/ June 2004:
the band played on
After a three-year hiatus, local pop duo Evan and Jaron Lowenstein are back with a new album, a new attitude, and a new approach to the music business.
by Benyamin Cohen
British screenwriter Tom Stoppard once noted that if Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, it would have changed the history of music ... and of aviation. While local Jewish musicians Evan and Jaron Lowenstein would be the first to admit that they're not in the same stratosphere as Beethoven, their new attempt to redefine the record industry could change music history. But, admittedly, it won't have much effect on aviation.
Go back to 2001: The identical twin brothers are everywhere. They're a wildly popular music group, a hit with the women, and a darling of the media. MTV features them. Jay Leno interviews them. Everybody from USA Today to Rolling Stone showers accolades on them. People magazine even dubs them among the 50 most beautiful people in America. After growing up in the Toco Hills section of Northeast Atlanta, they now called Hollywood home.
The Lowensteins had finally made it to the point where they could have it their way. They were so much in demand that their religious convictions were no longer an obstacle for those trying to promote them. It's how they persuaded the most listened-to Top 40 radio station in the country to fly a rabbi to Jamaica to read the Megillah for them on Purim. It's how they got CBS to spend more than $100,000 to switch a taping from Friday night to Thursday, so they could be included. It's how they got the Mississippi state troopers to give them a police escort home in time to make Shabbat.
Not bad for two guys most Jewish Atlantans simply call "those Lowenstein twins." So where are they now?
Well, at this precise moment in time, they're in synagogue. No, not praying for another hit record. It's a recent Saturday morning and services have just ended. They're glad-handing the people they grew up with at Congregation Beth Jacob - friends who were at their bar mitzvah, friends from high school, friends who attended Evan's 2000 nuptials in Florida.
To the Lowenstein brothers, this is home. Since moving to Hollywood in the late 90's, it is these short and humbling trips back home that keep them grounded. And it's a good thing. Because everywhere else, they're rock stars.
By anyone's measure, they were the breakout pop stars of 2001 with their infectious hit "Crazy for this Girl." It was the ninth most played song on radio that year across America.
But suddenly, it seemed, they quite literally disappeared. No more TV shows, no more magazine covers, and no more adulation. Evan and Jaron had all but vanished from America's cultural zeitgeist.
"It was a pretty methodical absence," says a pensive Evan. "The boy band craze was confusing our core audience." So the twins took time off to reconnect with family (Evan had a baby girl in 2003) and wrote and sold a screenplay to New Line Cinema for a forthcoming major Hollywood movie.
Then, in late 2002 they went back in the studio to record a new album. Now we're pleased to announce that Evan and Jaron are alive and well. After a three-year hiatus that had fans putting out an APB, the brothers have just released a new CD called Half Dozen (made up of -- that's right -- a half-dozen new tracks and three previously released bonus cuts). The six new songs are more reminiscent of their earlier acoustic catalogue, containing their signature blend of harmonies and witty lyrics.
More significant, though, is their turn from major label sensations to independent act. They've left the major label womb of Columbia Records and have started their own record company. By doing so, they are leaving the middle man in the dust, as they deliver their music directly to the consumer. Consider this: At a staggering $5.98, Evan and Jaron are practically giving their CD away. At such a low sale price, the duo is hoping to nip illegal digital downloading in the bud.
And the music industry is taking note. "If Evan and Jaron's low budget pricing experiment works, it could literally redefine the music industry as we know it," says David Fritz, the president of Triggerfish, a record distribution company. "They're showing up the big boys by bringing back customer satisfaction to the music business."
Growing up Lowenstein
The Lowensteins were not always music moguls. In fact, growing up in their Northeast Atlanta home with their older brother and two sisters, the twins could barely keep their focus on anything, let alone multimillion-dollar music contracts.
They were restless as students at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy in the early 80s. At Yeshiva High School, they threw their boundless energy into a potpourri of projects - the basketball team, the soccer team, the tennis team, and student council. Even when they were in class, they could hardly sit still. In his morning Talmud class, it was normal to see Evan strumming his guitar in the back of the room.
And by most accounts the twins spent most of their time scheming ways to undermine the school's authority. "In high school, they were bright, thoughtful, but occasionally mischievous students," says their principal Herbert Cohen. "Their good humor and overall sweetness caused them to be admired and liked by both fellow students and staff."
Unlike their older brother who went on to become a rabbi and their older sister who married one, the twins chose a less conservative path. When high school was over, Evan and Jaron both pursued a burgeoning baseball career, but quickly changed directions when their love of music overtook them.
The two started writing songs - they've written more than 400 to date - when Evan picked up his dad's guitar that was lying around the house. "I had it in my room for years," he says. "I knew it looked cool, but I never thought to touch it until one time I saw a guy playing guitar on the beach in front of 300 people. Three months later, we brought the guitar to the beach ourselves. We didn't even know what we were doing, but it didn't seem to matter. People swarmed over us like bees to honey."
