Sitting opposite a large mural of themselves at Jericho Tavern in Oxford, England, three members of Radiohead watched and listened intently as Other Lives played 45 minutes’ worth of the somber chamber pop that the Stillwater group has spent near a decade refining.
Added Jonathon Mooney, who plays piano, violin, guitar and a host of other instruments in Other Lives’ intricate, baroque arrangements, “Having them in the room is more nerve-wracking than having thousands of people in front of you.”
Radiohead’s members must not have noticed the stress they caused the young Oklahoma band, as shortly thereafter, they asked the quintet to accompany the first leg of their nearly sold-out tour of American arenas. Other Lives are set to open 15 dates through mid-April, from Miami to Mexico City, performing — sure enough — for tens of thousands of people.
“I’ll try to shut that out,” Mooney said. “I’m hoping the lights will make you completely blind to the fact there are that many people in front of you.”
Other Lives’ swift ascent from playing casual, often unpromoted shows in Stillwater to garnering international critical praise for their second album is remarkable for many reasons, mainly that the fast-paced fanfare came at a direct inversion to the steady, meticulous construction of their sound, a process that began in 2004 under the moniker Kunek.
Although not quite as mature as the band wished, 2011’s sophomore disc, “Tamer Animals,” stepped decisively forward, cinematically capturing the Sooner State’s broad landscape with an impressive array of traditional instrumentation played nontraditionally, its poetic lyrics trudging through like a somber traveler.
The classical orchestral influence (Tabish claims minimalist composer Philip Glass as a longtime favorite) comes through on a painstakingly recorded assembly of horns and strings, some of which band members learned how to play specifically for their parts in the songs.
“We didn’t want to just have guitar and cello in the song because people play that instrument,” Mooney said. “We try to challenge ourselves in the instruments we used on the record.”
Added Tabish, “It’s never been about using every instrument you can name. It’s more about exploring possibilities of arrangement and the recording of it.”
While the act’s instrumental palette — broadened by the myriad talents and acumen of fellow members Colby Owens, Josh Onstott and Jenny Hsu — certainly increased from Other Lives’ 2009 eponymous debut to “Tamer Animals,” the ambition of the songwriting was pared down to similarly great effect.
longer burdened by the overreaching political philosophy of earlier
songs like “Paper Cities” and “Don’t Let Them,” “Tamer Animals” became
much truer to the band’s experience, a more articulate expression of the
environment they know.
The end result elicited admiration from critics on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably NPR, which invited the group to appear on public radio’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” after Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne enthusiastically cheered their Sasquatch! Music Festival set last May. A BBC reviewer praised “Tamer Animals” as “the most uniquely sublime, meticulous and heroic 40 minutes” of the year.
Many others agreed, and in a matter of months, Other Lives was playing shows for as many as 800 people in countries they’d never visited before: Iceland, Amsterdam, Belgium. Suddenly, they were no longer a secret outside our borders.
“Tamer Animals” and its subsequent hype earned the band opening slots for NPR mainstays like The National and The Decemberists, a European tour and a string of dates in the U.S. supporting one of 2011’s biggest breakthrough acts, the Grammy-nominated indie folksters Bon Iver.
When they weren’t writing
songs on the road, Other Lives were taking notes. Tabish said that Bon
Iver — whose nine members often trade instruments mid-song, and
particularly its gifted, explosive bass saxophonist, Colin Stetson —
served as a model for sonic expansion.
“Listening to the sound quality alone, we got our heads going, like, ‘OK, how can we improve [our show]? How can we make it more dimensional live?’ To see that and hear it every night, it was really inspiring for us,” Tabish said.
“Right now, we don’t have the budget for some of those things, but at the same time I felt proud of our band for accomplishing a really large sound without monetary success. Seeing that next level of production was something for us to strive for.”
Mooney and Tabish said they’ll be watching with the same open eyes when they hit the road with Radiohead later this month, describing the work of Thom Yorke and his bandmates as a “big, fundamental link” that shaped Other Lives’ now-thorough recording process.
“I’m not the only one in the band to feel this, but [‘Kid A’] was the first record that I was into where the traditional instruments were completely out,” Tabish said. “For somebody like myself — and for the band, who’s always wanted to go there — it was like a light bulb went off: ‘It can be done through recording. It doesn’t have to be sitting around in a room, hashing out a tune.’”
Colour by numbers
Long before Radiohead — much less anybody outside of Stillwater, really — cared about Other Lives, back when they, like transients, haunted various improvised recording spaces around Main Street, another great Oklahoma indie band served as a cheering section at times and a critical ear at others.
“The first time I ever hung out with them, they had a song called ‘Section 2,’ and I said that some of the piano parts sounded like Vanessa Carlton,” said Colourmusic singer and guitarist Ryan Hendrix.
He and Tabish, both stubborn and ambitious in their thoughts about music, are great friends and always have encouraged the very best in each other artistically, occasionally at the cost of bruised egos.
“There was a song on their first record [as Kunek, in 2006] that I criticized really aggressively, and when it came out, I remember [Jesse] didn’t want me to hear it,” Hendrix said. “I probably crossed the line.”
Today, he couldn’t be happier for Other Lives’ success and said he constantly seeks Tabish’s advice as Colourmusic records its third album.
“He has great ideas, and I use them,” Hendrix said.
Mooney, Tabish and Hendrix all agreed that Stillwater’s insular qualities as a city were fundamentally important to the steady pace of Other Lives’ and Colourmusic’s development.
“There wasn’t that rush. We had patience,” Tabish said. “The first five years of our band was just writing music. It’s easy to have integrity when there’s nothing pulling at you. You’re left to your own devices and creation.”
On creating “Tamer Animals,” Mooney said, “We feel like we got somewhat close to accomplishing what we wanted to on this record.” Tabish agreed, describing the disc as being “about 75 percent” of what they hoped it could be.
Although Other Lives have been writing songs on the road and booking space to record demos in their free time, Tabish expects they’ll return to Oklahoma to record their third album, and that they’ll take whatever time the music requires.
“We worked slow and meticulously [on ‘Tamer Animals’],” Mooney said. “I don’t know that that will change much next time.”
Tabish said the tunes they’ve been crafting mirror the transient state of the band’s life on the road.
think because of the fast pace of travel, and the consistency of it,
and the routine of it, there’s a real fluttery, buzzing music I’ve been
writing,” he said. “It’s very fast-paced and it’s very open-ended. I
want this music to feel like it could go anywhere.”
Photos by Darren Ankeman and Jessa Zapor-Gray/Jenny Hsu, respectively