Pioneering a next-gen sound of their own, playlist-confusing Massachusetts siblings Brevin Kim are the the missing link between hip-hop, rock and pop.
Sticking to black and white is playing it safe: but if you’re looking for Brevin Kim, you’ll always find them in the grey area – and this time, they’re going all in. Brothers Brendan and Callin Paulhus aren’t in the business of making music that sits down politely: turning out tracks at warp-speed with an almost primal compulsion, the duo take a whiplash-inducing approach to genre that leaves them impossible to be defined. Stretching what ‘pop’ means to its logical extremes from distorted, guitar-driven ballads and rap screamed until their throats are raw, down to hyperpop blown out enough to give you a nosebleed, when it comes to Brevin Kim, ‘genre’ just isn’t the word. Their music is like lighter fluid, and Brendan and Callin Paulhus are dousing everything you’ve come to expect.
But before anything else, we’ve got to get one thing out of the way: “What colour is your nail polish right now, Cal?” The youngest of the two brothers holds his hands up to the camera: bright red, the same colour he wears in the music video for their latest single, “NAPLES”. It stands centre-front on its chorus: “Painted my nails ‘cause I hated myself / Tainted my head ‘cause I hate it out west” and has become synonymous with Brevin Kim. It’s the same colour as the red he paints the walls with, which are impaled with nails; the same colour as the blood they cough up on a beach in LA. It looks painful, and that’s because it was: everything had to fall apart so that Brevin Kim could fall together.
“NAPLES” is the story of the before and after. The deterioration of their life on the East Coast meant that in September 2020, the brothers piled into Bren’s car one night, put down money on a four-month lease, and made the 44-hour pilgrimage from their family’s home in Massachusetts to LA. The West Coast was burning, ravaged by forest fires, and the city was still in the grip of COVID-19 – and yet, in a moment of fuck-it nihilism, the brothers gave up everything they knew and put it all on the table for a new beginning.
“It’s called ‘NAPLES’ because my ex-girlfriend and I had been living together in Florida for a couple of years,” Cal explains, “and we took a trip to Naples one night, and when I look back, it was the beginning of the end. It was a reflection on that night, and the result of the breakup is why I moved out here. And you know, when you’re going through shit, you paint your nails, you colour your hair, see people that you don’t have any interest in and do shit just to cope, or whatever. The whole thing with ‘NAPLES’ was the beginning of the end with her, and transitions into how that affects me and how I treat people in LA based off what she did to me. It’s a story of LA and Florida.”
On his wrist Cal wears two beaded bracelets: one spells out ‘NAPLES’ and the other, ‘ANGEL’ - because an angel, he says, is what he can’t claim to be. Both brothers have a shock of platinum hair that makes them look like the direct descendants of Slim Shady (The Marshal Mathers LP was one of their game-changing records). It’s the kind of shade that would need silver shampoo by the gallon. Bren, who is at the helm of Brevin Kim’s production, is the more reserved of the two and measures out his words thoughtfully. “I’m going back to brown”, he says, taking off his hat to show where the dark roots of his hair are coming through (although after our video call, Cal dyes it back to platinum for him on their Instagram story). Cal, on the other hand, shares his observations more readily with a world-weariness that gives his words a certain gravitas. His hair is still a sharp white. “I just wanted to change,” he shrugs. “I felt like I was a real musician, and after that, I just started to change everything. It’s almost like I was starting to become who I wanted to be.”
They call me from their new place in LA, which they moved to a week ago, sharing with fellow East Coast creatives, including trap-pop rapper Rapta, as well as Jake The Shooter and cinematographer Grant Decyk, who were behind the “NAPLES” and “somebody, some body” music videos. “It’s literally the law of LA,” says Cal. “You’ve got to couch surf or live with ten people, or something, and I feel like the people who are willing to do that usually break through.” They are part of a long lineage of artists to do the same, with BROCKHAMPTON and AG Club among them who all crammed into a small house in a ride-or-die bid to get their music off the ground.
While their music champions an almost feral, experimental approach, driven by the simple fact that they do it just because they can, their visuals are becoming heavier with meaning. Any fan of Brevin Kim’s music will no doubt be wondering what the deal is with the blow-up sex dolls that seem to tie the narratives of “somebody, some body” and “NAPLES” together: their plastic, flimsy limbs being dragged from place to place, all surface and no substance. Bren says they were looking for regular mannequins you’d see in a shop front, but after turning up empty-handed, the blow-up dolls were easy to source and became an unintentional theme. “They were supposed to represent LA girls,” Cal explains. “I don’t know, I don’t feel much for them. I’m still just out here with people, numbing the past relationship… that sounds terrible, I know. Nothing feels serious.”
