Spoons and Suspenders
By Katie Raynor
Lucas Hicks, slight in stature and outfitted in a long-sleeved striped button-up shirt, stands at a tiny stove stirring his dinner in a cast iron frying pan. The stove sits on a smooth, slightly shiny gray concrete floor in Hicks' house. From the outside, the house resembles a cabin one might expect to see amid a forest of evergreens, not just off Bellingham's heavily trafficked Alabama Street. Hicks' friend Devin Champlin walks through the door, which features a telephone receiver as a door handle, carrying two planks of wood.
"Aren't these nice?" Champlin asks Hicks, indicating his cargo.
Hicks agrees and offers Champlin some dinner before transferring his mother-of-pearl and black accordion from the well-worn red couch to the floor. He reclines on the couch, plate of food in hand, while Champlin perches on a nearby chair.
"Thanks for dinner, Lucas," Champlin says enthusiastically.
Hicks and Champlin, both 28, comprise the Gallus Brothers, one of Bellingham's most popular and charismatic musical acts, and the Monday night mainstay at Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro. Hicks says the pair has been playing their brand of ragtime crossed with blues and country music together since October 2005.
As for the musicians' initial meeting before forming the Gallus Brothers, much of it had to do with being in the right place at the right times.
"We met a long time ago at the Old Town Cafˇ," Champlin says. "I was just passing through town playing music then and Lucas came up and gave me one of his CDs."
Both say how Bellingham ended being the setting for playing music together was somewhat without design. Hicks hails from western Colorado and spent summers in Mount Vernon with his dad. He says he moved here to attend Western, where he graduated in 2000 with a degree in music, and to try to make a name for his former Colorado-based band, Pacer. He moved around frequently after graduating but often found his way back to the Northwest and ended up settling here.
"I came back up and was visiting friends and family a lot," he says. "The last time I came up I saw Devin up here and said 'Hey, why don't we play together?'"
Champlin jokes that their act was all Lucas's idea.
Champlin, who in addition to playing music is now a full-time carpenter, hence his wood delivery to Hicks' house. He was born and raised in Chicago and lived in Tucson, Ariz. for four years before moving to the Northwest. He says the first time he came to Bellingham he was simply passing through, and although location wasn't a deciding factor in his musical career, he is satisfied with the roots he's established here.
"Playing music I'd be doing anywhere," he says. "But that being said, this was a welcoming, supportive community right off the bat."
The Gallus Brothers occupied Monday's music bill at Boundary Bay for nine months before Champlin left for six months to attend an accredited school for guitar-building in Phoenix, Ariz. Three months ago, after Champlin returned, the duo resumed their weekly show, and Hicks says they are pleased with the support offered by the Bellingham community - residents and other artists alike.
"I think it's great, I'm amazed," Lucas says. "It's a well-supported scene. I play in like four different bands, [the music scene] is awesome."
Champlin says a shared taste for ragtime-influenced music and atypical fashion choices drew he and Hicks together.
"We both wore suspenders, and when we met we were the only guys we knew who both wore them," he says smiling through a thick beard. "Lucas thinks we're trendsetters."
Suspenders are now popular attire among audience members who frequent their shows, says Hicks.
Boundary Bay general manager Janet Lightner, who helps with Boundary's music selection, says the audience at a Gallus Brothers' show is made up of a predominantly younger crowd but the duo appeals to a broad age range.
"[The audience is] a core younger group of people under 30," Lightner says. "But there are those older people who linger and catch the show. They enjoy it and come back."
She says 50 to 100 people normally attend their Monday night shows, and attendance varies based on the number of other shows or concerts happening that night in town.
Hicks and Champlin, dinners now finished, banter easily and a shared excitement for the music they both love dominates the conversation. Champlin springs out of his wooden chair and bounds up the stairs to the loft that juts halfway across the width of the house. He turns up the volume on a song warbling from the speakers, then settles back into his chair, smiling, content with the music selection.
Hicks says the music the two listen to is the music they play, both during their shows and on their album "The Suitcase Rag," which was released a year ago.
"We're unique in personal style, but we don't write most of our own songs," he says.
For the uninitiated ragtime or blues fan, the duo's influences will most likely be unfamiliar - the band's MySpace page lists Hoosier Hot Shots, Gus Cannon and Jimmie Rodgers among a slew of others as top influences. Champlin says his sources of inspiration come from all over the musical map.
"I listen to a lot of blues guitar, but also stuff like piano, jazz bands and stuff and try to break it down for finger-style guitar," he says.
The Gallus Brothers' music translates into live shows that leave audiences sweaty and sore from dancing and sometimes, famously, waltzing late into the night in the middle of Railroad Avenue outside Boundary Bay. Lucas explains the origin of this perennial, romantic end to nights of bouncy, upbeat ragtime.
"Here's my perception of how it started," he says. "We kept getting encores. We'd play for two to three hours straight and people would just clap. We got to the point where I would grab my accordion and Devin would grab his guitar and we'd just sprint outside."
He says one of their Monday night shows in April produced one of the biggest post-show nocturnal waltzes to date.
Hicks and Champlin punctuate their shows with acrobatics such as juggling and standing on each other's shoulders, and those theatrics combined with a solid musical foundation have spelled success for the Gallus Brothers. While Champlin still holds what many would label a traditional job, Hicks has been able to step full-force into the world of professional musicianship.
"I guess I'm a full-time musician," Hicks says. "I'm able to gig a few times a week. I actually got to play every night for two weeks in a row, the last two weeks. But that doesn't happen very often."
Champlin says apart from their weekly Boundary Bay show, the duo doesn't play in Bellingham often. They recently returned from a West Coast tour, playing in cities such as Seattle, Phoenix, Ariz. and Portland, Ore., which he says they've played at least seven or eight times. A steady touring schedule feeds both the performers' musical appetites. Both say they don't have singular long-term goals in mind apart from continuing to make the music they love in some capacity.
"It's a huge part of my life, one of my biggest passions," Champlin says. "It's just something I can't help doing."
Lightner says that passion comes through in their live show at Boundary Bay every Monday. Hicks, in addition to the accordion, plays a suitcase contraption outfitted with a cymbal, a horn and various other sound-makers. He and Champlin, who plays the guitar, joke and interact with audience members and create a personal, engaging experience.
"[Shows are] fun, connected, communicative," says Lightner. "There's a narrative you feel from the Gallus Brothers to the audience."
Lightner says that relationship with the audience and the rarity of the ragtime, Vaudeville style of music they play in today's musical landscape are why the pair is so popular among Bellingham audiences.
"That human piece of it that reaches out to the audience and doesn't stand above them," she says. "They're much more down to earth than that. And when you're playing a suitcase and spoons and everything, people really like them."
Hicks, now standing and walking around the rust orange-walled house, says he's happy with where he is career-wise. The duo is booked to play shows on weekends through September, including shows in Alaska, at the Port Townsend Country Blues Festival and the Old Time Festival in Berkeley, Calif.
Hicks is adamant about what he hopes audiences take with them after a Gallus Brothers show, and not just about his original semi-sarcastic answer urging audience members to bring home their CDs.
"The lasting idea that you should dance to music like that," he says. "It's dance music. That's what this music came from."
Hicks says he wants to inspire a departure from the decidedly polite Northwest habits of subtle head-nodding and foot-tapping to music that encourages full-body participation. The turnout at their shows indicates they're well on their way to inspiring movement in each and every body in Bellingham.