The Teskey Brothers

It’s all very low-key in the beginning: busking at the local farmers’ market, backyard party jams, and eventually taking on the inner-city venues of Melbourne. Fast-forward ten years to 2017 and that band, The Teskey Brothers, are still are still toiling away.

And so it goes, the ten-year overnight success story…

It’s one of those fabled stories. Two brothers (Josh and Sam Teskey) make friends with two other music-minded kids (Liam Gough and Brendon Love) from the local neighborhood and the four teenagers begin making music together. It’s all very low-key in the beginning: busking at the local farmers’ market, backyard party jams, and eventually taking on the inner-city venues of Melbourne. Fast-forward ten years to 2017 and that band, The Teskey Brothers, are still are still toiling away, virtually unknown, when they release an incredible debut album entitled Half Mile Harvest. Everything changes. And so it goes, the ten-year overnight success story…

With its raw combination of blues and soul, Half Mile Harvest has become essential listening for lovers of old-school music. Word-of-mouth quickly hit fever pitch following its release in Australia as the band sold out night after night including four huge shows at Melbourne’s infamous venue The Corner Hotel, Zoo Twilights in front of 3,000 saturated but enamored punters, and much talked about sets at Meredith Music Festival, Byron Bay Bluesfest, Falls Festival and Queenscliff Music Festival.

Half Mile Harvest features songs penned by all four band members. The record was put to tape in their home studio in Warrandyte on Melbourne’s leafy fringes, self-produced and released independently on their own label Half Mile Harvest Records. Throughout the album Josh Teskey sings of love, longing and heartbreak; his flawless smoked whiskey vocal rises and cracks with undeniable authenticity. Around him the band conjures a groove and tone akin to those emanating from Stax Records sessions circa ’67. It quickly becomes apparent that these four friends are capable of much more than imitation of the greats but a dynamic and soulful sound that is completely their own. One of those rare chemistries that translates both on record and onstage, reminding listeners that old-school music can still feel pure and spontaneous in the twenty-first century.

At the 2017 Music Victoria Awards the band won awards for best Soul, Funk, RnB & Gospel Album and Best Emerging Act. Soon after they were over in USA playing to packed houses at SXSW in Austin Texas followed by even more air-less sellouts at The Great Escape in Brighton UK.

Onstage the band is as tight as any in the game, bringing horns and keys into the fray to deliver a show that soars and dives with masterful control. It’s anyone’s guess how far The Teskey Brothers are going to take their music but all indications so far suggest the love will go deep and wide around the world for this special combo.

As is so often the case, a great teacher proved another catalyst. “I had this piano teacher at the new school who would just let me play what I wanted to, so I’d play him these songs and sing along really quietly, and one lesson he said: ‘You have a really good voice. Next week, instead of just working on the piano part, we’ll learn the vocal as well. And the week after, we can try writing something.’ So it really all just sort of happened that way, and it was all thanks to that one teacher.”

The music lessons aside, Tor’s new school was, for a long time, not a place he was happy to attend. “I was a complete outcast; I didn’t talk to anyone for about two years. But I was getting confident in lessons, and wrote my first couple of songs, so I decided to perform at the eighth-grade talent show – and remember, at that point, no one had really ever heard me even speak. I was so mad to have had to move schools and leave all my friends, so I didn’t participate in anything. But I got up there and performed a cover version, and a song I had just written, and immediately after, people suddenly wanted to talk to me, I got all this attention – especially from girls! And it propelled me to keep going, and I started booking shows, open-mic nights in places such as The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I worked at that, and then I went to high school, and joined the jazz band there, and some of the guys in that joined my band, and we just carried on playing shows. But it all came from that one performance in eighth grade.”

The songs “began to pour out, most of them about isolation and loneliness,” Tor says with a wry laugh. “I felt that I’d been taken out of the city and away from a life I loved, and thrown out on a horse farm in New Jersey. I had no idea what to do with myself, I was really angsty. And here, suddenly, was something I liked – and I didn’t like anything at the time.”

The bug had bitten him and, when he took up a place studying music at NYU, Tor dove right in. “The moment when it felt properly real was in my first semester at college, when I was writing all these songs. I was a bit of a madman during that period. I’d stay up super late, I’d show up late to class, I was writing and working, working and writing, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. So I guess that’s the moment when it got serious for me, when it was real and I knew it was what I had to be doing. And I was absolutely miserable at the time! But it’s an incredibly intoxicating state to be in. I’ll never forget that time.”

Glassnote Records – home to artists such as Mumford & Sons, Phoenix, Childish Gambino and Chvrches – picked up on the excitement that was rapidly building around Tor, and last year, he signed to the label.

Glassnote did what so many labels no longer see the benefit in doing, they saw the potential and they allowed it to develop. Simple, huh? Simple but so often disregarded to make use of early buzz and ride it until that buzz falls flat. Tor had always foreseen his songs having an element of grandeur about them, but never had the means to turn that vision into a reality.

“I always imagine these lush, arranged songs that were big band sounding. When I was recording these insular solo songs, there were certain elements missing, but time has allowed me to make them sound how I wanted them to. I am so proud of the album.”

The record label didn’t just throw him in a studio with session musicians to find this bigger sound, aware that that will always lose a sense of life and magic, but they gave Tor and his songs the space to breathe and let him go about finding a band himself, touring it, re-shaping the songs, touring them again, and then heading into the studio to see if an album was ready.

The dynamic though had changed. Listen back to the latest incarnation of that unmastered debut record and it’s come along way from Tor’s first iPhone demos. There is very much a band feel to them, and what they have lost in intimacy they have gained in scale. “I understand that fronting a band brings with it much more energy. Sitting behind a piano gets a bit boring for me, and for the audience. The live show now has variety, like the record does. It has to have an ebb and flow to keep it interesting. It’s different but it’s hugely gratifying to hear what we’ve created over time.”

“It’s difficult to articulate what I wanted, but I feel like we’ve done a great job. To have these songs and the ideas that I couldn’t pull off alone down and off my chest is great.”

It’s an album that, as Tor suggests, has plenty of ebb and flow. There’s bold and grandiose (“Surrender”), there’s pop with a range of colour (“Carter & Cash”, “Always”), and there’s hushed and beautiful (“Baby Blue”). Schizophrenic? Not so much, Tor has managed to commit to that sense of vastness, but kept a sonic thread throughout that keeps it from being a mish-mash of ideas. It goes for the jugular, grapples with it, and ultimately wins.

Like many great albums do, the album closes on a beauty, and Tor’s current favourite called “Stampede”. “It’s the book-end. I wanted ‘Stampede’ to end on a ‘what the hell happened there?!’ moment. It’s expansive. I wanted it to sound like Bruce Springsteen covering ‘Purple Rain’ (which he recently did, weirdly enough). I can hear it on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury as the weekend closes. It’s a song I’m hugely proud of.”

There’s a key moment in prior single “Midnight” when, with the backing vocals rising to a tumult behind him, Tor sings “Calling out, calling out for something true.” The most thrilling thing about Tor Miller – with the advantage of time – is that he might well have found it.

Ambitious, then, but not misplaced. The ongoing glut of actually very good singer-songwriters will never become a fallow stable, but Tor has leap-frogged that pen and positioned himself comfortably on the outside, looking above and beyond its obvious limitations. His music has soul, and his performance has a range, depth and scale.

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