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Milwaukee sibling duo Nelson and Max Devereaux release their ‘Bird Of Paradise’

Two men partially hide their faces behind a plant with thick leaves while standing in front of a large tree.

Sibling musicians hold a particular appeal. Who better to start a band with when first learning an instrument as a kid? It’s like having a built-in bandmate when all is said and done — and the practice space couldn’t be closer, whether it’s the basement or garage.

Musical and IRL brothers Nelson and Max Devereaux grew up in Milwaukee, where they both gravitated toward the arts and generally being as creative as humanly possible. Now based in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, respectively, the brothers keep those creative fires stoked and continue to collaborate musically, having churned out more than 15 releases together.

The most recent, Bird of Paradise (get it here on Bandcamp), is a wavy, psych- and jazz-influenced pop album featuring Max on guitar and vocals, and older sibling Nelson on nearly everything else: vocals, bass, drums, guitar, keys, synths and woodwinds.

Max’s penchant for art and film, and Nelson’s for saxophone in particular really sings on Bird of Paradise, which dips a toe (or two) in the ’70s pop pool, evoking Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Emitt Rhodes (and a little modern day Mac DeMarco). The tempos veer from dreamy to frenetic, making it an engaging listen.

We caught up with Nelson following the album’s release and right before his Aug. 10 show in the Back Room at Colectivo with Paul Cherry and The Mattson 2.

What was on the home turntable (or stereo) growing up?

Lots of Sting, Level 42, Alan Parsons Project, James Taylor, Boney James, Frank Sinatra, The Eagles, America. Pretty eclectic, honestly.

What was it like growing up with an equally artistic brother? Did you feel compelled to try and to do the same things? Or did you separate for a bit and do your own thing?

Growing up with a five-year age gap and being the older brother, it took a little time before we started collaborating. But it wasn’t long until we were banging on the Frankenstein drum kit my dad assembled, ripping loud guitar and keys, and whatever other instruments were around. My dad also built a weird little stage in the basement when we were young. Singing nonsense into a microphone has been going on for a long time in our family.

When he was in high school, Max would talk to me about David Lynch, Werner Herzog and Akira Kurosawa, and we bonded deeply over film at that time and made some of our first recordings together. One time, we made a record called “8 Songs” in our grandmother’s basement in Rhinelander over a Thanksgiving break.

There’s never really been a competitive edge or feeling between us. We’re equals, and I think we complement each other well in an artistic space. We’re also very different as far as what we chose to study in life regarding art so far: me obsessing over music theory and the way music as a whole works — diving deep with the saxophone specifically — and Max with his encyclopedic knowledge of a vast array of art and artists and his very, almost anti-academic artistic approach/philosophy.

What was growing up in Milwaukee like for you? Are there any Milwaukee venues, places or people in particular that served as that initial creative inspiration?

Growing up in Milwaukee was amazing, honestly. I learned to look out for my personal belongings after having my bike stolen, like, three times. I learned the perfect way to time crossing the street as cars are speeding up towards me. I also learned how to drink a lot of beer. I view Milwaukee as a sacred place. … I’m wearing a hat that literally says “Milwaukee” on it. I sincerely hope to move back someday.

As far as inspiring people, lots of the instructors at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, who I think might not work there anymore(?). Anyway, watching them play and having them as mentors was huge. Big shout-out to Berkeley Fudge, Aaron Gardner, Jamie Brewick, Mark David, Jeff Hamann and Dave Bayles. Also, thank you to John High, my middle-school band director who gave me my first theory book (that he wrote).

Also, as a kid, going to Summerfest was incredible, or strangely going to Shank Hall to see Warren Weigratz play with my mom when I was, like, 12.

What got you into playing the saxophone?

I was really interested in playing saxophone initially because of hearing it on recordings my parents and grandparents would play, and seeing performers in Milwaukee at a young age. I was also really into video games as a kid and realized through them that a horn was what I wanted to speak with. The game soundtracks never had any vocals — rather, strong lead melodies, and I was compelled to imitate them in any way I could.

I always loved the way music made me feel, the way it could completely change my mood from happy to sad, anxious to elated and anywhere in between. It was like magic to me. Still is. I was very curious about it. Since my dad was always playing guitar, I didn’t want to copy him, so I nagged my parents to let me rent a saxophone. Amazingly, they were down with it! I think I was 7 or 8 years old.

Real talk though: It’s one thing to become interested in a pastime like music at a young age and another thing to make it a habit and keep it up. I thank my mom for not only the financial aspect of that, but also being the one to drive me around as a kid. I was lucky for that. Later on, I found out that my great-grandfather taught saxophone and clarinet in Milwaukee many, many years before I was born. Wild.

What took you from school musician to working musician? What was your first big gig?

In high school at Wauwatosa East, my friends and I had a few bands, most lucratively a polka trio, which was basically a drummer-less jazz trio with tuba instead of bass and accordion instead of keys. We used to clean up — major cash — at German Fest every year, plus my band directors kickstarted my teaching career by letting me teach a zero-hour jazz course my senior year. So I’ve had the working musician mentality for a long time.

Fast-forward a few years in Minneapolis: I biked to Ryan Olson’s house at, like, 1 a.m. with a saxophone on my back after a festival where I saw him perform and met Lizzo there, among other people. That connection to Ryan and also to Mike Lewis ultimately led to me playing with Bon Iver a few years later. Slightly longer story than that, but I don’t want to bore anyone.

