Review: In Tampa, The Minimalists tap Brother Cephus to give sound to the idea of living with less

A big theater set and live podcast performance looked good on the Tampa indie-rock outfit.

Seven years ago, Ryan Nicodemus and his Christopher Walken-looking best friend Joshua Fields Millburn completed their individual climbs to the top of the corporate ladder only to find that their six-figure salaries, large homes and new cars left them feeling like they were living in at the bottom of a barrel, buried beneath all of the mostly meaningless shit they'd accumulated as they chased the money they thought would give them happiness.

It took Millburn’s mom passing away right here in St. Pete Beach — plus his having to deal with selling or storing her hordes of old pictures, coats and possessions — for him to realize that his priorities were all fucked up. He adopted the minimalist lifestyle, and eliminated nearly all of his possessions en route to living a life surrounded only by the things that gave his life true value.

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It took Nicodemus — who was lost in the sauce of his own debt plus alcohol and drug-fueled nights — seeing how happy his friend Josh was to adopt the lifestyle, too.

In 2010, the boys launched their own website to share their stories of adopting a new, stripped-down lifestyle. In the first month, the site saw less than 60 visitors. Seven years later, Nicodemus and Millburn (collectively known as The Minimalists) enjoy the attention of close to 1 million social media followers who’re presumably trapped in their own prisons of debt and possessions and looking for a way out. And many of them came from all over the state to hear the pair preach the gospel of less inside of what felt like a nearly sold-out Ferguson Hall at Tampa’s Straz Center.

When you hear Minimalist fans ask the pair questions — like they did on Sunday night at Tampa’s Straz Center during a live taping of the Minimalist podcast — things can feel a little cult-y. Words like “convert” and questions about how to makes one’s partner give in to to maximum minimalism could make the ideology feel a little like its own prison sentence, but a closer look and listen unearths two guys simply talking about the very thing that freed them from their own self-imposed chains.

All Nicodemus and Millburn are really sharing is the idea that we’re all victims of our own compulsory need for consumption, a need to define our happiness by the things we have, and our human tendency to hang on to loads of shit we don’t need “just in case.” Questions came from every age group and financial situation, and answers were well thought-out and then boiled down to more snackable soundbytes.

A 21-year-old, just-turned vegetarian college student asked about seeking support from friends as she embarked on a minimal, I-don't-eat-animals season of life. “You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone,” Millburn proffered, while Nicodemus said all she had to do was be consistent to prove to others she wasn’t fucking around.

A woman with four mortgages sought advice on how to shed one while still setting herself up for retirement. The Minimalists agreed that neither of them would ever want to be landlords, and that she should do the thing that gives her less of a headache.

One guy said that his move towards minimalism had made him happier, but also led him to an insane amount media consumption that felt very un-minimal. “All media is not created equal,” Millburn said. “Some of it is passive and some of it is active. You have to ask yourself if you could’ve lived without that news story that instant.” Nicodemus — who hasn’t officially unpacked his TV since his first packing party — said he likes to schedule media consumption time and tries to add added value to the time he and his partner spend looking at a screen.

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Worked into all of this was the Minimalists’ Tampa version of added value — music from hometown indie-rock band Brother Cephus. Millburn became acquainted with the band — which just came off a tour in support of its own new EP, Not That Important — when he and Nicodemus teamed up with Joshua and Sarah Weaver to open Bandit Coffee in St. Petersburg.

“[Guitarist and singer] Seth was part of the team there at Bandit,” Millburn explained. “I will say that I have not been able to stop listening to the album. It is one of my favorites from this year.”

To express their gratitude, Millburn and Nicodemus invited Brother Cephus to record a stripped-back version of Not That Important track “Gotta Have It” live on the podcast, which consistently cracks the top 10 on overall iTunes charts and often places No. 1 in the “Health” category. It’s one of the quieter, more introspective tracks on the 22-minute effort, and it reflected the quiet set — complete with cuts from Brother Cephus’s older Wounded Hearts collection — played to open the evening.

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The band’s cover of Nico’s “These Days” was dedicated to Seth and Gabe Davis’ father Kent, who is battling stage 4 colon cancer that has metastasized to his liver. Hearing parts of Jackson Browne’s words — which were beautifully adopted by Nico and The Velvet Underground in 1967 — would actually be a forebearer of a sentiment many in the room probably left with last night.

On the surface, the idea of minimalism and the elimination of the things which bog us down, would mean that there was an endgame or peak minimalism. But Nicodemus would debunk that notion outright, offering the idea that the ideology simply is a journey to figure out the things that do and do not add real value to our lives.

“Well I'll keep on moving, moving on. Things are bound to be improving these days,” Browne sings. “One of these days.”

Listen to Brother Cephus' new album below. Read our recent profile on the band here, and stay tuned for an update to this post that includes the podcast taped here in Tampa Bay. Call your local record store to see if it is carrying the release.