Stillwater, Oklahoma natives Other Lives are all about the slow maturation, the drawn-out gestation period. Having been playing together in one guise or another since 2004, it’s taken until earlier this year to see their first release on our fair shores – sophomore effort Tamer Animals, an alt-rock gem that itself took a total of sixteen months to record. The result is an album of evocative dust bowl portraits, an intimate depiction of the people and landscape of the American Midwest. DiS takes the opportunity to hold a midday phone conversation with frontman Jesse Tabish during the band’s current UK tour, posing questions on matters ranging from the new record, to life on the road with Bon Iver, to political ideologies.
DiS: Hi Jesse, how’s it going?
Jesse Tabish: Good!
DiS: You supported Chapel Club at Shepherds Bush Empire last night, I believe. How did it go?
JT: It was good! We’ve been working with the same sound guy for about three years, and we had a new one last night, so… it wasn’t ideal, but you know, it was kind of a new start.
DiS: You only played your first shows over here in the UK towards the end of the summer – how does touring over here compare to back in the US?
JT: I think for us, we’ve toured the States extensively – we’ve taken probably five or six trips around – so for us this is a change of pace and a slightly different audience. We’ve found we have a little bit more of a patient audience over here. I mean both are good, but I think for us it’s a little bit more exotic. So it’s different, but we enjoyed last time so much and we’ve been really looking forward to being here again.
DiS: So Tamer Animals is the first of your albums to be properly released over here in the UK, but at least three of your current line-up have been playing together since as far back as 2004. Can you tell me a bit about the first incarnations of Other Lives and how you came to be playing together?
JT: Sure. We started back right after high school; we started an instrumental trio, and it was just piano, ‘cello and drums. We started out writing this long, twenty-five minute piece and worked every day on it. We never got around to actually recording it or actually even playing live, but it kind of set a foundation for what was to come, and since then instrumental music has been at the forefront of my thought, because of those early days. And then we released a record under the name Kunek, and then a founding member that was a part of that split ways – that was the catalyst of the name change, because I felt it wasn’t the same band, and it was kind of time to start new again. That then developed into Other Lives. As we’ve continued on, the idea of pop music and instrumental music coming together has kind of been a – oh, and with Tamer Animals it was the first time we were actually able to actually record on our own and see some of the ideas that we’ve had for a long time – you know, we were able to see some of those things through, not to just write what we want but to actually record it.
DiS: Sticking with that idea of instrumental music and pop music coming together: you’ve said you’re very much influenced by the work of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and also in this press release demonstrate a wider knowledge of classical music, name-checking Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy. How would you say this interest in classical music informs the music you make as Other Lives?
JT: Well it’s one of those things where it’s just the music that I listen to. It doesn’t necessarily – first off, I wouldn’t consider myself a composer, so it’s something that I always daydream about and aspire to, but I’m not interested in, you know, writing a Philip Glass song or Steve Reich – well like I said, I’m not really good enough, but it’s kind of where I draw inspiration. Because on the other hand there’s pop music that I’m also fond of that plays a large role. So it’s kind of – they’re my heroes in a way, who I look to sometimes for guidance, but at the same time I don’t want to recreate their music. I want to make my own music from a blend of those two worlds.
DiS: You’re from Stillwater, Oklahoma, which after a bit of reading around I have this impression of as a secluded, isolated place – maybe quite disconnected from a lot of the major musical centres in the States. How do you feel the area has affected your music?
JT: It definitely has – you know whatever place a musician lives in definitely directs their music in some way or another. But Stillwater is a very regular, Midwestern town – I guess you have to be from the Midwest to understand that – growing up I couldn’t wait to get out, because there is a lack of culture there, there’s a lack of a music scene. As we’ve gotten older and continued to live in the town it’s actually become the opposite, a quiet place – turning that isolation into, you know, creating our own world. The lack of influence can be a really healthy thing because you look inwards rather than, you know, ‘oh what’s this band doing, and what’s that band doing?’ – you’re left to your own devices. So there’s that about the town which has kind of grown as I’ve gotten older. There’s also the actual landscape around Oklahoma that has seeped into our music, and kind of – one idea was that we wanted to really write orchestral music to that landscape and the plains. That’s something that we really see every day, so that’s the beauty of where Oklahoma – we find it to be very inspiring.
DiS: You mentioned you’d wanted to get out from a very young age – are you able to pinpoint a specific moment in the development of the band where you felt like you’d achieved this with Other Lives?
JT: Yeah it’s hard to say. In the first five years of the band we didn’t tour, and it was primarily just writing music. I would say it wasn’t until the release of this record that we kind of – we don’t feel like a local band anymore [laughs]. So I think because we were stuck in Stillwater for so many years just writing music – this is a new experience for us, to be travelling the world and playing our version of Oklahoma music.
DiS: Speaking of travelling, you recently played a string of West Coast dates with Bon Iver. How was that experience, and how did it come about? I know you’ve played some dates with [Bon Iver drummer] S. Carey in the past – any connection there?
JT: Um, there could be. I’m not entirely sure how we get shows – I mean we have a booking agent and all that. But we were really happy to play some shows with Bon Iver. It was fantastic – they were some of the largest audiences we’ve ever played for. And playing on that kind of scale of production and audience, it kind of made us step up our game a little bit. It was a very good thing for the band to experience that. And now to come back to club dates, it’s even that much better, because in some ways that’s where we feel the most comfortable. But it’s good to get a little bit of everything, and the chance to play in front of 6000 people – you can’t complain, it’s fantastic.
