Interview: O’Brother

O'Brother

O’Brother has never been an easy band to pin down. I’ll leave it to them, as they explain it best: they’re a “borderline metal band that’s heavily influenced by Radiohead and Sigur Ros”. Their debut album, 2011’s Garden Window embraced chaos and mystique, featured vocals from Andy Hull (Manchester Orchestra) and introduced the band’s experimental nature. O’Brother quickly amassed a loyal following through clever, brilliant music and non-stop touring. Disillusion (2013), their sophomore effort, expanded on the post-metal influence the band only teased beforehand. In 2016, O’Brother released one of the best albums of the year in Endless Light.

Last week, O’Brother put up their new album, You and I on Bandcamp for a pay-what-you-want price. On April 7 2020, first single “Killing Spree” was unveiled to the world, following a few days of teasing online. Where Endless Light touched the surface of using space as an instrument, their fourth album, You and I revels in ambience. Guitarists Jordan McGhin and Johnny Dang go back and forth between classical guitars and staring at the computer. Anton Dang still plays the bass guitar, of course. Michael Martens hardly plays the drums. In the meantime, vocalist Tanner Merritt reaches for the piano. I caught up with O’Brother this week from their respective homes over a surprisingly non-lagging Zoom call. Martens chatted from his living room, McGhin from his bedroom, Anton Dang from his porch, and Johnny Dang and Merritt from their offices/home studios.

I feel very lucky to be talking to you after the weekend that O’Brother just had — #1 vinyl sales on Bandcamp, #2 overall sales on Bandcamp and 2 pressings sold out in just over 24 hours. An independent band selling 1,000 records in that time is a big deal. And now, you’ve had to announce the third pressing! Let me into how you were all feeling over the weekend.

Michael Martens: I mean, that’s pretty much the conversation we’ve been having all weekend. Not just in the sense of an independent band, but more for us. Like, it was a win for us, for the five of us, our families, and anyone who put time into it. The entire weekend was like, “what!?” It just exceeded every expectation. We’re having a really good time.

Anton Dang: It was very hard to believe. Because, especially on that Friday, every other band is promoting their stuff, people are buying other band’s stuff and for us to make it into the top 10 or top 20 is insane to us. That’s never happened to our band before. It’s a very proud moment but also very surreal and new for us.

Johnny Dang: Yeah. I’ve been in shock since Friday, trying to wrap my head around the love and support people are showing us. It’s been a cool few days.

Jordan McGhin: Yeah, very thankful.

Tanner Meritt: Pretty awesome, yeah. I don’t know what to say about it. I think we’re all a bit dumbfounded by the whole thing.

What went into the decision to continue as an unsigned band?

McGhin: We didn’t talk about it a lot. But I think it was just sort of… the want was there. We wanted it for whatever reason, and therefore it keeps making you write, and bounce ideas off each other. I still want to do it.

Martens: For a while there, we were looking at some sort of partnership with the label and we just, kind of pulled away from that for what appeared to be the right reasons. We’ve always been a very involved band, we take pride in writing notes to people who order merch, and keeping as many options as in-house as possible.

Anton Dang: It’s kind of hard to have that direct fan interaction. At least, with us, with the last couple of albums we’ve done, it always goes through a different merch store through the label. So, we weren’t sure what was coming in. But, this time around, we saw every order come in, we saw every note that everyone left us when they purchased something on Bandcamp, and it just feels a lot better to directly connect with people that love and support your music.

Martens: You also have your finger on a more accurate pulse. Like, you know exactly what’s going on, instead of sitting around to wait for an email or call at the end of the day with your label-dude saying something like, “here’s our projected first-day sales.” We see everything as it comes in. We can make decisions around that.

Johnny Dang: We’re bypassing the middleman, even though I think we needed that middleman for a long time. We all felt pretty comfortable in this position where we’re able to release music ourselves and have somewhat of a fanbase to help and that care about our music. That’s most important.

You’re a band that experiments with a wide variety of genres, which I love. What inspired the direction towards spacious, electronic, classical guitar and piano-led music on You and I?

Merritt: I think we’ve been into it for a long time. Usually, when we would write records, it would be all in a room together, all playing the instruments that we play live. And with this one, sending ideas back and forth when things started, we were picking up the instruments we wanted to play at the time and not whatever instrument we were supposed to play just because we play that in a live situation.

Anton Dang: There’s more ambient influence. It came out a bit better this time around because we weren’t all just on full blast, full distortion while writing a song. We’re all just building on top of different ideas and structures and I think because we did it this way, the influences got to shine a bit better.

