Orlando Weekly: You guys know that I’ve had some issues with both your music and approach. That’s no secret. I do think this new album is a notable step forward, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. Especially when compared to your much-improved live sound. That said, this album sounds much more like a band – more instruments, more dynamics. What lessons learned from your first album did you carry into this one?
Matthew Antolick: The first album was literally the first time we ever got together to record. We were learning how to record. The first time we’ve ever done a recording we were kinda like, “uh, how do we get the Cubase to see the mixer?” Calling tech support and stuff like that. And so, really, the first album was the first time we sat down and, from start to finish, really tried to make a CD. Just kind of capture this artistic vision in album form. And there were only the two of us, too. We brought in a couple guest musicians and everything. By the time we came into this record, the things we learned along the way were we knew what kind of sound we were going for. When the album was all done, I think every artist has things they would go back and change once the record gets pressed. So we came walking into this wishing we hadn’t direct-miked everything on the first one. I feel it made everything sound just too inside of a box in a way, self-contained. We wanted to mess more with room sound this time around. Also, it’s just a natural evolution because when we recorded the first album, then the next step was, “OK, let’s go ahead and take this into a live setting.” Well, we were multi-layering instruments so we had to find people that were able to kind of realize this vision onstage. That’s been a process too. And their voices naturally came into the mix.
Ryan Costello: Like Matt said, we learned how to record during the course of the first album. I feel like, by the end of the first album -- actually I would say during the mixing of the first album -- we learned quite a bit about how these separate recording techniques that we had experimented with came together in the mixing session. We figured out what worked and what didn’t to some extent. We also had an idea to go for, like Matt said, an album with all room sound instead of actually using artificial reverb and delay and things like that. That was an idea we brought into this album and it was something new. Actually, listening back to the first album, I think we both felt it lacked a live-ness in the instruments and the feel of the room. We wanted this new album to sound like a band playing in a room. That was kind of our goal going in.
Did your new members shape this record at all?
MA: I think it definitely did in the sense that the first album was a dialogue, musically, between Ryan and I and just building on where we were at the time and a lot of the technological aspects. When we came into this `album`, we had four more members. We were just bouncing ideas off each other. This was very important to us from the very beginning to find somebody, or to find a group of people, that could communicate musically the way Ryan and I did. I feel like we’ve really found that now. It started out at the same point every time where Ryan and I would kind of have the skeleton of the song. A lot of times I’d start with a drumbeat and a crappy melodic idea. Because I’m a drummer, and I can only go so far with that, I’ll send it to Ryan. Ryan will be like, “Yeah, well, the melody sucks but I like drumbeat.” And he’ll rewrite the melody and it would just grow from there. We really utilized a lot of email on this one; dropping ideas to MP3s and sending them out to the band and the band would kind of have time to meditate on it. That’s what the beauty of the recording process was, the way we did things. We did everything from a home-based standpoint and people were able to just walk around ideas and let them grow. People would send things back and say, “Hey, why don’t we try this, does this work?” The whole album kind of grew out of this conversation. So yeah, they definitely had a big role in it.
The music still carries the same emotional tenor and philanthropic influence. I know this was the impetus of forming the band in the first place. Does this band exist only to further the message?
MA: I would say no, actually. We came out and Ryan had just gotten back from Afghanistan. This was always a big part of our musical conversation from the very beginning. The roots of all these songs came from us just kind of writing music together and talking politics, and talking philosophical issues and the things that matter to us. The philanthropic aspects are basically just kind of an offshoot of us trying to be authentic as artists. It’s just something that we couldn’t help but write about and an opportunity presented itself. Most bands give half of their profits to a label but the market’s in an upheaval. Everybody’s going independent. Why don’t we try something unique and give half of our profits to a charity cause? You know, something that we really care about, just to kind of show people the possibilities of what you can do with music. People are doing this all the time with benefit concerts. We just thought it was something unique. It was never the case that we formed this band specifically to be a humanitarian organization.
RC: Matt and I had a band in Tampa. We had a band for several years called Figure Versus Ground.
MA: It was a whole Gestalt reference, basically. We were all heady at the time.
RC: We used to play a lot of local shows. We did real improvisational, almost like trip-hop and breakbeat electronic, but live with pedals and everything. Completely different than Figure Versus Ground.
MA: Yeah, we literally just set up and `would` kind of live-write. However it came out, we would record it. And then we’d make these crappy little CDs and sell ‘em at the next show. And we had a stand-up bassist.
