Forty-three years ago, the Mallett Brothers took the stage for the first time in Fort Fairfield. David Mallett, now a beloved Maine songwriter famed for timeless songs such as “The Garden Song,” performed with his brother Neil at a festival in 1967, as can be seen in a scratchy YouTube video online. The two can’t be more than 16 years old in the video.
In 2010, the Mallett Brothers again took the stage at a variety of summer festivals. But this time, it was David Mallett’s two sons, Luke and Will, who play in the Mallett Brothers Band, a Portland-based alternative country group poised to become one of the most popular bands in Maine. The band’s self-titled debut album is the No. 1 local album at Bull Moose Music, and it’s No. 11 overall on the Bull Moose national charts.
If it were possible to figure out what gene passes down songwriting and musicianship, it seems pretty certain that you’d find that gene in both father and sons. The Mallett family has music in its bloodstream.
“Sure, I think there’s something genetic to it,” said Will Mallett, 25. “But I think we always were kind of conscious of what songwriting meant, since our Dad is so heavily involved in that process. We understood from a very young age the mechanics of it.”
Will and Luke spent the early part of their childhood in Nashville, Tenn., while their father made inroads into the country music scene there. By the time they were both in their early teens, though, the family had moved back to Sebec, to the 19th century farmhouse the Malletts had made their home for generations. Music, naturally, was a part of their lives from the beginning.
“There were always guitars and drums and a piano in the house,” said David Mallett. “I’d teach them a few chords here and there. MTV was always on. They heard as much Michael Jackson as they did folk music. I wouldn’t say I actively encouraged them to be musicians, but it was just there for them. They picked it up naturally.”
Will and Luke absorbed everything. There was the punk period, the metal period. They always loved Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Gordon Lightfoot. Luke Mallett, now 27, was a member of Boombazi, the now defunct Portland hip hop and rock fusion group. Though he now plays in a band more influenced by Waylon Jenning than Wu-Tang Clan, that diversity of musical interests has been present in all of the music they’ve made over the years.
“It doesn’t seem weird to me at all, to play hip-hop and folk and country and all that,” said Luke Mallett. “Wally Wenzel, our dobro player, was one of the guys behind [Portland horror punk band] The Horror, and [guitarist] Nate Soule was in Boombazi with me. Our drummer Brian [Higgins] is in Colepitz, who is like a heavy rock band. I think it’s good to be familiar with a lot of different kinds of music.” Nick Leen, a fellow songwriter and guitarist, rounds out the band.
Despite growing up in the same household with a musical father, Luke and Will had never performed together. It wasn’t until a few summers ago, when the brothers began messing around playing guitar together that the spark for the Mallett Brothers Band was kindled.
“It happened pretty organically. We didn’t start playing together, intending to start a band. We just liked what we were doing,” said Will Mallett. “It wasn’t even until later in 2009 that we really said, ‘OK, let’s try to do something with this.’”
In a few short months, the brothers recruited Wenzel, Soule, Higgins and Leen to play with them, fleshing out the songs they already had written, like the bluegrass thumper “F-150” and the jangly, melodic “Carolanne.” They spent the better half of 2010 writing the other 10 songs that make up their self-titled debut, which they recorded over the winter and spring. It came out last month, with “Carolanne” as the lead single immediately going into heavy rotation on WCYY 94.3 FM in Portland.
The Mallett Brothers Band shares the same musical spectrum as similarly family-oriented indie bluegrass band the Avett Brothers, or the earlier period of alt-country heroes Wilco. There’s more of a grit to what the Malletts write, though; there are shades of early country like Hank Williams, and more contemporary songwriters like Townes Van Zandt.
Though all six of the band members live in the Portland area, the brothers maintain their longtime ties to Sebec and the Dover-Foxcroft community. A recent show at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor brought friends and fans from the region down Route 15 to see them play. They played at the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival in Dover last June.
Tours may end up taking them across the country, but they’re always going to be Maine boys. And why shouldn’t they? For a state of its size, Maine has a wealth of really good bands from a variety of genres.
“Maine has a really vital music scene going on now. There are a lot of good bands out there now,” said David Mallett. “It feels like the ‘70s. There’s lots of festivals. It’s exciting.”
David Mallett couldn’t be more proud of his sons. After all, they’re taking after Dad, in their own unique way.
“It’s hard to describe how I feel, because I know what they’re going through so well,” said the elder Mallett. “They are all so good for each other. They complement each other so well. I think if you’re going to do something, you’re obligated to go for it with everything you have. You need to be big and be bold in everything you do, music or otherwise.”
The Mallett Brothers Band will play Friday night at the House of Blues in Boston, and on Friday, Aug. 20, at the Bayside Bowl in Portland. For information, visit mallettbrothersband.com.