In 2009 Other Lives released their self-titled debut album on TBD records. From the opening track, the modestly titled “E Minor,” it was clear that this wasn’t just another indie-rock-folk record. Each song was not only immediately engaging, they had also been carefully arranged around the band's array of acoustic instruments without sacrificing tone or tempo. Given the melodic nature of their sound, they have been favorably (and somewhat reductively) compared to bands like Coldplay and early Radiohead. In the end, however, they're not the kind of band you can pigeonhole. The best description is to say that they defy description or at least put up a noble resistance. What I love about Other Lives is the same thing I love about bands like The Murder City Devils and Outkast. While they may approach you with punk intensities or hip hop sensibilities, their sound is all pastiche. If Dead Can Dance can make extinct music lively again, Other Lives reminds us that good music can outrun its mortality and that even in an age where we think we'd heard it all, there are still sonic moments we haven't experienced, other spaces we've yet to crawl into.
Hailing from Stillwater, OK, Other Lives consists of Jesse Tabish (lead vocals, piano, guitar, harmonium, organ, vibes, electric harpsichord), Josh Onstott (bass, melotron, backing vocals), Jonathon Mooney (piano, violin, organ, vibes, electric harpsichord), Jenny Hsu (cello, backing vocals) and Colby Owens (drums, lap steel). Originally formed under the name Kunek–an avant-garde instrumental band–the current lineup has been playing music together for seven years. I sat down with Tabish, Onstott, and Mooney at the Dust Bowl Arts Market in Norman, OK and talked with them about their influences, their progression as a band, and their upcoming sophomore album, which they self-produced and self-engineered.
The Fiddleback: Would you say the new album is more orchestral than the last? From the tracks I've heard, there's this sweeping epic quality that's pleasantly unexpected. It kind of reminds me of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain on account of the castanets and horn arrangements. That and the songs feel very focused and centered around a theme.
Jessie Tabish: Yeah, in some ways it’s more orchestral. I mean, the trick to the record is that there are a lot of different types of songs and approaches on it rather than one orchestral sound or this or that or folk.
The Fiddleback: One thing I loved about the last album and the band in general is that you defy easy labels. One description I’ve come up with is that your music is sort of a contemporary revamping of chamber music in the sense that chamber music started as the “music of friends” that would be played in a living room or chamber, but it also had a melodic or orchestral base. Big sounds in a small room. To me your music is sort of folk, sort of…
JO: Chamber folk.
The Fiddleback: Post-chamber folk.
Jonathon Mooney: Prog.
JO: I’m so scared of that word, Prog.
The Fiddleback: But I’m curious to know if the sound evolved naturally because of your individual backgrounds or if it was more of a conscious decision to try and do something different. I guess the basic question I’m after is how did the sound evolve?
JT: I think we’ve been at this for a while and there’s a little bit of stumbling into things. There’s surprises. But there are also preconceived ideas–I want to do this and try to execute this–so it’s a bit of a combination of that and then just the idea of going from a really functional band that’s playing their instruments to asking, "What do we want to say here? What do we want to do?" We’re not rehearsing or playing like a proper band. We’re recording and deciding, yes, we want to bring in seven violins here. We’re not limited to what we can do; we’re writing music on tape.
JO: We’re writing more to the sound instead of simply going “Alright, plug ‘em in, boys. Let’s fire it up!”
JM: Think of it as changing the medium. We’ve adhered to less and less of the typical band format. We’ve learned to put down our instruments and say that just because I play this instrument doesn’t mean it belongs in the song. So we completely throw ourselves out of it and sometimes have completely written ourselves out of a lot of these songs.
JO: Which is going to be fun to figure out how to play live.
JM: Yeah, in some ways it’s not very practical.
The Fiddleback: Most good records aren’t practical. The really great records, the ones you put on as an event itself always sound like they’d be difficult to replicate live because they’ll be something like 57 overdubs on one guitar part alone.
JO: We’ll, there’s such a format with songwriting that people try to stick to.
JT: And it makes sense why people stick to the format–it’s practical, it’s realistic, it’s functional. And no disrespect; some of my favorite bands are very practical in their approach. There’s nothing better sometimes than seeing a four-piece band that’s super-together and you can tell they’re writing songs in the room together, and that’s great. But for us we’re not there at this point, and we don’t want to approach it that way.
The Fiddleback: Individually, are your tastes in music the same or is everyone coming from a different background with what you listen to outside of rehearsing and writing in the studio?
JT: I don’t know. There are definitely some fundamentals we share.
The Fiddleback: Like your Lenoard Cohen cover [“The Partisan”]. Is everyone a Cohen fan?
The Fiddleback: I actually like your cover better than the original by the way. I kind of feel bad for the guy because that’s pretty much the case with every Leonard Cohen cover I hear.
JT: That’s nice, but I disagree with you. I think we’re lucky to do even a little bit of justice to it because it such a fabulous song.
The Fiddleback: So, talk more about the new record. What are you excited about? How’s it different from the last one?
Well, with the last record the songs were written over a period of two years and they were really labored over—for better or worse—I mean, we love the record, we’re proud of it, but it was recorded it in such a short time, about four to five weeks. But this go-around’s a little different because we’ve been recording as we’ve been writing. One day I write a new tune and the next we record it. The songs exist more in the moment.
JO: I think the last year has been a great learning experience for all of us because we’ve taken the time to step back and dissect what we’re doing and spend the appropriate amount of time with the material. It’s really a pleasure to work with everybody on that level, and I think we have more fun, too.
JM: It’s also the way we’ve adapted to this new medium we’re using. Given the amount of instruments we play, if we want to try out a song or idea we have to either A) get a whole chamber orchestra together or B) record it one instrument at a time. So it’s kind of a necessity to record in layers until we actually have the finished product we want.
JT: Well, with the last record the songs were written over a period of two years and they were really labored over—for better or worse—I mean, we love the record, we’re proud of it, but it was recorded it in such a short time, about four to five weeks. But this go-around’s a little different because we’ve been recording as we’ve been writing. One day I write a new tune and the next we record it. The songs exist more in the moment.
The Fiddleback: Has self-recording and self-producing been a fun challenge or a headache? Or both?
JM: More fun than headache. We love working around all the vintage equipment and vintage mics in the studio–stuff you can’t really find anywhere else.
JO: We’re paying more attention sound–getting the right sounds for the record–than, say, chord structure.
The Fiddleback: I love that as far as Oklahoma bands go, you offer something in-between art-rock bands like The Flaming Lips and talentless pop acts like The All-American Rejects. Do you see yourselves as an Oklahoma band? Do feel that you offer something new to the state?
JT: As far as the state goes, it doesn’t really matter to me. We might as well be from Omaha, Nebraska. I love Oklahoma, but it’s not about what we give to Oklahoma so much as what Oklahoma gives to us. It gives us time and space and landscape. I want healthy music communities, but I think we take more from the state than what we consciously give back.
JM: We definitely consider ourselves to be an Oklahoma band, and we’re really proud of where were from. We respect a lot of musicians here. Colourmusic has a studio next to us and we respect them so much. Their new record is unbelievable even though their music is different from our own.
JT: We’ve been to L.A. and New York, met bands and scenes and all that. And the people and musicians in Oklahoma are my favorite.
The Fiddleback: I think if anything it’s that we still have that down-to-earth factor. It still pretty true compared to a place like L.A. where everything’s a scene.
JT: It’s a race, and there’s no race here.
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