McGhin: In a lot of ways, we got to be more natural. With me at home, when I’m writing, it’s just me with a classical guitar. So, this time around, it just followed that pattern, if you will. I think it was a little easier and more natural doing it like that. It was probably my favourite time recording.

Merritt: Yeah, I hardly picked up a guitar while writing this record.

Martens: I hardly played the drums until about 8 months into the writing process [laughs].

Johnny Dang: We didn’t have full volume amps and whatnot. We were writing in front of a computer. When we were going about songwriting, we were trying to fill in space without the electric guitar. We had more space to incorporate all of those elements that you mentioned. I think it worked out pretty nicely [laughs].

You worked with Andy Hull and Robert McDowell again for You and I, was the recording process this time around any different? There were obvious changes with Manchester Orchestra touring, but did anything else feel different this time?   

Merritt: Robert [McDowell] had a bigger role in an official capacity than he had on the last one. He was running a lot of the sessions. [It was] One of the better producer moments that I’ve ever had. I like working with him. He gets good takes, he’s very encouraging. That was fun for us.

Anton Dang: He knows his way around all of the synths we had in the studio. We had six to eight different ones, and they’re all very hard to work if you don’t know what you’re doing [laughs]. He helped us out.

Martens: Something sort of related that helped in the recording process was being at Big Trouble, the studio we were at. It’s here in Atlanta, in this place called Little Five Points that is centrally located to most of us. The record was also mixed there, so it was the first time we were able to sit in on mixing and let [engineer and mixer] TJ [Thunder] work for half a day, stop in on the way home from work and make some notes. So, we got to results much quicker, people got to stop for an hour or two hours while somebody else was tracking. Being that close to our homes made it incredibly convenient.

You also brought in some guest vocalists, Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro and Jesse Coppenbarger from Colour Revolt. Tell me more about those collaborations!

Anton Dang: I don’t remember how Jesse from Colour Revolt came about, but we had two or three [vocalists] in mind to see if they wanted to collaborate with us. He was one of the first people we thought of. Simply because we love Colour Revolt, his voice and his vocal melodies.

Merritt: He has one of my favorite voices.

Anton Dang: Yeah, they’re one of our favorite bands of all time.

Merritt: I think it came up because while we were recording, he was working on a new solo album as El Obo and sent it over to Andy while we were doing vocals. We were listening to some of it and it’s amazing. So, we ended up talking about reaching out to him to see if he wanted to sing on one of the songs.

Martens: Yeah, and then Tim [Very] from Manchester [Orchestra], my brother and another guy were heading down there to record a string ensemble with El Obo. They worked for another couple of hours and he laid down a bunch of stuff. We just brought it home without a real idea about what we’d do with it, we just said, “Hey, here’s the song, do whatever you feel like with it.” It’s kind of the same thing with Simon, too. He just took it and sang the entire song, played some guitar on it, offered some parts and we worked and chucked what didn’t.

And to think that “Halogen Eye” almost didn’t make it! 

Martens: It did a complete 360-degree turn.

Merritt: It floated around in purgatory for about a year.

Johnny Dang: We were tossing up between that and You and I for the album title. We decided on You and I instead.

Who is You and I?

Merritt: It’s represented differently in every song. But it was a theme that kept coming up, whether it be inner connectivity between each of us individually or interpersonal relationships. It was a concept that we kept returning to.

Am I correct in assuming that You and I might be the most personal O’Brother album to date? Not only are lifelong influences represented, but I feel like the lyrics are less opaque than ever. Who or what has guided O’Brother in the last few years?   

Merritt: Maybe it’s that as I’m getting older, I’m more okay with sharing personal things. I’ve always been an intentionally vague writer. I think there’s a reason for that: a specific amount of vagueness leaves enough room for interpretation to the listener so that they can connect in a way that’s entirely different than what it means to me. I love that aspect of songwriting. I like to maintain a bit of that, but I guess that in recent years, I am a bit more comfortable with writing about interpersonal relationships and stuff.

“What We’ve Lost” is suitably apocalyptic, what in particular inspired that song? 

Merritt: Alzheimer’s. That one and Black Hole from the last record [Endless Light] are both about my dad who has Alzheimer’s. Those are both very personal songs about coming to terms with that.

That’s very heavy. Thank you for talking about it in your music. A lot of us would know someone with Alzheimer’s and it’s not easy to talk about, let alone deal with.

Merritt: I know a ton of people that have dealt with similar circumstances. Hopefully, someone can identify with that and take it with them.