RC: But when I came back from Afghanistan and we both got back together, it really just happened that we were here in Orlando together. We both feel like we have a lot to write about. Because of my experience in Afghanistan, and Matt has a different experience with life experience, but they come together in similar ways philosophically. And because that’s where we’re coming from, we wanted – like Matt said – to be authentic in what we wrote about and that was what we had to draw on. I just got back from two years in Afghanistan, there really wasn’t much else to draw on for writing material and that’s what inspired me. That’s what my thoughts were about. So the first album was kind of the immediate reflection on that experience since I write most of the lyrics. I think that the second album, if you read through the lyrics, it’s more of a reverse telescope looking back at that experience but almost from a removed perspective. “Masood” focuses directly on it, and to some extent, “War Changes Everything.” But other songs only touch on it lightly. It influences our music but our goal was never, from the beginning, for that to be the core of our music. They were experiences that I had in particular to draw on and so I wanted to be real in that.
MA: I think that the first album, in a sense, was kind of like our first steps as a band. If you liken the analogy to a child, we were kind of learning how to walk on the first record. The first that you do is you write songs that kind of speak very directly and I think metaphor is something that comes with maturity. So this time around, we not only wanted to get more metaphorical with the lyrical stuff but we also feel like we grew as artists in terms of letting the music be an impression or be the lyrics we’re speaking and how they tie in together more. The way it started was lyrics laid on top of a song or some musical foundation but the interweaving of the two wasn’t thorough and I feel like this album gets a little closer to that.
I think the message is one that certainly resonates. It’s a powerful, compelling thing and sometimes that leaves a deep, deep impression. It colors the way people are even going respond to your music. These are the things that I think about when I’m weighing your music and it’s a bit of a conundrum for someone who thinks about music on a critical level.
RC: It is.
MA: I see what you’re saying.
RC: It is for us as well. To some extent, we would really love to be appreciated as artists without that baggage. And it’s not baggage…
It’s artistic baggage, let’s be honest.
RC: It is, yeah.
MA: But that’s who we are, you know what I mean? It would be an equal conundrum for me to fake it in order to avoid this kind of, “Oh, people are gonna take us as humanitarians instead of musicians.” Well, that happened to a certain extent but to be anything else would’ve been inauthentic, so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, you know?
RC: That’s not to say we didn’t talk about this for hours on end. How do we approach this? That’s the difficult thing. And in the end, we just said, “OK, there’s bands that write about drugs, sex and rock & roll and that’s their experience and we’re writing about our experience and this is the authentic approach.” And we just have to continue to do it until that backstory becomes transparent. As a fan, the backstory may initially attract you but it becomes transparent, because you know it, and then get attracted to the music. And that’s what we hope happens now.
At this stage of this band, what comes first, the message or the music?
RC: Definitely the music. We have some incredibly talented musicians in this project. Matt and I have so many different musical directions we wanna go in. In fact, this new album, we’re not donating any of the profits to Afghanistan. That’s not a conscious choice to try to get away from the Afghan story as much as it is a practical choice. We wanna support ourselves as a band and it’s been difficult.
MA: Yeah, it’s been very difficult giving half of every CD sale away. We’re kind of struggling. We’re getting out there, but we’re in the classic growth phase right now.
RC: When it came time to hone in on how we wanted to present ourselves, our goal was to move away from the backstory and toward us as artists and musicians. And that’s what we hope, to some extent, the album does. You can just look at the two albums: the first one has a picture of an Afghan kid and the second one is art, album art. This was our hope and I think even moving forward it will fade into an interesting backstory.
MA: But the beauty of the way we approached the first record is that, as we continue to make records and hopefully they get better and better, the classic scenario of, “Oh, let’s look at their back catalog” happens. Well, anytime anybody buys the record, it’s gonna go to that cause forever. We’ve kept it that way for a reason. We’d like to move away from that as a primary artistic statement but that philanthropic effort out of the first album will always be there, so that’s nice.
I’ve followed you guys since that first album. The message, the story is timely. But for me, as a music critic, you could be talking about doing smack in the bathroom and it doesn’t matter to me because I have to judge it on those artistic grounds.
RC: We completely understand.
MA: It took us a while to understand it. Honestly, when we first came out, it was the first hard review we had really read about ourselves so I was heady over it for a few weeks. But eventually, as I’ve become more mature as a musician, I realize that’s what the point was and as a result I feel like I’ve matured from it, honestly. And the reason why is that it’s not the last criticism we’re gonna get. There’ve been other bad reviews. Led Zeppelin had every album they ever wrote totally trashed, our bass player keeps telling us this. You just gotta learn from everything and do what you do for the reasons you do it.
I agree with that 100 percent. In my own circle even, the things I had written about you spurred a lot of dialogue. It was an interesting thing.
MA: We just love playing live, by the way. That’s something that definitely I wanna put in there. Every show we play, that’s my favorite part of this right now. It didn’t used to be that. When we first came out, playing live was just necessary. Now, the band, we all walk away from every show just amazed at each other. We really enjoy playing together.
