Ugly Brothers’ Ever Growing Family: 16 Tiny Mountains

by Steph Baghai

In the music world, two years can be detrimental to a band's future. Yet, Milwaukee- based Ugly Brothers used that time to develop a solidified foundation and passionate following. Without losing momentum from their first self titled EP release in August 2014, the sextet band kept busy with numerous headlining shows, supporting sets, and local festivals. Their shows draw increasing crowds - and it's not a surprise. Their genuine energy and buoyant stage presence creates a lively, unfiltered experience while their diverse and humble music styles resonates with many.

Over the course of the past few years, the outfit developed strong roots in the Riverwest community - capturing their fans through their animated live sets despite their limited numbered songs. Their relentless efforts paid off. Two years later their first full length album, 16 Tiny Mountains, was released with huge support and fanfare. 

While their stage presence is a good preview of their happy go lucky attitude, sitting down with them - accompanied with some Hamm's and wine-filled mugs - it's clear to see the humbling group prides themselves on creating an honest, transparent front and being a part of the evolving Milwaukee music scene.

The group was originally two self-proclaimed ugly brothers, Alex and Palmer Shah. One afternoon after moving into a new place, the brothers, along with cellist Jenna Peptitone, decided to play on their porch. Drummer Jay Joslyn and violinist Anna Zaleski were walking by and decided to join in. Alex reminisces on the birth, "we were playing one of my sadder songs and the person I wrote about came by the porch with her new partner and they both cried after we played. That’s how I knew I found the right band mates. Then we played for Linnemans for open mic night. That’s when our bassist Alex came up. That put Jay on drums [from bass]. We later found out he didn’t actually see us play, he was just trying to join as many bands as possible".

Fast forward to today and the group's new album is a collaborative effort that challenged the members to, for the first time, work together. Previously, the band would work off the brothers' inspired works, but with time comes practice and the group collectively worked on various pieces to develop the now complete work. Anna, who had previously had no band experience explains, "with this new one, we really got to dive into our own parts and work together. It’s exciting. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do - get the confidence to mess around and create new stuff, mix things around, get to make mistakes, experiment, really. It takes a lot of getting used to – it’s a lot of fun. Especially with your friends."

While the "new" album was released this month, it's been a long time coming and the band has already has more than enough for their sophomore release. But don't expect anything too soon,  Alex used a great metaphor for their evolving dilemma, "we need to spend some time showing off our new album. It's our current baby. We can’t give the new baby all the current baby’s clothes... that probably could’ve came out more fluidly." Their 'current baby' is similar in sound to their EP but what's in store is expected to be different. What they call their "elongated EP" was a year and a half's worth of practice and writing, so as any artist would agree, styles and approaches change. Whatever's in store for the future is still a mystery, but for now, they're having fun watching their baby grow.

Be sure to catch their next show August 28 (6P) at Pere Marquette Park. Until then their debut album, 16 Tiny Mountains, is available now.











Alex: It’s a little bigger in scope and it’s the start of us working together. When we started we had songs already written. This is the first collaborative work. [The previous work] was somewhat collaborative – but [Palmer and I] would  have an idea and ask “can you do this”. And obviously you guys expanded upon anything I thought of.


Alex: Usually Palmer and I have the framework. Palmer usually has his song, he’d spend a year writing his song, it’d be very intricate with very different parts. It jumps around.

Jenna: I think that the new stuff, how we’re working collaboratively, he’ll have an idea for a chorus or string idea/musical idea then we’ll try to play on how we think he’s thinking, so it doesn’t always play out the way maybe he would hope – but he can kick out all the parts that he doesn’t want.

Alex: it’s a happy accident.

Jenna: He'll try to explain it to us, his idea, and then it goes from there when we did Medicine, which is on the album, he didn't have words for most of it, we just kind of wrote the song first and then he put the lyrics for it. We didn’t have lyrics for it for a really long time.

Alex: I think that’s been happening more often than not lately. We’ll have the melody. [Me and Palmer] have been playing together for years but this is the first project I actually wrote songs. I think he definitely pushed me to get outside of my comfort zone and working with these guys, I didn’t think about ‘ok what's the cello, violin, sound, what’re we going to do with that’. So I think I'm definitely focused on all of our pieces and what we can make of it.


Palmer: My favorite show was when [Alex] got food poisoning before a show.

Alex: It was on New Years. I had this shitty lap steel with four strings in Palmer’s trunk where there was this mix of snow and whiskey. The snow froze the whiskey to the lap steel and got all over. So I got food poisoning and we’re playing this show and I was already sick. I went to the bathroom like 9 times and as we’re playing and I’m trying to keep it together for our set. This whiskey is melting all over me and I just smelled this super strong ferment[y] scent. I made it through the whole set though.

Palmer: The minute the shows over he just runs off. Just covered in whiskey.

Alex: We also played the cathedral square farmers market and there was a tent over us and the wind blew the tent clear off of us and we somehow avoided getting hit by it. You can see before and after pictures of it - just going. We finished the song, we didn’t stop, but after I realized the tent hit my guitar and one string went out of tune.

Alex: I think our EP release at Linnemans was probably the most fun show we’ve played. It was just all our favorite people were there it was very emotional.

Jay: I tried to kiss Alex on the cheek and he turned his face and caught half my mouth. It was hard after that.

Jenna: There’s some tension now

Alex: I’m trying to relive it.


Alex: I'd love to start recording the next [record]. Other than that have fun, do our thing.