That was definitely an insane gig that took me to places meeting people I never dreamed of. I was living in a house with, like, seven other people and going out and playing Coachella and coming back to my bedroom ceiling leaking down onto my bed when it rained. It was a very crazy dichotomy, and I’m still processing aspects of those years today.

Ultimately, it all adds up to a crazy life so far. A ton of hard work, a ton of luck leading to some really great times, and I’m still working as hard as I can to keep it up.

Who have you all played with so far, and what's been your favorite project (or person) to collaborate with and why?

This is a wild list when I think of it! I’ve recorded with and/or performed with:

Bon Iver, Jungle, Lizzo, Har Mar Superstar, Magdelena Bay, Mild High Club, This Is The Kit, Craig Finn (see video below), The Mattson 2, The Hold Steady, Paul Cherry, Whitney, Joey Arias, Marijuana Deathsquads, and many other artists who are equally as talented and incredible but are not deemed “famous” (sigh).

I think as a wind musician I can easily sit in with just about anyone and link up in the moment. It’s one of the best parts of having spent so much time in the practice room.

As far as my favorite collaborations, I love my [Paul] Cherry boys. We write and create music at an alarming pace. Of course working with Max is a trip, and recently my new stuff is being cooked up with my really good friend Michael Sodnik.

Tell me how you came to collaborate with your brother, Max, on this newest record? You live in Minneapolis, and he now lives in L.A. How often do you see or speak to each other to get those creative fires stoked?

This record came about after a wild couple of years — the pandemic. Max was living in Minneapolis again at the time, and we were writing these songs and playing with our mutual friend Yoji Sera as a trio called “Bird Of Paradise.” Perhaps we’ll play again someday.

Max eventually moved to L.A. a little more than a year ago — and had his leg run over by a truck in an attempted robbery in the process — and when he was settled in, he tracked his vocals and guitar, and sent them to me in a Dropbox folder that eventually I opened. [laughs]

Basically from Dec 23 to late April 23, I was building the rest of the tracks around his material and mixing it all together. It was a ton of work but supremely gratifying, and I really learned a ton about recording and mixing in the process.

Max and I talk almost every day on the phone, so we’ve been keeping each other propped up and as sane as possible throughout this whole process. Usually, one of us is having a bad time, and the other just says, “It’s going to be OK.” We’re both wildly productive, so creatively we both really have to pump the breaks so as to not “overwhelm” the listener. So we try to keep each other in check in that way as well.

How would you describe your collaborative style, genre-wise? Could you sum it up in three words, possibly?

Genre-wise, I would say we land in the “indie-bedroom-pop” zone.

Who are some of your personal influences, saxophonists or otherwise?

Sheesh, this is a good question! I tend to take a lot of inspiration from saxophonists and whatever their surrounding harmonic activity is. Big ones for me are John Coltrane and these days Michael Brecker. I am absolutely obsessed with Michael Brecker. I believe The Arc Of The Pendulum is one of the greatest records ever made.

As for songwriters and composers, my biggest influence is Ryuichi Sakamoto. Right now, I’m listening to a ton of Taylor Swift’s record, Midnights, as a bit of a guide for something upcoming. Big fan right now.

What does "Bird Of Paradise" mean on this particular record?

As revealed before, Bird Of Paradise was the name of Max and my group with the drummer Yoji Sera. When looking at naming the group, we discovered that there are lots of other bands called “Bird Of Paradise,” which did not come as a surprise to either of us, so we just went with our current artist names, which are just our names … why not?

Speaking of Bird Of Paradise—Major props to Max and Jiselle for the record cover, where they actually painted and photographed Max’s hand. Amazing job. I have a really funny, crude concept phone art thing that we made a while back that sort of demos the eventual photograph they took.

As for the name, it really resonates with Max and my general pessimism that we mask with sarcasm. Family trait I think.

What are your plans with the record now that it's officially out in the world?

Now that the record is out, I really hope people listen to it! It’s funny: Nowadays, you put something out, have a really fun three to five days, and then it’s like nothing ever happened. So we’re approaching the latter part, which you really have to mentally prepare for. Again, doing this is really hard.

We’re super grateful for the support we’ve gotten from Radio Milwaukee, as well as The Current in Minneapolis. It kicks the ball down the line a little bit more each time, and we couldn’t do it without the support from our friends and family. Because Max and I live so far apart, there are no plans for shows anytime soon.

What should we watch for from you next? Any other big summer musical plans?

From me, personally, I’m working on a short ambient record, as well as quickly finishing up tracking my next solo singer-songwriter record. I’m also going into the studio next week to do a live trio record with Dave Power and Cody McKinney in Minneapolis. That one will be along the lines of a Catsax record. My first ever saxophone etude book is also coming out very soon, based on the songs on my 2022 solo record Zones.

Also, the new Paul Cherry smooth jazz tracks are coming out over the next few months, with a new one dropping on Friday, Aug. 28. I wrote the last single that will come out later this summer/early fall, so I’m pretty excited about that.

We’re playing the Back Room on Thursday, Aug. 10, with The Mattson 2 on the bill as well. I hope to meet some new people and see some friends at that one, as well as have a proper Milwaukee rip afterwards.

Lastly, my wife and I are going to Japan directly after the Midwest PC tour, and I’m playing a show there in Kobe on Aug. 22 with my friend Chie Otomi. We have never met in person. so this show will be really special. I plan to record it, and once I mix it we’ll see what happens with that.

Always working hard! Art lives.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee