All of Fuzz Steilacoom’sbest qualities are revealed in “Alabama Movies” and “A Little Late,” the opening and closing tracks of the Oklahoma City duo’s third full-length. The relationship between them unveils the worst.
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.
“Let’s just say we kept our shit together,” singer Jesse Tabish said of performing for Radiohead, in the very pub that hosted the Grammy-winning alt-rock giants’ first conventional performance in 1986.
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.
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
unleashed 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 matureas 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.
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.
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.”
Tabish, “It’s never been about using every instrument you can name.
It’s more about exploring possibilities of arrangement and the recording
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.
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.
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.
Better lives “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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
Tabish and Hendrix all agreed that Stillwater’s insular qualities as a
city were fundamentally important to the steady pace of Other Lives’ and
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
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
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