For brothers Kelly and Patrick Morris, a.k.a. the Mobros, everything changed six years ago when they won a high school talent show. It was then that the brothers got a taste of uninhibited adulation — or at least its PG-rated, small-town South Carolina equivalent. For the two Camden teens — Patrick was then 13 and Kelly was 15 — that moment was a slice of rock-god stardom. Since then, the Mobros have been polishing their sound, a mix of rugged blues, roots rock, and Stax and Motown soul. And you can hear it for yourself on their 10-song debut, Walking with a Different Stride, which will be released on Tues. Feb. 25.
"It was really awesome to have everyone in the school cheering for you," says Patrick, the drummer, about that fateful day years ago.
"It was cool to have the cheering, but the other thing was that it was $100, and that was a lot of money," recalls singer/guitarist Kelly. The year before, the brothers, then in separate bands, had competed in the contest and lost. "We decided the night before to do it. It was a great experience, and we're just lucky it turned out that way, because that was really what kicked us off playing together."
After the talent show, their 28-year-old high school drama teacher, Patrick Booze, joined them on bass, and the school's soccer coach hooked them up with a gig in Columbia. They quickly made friends with fellow musicians and lined up even more shows.
But after that initial rush, Booze quit and then his replacement proved to be a bad fit. Unfortunately, it took the Morris brothers nearly 18 months for them to realize it. During that time, what had been a musical career filled with joyful abandon had transformed into one that was constrained and stressful.
"The day after he left we played the Music Hall in Columbia, and it was an uplifting experience," Kelly says. "We were one of the last acts, and so a lot of people came, and it was so packed. We were having such a great time playing as duo for the first time in years, and all our stress was gone.
Eventually, they met Bill Fishman, the director of the cult classic Tapeheads and numerous music videos. Fishman put the young pair on the phone with a variety of producers, some of who had worked with people like Aaron Carter, Gym Class Heroes, and Katy Perry. For a while, the Mobros were courted like a mistress for a weekend getaway.
"They're like, 'We'll fly you up to New York. We'll show you around here, and we'll go in the studio where Blues Traveler just finished recording," Kelly says with a laugh. "One of the phrases that got us and just ended it was in the last conversation with one the producers. He said, 'If you have an idea what your music should sound like, then we probably shouldn't work together.'"
But instead of partnering with a big-name producer, Kelly and Patrick went their own way. They raised money to record their debut with a local Columbia producer. But after tracking the album, the mix was awful.
For the next several months, the Mobros played madly anywhere they could in order to raise more cash. Once they had the cash, they went down to Chase Park in Athens, Ga., where they hooked up with producer Will Manning. After spending many months on that first abortive recording, the Mobros blazed through 10 tracks in two days under Manning's watchful eyes and ears. The brothers couldn't be happier.
"He just really got the best he could out of the record," Kelly says about Walking with a Different Stride. "I didn't realize how fun it could be going into the studio and getting things done because the first time was like exam week really. But it really wasn't like that at all. We were bouncing around the room, and it's a really good memory of a first album." (You can hear the Mobro's debut single, "Trampstamp," below. It's a slice of high-energy soul-blues that beats most anything off the Black Key's latest.)
The Morris brothers are hoping they'll have the same fond memories of their current tour, their first major jaunt. While they've played shows around the region, the Mobros have never played a 24-stop tour. So far they've already discovered how to sneak into the free breakfast bar at Holiday Inns along the way. Last night, they slept in the van for the first time.
"It's not bad. I mean, you wake up and you're already dressed," Kelly says. "Sometimes you're in the driver's seat, and so you just turn it on, find a CVS to brush your teeth in, and you're good."