The twins went off to Israel for a year to get some spiritual rejuvenation. While there, they decided to take a chance on their music so when they returned to the States, they did little else but play show after show. "By the end of that year, we were, like, let's do that again," recalls Jaron. "We worked so hard. When I signed up to be a rock star, I didn't realize I'd be waking up so early every morning and doing my own laundry."
They began playing on college campuses and local clubs under the moniker Durable Phig Leaf, a Garden of Eden reference. They later changed the band's name to Evan and Jaron (it just made more sense) and, in 1994, just two years after they graduated high school, released their first album, Live at Kalo's Coffee House.
Their music stylings - a unique hybrid of Simon and Garfunkel, the Eagles, and the Everly Brothers (whom they recently resurrected on the NBC series American Dreams) - caught the attention of music icon Jimmy Buffet. "They sing these amazing harmonies without looking at each other," Buffet told USA Today. "And they know how to really connect with their audience, charm them."
Buffet introduced them to Island Records founder and president, Chris Blackwell, who signed the brothers on the spot. They released the aptly titled We've Never Heard of You Either album on the Island label in 1998. After a corporate shuffle, they were let go and subsequently picked up by Columbia Records where they released their 2000 self-titled album, which would go on to enjoy three top 40 hits.
Their newfound fame was not limited to American soil. Overseas, they were huge. They went on a European tour through England, Norway, and Italy where they had the number one song in the country. "It was like an old Beatles movie," says Jaron. "Girls were chasing us down the street and banging on the car."
Turning the big three-oh
The synagogue is slowly emptying out, but Evan and Jaron remain in the lobby reminiscing with just about everyone who walks by. They talk of a new phase in their lives. In March they turned 30 and while a youthful charm always shines through, a sense of newfound maturity is clearly evident on their faces.
"They've worked extremely hard to get where they are," says their mother, Leslie. "I'm proud of them for their work ethic, for their stick-to-itiveness, and for their ability to stay who they are in the face of enormous pressure from the natures of the business itself."
She says her biggest sense of pride is not their music (which she loves) but their character traits. "They have a great sense of humor, they're tremendously giving, and they deeply care about people," she says. This last point proved timely as Evan arrived late for a recent interview with TV Guide because he had stopped on the side of the road to help an injured motorist, his newly-minted EMT license in hand.
Standing nearby in the synagogue lobby is Rabbi Daniel Estreicher. He was one of the first to witness their star potential; after all, it was in his Talmud class that they practiced playing the guitar. Estreicher is somewhat of a spiritual mentor to both Evan and Jaron. To thank him for his teachings, the twins wrote a song in his honor called "He Shines" and put it on their first album.
"I was very touched by their song," Estreicher says. "It meant a lot to me because it meant my connection to them was something of great significance -- that what I taught them made a difference in their lives."
And apparently they feel the desire to spread the good word. Jimmy Baron, a local deejay and close friend of the Lowensteins, credits Evan and Jaron for making him more religious. "As somebody who is Jewish and works in the entertainment industry, I have been tremendously inspired on both sides of that coin," Baron says. "They were directly responsible for reintroducing me to the concept of Shabbos and have had an immeasurable impact on my life."
The twins bring that joy for Judaism wherever they go. At Baron's wedding, they sang a traditional Hebrew song for the bride and groom under the chupah. All of their contracts come complete with a Sabbath clause which prevents them from ever performing on a Friday night.
It was their religious conviction that many in the industry believed would be the downfall of the Lowensteins. "Ninety percent of the music business thought we would lose our career because we didn't play on Friday night," Jaron says. "We literally walked into a business that is hard enough as it is, but we had one arm tied behind our backs. But, for us, it's non-negotiable."
When discussing the issue with them, two stories with positive outcomes come to mind. The first took place 30 miles outside of Memphis in a Mississippi arena. "Shabbos was to begin at 7:48 PM that week," Evan recalls of that fateful evening. At noon, the organizers called to confirm that the Lowensteins were to hit the stage at 8:30. The twins told them that would be impossible, since they needed to be back in Memphis to observe the Sabbath near a synagogue. Their performance was on the verge of being cancelled when an idea was hatched to allow them to go on at 7:00, play just two songs, and then hit the road. "They got us a police escort all the way to Tennessee," Evan says, still laughing when he recalls the story. "There was a squad car in front of us and two motorcycles in back. Every intersection had police cars out with their doors open blocking the intersection. There must've been 14 cars involved in this thing. We're doing 90 miles an hour, the sirens were screaming, it was ridiculous. Thirty years go, would you ever have thought that the Mississippi state troopers would be racing for Shabbos for two Jews named Lowenstein?"
The second story took place when CBS asked Evan and Jaron to perform at the Miss USA pageant in Gary, Indiana on a Friday night. Despite the exposure to a large worldwide audience, they had to decline the offer. CBS desperately wanted the twins so they offered to fly the band out a day early and pre-tape the segment on Thursday night. The network brought in 500 people to fill the audience, brought in all the contestants as well as host Wiliam Shatner and all the judges dressed exactly as they would be the next night. The Thursday night escapade cost CBS more than $100,000 to pull off.
