Watch Brewer’s Row in action as they play a few of their “rust belt americana” songs and talk about their music. (Video/Ricardo Robinson)
Roots rock band Brewer’s Row has — appropriately — deep roots that come from more than a decade of sharing music as a family.
Brother Nicholas Hohman and older sister Leah Hohman-Esser grew up around music, as did their father and fellow band member Mark Hohman, whose own father directed the North Hills Chorus for years.
But unlike most sibling pop-rock groups or feel-good family bands, Brewer’s Row isn’t afraid to tackle life’s hard questions, and it doesn’t shy away from the dark corners of the human emotional landscape.
“If you read some of Nicholas’s lyrics you might get the impression that he had a hard childhood,” Mark said. “I assure you, it’s not true. He’s always had a great imagination.”
The group started in 2005 as a way to showcase some of Nicholas’s “treasure trove” of musical material. After college, he moved back to Pittsburgh and in with his sister, who had bought a house near the Penn Brewery.
Leah and Mark had been doing consulting work together that required them to travel. In order to pass the time, Mark brought his guitar and they played together.
“We all sort of found ourselves back here together and started playing Nick’s stuff and went from there,” Mark said.
They took their name from the row of houses in which Leah’s sits, although Mark lives in Gibsonia and Nicholas lives in Spring Hill.
With the core lineup of Nicholas on guitar and vocals, Leah on piano and vocals and Mark on guitar, they added drummer (and cousin) Jarrett Sallows and bass player Corry Drake and released their first album in 2008.
Nicholas cited Bruce Springsteen’s album “Nebraska” as a major musical influence — and it shows. A friend described Brewer’s Row as “rust belt Americana,” a description the band has embraced.
Although reducing an entire musical catalogue to a single phrase is never easy, Nicholas said his lyrics deal with the “idea of flawed humanity” and “What happens when you die? What is left?”
The song “Benny” exemplifies that as it traces the life of a young man who kills his abusive father and goes on to a life of crime. He gets caught in the end, and his last words are these: “Well my body may try to extinguish the embers / But I can’t really die if it’s me you remember.”
But don’t think that Brewer’s Row is a one trick pony. “Pretty much if I like it, I’ll try it,” Nicholas said.
Leah and Mark also write material for the group, citing two of their influences as Bonnie Rait and The Beatles, respectively.
Mark saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in the mid 1964 and 1965 and saw George Harrison’s Gretsch 6122. “I saw one and I wanted one. It took me 30 years before I thought I could treat myself.”
The satisfaction of finally owning and being able to perform on stage with his dream guitar is nothing compared to being in a band with his kids though. “For me it’s like the best thing that could ever happen,” he said.
“I get the fame and the glory, and have something the kids want to do with me.”
The “kids,” now both married and Leah with a daughter of her own, agreed that playing with family — and their dad — was not only fun, but easy.
Leah joked, “He keeps making us slow everything down.” More seriously, she said, “They let me strap my baby to the front of me and play if I need to.”
The band doesn’t spend much time rehearsing or composing together, because they all click so well.
“It’s easier to figure stuff out and fall into place,” Nick said.
And because the band’s three songwriters are so close, it’s easy for them to be frank with one another when a song or lyric isn’t working. Bassist Drake pushes the band to try new things and assess what it’s doing in a way that other band members can’t, precisely because they are so close.
Leah added that Drake was also good at helping them figure out song endings, a component the three composers struggle with.
“It’s the last impression,” Nick said, and you can either bring the song to dead stop or dwindle away, but you have to figure out what is most appropriate for the song.
When composing, Nicholas starts with a “seed” and from there puts everything down, not paying attention to form or coherence. After everything is down on paper, he looks for patterns and forms the song to what he finds.
“Not very often does [a song] come out as a direct result of inspiration,” he said. “If there’s truth, it’s buried very deep.”
Things aren’t always so easy though, and Brewer’s Row struggles with many of the same challenges any band does, despite being mostly a family operation.
Each band member might have a different idea of how a song should go and, “It’s not always the same idea as the person next to you,” Nicholas said. Everyone needs to trust each other and the composer’s vision for the song, while at the same time being open to criticism and suggestions.
The band has plenty of material for a new album, and Mark said they hope to go back to the studio toward the end of this year. “We have plenty of material and big ideas.”
Until the band makes it big, Nicholas works at the Children’s Museum, Leah stays at home with her daughter, Rice, and Mark works as a software engineer.
Nicholas and Leah grew up in the suburbs, but moved into the city after finishing their college educations.
“As I came home I realized that I never got to appreciate Pittsburgh,” Leah said. “But I’m happy here. I’ve always been interested in old homes and architecture.”
After living with Leah for awhile before she got married, Nicholas decided to stick around as well. He enjoys being close to the Children’s Museum and the fact that there are plenty of trees and woodland creatures in his neighborhood, just a mile and a half from Downtown.
“I decided it was nice and calm on the Northside and … you could see it developing.”
Brewer’s Row will perform April 17 at 9 p.m. at the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville and April 24 at 9 p.m. at the Park House on East Ohio Street.