Brother Oliver Breaks a World Record
Brother Oliver have been growing in visibility over the last decade, with their catchy psych-folk rock. Their latest feat is not an eclectic album however, but a recently released documentary that captures an attempt to break the record for mandolin playing. We spoke with star musician Stephen, his bandmate, brother and director Andrew Oliver as well as co-director Dan Johnson, about a film that digs into the nitty gritty of setting a goal so equally impossible and absurd.
You guys have been around for quite some time and gathering more and more acclaim as you grow in visibility and popularity. Do you feel like you've ever done something of this magnitude before?
Andrew Oliver (AO): This was by far the largest project we’ve taken on as far as content goes. It’s been a dream to produce a feature film, and it wasn’t until I started working with Dan a few years ago, who I co-directed with (and he also edited the movie), that I felt we had the right team to pull it off.
What made this project so intense is that not only were we producing a feature film, but we were also trying to simultaneously break a world record. Logistically, one of those alone would’ve been enough to keep our hands full by itself. So doing them in tandem created an insane level of intensity, and honestly raised the stakes dramatically because we had the public counting on us to succeed, but also a ton of finances tied into the success of the attempt for the film, too.
Dan Johnson (DJ): I was fortunate enough to hear Brother Oliver play live back on what I believe was April Fool’s Day, 2017. If you watch the film, you’ll hear the song that hooked me at the end of their set. After that I basically started throwing my photographer self at them. My work clicked with them, and over time we just slowly morphed into inner circle friends and business partners. To me this is just a natural next step to the progression we have been on so far. It just happened to be more of a jump than a step, so I would say it’s absolutely the biggest thing we have completed yet.
Stephen Oliver (SO): I viewed this project as just another project, something cool rather than something of a large magnitude. It wasn’t until we went on Fox Carolina News that the magnitude of the situation hit me. The moment we walked out of the news station it hit me like a bag of bricks. This isn’t going to be easy, and the likelihood of failure was probably higher than success. All eyes were on us and we had to succeed for ourselves and everyone else. This project had an impact on a level I didn’t fully understand until after the fact.
The Guinness Records world is probably pretty trivial to most people, but did you unearth a 'community' of similar record-breakers or other mandolin players (musicians, etc.) that really get jazzed about the records? Is there any way someone would come along and take the record away from you? Was the person whose record you broke aware of your attempt or success?
SO: I discovered that the Guinness World Record book carries a lot of nostalgia for people. So the “cool” factor of a world record is one thing, but the nostalgia people have from reading the book as a kid was another thing. I’ve had countless people tell me their stories of reading the book as a child and how they always imagined their names being in the book (I had the same experience as a child).
The guy who held the record that I broke, Kuntal Raj Chakrabortty, is from India. And from what I can tell, India loves world records. I think it culturally means a lot to them, more so than here in the US. Kuntal became aware of my record attempt during the attempt. He was very supportive of me which meant a lot because the record clearly meant a lot to him. I have since developed a friendship with Kuntal and we have a bond as the only people in the world to understand the difficulty of playing a mandolin longer than anyone else in history.
While Guinness world records may not be as popular as they once were, they still are well known and socially relevant. I recently followed a well known basketball Tik Tok account called “6ix Shooter” because he was attempting to break the world record for most 3 pointers made in 24 hours. He live streamed his attempt and that caught my attention because I would be able to follow along and see how he handled the stress, because I know first hand it is HARD to break a world record.
Within the first few hours, I was already concerned about them breaking the record, just based on my experience with a long marathon attempt. Starting out, they had a lot of the same overconfidence that our crew had in the beginning of our attempt, but I think we came more prepared and with a better structure and strategy.
Breaking a world record is never easy. It often takes a team and an inhuman level of mental toughness. There’s a bit of a “freak show” element to world records so I think they will always interest people.
How has the film -- and the quest in general -- circled back to affect your musical careers (and maybe, shade of limelight)? How does it differ from the reception and audience you've garnished in the past?