Over the last few years, the brothers have had bitter pills to swallow from financial worries to unravelling relationships – but music has always been a constant in their lives, against all odds. “It sounds cliché, and I know people say it all the time,” Bren tells me, “but music is a kind of therapy. If you make something good, it can change your mood completely.” Cal continues, “There’s a feeling you can’t describe when you make something that you can tell is going to be special. Nothing can make us happier or higher than that. Translating it into great music kind of washes the bad shit away – at least momentarily. You can smoke or have a beer, or whatever, but it means more when you’re working towards building something for yourself.”
There is no drug quite like resonance, and the tracks of Brevin Kim’s that have won the most ears are often their most personal. “NAPLES”, in particular, feels like a defining moment for the brothers. “The more personal something is, the more I want people to hear it,” says Bren. “I don’t know, sometimes it honestly hurts,” shrugs Cal. “Sometimes, if I’m writing my most personal shit, I don’t even want Bren in the room. I’m not going to say everything I mean unless I’m completely alone. When I started writing ‘NAPLES’, I was still really down, but even though it was tough to do, I had shit to say. As artists, we’re lucky that we can bring our problems to a microphone and make a piece of art out of something dark. It leaves you feeling proud.”
Inked onto Cal’s forearm is ‘No <3”, which isn’t the passive aggressive ‘no (heart emoji)’ that it first appears to be. For the more mathematically inclined, it actually reads: ‘No Less Than Three’, the title of their eclectic full-length album released last year. “The whole concept behind No Less Than Three was just that we wanted the audience to be a part of it. They were the third person, so it was never less than a three-person experience,” Cal explains. But the music itself was not tied down to any single idea. Bren says, “It wasn’t supposed to be cohesive, like a normal album. It wasn’t meant to be this grand conceptual project – we just wanted to make good songs.” Cal adds, “It’s honestly not supposed to make sense. We just wanted to show off and prove we had versatility in any genre.”
For Brevin Kim, genre as we’ve come to understand it doesn’t apply; to Cal and Bren, it’s almost antiquated, in fact. They bend their music to their whim, flexing their muscles as vocalists and producers just because they feel like it. Listening to Brevin Kim is a lucky dip, one moment pulling out stomach-in-throat drops and snarling hyperpop beats, the next, honeysweet, radio-friendly melodies and glacial ballads. No Less Than Three has it all. They even enlisted producer Dylan Brady, pop’s appointed antichrist and co-conspirator of hyperpop duo 100 gecs for a handful of tracks on the record, including “ICE CREAM TRUCK” and “The Wedding!”. Cal says, “Dylan is such a good producer that if Laura [Les, of 100 gecs] sends him something, she could probably record it in, like, a toaster and it would sound beautiful.”
The only thing that ties each sonic world together is their love of autotune, a tool not without its controversy. Bren says, “Everyone uses it – even the people you don’t think are using it are definitely using it.” Cal insists, “Yeah, autotune haters are Republicans. It’s an instrument like any other. To me, some songs sound better with it. But we’ve learned to dial it back if it’s a really sad, personal song. Part of me does think that it takes away, sometimes, from what the listener will feel. But obviously, we love autotune. People who think, like, if you have autotune than anyone can make a song, then I invite you to try it – give it your best shot. It’s not like it saves the day. You still have to be able to stay in key; you have to come up with great melodies. It’s way more than that. It’s not a saviour, you know?”
So, what does each of them bring to the table? “Well, he don’t bring much!” Cal laughs. “I think the dynamic, at least on the production side, is that I’m always right on his back telling him my ideas. Sometimes it’s weird how similar our tastes are. He’s much quicker than I am, as a producer, but vocally, it’s pretty even.” Bren adds, “Our tastes are so similar it’s like we’re the same person. It’s not like Cal brings something that I can’t, or I bring something that he can’t – it’s really the same thing. There’s just two of us.” Cal jokes, “Brevin Kim is one. Write that down.”
No Less Than Three was recorded online, in a kind of suspended, cross-state reality. The music videos for their earliest work has a DIY, patchwork quality to it: layers of FaceTime calls creating the feeling of songs they wrote together, but apart. While Cal was in Florida starting a job in business management, Bren was in Boston working with their dad on floor tiling and scraping together cash from working at a pizza joint. “We were just doing our plan B until this kind of started to work,” says Cal. Between Boston, Florida and LA, the record was torn between three states. “It was tough,” Bren admits. “It was. I mean, we didn’t quit – obviously we didn’t. But you can feel it, creatively, when you’re not together. But we would do Zoom calls and share our screens, and just go through every song together.”
Every few months, they’d go on trips between the three places just to get in the same room. Cal says, “There were some things I wasn’t able to do alone in Florida, or vice versa, and we had to cram that into two weeks because we knew we wouldn’t be seeing each other for another few months. It’s just frustrating when you have to FaceTime and like, you can’t… well, it’s a different experience – but we made it work. I recorded “Car” on my Apple earphones. We just found weird ways to make shit work.” Extreme circumstances always breed interesting results, after all. He continues, “I think travelling back and forth actually created song ideas, you know. Like recording in Florida, you come up with different material than if you were recording in Boston; if you’re looking at the beach, as opposed to looking at a dead tree…” – “Or the back of your closet,” Bren jokes. “Like This” arguably one of Brevin Kim’s most pop-orientated songs, was a product of the Floridian horizons – something which, when they think about it, makes sense.