RC: That’s been a big progress between the two albums definitely. Growing all of the songs in a live setting before recording is night and day from writing songs in a studio setting. We wrote all the first album in a studio setting.
You can definitely hear it in this album. I think that the electricity that occurs between players, it transfers much more. Before, it was atmosphere but it wasn’t energy.
MA: Absolutely. But the funny thing is the first show we ever played live, we came out and Jodi (Goetz, the Social) was the one that found our MySpace page and invited us to play Anti-Pop, and that was the first show we’d ever played. And show number two was the show you were at last year. That was the second live show we’d always played, so there’s been this progression, like anything else, of learning how to play, learning how to deal with a live setting. When we came out, we came out like an orchestra. Every instrument that was on there, we just wanted to throw it onstage and make it work and too band, sound guy, if you don’t like it. And we’ve just kind of learned now to scale it down a bit and re-orchestrate things and get rid of the projector, those kind of things. It just allows us to get up there, set up, not be a pain in the butt to everybody that’s doing the gig, and just play.
RC: It’s really been a process. If you look at the year, between Anti-Pop and CMJ, we played CMJ in October 2007 and we played Anti-Pop in October 2006, to me, that’s like a perfect timeline because if you went to both shows I think you would think it was two different bands. You can feel the congealing of the band, the onstage spontaneity and energy and just how we’re drawing deep into each member to pull out what their best qualities are. We discovered over the course of that year that we have a horn ensemble, and you can hear it on the album. Greg (Willson), the guitarist, plays the saxophone. Tim (Cocking), the keyboardist, he plays trumpet. Jeremy (Siegel) plays bass but he also plays trombone. We didn’t know that when we first started at Anti-Pop, this is something we discovered.
MA: That’s why we’re looking forward to the next record already.
The message, not even this particular message, but A message is still woven into your DNA, not that there’s anything wrong with that but that’s simply a statement of observation. However more emotionally abstracted this is, it’s still a very big part of you. If either of you were compelled to pursue or explore some other completely unrelated sentiment, would it have to be in a separate project altogether?
MA: It wouldn’t because the only requirement for this project is that it’s an authentic statement of what we’re thinking or feeling or trying to communicate at the time. And I think the reason why the content is what it is up to this point is that it just so happens to have been our primary concern.
RC: It’s where we’re at.
MA: There are things on this album we couldn’t have foreseen would be there a year ago and I’m sure the same is true for the next record. There’s gonna be themes and issues that pop up along the way.
RC: But it has to be co-written by Matt and I. I mean, that’s the foundation of the OaKs, you know? If there was something that was way off in a different direction, we haven’t ruled out doing side projects. We both write other ideas that we think of for more of a side project thing. But it doesn’t have much to do with the lyrical message as much as the tone of the music or the approach we took on it.
So you both feel that this idea of the OaKs is something that can accommodate more seasons of emotion?
MA: Oh, definitely, yeah. In a sense, it already is.
RC: We really wanna push out into a lot more, writing about a lot more. I feel like we did between the two albums. I think there’s definitely room for all of that. It’s just where we’re at. We’re both in a very similar headspace, we both have been pushing into philosophy and spirituality recently and it comes out in the album. It’s not something that we are trying to trumpet around, it’s just things we’re thinking about and wondering about.
MA: I think there’s a personal difference between us on this album versus the last album, whereas on the first album, you see this in music all the time, people will come out with this recording or whatever and they’ll say, “Alright, this the statement of who I am and I really, really hope you like it, in fact, I need for you to like it.” And I feel like, on the first album, I kind of was coming from a similar place like that. This is me in artistic form, I need you to affirm it. Now, things are a little different because, with this record, when the criticisms come in, I’m like, “Yeah, it’s fair.” And we have conversations about what the critics say and we’re like, “Yeah, that’s something to think about.” We’re just coming from a different place with it now because I think part of more of a mature vision about my own music is that it’s never perfect. It’s always a work in progress. I’m always becoming better and better at expressing myself musically or lyrically or whatever. It’s all just part of dialogue process and what people bring as criticism or comment is also part of that process and everything’s cool.
RC: I think also, from the band having grown to six people, by its nature, caused Matt and I to have to step back and kind of take a little less direct emotional involvement and ownership. There are certain parts of this record that I listen back to and I don’t really feel like I wrote it or created it because there’s so much participation from each member bringing their own perspectives. Some of these bass lines, I’m like, “Wow, that’s freaking awesome,” y’know? I’m just appreciating Jeremy’s bass lines and I have no ownership over that.
