For all musicians, taste begins with smell.
As a child, you sit proximal to whatever is being cooked, and the aroma either allures or repels you. It is entirely invasive, and often what begins in childhood is translated into adulthood. For Kora and Aaron Puckett, taste evolved over time and, as with many of us, branched out in myriad ways, often reflecting the beginnings from which the two brothers sprang.
Goshen is a small, far-northern city at the edge of Indiana (two hours from Chicago), nearly 18 square miles, with approximately 35,000 people. Being from a small town, one is inundated by that specific pull of culture. Regions of America inhabited by Elks Lodges and farms— rural, open areas. Kora and Aaron’s earliest notions of music were songs of worship: Western Christian guitar/ piano music, heavily indebted to early forms of hymns and meant to be performed in churches.
Stylistically, the brothers found their niche in both mainstream and more aggressive forms of music. While Kora leaned toward metal genres, Aaron found appeal in poppier versions of punk. Being three years apart can create an imposing gulch in terms of sound, scenes, and people. Kora, the older of the two, was the champion of taste, introducing Aaron to more subversive bands of the underground. Yet the foundation remains: the Beatles’ 1, a compilation of nearly every hit single by the British quartet, played in the family vehicle—long drives, short drives—in constant circulation.
What we see come to fruition here is the wonderfully strange advent of blood variation. How two brothers close in age became entirely their own personas. Kora stands svelte and tall at 6 foot 2 inches, with a bowl-cut hairstyle and bangs pushed back behind his ears, jeans, sneakers of the times. Aaron is around 5 foot 10 with neon green hair reminiscent of a grunger, and is seemingly carefree until you speak to him about what he loves—songs—and then it’s off and into various tributaries of music.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Aaron: Well, we’re brothers.
Were your parents musical?
Kora: They both played guitar.
Aaron: They were active in the worship band at church. My dad knows all the Christian songs on guitar. He knows a lot of other songs, but I definitely remember him playing all those worship songs.
Kora: I went to bluegrass jams with my dad.
Aaron: Our dad’s the kind of guy who’ll turn any joke into a song. He’ll just be singing something stupid. They both have the creative bone for sure. I just think the paths they chose didn’t necessarily end up being the ones where they got to utilize it. But they put us in a position where we could kind of chase that.
Were you two involved in the church?
Kora: I played in the youth group band.
Aaron: Yeah, I played bass in the youth group band. See, bass in the youth group band, c’mon, there’s only, like, four placements you gotta put your fingers. It’s pretty easy.
How old were you all, though, when you started really picking up instruments?
Kora: Well, our dad took me to see Nickel Creek with Chris Thile, the mandolin player. He’s sick. So I really wanted to play mandolin.
Aaron: Oh yeah, you had a mandolin. That shit s annoying to hear in the other room, though.
Kora: I was beggin' for a mandolin and my dad was like, “I'll buy you a guitar and if you learn to play the guitar, then I'll get you a mandolin.” And so that was why I learned to play guitar, just so I could get a mandolin. But then when I got the mandolin I never learned how to play it, I just kept going with guitar. I guess it was always something I was super interested in, but I played soccer and that was kind of my main thing when I was a kid, up until I was around 14 or something. I think I picked up guitar at 12 or 13.
Aaron: I feel like when you injured yourself you dove into guitar.
Kora: What happened was, yeah, I did get injured. I broke my collarbone and then I didn’t make the high school soccer team.
Aaron: That’s when I remember you with your fuckin’ Line 6 POD, jammin’ every single day. That’s when I feel like you locked in.
Kora: Well, cuz I didn’t have friends yet.
Aaron: They were all playing soccer. [Laughs]
Kora: I wish I could still play piano, man.
Aaron: I mean, it’s just not cool when you’re a little kid. But especially now that I’ve put a focus on production, knowing your way around a piano is invaluable knowledge. So yeah, I started with the keyboard. But then I got into drums after that, just cuz I wanted to be loud and obnoxious.
What were the catalysts for your musical paths? What were some of the bands and genres that got you going in the beginning?
Kora: It all starts with Christian metalcore.
Aaron: Oh, I think we can go a step deeper: Christian rap. Remember? There was some good Christian rap we were into. Pigeon John.
Kora: Damn, yeah, I remember that.
So Christian metalcore kicked things off for you guys, huh?
Kora: Yeah, and then it kinda split off from there.
Aaron: That’s around when you got pretty serious about being in bands.
Kora: I was in some of those metalcore bands.
