Sibling songs: Tampa’s Brother Cephus has a unique and ever-evolving creative process

The band plays Straz Center on November 19.

click to enlarge HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY BROTHER: Seth (L) and Gabe Davis. - Amy Kate Anderson
Amy Kate Anderson
HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY BROTHER: Seth (L) and Gabe Davis.

If there’s a band in Tampa Bay that knows a lot about doing more with less, then it’s Brother Cephus.

In January of 2015, CL wrote about the quartet — which is actually built around two brothers, Gabe and Seth Davis — re-releasing its Wounded Hearts EPs via a small run of cassettes on Flesh & Bone Records. At the time, Gabe said that the band was foregoing more traditional CD and LP release cycles while seeking a more long-term creative arc.

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“We don’t leave room for our music to grow stagnant,” Gabe, 25, explained in an interview five months later.

Back then, Brother Cephus hoped to have a small batch of songs to share every three to five months. A year later they gave friends and fans Noise, five tracks that found the Tampa lifers going to new places thematically and on tape, too. Noise highlight “New York” addressed some of the loneliness on Hearts, but gave it intention and an even more realized, expansive sound.

“I sold my soul just to be here with you again, and New York, New York, I don’t want anything else but my selfish dreams to come true with you now,” Seth, 24, sings on the tune before asking, “Where do we break? Where do we fold again?”

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It was a warmer, more grown-up sentiment on a record that found Brother Cephus beginning to tackle even bigger topics like cop killings, arguments, war, the industrialization of love, and the gap between life’s potentials and its tangible everyday realities. Now the band — fresh off an East Coast tour — has another short yet fully evolved collection of songs to share while it prepares to play a November 19 Straz Center set before a live taping of a podcast by Josh Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists.

Not That Important — recorded in the dead of Nashville winter this January before being released independently in July — clocks in at just 22 minutes. Its six songs were cut to opaque violet and white vinyl in Jacksonville and housed in a package designed by Justin Nelson, who did the simple, two-color front artwork. Tampa designer Justin Myers, who composes miniature blasts of ambient electro as Justin Depth, illustrated the vinyl’s actual label. Songs like “What Is This? America.” feature inevitable commentary via soundbites from our 24-hour news cycle, but what stands out on the effort is the unabashedly moody yet oddly serene and earnest nature with which the Davis brothers live their lives.

“Donald Trump, politics, terror attacks, hate crimes, violence, climate change, greed. All you hear about is the negative stuff, and all of that seems like the norm, which makes for a very abnormal social climate,” Gabe told CL before explaining that this community’s embrace of the arts makes it nearly impossible for all the bullshit outweigh the good shit. It doesn’t matter what form the expression takes, according to Gabe, who is impulsive about checking out unknown bands, new restaurants and art galleries.

“When you’re in a community like we all are, and you receive so much support from the people around you, you just want to reciprocate,” he said. “We’re just hungry to see truly inspired people do what is unique to them. And that feeds our own passion.”

Brother Cephus’s impetuous impulses have fed others, too. Just watch an ambitious, perfectly executed video that BOTB-winning filmmaker Javi Flick shot for Not That Important track “Toxic Slip,” or follow the narrative on EP highlight “Can We Then?” in which Seth twists his words and melodies around to spin a hilarious, all-too-real, tongue-in-cheek assessment of what it’s like to go out to bars seemingly overrun by cool kids wearing catalog-ready shirts and eyewear. The cut’s riffs and basic feel were cemented in a demo, but extra work during pre-production with engineer Josh Lovell unearthed new melodic and lyrical possibilities that could not be ignored. So Seth hopped in the vocal booth and basically freestyled his way through the song over and over again while his brother and Lovell jotted down their favorite lines.

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“We gotta do something, right? We gotta go somewhere playing cool tunes,” Seth sings while a far-off voice harmonizes on a fat, half-time groove propelled by bassist JJ Revell and Logan Coats on drums. “And I’ll hit the oldies station, sing like old fools. Hand me a smoke and stiff drink — I’m playing it cool, I’m seeing V-necks and Ray-Bans, how can I change my mood?”

How? Apparently you’ve just got to trust your intuition, find a little trail of breadcrumbs, try not to do too much with ’em and eventually find what you didn’t know you were looking for in the first place. It seems to work for the Davis brothers, who apparently still write up to three songs a week.

“Some seem to stick with you and some you just forget. It’s hard to keep up,” Gabe said when asked about being able to corral the material. “I think we’re lucky.”

And those little, tiny, simple bits of luck have gone a long way.

The Minimalists w/Brother Cephus
Sun., Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m. $25.
Ferguson Hall at David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa.
More info:

Is that the Ybor house in the "Toxic Slip" video? If so, how much of this record, and your total output, has been created and refined there?

The opening scene is in the living room of our bassist JJ’s house which is two doors down from the house Seth and I live in. Every practice, full band demo and impromptu jam in the last two years have happened in that living room. The last scene of us in the yard up against the white fence is actually seth and I’s backyard. We’re all moving out of these two houses in a couple months so it was perfect to start and end the video by kind of memorializing this place that has been our creative home.

How long was the shoot?

The shoot was 2 days spread between 4 locations.

How about storyboarding, etc. how long did that take?

Javi Fick (Dir-DOP) really deserves the credit for the video. Javi had approached us about doing the video shortly after we finished recording. So there was about 6 months of playful conversation about it, but things got serious in early May when we first sat down to talk. From there Javi came up with a couple really cool ideas inspired from our conversation and the song, before finally landing on this concept. Then a couple weeks of hustling pulling every favor possible to complete it!

