was his music that brought me there, not his condition. This isn't a good record “for kids so young,” or solid songwriting “for someone with cerebral palsy.” It’s just good music.
The next thing I learned was that they are from a town about 90 minutes outside of New York City and their dad was a Bronx cop. Also, Sean and Dominic had a third brother named Paul—they were triplets. Each had cerebral palsy, but Paul’s was so severe that he was confined to a wheelchair and non-verbal. Perhaps because of the latter, Sean and Dominic picked up the volume. They'd discovered Hootie and the Blowfish’s CD Cracked Rear View at the age of three, and perform house concerts of their favorites songs from the record. Harmonizing like only twins are able, they showed a natural musical ability.
About this time, their younger brother Brandon was born, without cerebral palsy.
On the day the twins were to enter kindergarten, their brother Paul passed away unexpectedly in his sleep.
“I was the first one to find him," says Sean. "We woke up early and I went and started to wake him up. I pulled the cover from him and I saw him there, and I didn’t know what I saw. I just thought, you know, he was sleeping. And so I put the cover back over his face and left to have breakfast. And then my mom came down and found him. I didn’t tell anybody for 15 years that I found him. Because I felt directly responsible for him. I was so young, so I didn’t know what I was seeing. I couldn’t tell the difference between someone who was just sleeping and someone who was dead. It definitely had a direct effect on everything that’s happened since that point.” How could it not?
At this point in our conversation, I was a little off balance. Here was a guy revealing to me a pivotal, extremely painful, moment in his life while the sun drenched organ from his songs were bouncing in my head.
He kept the secret and buried his misplaced guilt for all those years, “because I didn’t understand it for the longest time. And when I finally did, I made a decision to not say anything,” he explains. “It was only last year that I told my parents what I had seen.”
Sidenote: I’ve listened to a lot of screaming rockers whose songs are filled with anger, noise, and rage. Most of them actually have had pretty decent lives. Many of their primary troubles are self-inflicted. So they vent through loud, aggressive music, as if to throw off their angst in a primal scream. And yet, the lilting guitar and creamy harmonies in A Fragile Tomorrow’s song, “Loyalty Lies” could not come from a soul as burdened as Sean’s. I was having trouble reconciling this.
“The years between his death and the time we started the band were probably the darkest times in our lives. My brother died, we moved into a new house, my mother had surgery on her birthday in 2001 and she developed peritonitis. And they gave her three hours to live. Then they saved her at the last second, so she came back from the brink of death. And there was my dad, who was a cop in the Bronx for 25 years. In the middle of my mom trying to recover months later—she had a gaping hole in her stomach—my dad was a first responder on 9/11. I remember that day. Him picking us up from school and taking us home, and then he had to leave. And when I finally realized what had been going on, I didn’t want him to leave. I thought he was going to die. I remember being dragged by his leg as he was walking out the door. And he didn’t come home for a week because he was down there every day, on the pile, you know, searching for people. It was that whole period of time, until two years later, when we started the band that was just probably the most influential part of my life, shaping me and what I believe.”
Sean and Dominic were just shy of their 10th birthdays on 9/11, and they’d already had more challenges in their lives than most of us into adulthood.
In 2002, 11-year-old Sean wrote his first song and convinced his brothers to help him form a band. Dominic took on the drums and eight-year-old Brandon, who had been inspired to take up guitar during a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was also enlisted. By the age of 13, the boys had written an album's worth of songs that were good enough to record. At least, that’s what they were told by a man who would become their first manager. He got the boys to find a bass player, Sean Rhodes (who was about six years their senior) and brought the new foursome into a studio. Their love of Hootie and the Blowfish had branched out into an appreciation for other bands—REM led to the DBs, with excursions into Let’s Active, Indigo Girls, and more. Their debut record was their first young attempt at making a go at music, with lyrics intentionally cryptic, due to Sean’s ongoing trouble wrestling with his brother’s passing.
What the boys got out of this experience, besides recording time, was their first tough lesson in the music business. The “manager” turned out to be another dime-a-dozen businessman who thinks he can make a killing off the talents of hungry kids. Five thousand CDs were pressed, but when the manager dropped the ball on any efforts to promote the CDs, he sent the band an invoice for his work. Lawyers were hired and the manager removed from the picture.
What also came from this experience was a renewed focus. Sean claims that they made a conscious decision at the age of 13 to do music full time.
Perhaps the practice of writing songs was the therapy he and Dominic needed to handle the loss of a triplet. Perhaps when they are onstage, their condition does not seem out of place. If you see them live, you’ll know what I mean—with drumsticks and guitars in hand, I really don’t see cerebral palsy. I see musicians. Perhaps when Sean is onstage, his acute stuttering condition is not apparent (yeah, he dealt with stuttering as well....) Rather, the words flow freely through rolling, catchy melodies. When he talks, there might be pauses. That can be awkward for speaker and listener. He's worked hard to limit how noticeable it is. But onstage, he can see people mouth along with every word he says. There is no pause except those he intends. I’d imagine onstage is preferable.
Whatever the driving force, being in a rock band is all they plan to do and have done since 2002. Around that time, they wrote a letter to Mark Bryan of Hootie and the Blowfish. In that letter, they told him their story. Against the odds, not only did the letter make it to the band, they invited the boys to meet them backstage at a show in New York. Young, impressionable, and in the presence of their idols, the Kelly boys and Rhodes could not have been given a better example of rock stars. “They were just regular guys,” Sean recounted.
Regular guys who had sold millions of records. After this meeting, things seemed to pick up for the band. They continued to go to Hootie shows any time they could, and made a friend in singer/songwriter Danielle Howle at one of those shows, while continuing to pursue their own dreams. Danielle took a particular interest in the band and introduced them to other artists such as songwriter/producer Don Dixon, Susan Cowsill of the band The Cowsills, among others. As their list of well respected music industry insider friends continued to grow, it seemed normal that superstar producer Malcolm Burn would ask if he could produce the band’s second record.
Imagine yourself as a musician, and a guy who has worked with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp, Iggy Pop and others, wants to work with you. It’s that Hootie “regular guy” vibe that helped the kids take it in stride (or they had no idea how cool that was). That second album, Beautiful Noise was released in 2007.
Danielle Howle continued to nurture the band, and started talking about producing the band’s third release around 2008. She brought the band down to Columbia to perform at Five Points in the Fall of that year.
Something kept pulling the band down south. From the Hootie CD at age three, and the continued pen pal relationship with Mark Bryan, to the mothering care from Howle, and introductions to guys like Eddie White of Awendaw Green, the band felt like the Carolinas were calling them. The day they returned home from that show in Columbia, Sean’s mother pulled him aside and asked if he’d like it for the family to move to South Carolina. A family meeting followed and shortly after, they put the house for sale and began the move South.
Charleston was to be a new life for them all. Free of the cold north, the past, bad luck, and what Sean calls "dark periods in our lives."
That’s all I really have time to write today. In another blog, I’ll update y’all on what happened to the band since they’ve arrived in 2009—if it’s been all success and good karma since their relocation to our wonderful area.