AO: I think the magnitude of it being a feature film has left a deeper impression with our fanbase than anything we’ve done previous. It’s something that’s so outside of the box. As a band, people expect an album or some singles and a handful of tour dates. But we wanted to try and break the traditional mold and do something totally beyond the scope of what’s considered ‘normal’. But we also did it for ourselves. It was something we thought would be fulfilling on a personal level, and so that’s what drove us.
You had to act in all capacities (stars, producers, etc.) to make this film happen. Did that make things harder? Or did it feel more like a better sense of control?
DJ: My younger brother watched the film when it was nearly finalized, and had to jab me with “do you think you could put your name in the credits a couple more times?” He was clearly just jealous, but I think that speaks to how we took on this project. All of us handled multiple large roles in order to keep the film in our hands, and I don’t think we would rather have done it any other way.
I will say though that the world record attempt itself was not just us. That took an incredible amount of effort from our friends, family, and fans to pull off.
Speaking of control -- at least the trailer makes this pretty obvious -- did you ever feel the film itself was about to fail, or that you'd bitten off more than you could chew?
DJ: Not many people ask that question. Most wonder about failing the attempt itself, and those moments are documented in the film, but we certainly had occasion to face the reality of losing the time and money we had already put into making a feature length project. There’s one moment you’ll see where Stephen just stares blankly at some bad news on the screen and doesn’t blink or move for what feels like an eternity. Regarding biting off more than one can chew, I faced some demons when the footage dump had to be organized, having never taken on a project larger than a 10th the scope of this one. Those moments of fear ended up being a huge part of the story and of what made the whole thing so special to us.
As a brothers-founded biz (we used to be a band too) -- Cannapages can completely cathect with your structure and blood-thicker-than-water approach to projects. In your opinion, did/does doing these sorts of colossal, commitment-heavy projects fare better with the brotherhood (and resulting obligatory 'nobody can quit without taking everyone down' environment) or does that family element make things more complicated?
AO: Maybe we’re the odd ducks. I know the old adages are to never mix business with family, or even friendship for that matter. But for us, it seems like it couldn’t work any other way. Stephen and I are brothers, but the rest of the team are as close to being family as they could be without sharing the same blood as well. There’s a certain level of comfort and transparency required when you’re immersed in the intensity of these kinds of projects. The team feels like family, because it is family. And part of the reason we do these projects to begin with is because we know we can fully trust each other to follow through.
How bad was the challenge on your (Stephen's) wrists? Were any inebriants, advil or otherwise needed to get through?
SO: I tried to stay as clear-headed as possible to get through what was over 27 hours of hell. But I can neither confirm nor deny if there was any late night deviation from that plan. The pain in my fingers really started to become a severe issue 5 hours into the attempt. There was sadly nothing I could do to kill the pain. I simply had to grit my teeth and tell myself there was no pain for the next 22 hours. The attempt was probably the most physically and mentally taxing experience of my life.
Perhaps the most important thing for me was having a medical professional with muscle and joint expertise on hand (Dr. Shawn Currie from Highlands Chiropractic in Greenville, SC). He couldn’t help my fingertips but he worked on my hands, wrists, neck, and back multiple times during my attempt.
It took about 2 months for my fingers to heal, but my joints and muscles were fine a couple days after the attempt. I credit the fast recovery to Dr. Currie.
Do you see this as a peak for both the band and Forthright or is it more of a benchmark? Or has this given you a taste to go even bigger and beyond for your next chapter? Any ideas on what that next chapter might entail (besides film festivals)?
AO: From the start, I viewed this feature film as the mark of a new chapter. I wanted it to be something that signaled to the world of entertainment that we had a lot more to offer. So I’d like to think it’s just the beginning. But it’s hard to put my finger on what could top this current feeling. But that’s part of the beauty of how we operate. We never know what that next big thing will be until we see it right in front of us…and then we go for it.
DJ: I won’t lie, it feels like a peak to me. However, I have had that same feeling before. We had some big wins back in 2019 and had conversations about that being a high point or not; I felt then the same way I feel now - how could it get better? The truth is, Andrew was and is always the one to just assume that we will keep growing, so perhaps I have another mountaintop to look forward to.