MA: It’s less about ownership and more about, “Does it feel right?” It doesn’t matter if I wrote or somebody else wrote it. That’s just kind of the beauty of it.
At this point, with this new dynamic, what informs the approach you take to music?
RC: One thing Matt and I really dug into, and it’s in the album as a sub-context, but Matt and I have been reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor. She informs a lot of what I do. She talks a lot about a dark grace where things in your life will come and they will be destructive to the outsider. To someone who’s just watching, it’s like, “Wow, that is a horrible thing.”
MA: Sometimes even to you.
RC: In her stories, those are moments of dark grace that used to bring the character to the point of realization. So one theme we brought to the album is resilience through tragedy.
MA: We almost called the album After the Fires, which is the name of one of the tracks on the record. We ended up going with Songs for Waiting because it just was more open to interpretation.
RC: But the reason for “After the Fires” was the idea of resilience after tragedy. That’s something that Matt and I have really drawn on and try to express. If you listen to “Song for Waiting,” it’s a wordless song but it expresses almost like a mourning, or a longing. And that’s kind of the idea. Even in “After the Fires,” it kind of starts slow and trickles into this kind of bittersweet feeling. Lyrically, that’s what we tried to express as well, like in “The Two Calls” or in “Pike County.” It’s the idea of something good coming out of something tragic. That’s one theme we’ve been playing a lot with.
MA: Not only that but some of the things you mentioned about the difference between this album and the first one. In the first album we sort of took off lyrically and musically I don’t think the music was really keeping up with what we were saying so it seems like the lyrics spoke louder than the music in a lot of ways. But now, what we’ve really been trying to do, I feel like our musical vocabulary is deepening and developing and growing. The nice thing is that the music becomes an impression of what the lyrics are speaking, a much more adequate impression. And that’s a big thing, how to convey an emotion without words. Don’t just talk about it. Or how to send a message the way Debussy did or any of the impressionist composers did. And that’s a real big thing for us. Or the jazz musicians. Coltrane is a great example of this. Some amazing moods that come out of that music.
RC: That’s a good point. I think on songs like “The Two Calls” and “Pike County,” the lyrics work with the music to express an idea and describe the culmination of that emotion. In this new album, I think we’ve been more successful at, the weaving of different elements musically to express an emotion instead of just saying it.
I’m heartened to hear that. I have heard you guys play recently and what I’ve heard live was much more dynamic than anything I’ve ever heard from your recordings, this one included. I think you were pretty much done recording this album by the time I last saw you live so are some of those things that I’m hearing live, like the really punctuated rhythms, don’t really transfer on this album so much. Is that a direction of things to come and it was just that at the time of recording it wasn’t there yet?
MA: I think absolutely that’s true. We’re just as surprised by it as you are. What happened was we were playing live shows then we went into the recording process. We had as much time to get everything exactly the way we wanted it not only collectively but everybody as an individual with their own part. So the mental process that took place with all of us in the training in a sense of sitting down and just getting the parts. After four months of that, when we got back together and started playing live, all of that experience of thinking about our parts and interweaving with other recordings of the other tracks on the record – we multi-tracked everything – was brought into the live setting. Now, it’s growing on every show. That’s why this album isn’t perfect and no album ever will be because it’s always a chronicle of where you’re at at the time when you start recording. We just came out the other end bigger and better than when we went into it and the next record’s gonna be the same thing.
RC: I do agree with everything Matt said but I also think, to some extent, our method of recording – home-recording, multi-tracking – is just not Steve Albini in a studio, you know what I’m saying? So it’s just hard to get the live energy into it. You can get precision really good and you can be more creative, you have that space and that room. But that live energy is not as easy to capture in our method.
MA: And that’s something special. For instance, we’ve been working with Josh Bloom of Fanatic Promotion. He came out to see us for the first time live, he liked the album and he was willing to work with us based on the record. But when he saw us live, he came up to us – and this was two days after the show you saw – and he was like, “Man, I see a lot of music and I had a moment. You made my hair stand up, it was friggin’ great.” At that point, he became very enthusiastic about us and he said, “I’m just convinced that you’re a band that needs to be seen live.”
I would agree with that.
MA: We’d love to get in a studio. Set up in a live setting and have somebody engineer the record. It’d be great. I mean, we love home-recording but the other side of it is how do we capture that live feel using the methods that we know how to use right now? Maybe that’s the goal for the next record.
RC: We were stepping out of the studio after having listened to each other’s parts for like three months. And there’s a new tightness. There’s definitely a new energy, a new love for what the other person’s playing and trying to really fit into that.
MA: Now we’ve got SXSW `South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, TX` coming up in five weeks so we’re all about tightening the live set. We’re really starting to think about ourselves as a live collective. It’s a good firstname.lastname@example.org