An eerie stillness hangs over the St. Edward’s University campus each summer when the hustle and bustle of students disappears. But on a recent Sunday evening, joyous music coming from the heart of campus cut the lingering silence.
A fusion of sounds, from rock to jazz, echoed from the second floor of the Carriage House, the school’s small, historic music building. Inside, among the music stands, guitar cases and a big green chalkboard, the band Brother Muller and His Brothers jammed.
Four of the guys, most in their early 20s, wore T-shirts and shorts, and some even preferred to play barefoot. But behind the keyboard sat a seasoned white-haired musician who opted to play in a button-down shirt and khaki pants. Rocking out in a band that regularly covers Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” was probably the last thing 86-year-old Brother Gerald Muller imagined himself doing.
The recently retired St. Edward’s University music professor and Holy Cross Brother has had a long career in music, including 27 years as a high school band director. Trained as a classical opera singer with a master’s degree in instrumental music, Muller always hated pop and rock music. “I think I stopped with the Beatles,” he says. “I resented rock. I thought it was so simple that a person with a mind shouldn’t be bothered with it. So this was a conversion experience. This is the music of the young, and it should be respected as an art form. If you have ability to play it, then it’s a gift.”
Muller joined the band through a combination of luck, happenstance and musical coincidence.
Brother Muller and His Brothers’ bandleader Pasquale Mattozzi, 22, first met Muller when he took one of his music courses. The two immediately connected. Muller’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude has endeared him to students and faculty for decades. After teaching for 35 years at St. Edward’s, Muller enjoys a sort of campus celebrity status.
One day Mattozzi, who recently graduated, spotted Muller praying near the university’s on-campus apartments.
“Hey, what are you doing, Brother Muller?” Mattozzi remembers asking.
“Oh, praying for your soul,” Muller responded.
Mattozzi was amused and invited Muller to hang out with him and his roommates at his apartment. Muller began visiting regularly after that, and their friendship grew. So when Mattozzi needed a keyboard player, he knew he had already found the right guy. “I didn’t know another piano player, and he has way more experience in music than all of us put together,” says Mattozzi, who now works in sales and marketing.
Muller says he was instantly on board. “As an old person I was thinking, ‘Why would they think that I would fit in?’ But I don’t feel ill at ease with young people or anyone else, so what was the difference? Most old people are considered incapable of relating to the young and wouldn’t even be thought of as a candidate for a keyboardist or (band namesake), so I was very flattered.”
Mattozzi is quick to say, “Brother Muller, you’re cooler than us. We’re trying to keep up with you.”
When Muller joined the band, Mattozzi gave the accomplished musician a keyboard for beginners with keys that would light up when the right chords were played. It was all Mattozzi had for him to play, but Muller says, “It was wonderful.”
With Muller on the team, they went from being an informal jam band to performing for 100 college freshmen during orientation at St. Edward’s practically overnight. Since then, the band has performed around Austin at places like the Red Eyed Fly and on KEYE TV’s Austin Live. Some of the band’s five original members have come and gone, but Muller and vocalist/guitar player Mattozzi keep the band going along with drummer and St. Edward’s senior Joe Valadez, 21, St. Edward’s alum Alex McCormack, 22, who plays baritone saxophone, and Hugh Devore, 23, on bass guitar and vocals.
Muller says the only instrument he never learned to play was the guitar, Mattozzi’s instrument. “I guess he’s the key and I’m the lock” Muller says of the duo. Though Muller often gets the spotlight, it’s Mattozzi, he says, who’s the real leader and the composer of the group. Most of the band’s songs are his compositions, and the budding musician has an innate gift for melodies and storytelling.
During a recent rehearsal at the Carriage House at St. Edward’s, Muller is just one of the guys around his bandmates. They tease, joke and laugh often, and Muller’s no-nonsense attitude shines.
“Are those new strings?” Muller asks Devore after they finish playing a song. “Then why are they out of tune?”
Devore smiles and later says, “He’s like my 86-year-old older brother.”
Mattozzi says Muller’s brutally honest critiques are legendary.
“Are we ever going to end in the same key we started in?” Muller continues during rehearsal. Mattozzi says one of his favorite Mullerisms includes “that sounds stupid.” He turns to Muller and they both laugh. “I try to do it as gently as possible, but I can’t stand dishonesty,” Muller says.
Last year Muller learned he had prostate cancer, which is now in remission. But Muller says he doesn’t like to worry about things like that. “When you’re 86 years old, who cares?” he says with a laugh. Despite his recent retirement after 62 years of teaching, Muller says he will never stop making music. Muller and Mattozzi have dreams of recording an album with Brother Muller and His Brothers.
“I’m very satisfied with everything that’s been accomplished, including being in this wonderful group,” Muller says. “Who could ask for more?”
For upcoming shows, visit the Brother Muller and His Brothers’ Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Brother-Muller-and-His-Brothers/152020761539922.