Our Brother the Native documents love on 'Vows'

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Josh Bertram of Our Brother The Native keeps getting weirder, gains human depth.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH XU

When I call Josh Bertram of Our Brother The Native at his home in Pontiac, Mich., he’s unwinding with hot tea and whiskey after “one of those days” at the office. The 22-year-old art director harbors an insuppressible passion for music, which is tough to convey to his older coworkers. “I feel like they progressively get more and more weirded out by me,” he admits. Bertram graciously welcomes my questions, speaking openly and eloquently about his new album, Vows.

At age 16, Bertram began recording with high school friend John-Michael Foss. They soon linked up with California resident Chaz Knapp and started collaborating via the Internet. “There wasn’t a lot of that kind of thing going on,” says Bertram. “Now, that’s really common.”

Bertram, Foss, and Knapp only met face to face after Our Brother The Native recorded its first full length album. Following its debut, Tooth And Claw, the band put out a host of material ranging from “pretty folk” to “post rock” on FatCat Records. Through all the style shifts, an avid fascination with circuit-bent instruments and layered sounds remained a consistent focus. After 2009’s Sacred Psalms, however, the steady outflow of releases came to a halt.

“Chaz and I were never really satisfied with the records we put out,” says Bertram. “I’ve been documenting my artistic growth over the years. It’s kind of like looking at embarrassing photos from high school. Finally, I was like alright, I need to slow it down.”

Production slowed, but Bertram’s been busier than ever. “It’s such an ambitious project to get all these players and instruments recorded,” he says. “It just took a lot longer.” The self-described sound geek did all the tracking for Vows himself. Guitar, banjo, ukulele, piano, synthesizer, and alto saxophone were among the instruments he played on the album. Knapp wrote the orchestral arrangements, and Nick Cowman of Oakland’s Religious Girls laid down the drums. “A lot of these songs had almost 120 tracks of instruments and sounds,” Bertram tells me. The final mixing of the album became an eight month endeavor.

Vows (released late October) is a dynamic flurry of sounds. Dense arrangements of strings, wind instruments, and clattering percussion accompany harrowing vocals from Bertram and an ethereal chorus of friends. “There’s so much to take in on this record,” Bertram affirms. “It’s kind of exhausting.”

In the course of recording the album, Bertram fell in love for the first time. “I wanted to make it sort of like marriage vows documenting various stages of love,” he says. “This is the first [album] I feel has actual human depth.” Ironically, it’s also the first time Bertram’s had difficulty finding a label. He’s digitally self-releasing Vows in the hopes that someone takes interest in putting out a physical version. “I don’t want fame or fortune or anything,” Bertram tells me. “I just want people to hear it. If I could have a conversation with you about your art, my art... I just want music to instigate these sort of things.”

Our Brother the Native
With Future Twin, Dead Eyes, and the Mallard
Sat/12, 9 p.m., $5
Engine Works
190 Capp, SF
(415) 563-8941

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