Aaron: When he played soccer, I wanted to play soccer. It was that big brother/little brother thing. So when he started playing shows, I would sneak out to some of them. And that’s when I was like, “Oh, well, that’s the coolest shit ever.” Y’know, going on stage and playing songs for other people. So I kinda just followed suit and started a band with my friends. I think the first thing we did was learn a Killers song, like, poorly.
And this is when you started branching out into other kinds of music?
Aaron: I definitely went down more of a pop-punk, emo, acoustic, MySpace, Warped Tour path. And they were kind of side-by-side, but he ended up going down a more hardcore path.
Kora: I think the crux of it is, I’ve always been a collector. So when I get into a band, I wanna know all the bands they’re into. And that’s like a never-ending hole you can go down forever, and I’m still going down it. So from metalcore you get to know hardcore and punk, and you just keep going back from there until you’re listening to Bob Dylan. I also think we got to an age where it stopped being cool for him to like the same shit as me. I remember trying to be like, “Get into this metal band,” and you were like, “Fuck that, man, I’m into Green Day.”
Aaron: And then there was also a period where I finally started finding my own music because of the outlet of MySpace. That was the first place I got to find music that wasn’t shown to me, that I didn’t either find in the Christian bookstore or have shown to me by our parents. And that point where I’d be playing stuff and Kora would be like, “Nah, I don’t like that.” So we kind of had our “Okay, I’m gonna chase this thing, you're chasing this thing. ” And that was about the same time you went off to college.
Kora: That’s when I was like, “I’m a punk.”
What were the key records for you guys?
Kora: My first band that I was totally, completely obsessed with was Smashing Pumpkins, probably around 17. Siamese Dreams.
Aaron: You know what’s crazy is, an album I really remember connecting with was a Jonas Brothers record that I was fuckin’ obsessed with for a while.
Kora: Oh yeah, I remember that.
Aaron: Which actually, listening back, sounds really good. I also had an Emery CD that I was obsessed with: The Question. That dude had to be pinching his nose when he sang.
Kora: I always made fun of you for listening to him.
Aaron: But it was good! I remember our cousin had a CD she let me borrow, I got in trouble for it. Was it 21st Century Breakdown? The Green Day album?
Kora: Yeah, I was gonna say Green Day was the first band I remember you being obsessed with that were in the general world of the shit you do now.
Aaron: I mean, I still listen to Green Day all the time.
Kora: Green Day’s good.
You seem to like poppy music.
Aaron: Oh, definitely, yeah, for sure. Gimme the hook. It definitely shines through my music. Oh, you know what album we always agreed on, though? Motion City Soundtrack, Commit This to Memory. That album is fucking fantastic, produced by Mark Hoppus.
Kora: Oh yeah, and he sings on it.
How do you think you all got started in the position you’re in now? What was the breakthrough?
Kora: I was playing guitar in a bunch of different bands in Indiana and touring all the time. I remember the first full U.S. tour I did was just jumping in the van with this band Tenement and this band Big Zit. And I would sometimes play bass in this band called Ooze that was most of Big Zit. That was the first time I did a full U.S. tour that was popping off really cool. But then a few years after that I started playing in Sheer Mag, and that was my first, like, “I have a day rate” gig.
Aaron: That was when I first was like, “Oh shit, Kora’s doing it. He’s goin’ to Japan, playin’ fuckin’ Pitchfork festival. What the fuck?” That was when I, from my point of view, was like, “He has a career in music.” For me, instead of going to college, I just came out to L.A. And there were a couple of years of figuring it out, but that’s kind of when I leaned more into the songwriting and behind-the-scenes part of music. So when I really felt like I had my shit figured out was when I got my publishing deal, which was 2016, probably. And that’s when I started to get booked and busy, made my own money. That’s right around the time I dropped my first project as Lil Aaron called doing Pain$. That’s when I first was like, “Okay, this is my career now.” It already had been my career in my head, but that’s when I realized I had something figured out.
That was when you first started thinking it would all work out?
Aaron: I distinctly remember going from sleeping on couches to paying rent in a house and having a place to lay my head. And then when Kora came through L.A. he and his band could come crash at my house. I knew I had something going, something was working, people were listening. That was right about the same time that I think we both started going from drifting apart to turning towards coming back together.
Kora: Sure. I mean, we always fucked with each other the whole time.
Aaron: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I think that creatively, when I had my own spot and Kora was touring all the time, and he would come through, we would start kicking it and it wouldn’t just be at Christmas or Thanksgiving. We started kicking it again on our own terms. I think that’s when we started remembering more of the crossover parts of our musical tastes. And then I had been trying to get him to move out to L.A. for, like, fuckin’ five years at least before he actually did it.
