It feels like spring in Santa Cruz. Kellen Coffis, singer and guitarist for The Coffis Brothers & The Mountain Men band, is about to go coach track at his alma mater. It’s his second job at San Lorenzo Valley High School, where he also coaches the girls varsity soccer team, a job he’s held for three years or so. Brother Jamie Coffis — pianist and other half of The Coffis Brothers portion of the band — is an assistant coach.
A former athlete for San Lorenzo Valley, Kellen seems to have adopted a player-friendly approach to his coaching style. “You try to push things that work for you as a player. Some people want to push their system, and it’s certainly not fun to play for someone like that. I try to let them be creative on their own. The whole goal is to play hard and want to come back the next day and the next season,” Coffis said.
The 28-year old has applied a similar approach to his music career and the budding sensation that is The Coffis Brothers & The Mountain Men. It’s not the desire for success that fuels the band, rather the love of the music and wanting to do your best with it. The band — which also includes Kyle Poppen on lead guitar, Aidan Collins on bass and Sam Kellerman on drums — released its self-titled debut in 2011 and has steadily delivered new music every couple years, the most recent being last year’s record “Roll With It.”
With every album, they’ve fine-tuned and ratcheted-down their melody-driven, hook-laden California rock and roll sound, and every year they’ve played more shows than the last. An explosion of fame and adulation off a single is not what Coffis is expecting or necessarily seeking. He has embraced the more organic, GMO-free, grassroots approach of practicing, playing gigs, getting better along the way and seeing what happens. Eight years in, the band is still going strong.
“It turns into this grind. The baseball farm system is a good way to describe it. You have these journeymen baseball players who bounce around and play forever, then they wind up on a major league team. We’re ready to keep doing this. The more that we’ve done it, it’s harder to figure out if there is some sort of place where we catch a break and we’re only doing music and doing nothing else, or if it’s this 10- or 15-year grind where you build an audience. So far we’ve been grinding and playing and having fun. It’s worked,” Coffis said.
As the guitarist noted, the reality of a modern day rock and roll musician is much more subdued and blue-collar than his 13-year-old self would believe. Members hold down multiple jobs; Kellen coaches, Jamie is a part-time radio DJ for KPIG 107.5 FM. Gigs have included benefit concerts for Kellen’s varsity soccer teams and tap-room parties for their friends in Humble Sea Brewing Company. Kellen oversees some of the business side of things and the operation is very much in the vein of do-it-ourselves. As the latest album attests, the band is just rolling with it.
“You can do so many things yourself and that’s cool. You don’t have to have a radio hit to be a working band. You can sell tickets — 200 tickets in 25 cities — and work. You don’t need a whole team of people, just with five people. It’s hard to know if you are doing it right or if it is the best way. The right way for us is just playing and getting better and putting yourself out there,” Coffis said.
Luckily, The Coffis Brothers & The Mountain Men are just the type of band that you want to see get out there. With its 1970s, AOR-inspired sound, the music is primed to roar down the coast of Highway 1 or get lost with in the corkscrew roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is easy to like and breezes through your soul with a timeless familiarity. The most obvious and accurate line to draw would be to the late Tom Petty, who the guitarist acknowledged as a big musical influence on him and the band.
“(Tom Petty’s) songs are instantly memorable and they feel like you’ve heard them before, but they also feel new. To break it down more, melody is the first thing that catches my brother and I’s ears. Usually, it’s going to be some song that’s catchy and melodic, we love melody and harmony. We love guitar solos and short 3-minute songs with a verse and a chorus and I don’t know if there is anyone better than Tom Petty at that. It caught our ears right away and that’s everything we want in a song,” Coffis said.
Instantly memorable, catchy and melodic: those characteristics can also describe the essence of what The Coffis Brothers & The Mountain Men are doing with their music. “Roll With It” is the most accomplished realization of that goal so far. The hook of lead track “You and Me” is as easy and intuitive as a train following its track, while the big guitar and organ washes of “You Ain’t Got the Heart” are as brazen and flirty as peek-a-boo Daisy Dukes, Coors Light and sneaking out together on a summer’s night.
It’s music that is cool while being approachable and fun without being that dangerous, broad yet nuanced musical tones that are not easy to hit. The Coffis Brothers & The Mountain Men are a talented group of songwriters and musicians with the potential to create a dedicated following in the vein of Jackie Greene, Lukas Nelson, Tea Leaf Green or The Mother Hips.
At any rate, Coffis is just pleased to be involved in both music and sports at this point in his life. He’s pursuing the things he wants to pursue during his small amount of time on Earth and in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty special and rare. As long he still wants to come back and play year after year, things are working out just as they should be. Music is certainly everything, but it’s not life.
“Just the other day, we showed up at the guitar player’s house, got together and set up some recording things. We had actually played a little soccer in the morning. Jamie and I just showed everyone new songs, which went back and forth. Sat down for a bit and learned them, got this great view of Santa Cruz we’re looking at. It’s 4 or 5 and we got a beer in our hand, learning new songs, listening back to them. Everyone was feeling good and we were enjoying playing these new songs. That was a great day,” Coffis said.
– Garrett Bethmann
ABOUT Garrett Bethmann
Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. An eight-year resident of Lake Tahoe, he now lives in Denver, Colorado.