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Family trio raises a (Malibu) storm

By Greg Milliken, September 2004

It's no wonder that family band Malibu Storm's self-titled debut on Rounder Records defies strict categorization.

According to bassist/vocalist Michael Alden, he and his twin sisters, Dana Burke and Lauren Mills, grew up listening to "everything from top 40 radio to old sea chanteys to Broadway show tunes." He believes that "good music is good music," but quickly adds, "make no mistake, though - we're a country band!"

The album's first single, "Photograph," is the siblings' take on a 1983 hit by British heavy metal rockers Def Leppard. The tune showcases the group's talents and reflects their eclectic tastes.

According to Dana, "Lauren and I had been big fans of Def Leppard when we were kids, and 'Photograph' was just one the random songs we used to jam on. It seemed to lend itself really well to the banjo and fiddle."

That the Def Leppard version was produced by Mutt Lang, who later became Shania Twain's producer and husband, may help explain why the tune blends so well to the trio's country stylings.

Interviewed via telephone from their home near Malibu in southern California, Dana and Michael's excitement over the impending release of the album was apparent and contagious. "It's a dream come true," says Michael.

Dana adds, "We worked a long time for this."

There aren't too many young performers who can make that last statement with a straight face. Dana can.

The children of musical-loving parents - their mother is a Julliard-trained classical pianist - the twins began harmonizing soon after they learned to talk.

"It just came naturally to us," Dana says. She adds, however, that Michael was the real performer in the family. By the time he was three, she says, he was entertaining at family functions with animated renditions of "New York, New York."

The girls' first brush with show business came at age four, when a television talent scout spotted them. The result was a stint as the character of "Heather" on the daytime drama "The Young and The Restless."

Dana explains, "We were the daytime version of the Olsen twins from (the television comedy) 'Full House,' the two of us sharing one role to comply with child labor laws."

The siblings' lives took a defining turn when 10-year-old Dana found an old banjo that her father had played during college.

"I just fell in love with the sound of it," she says, "and started taking lessons at the Picking Parlor in Los Angeles. Mostly, though, I learned from playing in jam sessions around L.A."

The family's weekend automobile trips also gave her time to practice. "One summer my family bought a pass to Disneyland. It took about an hour for us to drive there, and I picked the banjo the whole time," Dana recalls. "My mother says Disney is responsible for my career!"

By her early teens, Dana was winning banjo contests around the country, including one in New York when the 14-year-old topped an otherwise all-adult field. The equally musical Lauren, not wanting to too closely emulate her twin, picked up the fiddle and quickly established her own virtuosity.

The girls began playing together in the mid-1990s; Michael soon joined them on bass guitar, adding his own vocals to the blend.

It was during an appearance in Nevada that the legendary Ralph Stanley first heard the group. "We were in awe of him," says Dana. "One of his entourage walked up and asked if we'd like to meet him. So we go walking into his tour bus - and this is the first time I'd ever been in a tour bus - and he's sitting there drinking a cup of coffee. He looked up and said 'you gonna play something for me?'"

Stanley liked what he heard, and asked the band to join him on stage later that day. It was the first of many appearances with Stanley over the next few years.

Performing on weekends and during vacations during their high school years, the band also caught the attention of Rounder Records owner Ken Irwin.

"We didn't realize it at the time," Dana remembers, "but the label was following us around, from gig to gig, scouting us."

They signed with Rounder in 2002.

When it came time to enter the studio, the band sought out producer Mark Bright, whose work with Rascal Flatts and Jo Dee Messina had earned their admiration. They recorded at Emerald Studios in Nashville, and Bright gave the trio wide leeway in shaping their sound.

"Mark loved our suggestions," says Dana. "He was really on the same page as we were and believed in us." Studio veterans Adam Steffey (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Rob Ickes (Dobro) were on-hand to support the siblings' tight harmonies and instrumentals throughout the 12 selections.

They think their busy schedules and the distance between Nashville and southern California worked to their advantage.

"It took about six months to record the album," Michael recalls. "We were back and forth between Nashville and California, and that gave us a lot of time to re-think and fine-tune it."

The result is an album that is everything they hoped it would be. "We selected most of the songs ourselves," says Michael. "They reflect our broad musical tastes, but all lend themselves to our sound."

The lineup ranges from the introspective "The Bird Song" to Lee Dorsey 1960's pop/R&B classic "Working In A Coal Mine." The band pays homage to its bluegrass roots with Lauren's up-tempo instrumental workout, "Clover" (named after the family cat), and "Old Hickory Lake," which begins and ends with stanzas from the old-time favorite, "The Crawdad Song."

Their delicate version of "Some People's Lives" has earned rave reviews from its author, Janis Ian, and the power ballad "Long Way To Fall" was producer Bright's suggestion. "Light In Your Eyes" showcases Michael's vocal talents, and the girls get country-tough on "Hammer and Nails" and "I'll Be With You."

One of the high points of their blossoming career occurred last March when the video for "Photograph" was taped in and around Hollywood.

"It was surreal, "says Michael. "We taped a segment on St. Patrick's Day, at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, surrounded by tourists who were taking snapshots of us."

Other video locations included the warehouse where parts of the movie "Jurassic Park" were filmed, and, naturally, Malibu Beach.

The subsequent popularity of the video on cable television's CMT and GAC has turned the young performers into celebrities in their hometown and beyond. They're learning to enjoy the attention, and to deal with the occasional barb. "I just read on a website that I'd had plastic surgery!" laughs Dana. "Never happened!"