When they piled into Bren’s car the night they dropped everything for LA, powering through delirious hours and staying at dubious hotels, the brothers were unsure if they had make the right decision. “I hated the road trip,” Cal confesses. “We were rushing to get there. We were just getting through 10-hour, sometimes 13-hour days, staying at shitty places and random estates – it was just depressing.” Bren adds, “Looking back, it was happy, but in the moment, we were hating it. I didn’t even want to go, I had to get talked into it because my girlfriend was back home – but here I am.”
But now, there is no regret. “I’m not getting younger,” says Bren, “so a lot of this shit just wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” Cal insists, “I don’t regret it at all. “NAPLES” would never have happened; all this new stuff would never have happened. Half of these 300 demos we’ve got in the vault just wouldn’t exist. I used to think music was like a get-money-quick scheme, but it’s so hard to see profit. Obviously, there are still doubts, but not in our music – it’s in everything else that comes with it. But somehow, we always figure it out. We can’t quit because something always reminds us why we got this far, why we’re still here and allows us to keep surviving.”
LA is an entirely different set of circumstances, though: a game of chance for hell or glory, where the have and the have-nots live side by side. “It’s a love-hate relationship anywhere,” Cal says, “but it feels more real out here to create. Even if it’s just an illusion, you feel like you have a better chance of making it out here. But you can sense the bad people. Whatever you’re picturing in your head, that’s who we’ve met – just the typical people who step on you like an ant, and see you as a bum, or whatever, if you’re not on their level. There’s plenty of that out there. But on the flip side, there’s a lot of good people and a lot of the songs we’ve made wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t here.”
To the untrained eye it may seem like Brevin Kim stumbled onto the scene with an album they effortlessly pulled together, but this is far from the beginning of their careers. “We’ve been through five microphones and a bunch of shitty projects you’ve never heard of,” says Cal. “People just don’t recognise you until everyone does.” The brothers had always been making music running parallel to one another, rather than creating together. Cal has been penning lyrics since the age of nine, later going by the name Brevin Kim, a fusion of their own names as well as their parents (Kevin and Kim), as a one-man act. But once Bren cut his teeth as a guitarist, they realised they were stronger together, regenerating their sound with each project from the venom-spitting raps on SoundCloud project Somewhere Between Having Fun and Dying, and their vulnerable, piano-driven mixtape, Happy Tears.
I talk to Brevin Kim just as they’ve gone into “album mode” once again: “This new stuff we have coming through is our best shit ever,” Bren says. “We could probably drop an album today if we wanted to.” The music to come is going to be far more cohesive and considered as the brothers’ lives have finally converged. “It’ll all make sense, soon,” Cal promises. “It’s pushing boundaries in a cleaner way. I think we’re gonna put a country song on the project, so we’re trying to test ourselves. It feels like a level up from No Less Than Three.”
Cal asks with pretend nonchalance, “So… have you got any questions for us about 7-Eleven?” Any follower of Brevin Kim’s knows that it’s a running joke to switch up their name (‘Kevin Brim’ is their account name, at the moment), but after a fan captioned a picture of the store as ‘Brevin Eleven’, the brothers took it and ran with it. “We’ve been bugging 7-Eleven trying to somehow collab with them ever since!” Cal laughs. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but whatever: we’re doing a live “NAPLES” set at 7-Eleven.” Bren shrugs, “I think we’re hopping a fence to get in there.” Cal adds, “Yeah, apparently it’s, like, really eerie there at night and some of the lights don’t work, and I just love that. Maybe we’ll preview the next single in the last seven seconds of the live set…”
They fizz with phone-dropping excitement at the mention of their new single, “YOU.F.O”. Working with guitarist and producer Jake Monk, their intention was to make an acoustic, no-drums ballad. “He laid down the guitar for ‘YOU.F.O’ and then me and Cal took it home the next day and we just, like, totally destroyed it,” Bren laughs. “It’s not a ballad anymore. It might sound like it would be within the first 30 seconds, but then it starts going crazy. We just can’t seem to do it: every time we try to make a ballad we end up throwing some 808s in there.”
Taking a stab at the rules and daring to give the knife one last twist is a risk Brevin Kim are willing to take. “I feel like we’ve been pioneering out own sound for, like, four years now, so I do hope that we can break into the mainstream with something that wasn’t palatable two years ago and be a driving force behind it being finally accepted. There’s so much good music out there that’s deeper than what I hear on the radio. We would love to be those revolutionaries,” says Cal, “but I guess that’s up to the people.”