DiS: A while ago on Twitter, I spotted Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold complaining after a show they played with Bon Iver because of something the Bon Iver guys refer to as the ‘push-up pyramid’. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, is this something that you’re able to shed any light on? And I guess more importantly, is this indicative of life on tour, both with those guys and on your own – lots of in-jokes and clowning around?
JT: [Laughs] Oh! The pyramid thing I actually never participated in – I was always frightened because every time I saw them they were always like, you know, sweating and were always like ‘why did we do this?! This is such a terrible idea!’
DiS: Wait, so it’s as it sounds? Is the term push-up pyramid pretty self-explanatory?
JT: [Laughs] You know, I’m not even sure how it works, but it’s like – by the end people do like 200 push-ups or something. Something ridiculous – I can’t even do ten, or I’ll be done for the day. But it’s funny – the thing on the road, there are these little things that keep you sane – if there’s ever a basketball court or something, we’ll go out and play basketball or throw a Frisbee around, or… like, maybe just throw rocks at a lamppost for thirty minutes! [Laughs] Because it’s fun you know, you’re hanging out with your best friends, you’re in new strange lands, and you sometimes feel like it’s summertime and you’re a kid with all your friends. So yeah, it’s good to keep things light-hearted and have a good time now and then… but no push-ups!
DiS: Back to the record: there are some maybe more unconventional sounds on Tamer Animals – you’ve got orchestral instruments and then there are also these more atmospheric sounds - bowed guitars and so forth. Is this sort of thing the product of meticulous thought, or is it that as you were recording in your own space and on your own time you were free to experiment with different sounds, instruments and ideas?
JT: Yeah… you know, a little bit of both. A lot of the actual notes and instrumentation such as bass clarinet and woodwinds working together and strings, most of that was pre-written and thought out. But then a lot of the atmospheric things – once the arrangement’s kind of set, you think about filling in the space with other things. And so a lot of those things are definitely just kind of in the studio and trying things out. We spent a lot of days just banging things, recording weird cymbals crashing together – and then you fly it into the mix and see how it works and see how it sits with everything. So it’s always an interesting blend between pre-planned thought, and then intuition. Those two things have been important to the record, and there’s a balance that those two should – not should have, but at least I wanted to have. So yeah, a lot of those atmospheric sounds were kind of done on the fly, just kind of screwing around in the studio.
DiS: Obviously Joey Waronker – he produced your last record – can you tell me a bit about his contribution to Tamer Animals?
JT: Yeah, he co-produced it with us. We had been working on the record for about twelve, thirteen months before he came in, and we’d been working in the same room with the same piano, the same drums, the same instrumentation – and by the end of it, although the arrangements we were very happy with, the overall tone of the record was starting to sound very similar. What Joey was able to do was, he came in and was able to take the same piano on different songs and make them sound like very, very different pianos or maybe add decay to the drums or – whatever the case was, he was able to create some different dimension or colour on the record that – you know, we were so focussed on the arrangement and musical part, he came in and kind of gave it some style, which we were so surprised with. When we got back some of these mixes – it took the songs to a spacey, heady level which we were so pleased by. Because at that time I don’t think we had the energy to go there, after twelve or thirteen months. Then also mixing, he played a bigger part than, you know, ‘alright you got your drums, bass, everything sounds equal’, I mean it was really a lot of automation and it really gave a shape to the record more than just a regular mix. And we were really involved with the mix; we did like nine or ten mixes for every song just to make sure we had everything right.
DiS: So you signed to PIAS for your first release over here in the UK – obviously the distribution arm of which was hit pretty catastrophically by the London riots. This story has subsided somewhat since the summer, but have you felt a trickle down effect from this as a band?
JT: I think we lost some records, but there were some other labels that lost everything. So we haven’t really felt that, but I know others did. But you know, what a shame that is...
DiS: I’m just wondering if you have many opinions on the riots and – do you consider yourself much of a politically minded person?
JT: Yeah – I really do care about politics. So just like a lot of progressives, I find myself really discontented with the actual – the process and how media plays a part in it. The London riots – it feels like a lot of misguided unrest and people have frustrations and they took it out in the worst of ways. You’re seeing this in the States, and you’re seeing this around the world, with all of these protests – and I think protest, you know, peaceful protest, is the only way to fight greed, and once people realise that they have control on how they purchase things, I think then they can really change, and once people stop – you know, in the States, people will realise that the meat that they’re eating is poisoning them, and that they need to stop shopping at Wal-Mart or whatever, hopefully there can be some collective ideas from these protests, and you know, I’m really happy – I’m really proud that people are actually stepping up and going ‘I’ve had enough’. So… I don’t know how to wrap that all up – you know, I’m just kind of ranting but…
DiS: Do you think these political ideas will ever work their way into the music you make? I think I read somewhere that you wanted to keep the two things separate…?
JT: Yeah, musically I – I mean that’s just how I feel personally – but musically I’m not interested in that. I want to capture and observe life around us, whether that’s the landscape or people and their environment – I have no interest in politics when it comes to – I have really nothing to say musically. That’s for other people.
Tamer Animals is out now.