The Coffis Brothers’ ‘pandemic release’ looks on the bright side of life

Photo of Jamie and Kellen Coffis
(Via Bethany Johanna)

One of Santa Cruz’s most popular bands for a decade, the Coffis Brothers break out of lockdown times with a throwback new album, “Turn My Radio Up,” that polishes their already sweet country-rock sound.

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For the record, the Coffis Brothers are kicking off a busy summer with an album release show at Moe’s Alley on Saturday in support of their new recording, “Turn My Radio Up.” But actually, when they hit the road this summer traveling all over California and the Pacific Northwest, they’ll be showcasing two new albums.

The prolific Santa Cruz band, fronted by brothers Jamie and Kellen Coffis, released “Radio” in April, two years since their previous album, “In the Cuts.” Because of the global pandemic shutdown, “Cuts” didn’t get the kind of road support that it would have gotten in a normal year. That means Coffis Brothers fans have a lot of catching up to do.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” said keyboardist and singer Jamie Coffis, “because [‘In the Cuts’] feels old to us. It didn’t really get a fair shot, because we didn’t really tour with it. Those songs haven’t really gotten to live out on the road as much. We haven’t gotten to play them live five nights in a row. And that does something to a song. So, yeah, in a way, we kinda do have two new albums to play. That’s a good thing.”

Still, the star of the show at Saturday’s Moe’s gig will be “Turn My Radio Up,” a collection of songs that mark a polish on the Coffises’ already sweet country-rock sound. What both more recent albums have in common is a distinct easygoing, made-in-California musical style long associated with the denim-and-long-hair vibe of the 1970s. That feel even extends to the new album’s graphic design, with an album cover that easily feels like it could have slipped out of 1974.

The Coffis Brothers band consists of San Lorenzo Valley natives Jamie and Kellen, guitarist Kyle Poppen, bass player Aidan Collins and drummer Cory Graves, none of whom is old enough to have directly experienced the ’70s. Still, the sound that flowered in that era has deeply influenced and shaped the Coffis Brothers aesthetic.

Image of Coffis Brothers album cover
(Via Coffis Brothers)

“We don’t shy away from it,” said 32-year-old singer and guitarist Kellen Coffis, who is four years younger than singer/keyboardist Jamie. “It’s hard for me to say that our stuff sounds like that because I just hold all that music in a totally different regard. But it’s certainly unavoidable for us at this point. It’s just kinda how you sing and how I learned how to sing and how to play guitar. It’s not like we’re trying to do that. It’s just the way we play music.”

The band’s lodestar has always been the unpretentious and tuneful sound perfected by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers which, though rooted in the ’70s, carried on and blossomed long after that era.

Kellen Coffis said watching the recent documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” reminded him why so many younger musicians are drawn to an older sound (many other Santa Cruz musicians of the Coffises’ generation, like Taylor Rae, Mira Goto and Lindsey Wall are also steeped in a 1960s/’70s aesthetic).

“Now, we’re all trying to get those 60-year-old amps again, just to sound like them,” said Kellen in reference to the Beatles. “I can’t say exactly what it is, but it does feel like that was where this kind of rock ‘n’ roll was invented. I mean, you go to a bluegrass festival these days, and a lot of bands, they aren’t covering old-timey bluegrass songs. They’re covering Creedence Clearwater [Revival], or something like that. It just touches on every part of live music now.”

Of course, the ultimate old-school reference would be the album on vinyl. “Turn My Radio Up” is not yet available on vinyl, but only because of supply-chain issues having to do with the pandemic hangover. Jamie Coffis explained that even the album’s sequencing — the order in which the songs are presented on the recording — is informed by the Side 1/Side 2 format of vinyl.

The album opens with the sweetly hummable mid-tempo “The One That Got Away,” which showcases perhaps the band’s strongest suit, their vocal harmonies. The following track, “Turn My Radio Up,” feels faintly retro for evoking the golden days of FM radio. That song has a particular meaning for Jamie, who works part-time as a programmer at KPIG (107.5 FM), which itself operates on the traditional but increasingly rare model of live programmers following their own choices in music.

“KPIG is one of the last bastions, for sure,” said Jamie Coffis. “Americana radio and rock ‘n’ roll radio, the days of the big AM hit, all that’s kinda going by the wayside to a degree with all the streaming options we have nowadays. But, still there’s nothing like listening to the radio — you know, driving down the road, not knowing what’s going to come on next, but you know there’s a human on the other end of it, curating something. And you might hear something that you really love, and that’s a beautiful thing that happens.”

Yet for all its retro good vibes, the album’s title track also carries a distinctly 2020s feel. The lyrics talk about the rapture of listening to the radio, but they will often come back to the repeating line, “but I don’t want to do it alone.” Another song, “Ramona,” turns on the rhymes of people’s names with the towns they came from. That song, said Jamie, was a direct result of the 2020 stay-at-home period.

“I can remember just being bored at my house,” he said. “It’s nighttime, and I’m just sitting at the piano, messing around, and I came up with a song that I ended up liking.”

The Coffis Brothers

Elsewhere, the band slides into a more gritty bluesy sound with the barroom rocker “Crying Shame” and the rowdy, guitar-heavy “Find Out the Hard Way.”

Jamie and Kellen Coffis grew up near Felton learning to sing with their mom, Vicki Neville Coffis, a popular children’s-music performer in the 1980s and ’90s. They first started performing together in 2007 and came together as a band formally in 2011. The brothers are both songwriters, and the band’s output consists roughly of a 50/50 balance between the original songs of the two of them.

Like “In the Cuts” before it, “Turn My Radio Up” was produced by Mother Hips frontman Tim Bluhm, himself a prominent singer-songwriter and ex-husband of popular performer Nicki Bluhm. Into the future, it will always feel to the band like their pandemic album. But unlike many other “pandemic albums,” this one is not wrestling with despair, isolation or big themes of societal alienation. That, said Jamie Coffis, is not part of the Coffis brand.

“You know, I don’t like writing or creating when I’m not feeling too good about myself or life in general,” he said. “When I sit down at the piano, it’s kinda the opposite. So, it was a little bit of a challenge during the last two years to get that spark. But you sit down and remember what’s ahead of you and how lucky you are. We’re so lucky to have the support of so many people and that’s kinda where we are. That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, which isn’t so bad. It’s pretty good, actually.”

The Coffis Brothers perform live Saturday at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz. Opening is fellow Santa Cruzan Henry Chadwick. Showtime is 9 p.m.