Your sound, from the Wounded Hearts days, has always been a vehicle for this very emotional, matter-of-fact outlook on life. You’ve really refined that aspect of your music. How have your grown as songwriters on Not That Important?

I think our songwriting has always run parallel to us as individuals and since we released NOISE we’ve grown more confident in ourselves and more willing to take perceived risks in daily life and I really believe that it translates to the songs on Not That Important. I also think we’re more self-aware, and more uncertain than ever about what the future holds in a broader sense.

Can we talk about “Can We Then”? The slow bounce and melody are ridiculous. How does that song get born as far as music and lyrics go?

That’s a song Seth wrote the base of. He had a good idea of the base riffs and feel he wanted. During pre production we worked the music as a band over and over again along with Josh Lovell trying to make it as interesting as possible. By the time we were done with the music the song had taken on such a unique personality that Seth moved on from his initial idea for lyrics/vocal melody. Seth pretty much hopped in the vocal booth (aka my closet) and freestyled his way through the song several times while Josh and I sat and wrote down our favorite lines from each take and after bouncing between this process and cigarette breaks a couple times we arrived at what became “Can We Then?”

You went to Nashville to record the EP over four days. When did that happen?

That was January 27th-30th

Talk about what Mark was able to do at Fat Horse, and what Josh did as a producer, that couldn’t do yourself.

While he wasn’t part of making the record, Mark really just provided us a really great environment to be creative with excellent gear He kind of handed over the keys and let us work as long as we wanted.. It was a beautiful studio and property.

From the first time we met Josh we realized we could have conversations about music that you just can’t have with most people. His knowledge of music history and bands is immense which gives him a great musical vocabulary and reference library haha. SO communication was easy, but beyond that we had similar tastes. So through the process of writing, pre-production, and actually recording Josh really quickly felt like another band member. He pushed us hard. Made us think about every decision we made, and offered up suggestions when we were running dry in certain spots. Josh is a real peaceful, thoughtful guy so he’s a perfect producer to have in case tensions run high or a tie-breaker is necessary. And he invested alot of energy into making sure that we exhausted every inch of our creative ability in each song.

Not That Important feels like a record you can live in (I got lost on “Not Even You). What are the plans for a tour?

We just started the process of booking for October to support this album.. Which will probably be a couple weeks so we can get up north before winter sets in! We’ve really been marking this release as a time to get serious and go after what we want. I don’t know exactly what next year holds but I can tell you we bought a van and plan on seeing as much of the country as possible next year.

Your albums, as they come to fruition, seem to have singular moments when they seem real (“Noise” on the last one, “How Do You” on this one). How quickly are you able to get a group of songs to coalesce around that moment so that you have a collection to put out?

I think we’re lucky because Seth and I both seem to be able to write music at a quick pace. We had rough demos of more than 20 songs before we settled on these 6 to work through after much debate. There were probably 4 or 5 of that group of 20 that would’ve fit really well with this collection that we hope to release soon, but I’d say we average 1-3 new songs a week between the two of us, and some seem to stick with you and some you just forget. It’s hard to keep up

You’ve talked about “demo-itis” — is that just an arduous process where you record and re-record songs, pick out what you’d like to change until you have something you want to take to the studio proper?

Demo-itis to us usually refers to the opposite. It means that no matter how hard you work and refine and change you can’t ever get the song to feel the way the original demo did. But it’s tricky cause it’s hard to know whether it’s actually the sound of the demo that you love or if it was just that moment that has a special meaning. “How Do You Do” probably gave us the biggest case of Demo-itis on this release. When we actually tracked it we kept a great deal true to the demo, but made some changes that really elevated it in my opinion.

You guys have said that you enjoy working your day jobs because it makes your lives feel more real. You’ve also said that you just want to create music that is built around experiences. How much effort do you have to put into “living” — like some people just stay at home, but I feel like I see you everywhere.

It honestly seems like it takes more effort for us these days to stay at home than it does to go out. When you’re in a community like we all are and you receive so much support from the people around you, you just want to reciprocate that support. And it just so happens that there’s alot of people doing really cool shit all over Tampa & St. Pete so it’s easy to reciprocate. Other bands, local business owners, artists, etc. At this point it’s impulsive.. There’s a show tonight? Never heard of ‘em, lets go! New Restaurant? Let’s check it out! Opening night at XYZ gallery? Hell Yeah! We’re just hungry to see truly inspired people do what is unique to them. And that feeds our own passion

Who’s producing the vinyl? Talk about linking up with Justin to do the artwork.

Vinyl Record Pressing (Jacksonville, FL) is doing the pressing of the vinyl. We actually linked up with two Justins. Justin Nelson did the album artwork and Justin Myers did the drawing that we will be screenprinting on to the vinyl itself.

Justin Nelson actually designed the NOISE cover as well as two shirts for us previously and is one of our favorite artists. Justin Myers is a close friend and incredibly creative dude who has encouraged us these last couple years. He will also have a hand in screenprinting the design on the vinyl.

Will Brother Odell ever release a greatest hits joke album?

Haha Shay gals, Brother Odell might be retired.

In March, you talked about trying to find a way to reach an ideal that involved a 50/50 split touring and working at coffee shop and also not half-assing things anymore. How far have you come along on that in the last three or four months?

We invested a lot into making this record something that we would be proud to have represent us moving forward. From recording, to the video, to releasing this album on Friday we have been overwhelmed by the support we’ve received at every turn and we believe that in the next year we’ll be much much closer to that goal.

Could you explain what you call “a very abnormal social climate” in your press materials?

Donald trump, politics, terror attacks, hate crimes, violence, climate change, greed, etc.. it just seems that all you hear about is the negative stuff. All of that seems like the norm now.. Which makes for a very abnormal social climate.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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