Kora: I didn’t think I wanted to.
Aaron: I remember we did one Thanksgiving when I first moved here and Kora was like, “I will never live here.” [Laughs] That was seven or eight years ago. That’s the thing about L.A.: There are so many fuckin’ people that if you take your time and find your pocket, you can make it your own place. But it is a scary fuckin' trip when you’re cornin’ in blind.
Aaron: You know what other records I think we kinda got along on? Miguel. We both got along on Miguel.
Kora: Yeah, but I'm not tryin’ to rep Miguel in this magazine interview. [They laugh.]
Do you remember hearing the Rolling Stones for the first time?
Kora: I remember first hearing the Beatles.
Aaron: Our dad had the greatest-hits album.
Kora: Here we go. You’re right. Dad had Beatles’ I on in the car all the time.
Aaron: And every road trip he’s blasting this shit. And that’s some of my earliest memories of hearing a song enough times to be like, “Hey, can you play that song? Can you play ‘Hey Jude’?”
Kora: And that’s a decent example of where we’re both at now, and the crossover between our styles of songwriting.
Aaron: That was some of the only secular music that I had listened to at that time. So I think I was just very stoked to not be hearing Jesus songs.
Kora: It’s pop as hell, but it’s guitars and drums.
Aaron: It’s so fuckin’ good. Some of the best songwriting in the game, bro.
Kora: In the battle of the Beatles vs. Stones, I’m a Faces fan. That’s the right answer.
Aaron, how’d you link up with Travis Barker?
Aaron: I linked up with Travis when I released my song “Drugs.” Because my now good friend John Feldmann hit me up and was like, “Come to the studio.” And he produces for Blink, and he and Travis have worked on hella records together. So I went to the studio and we all kinda hung out, and that’s kinda where it began. And then me and Travis ended up doing a project together; I got him on one of my projects. I ended up writing on a bunch of his projects, wrote a Blink song. I think Travis was just very dialed into what was happening on SoundCloud in 2016/2017, and I think I was pretty early to be doing the pop-punk/trap combination. Everyone was doing some emo trap, but we were actually putting pop-punk drums in there—in 2016. Everyone’s doing it now. But I think he was stoked on something that had a mixture of those programs where real-sounding drums would transition into these trap drums. And then we just ended up working on a bunch of stuff in the studio. Legend.
Okay, Kora, Aaron, here’s a tough one: If you two weren’t related, would you listen to each other’s music?
Kora: That’s a good question. [They laugh.] I think at first I had to learn how to appreciate the style of music that Aaron made. Mostly because I was stuck in this punk-guy, too-cool-for-shit attitude. Now I’m a lot more open-minded, and obviously Aaron is incredibly talented at writing hooks and melodies. And I think anyone could get into the shit that Aaron makes. And obviously, he writes songs for so many different people that anyone can get into it. Everyone does and they just don’t know it. I would like to think that now, yeah, I could just get into it.
Aaron: I definitely would listen to Kora’s music, but that’s because I'm a fuckin’ Deftones fan and I feel like I would have eventually found Narrow Head through that. And now his solo stuff, y’know, it’s just great songwriting, which I’m a big fan of.
And you two have done some projects together, right?
Kora: Aaron sang on a song on the latest Narrow Head record, it’s pretty cool.
Aaron: And we produced the Ethel Cain song “Michelle Pfeiffer” last year. We’ve kind of been finding our stride on working together, which is cool. I think there’s gonna be a lot more stuff that we both touch.
Here’s another tough one: Whose music do you think your folks prefer?
Aaron: There was a funny thing my dad said one time about one of my projects where he was like, “I like the music but just not the words.” [They laugh.]
Kora: I think, on a surface level, especially with my new solo project, which is pretty Americana, folk-influenced—but it’s also just pop—Mom and Dad would hear that on the radio and be like, “Oh, I like this.”
Aaron: I get funny texts from our dad like, “Oh, that song you wrote for Big Boi is on another commercial,” or something like that. He’ll send me a video that’ll be the lowest-quality video you’ve ever seen. I’ll be like, “I can’t even see what this is a video of.”
Kora: Yeah, that Android-to-iPhone video...
Aaron: ...where it comes through and you can’t even make it bigger and it’s so small. But I do think that in the grand scheme of all the music he and I have made, his new solo project is probably the most on par as something our parents would put on. He makes music for old people now. [They laugh.]
Kora: And if there’s any Bugg fans reading the interview, we’re not dead. We’re gonna make another record. I just have to say that, mostly for the haters.