MAPLE VALLEY — Phil and Tim Hanseroth were milling around the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Seattle last month. Guitars in tow, Brandi Carlile’s longtime bandmates — endeared to fans as simply “the twins” — were waiting on the folk star and Dave Grohl. The Seattle rock heroes were en route to an impromptu busking session at Pike Place Market that would be viewed by scores of lucky tourists and a couple of million fans on Carlile’s Facebook Live feed when the brothers got a call.
Carlile was on the line with a last-minute request. Apparently, Grohl wanted to know if they’d learn AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock,” a staple in Grohl’s Foo Fighters cover-song arsenal, shortly before they’re about to post up beneath the farmers market sign.
“It’s like the one AC/DC song that’s like eight minutes long — not really an intuitive AC/DC song,” Tim says. “So, we’re like ‘[Expletive].’”
With the clock ticking, the twins pulled up the song (six minutes, for the record) on their iPhones and got to work in the hotel lobby. While video of the mini concert at the market instantly went viral and is bound to live on in Seattle music lore, it seems the hotel staff was less impressed with the Hanseroths’ rehearsal.
“The lady that works at the front desk was like, ‘I’m gonna have to ask you guys to leave.’ We got kicked out of the Four Seasons trying to learn an AC/DC song so we could busk,” says Tim, still amused by the situation. “I’ve never been prouder to be asked to leave the Four Seasons, though.”
Turned out their disturbing of the fancy-hotel peace was for naught, as the acoustic quartet wound up doing “Times Like These” instead. But such is life these days for the 43-year-old twins whose first concert was Nirvana circa ’91: palling around with one of their rock idols, running into Smokey Robinson backstage at the Grammys. With Carlile’s soul-stirring “By the Way, I Forgive You,” she and the tatted-up, baldheaded harmonizers who have flanked her since the early 2000s have reached new creative and commercial highs.
When they met about 15 years ago, the twins were a couple of down-on-their-luck hard rockers who had given up on making it big. Since then the threesome have become a literal family band — a formidable songwriting trio that is reaching milestones they once thought impossible, like headlining the Gorge Amphitheatre on Saturday, June 1, for their Echoes Through the Canyon concert with Emmylou Harris and Neko Case.
While Carlile is the leader and vocal dynamo whose face graces album and magazine covers, she’s long stated that “Brandi Carlile” is a full-band effort with the twins. And their familial bond is part of the reason they’ve made it this far.
“There is no Brandi Carlile without the twins,” Carlile told Variety this year. “One of my biggest regrets is going with my name as the name of the band.”
Gang of “misfits”
Chase is a good boy.
It’s an immaculate blue-sky day and, in search of some lovin’, Carlile’s happy pup, named after her older daughter’s favorite “PAW Patrol” character, comes trotting over to us outside Carlile’s red barn in Maple Valley that has been converted into a recording studio. Chase’s brother, Dexter, belongs to Phil, who lives just a short 4-wheeler ride down a gravel trail that snakes through Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready’s property nearby.
“See, we’re not the only twins around here,” Tim says, as Chase makes the rounds.
Phil and his wife, Tiffany, who’s also Carlile’s sister, recently moved into their newly built house among the trees, though they were previously “just a few miles down the street.” Tim and his family live 10 minutes away, but are considering buying a plot nearby. “I never even came out here until we met Brandi,” Phil says earlier, back at his place.
The barefooted twins are lounging on Phil’s couch, guitars on their laps with the porch doors flung open offering a glimpse of the Tiger Mountain State Forest tree line off in the distance. Their older brother — an ex-Marine and a solid mechanic who’s “everything we’re not,” Phil jokes — is off somewhere on the woodsy property, while Carlile’s doing a wardrobe fitting up at her place. The twins and Carlile have two kids each, ranging from 1 to 7 years old, meaning this midday sofa hang is likely an anomaly.
“There’s six cousins running around this place raising hell most of the time,” Phil says.
Their nearly adjacent properties are a pastoral slice of Northwest serenity where it’s quicker to get to the nearest trailhead than the gym. Plus, it’s not too far from the airport for the always-running musicians, the demand for whom has surged since Carlile became the most nominated woman at this year’s Grammys. Though moving out to the woods was a bit of a lifestyle shift for the teenage skater punks who grew up in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood and in Mountlake Terrace, they don’t miss city life, save for the coffee shops. “That’s the one thing that suuuucks,” Tim groans. “There’s no awesome coffee out here, man.”
When the twins first met Carlile at famed London Bridge Studio in Shoreline, their hard-rock band the Fighting Machinists was falling apart. The Hanseroths were struggling to salvage their record deal, but it wasn’t looking good. Producer Jonathan Plum had sung Carlile’s praises and one day their paths crossed at the studio. Musically, the Ramones-reared twins and a young, acoustic Carlile were in different lanes, but a fast friendship formed over a game of pool.
“We didn’t have much common ground musically at all, but … it was an immediate ‘Oh, this is my people,’” Tim recalls. “We’re misfits, she’s a misfit. Me and my brother have always collected misfit friends our whole lives. She kinda does the same thing.”
After the Fighting Machinists officially split, the twins had made peace with the idea that a music career wasn’t in the cards. Though Tim wasn’t really the session-player type, Carlile invited him to record some guitar parts with her, which in turn led to a couple of shows, and soon, Tim recruited Phil.
