‘He’s staring into my soul’: how Phil Collins made teenagers YouTube stars | Music


Rock’n’roll stars have for years paid tribute to black musicians who crafted the form; now Tim Williams and his twin brother, Fred – fans of hip-hop and steeped in gospel music by exposure – are returning the compliment to a generation of old rockers who have mostly faded out of the top 40.

The 21-year-old Williams brothers launched their video-reaction YouTube channel First Time Hearing: TwinsthenewTrend a year ago.

But it was only in late July that the brothers posted a clip of themselves listening intently to Phil Collins’s 1981 hit In the Air Tonight.

“He looks like he’s staring into my soul,” Fred says, examining the album cover of Face Value in their bedroom in Gary, Indiana. “I’m scared – I can’t look at him.”

The brothers sit amiably through the atmospheric first few minutes, but when the drums come in they light up, mimicking Collins’s classic fill.

“Let’s wake ’em up,” says Tim. “I ain’t never seen nobody drop a beat three minutes in a song,” Fred chimed in. “He killed it! That’s unique.”

The clip boosted the twins’ channel subscriptions from around 90,000 to more than 550,000.

Days after the video launched, 4,600 digital copies of the song were sold, compared with a few hundred the previous weekend, according to Rolling Stone. Collins’s 39-year-old hit went to No 1 on college radio.

“We really try to give a genuine reaction like we were off-camera,” Fred Williams tells the Observer. “It’s been crazy that people really love what we do.”

According to Billboard, music labels have seen a rise in people listening to classic songs during the pandemic, which Bruce Resnikoff, the president of Universal Music, home to Collins’s EMI, explains as people seeking “familiarity and comfort” and “a sense of safety in what you know and were raised on”.

Now the Williams brothers, raised on Twista and Lil Wayne, have put their own twist on that.

“There’s no computer or autotune,” marvels Fred. “They just focus on voices, beats and instruments. It’s just interesting how they can make a song like that.”

The brothers came up with the idea to broaden their music knowledge while Fred studied at Indiana State University. They set up a studio where they listen to classic songs they’ve never heard and then invite subscribers to suggest new tracks.

“I got a whole bunch of varieties on my playlist now. I used to listen to all rap, now I’ve got rock, old music, 80s. I’d hear songs but I had no idea who made it.”

The first, when they had around 200 subscribers, was Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin. “Everything about that was cool,” Fred says. “I guess I’ve been most surprised by rock, which I never listened to growing up. It’s good, and I thought rock was bad.”

Genre-liberation, he says, doesn’t always go down well. “Our friends say, ‘Hey, you don’t really like that song.’ But I’m just trying to be different and break out of my genre or my race kind of music. Through different music, we learn a lot about different cultures.”

Dolly Parton’s tweet of the Williams twins’ reaction to hit song Jolene has been viewed more than 2 million times.
Dolly Parton’s tweet of the Williams twins’ reaction to hit song Jolene has been viewed more than 2 million times. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

No song fares badly under the brothers’ commentary but some fare better than others. Theirs is not a critics’ forum; rather they seek to appreciate craft.

Still, Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl briefly loses them, while they are captivated by Prince’s show-stealing solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps on an awards show tribute to George Harrison. Listening to Gimme Shelter, Fred remarks that it “sounds like a roadtrip” in a movie, though concedes he thought the Rolling Stones was a clothes brand. Others include Outkast’s Hey Ya! and Ms Jackson, and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Among their fans is Dolly Parton, who tweeted out their reaction video to Jolene, now viewed more than 2 million times. “No point in begging,” she wrote. “Jolene already stole these two.”

Annie Lennox, too, offered her appreciation for the brother’s attention to the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams.

“It’s amazing from my perspective, watching these two incredible young guys picking up on Sweet Dreams – recorded in ’83. That’s where the true power of music lies… A bridge to the soul and intellect!” Lennox tweeted.

The brothers have explained that music was an escape during a difficult period when family members struggled with drug addiction and their mother served time in prison. Fred sang in a choir and plays drums in a gospel church. “All I knew was music,” Fred says, adding that playing drums enabled him to fully appreciate the Collins beat-drop.

“I play drums so I know how hard it is. It’s a hard job.”

But they’re less likely to be drawn to current hits, including the outrageous Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion monster hit WAP. “We’re more into promoting positivity. We don’t normally listen to stuff like that. It’s a crazy song. I just know that everyone is talking about it.”

Where this all goes next for the brothers is open to question. Fred is still working at his day job as a barber, but they’re already selling merchandise, including a hoodie that sells online for $47.99, and YouTube streaming fees – less copyright claims – are beginning to dribble in.

“We just want to get bigger, spread our name, show the younger generation there’s more to it than Cardi B. They probably think we’re weird. But we want to give people joy and to appreciate what came before.”





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