"There is a sense of consistency in Judaism that keeps me sane and normal while we're traveling," says Evan. "We may be in front of 40,000 people one night. But I know that on Friday night I'll be in synagogue. And I'm just another synagogue-goer. I'm not a rock star there."
Music journalist Scott Bernarde, who wrote a book called Stars of David about Jewish rock stars, notes their dedication to Judaism. "Their faith, beliefs and lifestyle come first and their career has to integrate into that, not the other way around," he says of the Lowensteins. "They didn't become less Jewish or sell their souls to become rock stars. The cliché holds for them: They did it their way and continue to do so."
The war of independence
Their "doing-it-their-way" attitude has transcended their religion and crossed over into the business world. Citing creative differences, the twins parted ways with Columbia in the summer of 2003 after months of turmoil. A year has gone by and with a new hit CD on their hands, they feel it's as good a time as any to discuss the controversy of the last year.
"The music business has seen a decline the last four years in a row," says Evan. "The big record companies, like Columbia, have very little time for artist development. Unlike the days of old where a band like U2 didn't find any major success until their fourth record or so, nowadays if you don't hit on your first single you have problems.
"Even though we actually hit it big on our first single, if you don't hit on every single, the record company can't afford to keep you around," he adds. And in an era when record sales are on the decline due to illegal digital downloading, record companies are being a lot more careful hedging their bets.
The music labels just don't know how to deal with the new direction of the industry. "The record business, right now, is like the Titanic," Evan explains. "It's sinking. For years, it's been sinking. They were just more interested in rearranging the deck furniture than stopping the leak."
The problems with Columbia date back to their ill-fated 2001 publicity blitz. Despite promises otherwise, the label marketed the Lowensteins as an oddity - twins, Orthodox Jews, and teen heartthrobs. Evan and Jaron had worked hard for years honing their singer/songwriter craft and now they were being sold down the river as a talentless novelty act. "It was abysmal," recalls Evan. "It was a disaster."
Columbia's coup d'etat was getting the duo on the wildly popular MTV teen show Total Request Live (TRL). "In a lot of ways, being on TRL at that point in time hurt us," Jaron admits. "Don't get me wrong - we appreciate the exposure - but we are not a boy band. We play our own instruments. We write our own songs. Before TRL, most of our fans were more or less our age. And at the time TRL had on predominantly boy band material. In retrospect, it confused the marketplace."
As twins often do, Evan seconds the motion. "If you were 21 and up, you thought our music was for your younger sister," he says. "But if you were 13, you didn't really connect with the music. While you may have thought we were decent looking guys, from the teenage perspective there's only two of us versus five in the other bands that they were interested in. And we didn't dance. To them, the fact that we played our own instruments and wrote our own songs was valueless."
And the observant Jew angle, like the heartthrob one, didn't do service to their musical talent. "We kept the Sabbath. Like Shabbat's really sexy," Evan says. "We don't have a problem talking about the fact that we don't play on Friday nights, but it was the underbelly. We never even discussed it. It was never an issue until Columbia Records used it as a platform for publicity."
The sour feelings led to the breakup with Columbia and, for practically the first time in their careers, Evan and Jaron were in the driver's seat of their career. The two seized the opportunity: They started their own record company and turned their backs on convention. "Instead of sitting on our tuches and looking at it as a negative," Jaron explains, "we saw it as a positive."
Despite offers from other labels - Universal, Maverick, and Dreamworks, just to name a few - Evan and Jaron were more excited about going it on their own. So they created a label called "Twelve Between Us Records" and released their own CD. "We really tried to get this record to people for free," Evan explains. "We figured even if we had to put a 'Preparation H' logo all over the record, who cares? If the fans were getting it for free and they were getting a free sample of Preparation H with the record, who cares?" Well, they came pretty close. At a remarkable $5.98, it's the least expensive new CD in America.
Leslie Fram, the Director of Programming at 99X/Q100 and a local music legend in her own right, believes the twins have the gumption to get things done. "I remember going to South by Southwest, a showcase for unsigned bands, in Austin several years ago," she recalls. "Bands are booked months in advance for this event. Evan and Jaron drove down in their van, walked into a bar on 6th street and booked themselves. They were walking around the convention center, where hundreds of would-be media types were hanging out, handing out material on themselves.
"In this day and age of consolidation with major record labels going away, and bands being given a small window of opportunity to succeed, you have to develop your own path. They have built a following on the road one person at a time."
And that paradigm takes a lot of effort. Since leaving Columbia, all the nitty-gritty work of releasing a CD has fallen on the Lowenstein's shoulders. Jaron is heading up touring and radio promotion. Evan is overseeing on the Web site (www.evanandjaron.com), publicity, and distribution.
"Basically we're doing many people's jobs at once and we're totally enjoying being part of every single aspect of our career again," Evan says. "We hold ourselves responsible now. We've been so unbelievably successful at not just cost cutting - we like to think of ourselves as the Jet Blue of the music industry. We give the fans more of what they want for less money and we're still able to make a profit. So it's literally an unbelievable concept how we're able to sell our record. It's a business venture," He pauses for a moment to consider his words. "We made an investment in ourselves."
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