Q&A with The Lubben Brothers

We chat with the local acoustic folk group ahead of their July 1 single release.

Katie Lubben Photography

The Lubben Brothers have found harmony in brotherhood. Triplets Michael, Thomas, and Joshua and their younger sibling, Isaac, who joins them from Chicago whenever possible, blend folk themes and modern song lyrics with a pop inspiration. Aside from tight vocals, their musical ensemble includes bass, guitar, violin, and banjo. The triplets, being classically trained from a young age and raised in the Midwest, relocated to West Palm Beach to attend Palm Beach Atlantic University on a full-ride. From this experience, The Lubben Brothers have established themselves throughout Palm Beach County as a folk-singing force, to include concerts throughout the area and other special engagements, such as their participation in the musical Woody Guthrie’s American Song at Palm Beach Dramaworks in 2018. On July 1, The Lubben Brothers will release their first single, “Smile Again,” on all platforms. Here, they chat with PBI about their roots, inspiration, and what it’s like to be brothers and bandmates.

PBI: Can you give us a sense of your background? What was your childhood like and how did you decide to form a band?

Joshua: We all grew up in Iowa; that’s where most of our extended family is. We actually were raised on a goat farm. A lot of the music we listened to growing up was the music that was just around us, which was a lot of outdoor open-air concerts and folk music. There were a lot of immigrants too that settled in the Iowa area, so there was a Welsh and Irish influence. We heard a lot of bluegrass, which made us gravitate toward the bluegrass ensemble, but then we made it our own with a lot of Irish influences and Americana sounds. We have fallen in love with American folk songs, and we grew up hearing a lot of that.

Michael: A lot of the music we were exposed to when we were young was classical, too. Our parents would always be playing Mozart and Beethoven and those classics, so we started classical violin and piano lessons around age 5 and that is how we got our foundation and technique in music.

Thomas: That still is what gets us the gigs now.

Michael: We all three studied that in college, though Tom was technically an English major. We taught ourselves the folk instruments around age 10 or 11. Isaac is nine years younger than us, but we started dragging him along to all of our gigs playing bass. We moved around to about eight different states, and when we were in Minnesota one summer, I think we had 70 gigs, and Isaac was in all of those and he was just 9 years old at the time.

Isaac: I haven’t taken any lessons on the bass or anything, but my brothers started teaching me, and then I kind of just took it from there.

Joshua: Isaac also started violin when he was 6, so he is very accomplished classically. It is a rule for our folk band to teach yourself instruments. Well, that is actually not a rule, we just did it ourselves.

Katie Lubben Photography

Let’s talk about your new song, “Smile Again.” What was the inspiration behind it and how did you go about developing it?

Thomas: Most of our songs are written in some sort of collaboration. A lot of the time, Michael and Joshua are writing the music and I am writing the lyrics. In this case, Joshua wrote both the words and music to it.

Joshua: “Smile Again” is actually a song I wrote for my wife because we had just been married for about a year. As a preface to this: Obviously, we grew up in a male-heavy home with five brothers, so when I met [my future wife] Katie, I remember being so freaked out the first time she started to cry and get emotional. I thought it was so horrible and that the world was ending, and then I realized it was just a normal thing for a girl. It was just hard to reconcile because of my upbringing with many brothers. I wrote “Smile Again” for her as a comforting and upbeat song, but also as a way to realize that tears and going through hard things are not just moments to be sad and to beat you down. Sad things can be the catalyst for new life. The rain comes to help the harvest and for new life to start up again; it washes away the old and brings something new.

Thomas: God uses sorrow.

Joshua: Those were the images behind the song. It was the first song I wrote with a drop D in the guitar, so it is a little bit more full with a lot of strings. It has a very raw, acoustic sound. I came up with the main melody and everything, but when I brought it to the brothers to try out, Tom came up with a really awesome mandolin riff and Mike ended it with this banjo part. The bass part that I had written for Isaac he had completely changed when he got his hands on it. Even when one of us writes the song, each one of us adds something and makes it new. It is always a full-band collaboration.

Michael: Our classical background plays into this too, because aside from the chorus, we have some complex polychords that are built up which normally wouldn’t be in folk music, but I think it adds an interesting depth to the song and adds more to the lyrics. We believe a lot in word painting, which is complementing the text with the music. For example, the banjo will represent the pitter patter of rain sometimes while the mandolin is thunder strikes from atop and of course the bass, too. All of this plays together in evoking what the song is trying to mean.

Katie Lubben Photography

How did studying music together at Palm Beach Atlantic University help to shape your future as a band?

Michael: It is a small university, so they gave us a credit for our folk music by saying it was a world music ensemble. Up to then, the band was really just a glorified hobby for us. We were really living in a classical music scene, and all of the gigs we were doing at the time were mostly dominated by classical music. But because we always had the undercurrent of folk music, we ended up getting more folk gigs than classical.

Joshua: What we realized was, even though classical music was extremely rewarding, [folk music can give you] an instant connection with your audience. [With classical music,] there is an unwritten code of how there is almost a distance between you as a performer and the audience members. There is a certain level of professionalism like how you never really address your audience. But what we love about folk music is you actually want to connect with people. You want to hear their feedback. You want them to be just as much a part of the show as you are.

Thomas: That is the disconnect we realized with classical music. It used to be the popular music—it still could be—but it has become so academic and historical that eventually it becomes like looking at an old art gallery where we are treasuring old works, these antiques, and thinking “Oh, how influential,” instead of realizing that it still has potential today, and we can use these instruments and these platforms to actually engage with people.

Joshua: Now is just overall a really hard time to connect with people. There is a lot of isolation that goes on. It is so easy to hide behind social media and create your own individual bubble. What we love about this is that you create your own community. It is a way to invite people into your life and come together. With music it is not awkward—it is easy and relatable.

Thomas: One thing that we are excited about is that we have a concert next spring where we will be performing classically with the Symphony of the Americas. We will be playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, something we have played together before with an orchestra. This time we will be playing that, and then later on we will be performing a bluegrass piece with the orchestra. In that sense we are doing what we envisioned for classical music. We are bridging the gap and making it accessible to the audience and showing how that type of music is still approachable and still saying something when we are willing to stretch it a little bit.

Katie Lubben Photography

The fact that you’re brothers makes this all so special. What are the inherent difficulties and rewards in being brothers and bandmates?

Joshua: What is hard about being a triplet is that each one of us feels that we have an equal amount of authority, and we do, but that is what makes it so difficult. One of us may have a great idea but the other two may have a differing idea, and you all feel like you have the right to make your idea win.

Michael: But instead of it always being difficult, it just makes the music better because everything you come up with is through the refiner’s fire of two other witnesses and artists. I think that is what has made our work get a lot better; we hold each other to a higher standard.

Joshua: I think it is a double-edged sword though because if you’re not careful it can actually hold you back from not accomplishing things. If you just butt heads so much, you don’t actually settle on things.

Thomas: If we all had different visions it would have been a nightmare. We would have disbanded a long time ago. But since we all share the same core beliefs about what our band’s purpose is and what real artwork is, we always ultimately succeed.

Joshua: I think it all also probably began with how we have always shared a bedroom, all the way throughout college. You are forced to work out your problems. The option of going away and sleeping in your own room isn’t a thing, so you always have to work things out as brothers.

Thomas: This has also trickled down to marriage. We hate being upset with our wives. You never go to bed angry is a big thing. It is amazing how that works. When we were [first] married, finding the right balance as brothers was a struggle. Thankfully, our wives all encouraged the connection we have as triplets because it is essential to what we do. They can see that it is actually really healthy.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

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