I see that you love Portishead and label yourselves a “borderline metal band that’s heavily influenced by Radiohead and Sigur Ros”. I heard your cover of “Silence” by Portishead recently and am very impressed — Third is one of my favorite albums of all time. Will an O’Brother cover of “The Rip” see the light of day? I’d buy it.

Anton Dang: Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for a long time, doing more Portishead covers.

Martens: We do have one more tucked away, that was supposed to be released with that other cover, but we were like, “We’ll just deal with this on Monday” and just walked away from it [laughs].

McGhin: Was it “Threads”? Was that the one?

Merritt: Yeah, needed some tweaking.

Portishead is such a hard band to cover. I wouldn’t dream of covering them!

Merritt: Yeah, they are a hard band to cover. I don’t think we realised how difficult it would be until we started doing it. There’s a lot of weird nuances that you don’t initially pick up on.

Anton Dang: They do a lot of weird things that sound wrong to you. You’re learning it and thinking, “that’s not right.” But that’s how they did it, so…

Merritt: Also, Beth’s melodies are impossible to sing. Only she can do it. Nothing is technically dead-on at all. It’s really hard.

Johnny Dang: One of my favorite things about Portishead is whether it’s one thing or two things in a song, it’s minimal. All of it is very dissonant in a way that doesn’t sound right, but it works perfectly for that band.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life is upside down for everyone. We have no idea what the new normal will look like. How are things in Atlanta, and what do you envision for the future of live music?

Martens: If it’s any sign of how Atlantans are acting right now, I’d say we will never step foot in a live music venue again.

Anton Dang: It’s pretty awful. We had a pretty nice weekend, and all of our parks and trails were just jam-packed. And now, because our Governor is loosening the lockdown, people are just out and about without wearing masks. My wife works in the medical field and this is something that should be taken seriously. Just because the Governor says it’s cool for you to go out, eat at a restaurant or go bowling or something, does not mean you’re not going to get sick. It’s pretty scary and I don’t think touring and live music will be a thing for close to a year or longer.

Merritt: I think that the upside is that a lot of other artists and bands coming up with some pretty creative ways of scratching that itch or filling the void that touring has left in all of our lives. So, that’s pretty interesting to see.

What keeps O’Brother sane during the lockdown?

Anton Dang: Focusing on rolling this record out has honestly been like a full-time job over the last three weeks. I’m very thankful that we had something to focus on, otherwise, you know, everything in my house is already clean [laughs].

Merritt: Good for you, man [laughs]. I feel like I’ve done a lot of cleaning, but I’m also here all the time wrecking everything. It’s just counterproductive.

Anton Dang: It’s just nice to have something to focus on, honestly.

Johnny Dang: I have a one-year-old daughter. That’s been keeping my life sane, but also making me insane at the same time. That’s keeping me very, very occupied during the lockdown, which is a blessing. So, my house is not clean at all.

Martens: Yeah, now we have to fulfil all these orders. I’m jazzed. Give me more work to do!

Johnny Dang: It’s going to be tricky because we were thinking about possibly renting a storage unit to store all this merch and have some sort of assembly line of packaging all the orders to ship.

Martens: It’ll be hard to navigate now. When we re-pressed The Death of Day, we got together for two days and just knocked it out. At this point, even with gloves and masks on, it could only be two people working within that area at a time.

Merritt: I didn’t even think about that until just now. What if we take some of the stock to someone’s backyard and all stand 10 feet apart?

Have you been watching any shows on Netflix or listening to new music?

Anton Dang: Yeah. I really like the new Hayley Williams EPs; I’ve been listening to them.

Martens: That’s what I was going to say. We were all talking about them last week. A couple of us have been latching on to it. It’s good!

Anton Dang: I never really listened to Paramore before, so… It’s catchy.

Please listen to After Laughter as soon as you can.

Johnny Dang: That’s what I told him [laughs].

Merritt: Have you guys heard Malibu? She’s an ambient artist. I heard about her because [American electronic artist] Julianna Barwick was posting about her. I’ve been listening to her EP a lot. It is very chill; the EP is called One Life. I’ve been falling asleep to it every night.

Last question: Is there anything anyone wants to say to Chorus readers?

Anton Dang: Just thank you and thank you to Drew for always supporting us.

Martens: I’d say we’ve been interacting with it [Chorus and AbsolutePunk] for over ten years in some form or fashion. There are a couple of outlets that we’ve had great relationships with for a while now, so it’s exciting to get back into it with them. Let’s see what happens!

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