Having led their previous bands, taking a supporting role was a bit of an adjustment at first — not to mention Phil sliding from guitar to bass — but it was fun and the stakes were low. For Phil, it became more than just a fun side gig when they started writing together, merging Carlile’s folkier, unplugged side with their rock edge — a more “reckless” element Phil says Carlile was looking for. The twins had a few holdover songs that never fit past projects, including one of Phil’s she took a liking to — “The Story,” which became Carlile’s breakout single in 2007.
“It changed our writing being able to play with Brandi,” Phil says, because her background is “so different from ours that it got me thinking more lyrically and melodically, rather than just try to bash some Ramones kind of thing.”
Beyond contributing to songwriting, as Tim sees it, part of their job is to help execute whatever new headline-capturing endeavor their self-described dreamer of a bandleader comes up with next. Coincidence or not, Carlile’s creative vision seems to be humming in overdrive since “By the Way, I Forgive You” exploded, launching her women-led Girls Just Wanna Weekend fest; forming her Highwomen country supergroup with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby; or doing a one-off concert performing Joni Mitchell’s classic “Blue” album cover to cover in Los Angeles this fall.
“We do a lot of things that come out of left field,” Tim says.
Carlile and the twins were about to step into the biggest spotlight of their careers and the stage hands at the Grammys were baffled. While their crew was setting up for what would be the most powerful performance of the night, production staff couldn’t believe that the roots rockers weren’t deploying a single backing track or even playing to a time-keeping click, a common practice during primetime television performances.
“I guess what we do is kind of antiquated, you know? A band full of people that wrote a song, playing their guitars,” Tim says. “We were like these aliens coming down to the Grammys playing real instruments. It kind of threw him through a loop.”
Novel, ain’t it? That’s part of the reason Carlile’s six nominations was one of the biggest stories leading up to the awards show, and the orchestral wallop of “The Joke,” which saw Carlile belting with a heart bigger than the average pop star’s wardrobe trunk, delivered in the clutch.
It was a clear high point for a band that’s shared some tough times, too.
The Hanseroths’ lives have always been somewhat synchronized, whether it’s playing in the same bands, working in the same marble and granite warehouse or getting married and having kids around the same time. As the band was gaining traction and embarking on its first tours, the twins were both going through divorces. While in some ways it was a distraction, being away from home 10 months out of the year made starting over that much harder.
Life on the road has also meant missing significant life moments with friends and family. One in particular sticks out.
Carlile and the twins were in Europe touring on 2009’s “Give Up the Ghost” when they got word that a close friend of the band, who the Hanseroths had known since high school, had killed himself.
“My dad called Brandi and told her the news, because he couldn’t bring himself to tell us,” Tim says. “We actually found out right after sound check, so we had a couple hours to get back to the hotel and get our heads together, make a couple phone calls. We played the show that night and everybody was pretty sad. …
“That’s one thing I wish I wouldn’t have missed is his funeral,” Tim adds, his voice growing softer. “But we did have each other.”
The song “Sugartooth” — a standout off the last record — tells the story of their “inner circle” friend, a fellow musician who struggled with depression and substance abuse, with empathy but without varnish.
“It took us the better part of a decade to write it, but we did him justice,” Tim says. “That’s the thing, sometimes it takes 10 years to write a song. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes.”
The “bar stool” band
Life hasn’t slowed down since the group’s Grammy close-up, but the souvenirs from “music’s biggest night” finally came in the mail. Phil’s golden gramophone sits casually on a dining-room sideboard; prime decorative real estate, but afforded no more ceremony than a favorite plant. While Carlile won three awards that night, the twins technically only received one for best American roots song — a prize that goes to the songwriters, not just the artist.
The hardware discrepancy seems to bug Carlile more than it does the Hanseroths, who shared co-writing credits equally on “By the Way, I Forgive You.”
“It was hard to be like, wait a second — more for Brandi, we didn’t give a [expletive],” Tim says. “But Brandi was really fighting, ‘But man, we’re a band.’”
Carlile’s obviously the star, architect and driving force behind her namesake band — the golden voice sailing over the twins’ double-barrel backing harmonies. But she’s always stressed that she and the twins are a unit. “It’s a total, creative collaboration, and it’s also a life collaboration,” Carlile told Songwriter Universe last year. “It’s a situation where our families are together, for better or worse, all the time. We are literally a family.”
“We’re like a bar stool,” Tim says. “Everybody carries their weight.”
Even early on, their close friendship made checking egos easy. It also helps that the three split the band’s money evenly, regardless of who wrote what. Money and fame have a way of driving wedges into prosperous creative partnerships, but their handshake arrangement prevents those issues from surfacing in rehearsals or family barbecues, and as Phil notes, keeps the focus on writing the best songs possible. Together.
“If somebody has a suggestion, it can only be for the purpose of improving the song. It’s never about write a word take a third,” he says, invoking an old industry saying.
“The ego thing,” Tim says, “you hear about bands who fight for their spotlight. I think we’re all kinda fighting to get out of it.”
But it’s something they’d better get used to. That spotlight’s only getting brighter.
Echoes Through the Canyon with Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris and Neko Case. 6 p.m. Saturday, June 1; Gorge Amphitheatre, 754 Silica Road N.W., George; $55-$125; livenation.com