It all started with piano lessons. Brothers Zach and Caleb Bodtorf were forced into them as kids. And when they say they “played piano,” they weren’t really learning how to read music or anything else practical for the years they sat at the keys (about seven for Zach and five for Caleb). They’d memorize how to execute exactly what they needed to and that would be that.
“I think it was decreasing with each brother,” Caleb says to Zach, who is older than him by two and a half years, as they sit across from each other in Caleb’s living room. “You played the longest. I probably played half as long as you, and (youngest brother) Nick probably played half as long as me.”
More influential, possibly, than the piano was the stuff their father would play on the special pair of speakers he bought in college in the ’70s. He’d put on Neil Young, Tom Waits, and Paul Simon’s Graceland repeatedly, the music coming loud and crystal clear through the vintage speakers. “They’re super, super tall and really thin, and you could just hear everything,” Zach says. “It really tuned my ear into all the intricacies of good studio recording.”
The summers before they each entered high school in Greenville, the Bodtorfs decided to take up the guitar.
“I remember early on, when you first started, I remember sneaking into your room,” Caleb says, referring to his brother.
Zach interrupts. “You stole that Fender?”
“Playing the Ibanez,” Caleb corrects him. “I remember noodling around on that, not really knowing what I’m doing.”
“That was my first electric,” Zach adds. “That was the pawn shop special. Eighty dollars. Got it from a fellow soccer player. It was a terrible guitar.” He laughs.
It might be terrible, but it’s a guitar he still owns, though right now he’s tinkering with a better one as the brothers reminisce about their musical history. While both are in notable local bands — Zach’s the guitarist/vocalist in Firework Show, while Caleb’s the guitarist in Old You — this is the first time they’ve ever really broached the subject of their mutual pasttime and witnessing each other’s growth as musicians.
“I think we share. We teach each other random things, more related to the nerdiness part of music,” Caleb says. “There aren’t many people who share this nerdiness about music and equipment and guitar tone, the subtleties we enjoy talking about. Our parents get frustrated whenever we get together and we start talking about different types of amplifier tubes.”
For Zach, something about the guitar clicked immediately soon after he picked it up. Back then, he started playing with friend and drummer Brandon Gallagher, the same guy he’s been playing with for more than 10 years. They wrote songs together in high school and kept at it when they moved to the Lowcountry to attend the College of Charleston in 2004, with Caleb following in 2007.
Both Bodtorf brothers minored in music at CofC. Zach spent a semester interning with the New Music Collective, which got him into the weird, more experimental, “crazy classical stuff.” He couldn’t read music, so he couldn’t play with them, but it turned his ear onto different things going on in the city. Meanwhile, Caleb took music composition his sophomore year. He was forced to work 10 times harder than the younger kids in his class who’d been reading and writing music since childhood.
Firework Show started out as a noise rock act, drawing comparisons to Sonic Youth from a City Paper writer when they won the school’s Battle of the Bands in 2006. Early on, they were considered undefinable, and Zach assumed it was because people thought his band sucked. “It was kind of weird when that first started happening, but I’ve learned to embrace it,” he says. Firework Show got better, and now they’re making original music without any preconceptions. Zach says they can’t pin down what genre they want to be in because they love music so much, and he just wants to play as much of it as he can. “We’re definitely just a wacky rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Caleb recalls visiting Charleston while he was still in high school, back when Firework Show was a three-piece (since forming, they’ve taken on a keyboardist and have run through a series of bassists). There were seven or eight people in Zach’s house, and everyone was banging on a different instrument. At the time, the band didn’t know what they wanted to do with music, so they did as much as they could with the time they had. Caleb admits to being kind of jealous of the situation; his friends, while they liked listening to and playing music on a basic level, weren’t really interested in doing anything original.
Then Caleb moved to Charleston, and he met Old You’s bassist, Paul San Luis, in the dorms. “I remember initially, I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it,” he says. “I was just playing because I was getting tired of sitting in my dorm room playing by myself, so it was nice to get out and play with other people.” San Luis hooked them up with his childhood friend, drummer John Pope, and the band grew from there, picking up Grace Slick-ish singer and guitarist Young-Mi Feldsott after meeting her at jam sessions at Norm’s Pizza, which Zach also participated in. Old You is just as hard to classify as Firework Show; they may be rock-based, but Caleb wouldn’t go around telling people that they’re rock ‘n’ roll.
Today, Zach and Caleb live about four blocks from each other, but they’re both pretty busy with their separate lives. The bands have only played together a couple of times, once at the Awendaw Music Festival and another time at a Pour House show. The brothers try to see each other perform when they can, though most of the time they’re too busy playing their own shows. They joke that they should plan a Bodtorf brother tour so that Firework Show and Old You could collaborate. And they say that they wouldn’t have a problem letting each other know if they thought their respective projects sucked. That’s what brothers are for.
“Although the music might sound different,” Zach says, “I think one of the reasons that it all connects together is its two bands that really try to write whatever comes to mind. There’s no rules or boundaries on it.” Both agree that there’s a quality that connects their bands. “I think the bands sound the same, but it’s really different music,” Caleb says. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
Because of their familial connection, Zach and Caleb have had the rare opportunity to see their bands grow from inception to their current states. Since Firework Show has had so many bass players, Caleb feels like he’s seen a new version of the band every couple of years. It’s always slightly different. “They always have new, fresh tunes. It always gets a little bit cleaner,” he says. “I think the group as it is now is definitely the best it’s ever been.” Zach laughs and agrees.
“Just the other day I stopped by when Old You was recording and sat in and listened a little bit,” Zach adds. “It was cool, because I remember just a year and a half ago, I don’t even know if you had an hour’s worth of original material. And then bam, it’s just been work work work. It’s been interesting to follow it.”