As Stillwater, Oklahoma five piece Other Lives commence on a quick club tour supporting their lush 2011 release, Tamer Animals, Weeping Elvis spoke with songwriter and lead singer Jesse Tabish about the state of indie rock, their upcoming gigs warming-up audiences for Radiohead and their connections to rock royalty.
Weeping Elvis: You’ve toured with some great bands that include The Decemberists, The Rosebuds and Bon Iver. Since people from Wisconsin are almost invariably nice and non-confrontational, I’m more curious as to what it’s like to tour with a recently divorced couple (who ostensibly get along quite well). Bands often describe their lives together as being like a family. Did your experiences with The Rosebuds mesh with that concept?
Jesse Tabish: It didn’t seem to affect anything. We’ve been doing this for about nine years. For us it has…we’ve reached a certain point. There were times where we could have broke up, but it’s now a relationship where everyone has their roles and after nine years I feel like the band is healthy as it’s ever been.
WE: More on the touring front: Other Lives will soon be opening for Radiohead on the legs of its 2nd full-length release. In 1995, Radiohead opened for R.E.M.’s Monster tour on the legs of their 2nd full-length release. I saw Joey Waronker, who produced your “Eponymous” debut album, play with R.E.M. at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert, and also in 2010 with Thom Yorke in Atoms for Peace. Waronker was mentored at seven years old by Jim Keltner (a drummer with connections to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and many others) who is originally from Tulsa, which isn’t too far from your home base in Stillwater. You began writing songs at the age of eight. Are these strange coincidences, or perhaps connected to how you’ve become associated with rock royalty?
JT: Really? I didn’t know that he [Keltner] was from Tulsa. Working with Joey on our first record, we were kind of amazed at all the people he had worked with. He is somebody that we’ve built a relationship with, starting with our first record. As you said, he’s kind of rock royalty if you will. He’s really willing to try new things. He worked with us on our last record and I’m sure will work with us in the future.
JT: A little bit. Our manager knows them well. We’re on the same American label as them.
WE: How do you prepare for the challenge of “warming up the crowd” versus knowing that the crowd is mostly familiar with your work and came specifically to see you?
JT: That’s something that we kind of talk about all the time. Being an opening band, we’ve primarily been that for a number of years. This is the first time around where we’ve been headlining our own gigs. There’s an advantage where no one knows who you and are have a chance to wow people. At the same time you feel less pressure. I think a headlining set, we’ve noticed that when the crowed is with you from the beginning you feel at ease and less self-conscious. There is a significant difference.
WE: Playing venues of different sizes obviously presents different challenges…I saw Foster the People tread water in front of 35,000 people at Lollapalooza and then kill it at a small club the same night. How do you prep differently when you’re playing the Red Palace in DC versus your shows at Sasquatch or the Iceland Airwaves Festival? Does the set list change? Do you consciously try to interact differently with the audience?
JT: Right, that’s the one thing that the band needs to understand within themselves. There’s a little bit more of looking inwards when you’re in front of a large crowd. The challenge is to connect that with a large audience. Maybe we’ve struggled with that a bit in the past. I look forward to that challenge of playing as a tight-fit ensemble.
WE: I would assume that the economics of these types of shows vary significantly…a small club show versus a 25,000-person festival versus touring with a band like Radiohead must be quite different. When you have five people in the band and a plethora of instruments, how does your life on the road differ in these situations?
JT: The first couple of months were a bit of a trip. Wrapping our heads around just setting up. Those first two months that we toured were significant because they got the wheels turning a little bit. Now, we’ve played over a hundred shows and it’s definitely that part of the van and gear and what not is routine and no big deal. We actually have had a few gigs where we had our gear up on stage for four nights and didn’t move it and I couldn’t wait to get back to physically moving our gear. I’m a sucker for the pain.
WE: Based solely upon photos on your website capturing visits to places like CERN and Stonehenge, one could assume that you make an effort to “smell the roses” as you traverse the world beyond Stillwater, OK. Do you plan that out in advance, or are you winging it?
JT: That’s kind of the fun of it is that we haven’t had hardly any time, we literally only had drive days. What’s kind of cool about it is that we only have limited time so we squeeze in what we can and rush rush rush though it. There’s a challenge to it and next time might be a little bit more slow-paced.
WE: Other Lives uses a lot of musical devices that aren’t as obvious to traditional American rock and roll audiences as they might be in say, the average Brit band. You have songs in three, make broad use of crescendo, etc.
JT: I think that growing up on The Beatles and then in my teenage years, Radiohead, those two particular Brit bands have really influenced the band and me.
WE: My understanding is that you do this without any significant classical training, but rather by learning it on your own and by ear?
JT: I took piano lessons in 2nd or 3rd grade for a few years, but am kind of self-taught. I kind of had to because I started teaching guitar so I had to learn my modes and theory and what not. So, I’m self-taught as I taught others.
WE: What instruments do you play?
JT: Guitar, piano, drums. I’m the most boring in the band.
WE: I could see Other Lives working very well with a backing orchestra. Much better than, say, Metallica.
JT: That’s funny. We were talking about a chance we have to work with someone here in Oklahoma and were joking about how awful would it be to have the Metallica symphony behind us. I think our music would lend itself to that really well; we have so many string and horn parts that it would be cinematic but not too cheesy.
WE: As the music industry has changed – or at least, as the realities of it have changed even as the major labels try to pretend it hasn’t – how does the band deal with the changing economics? For example, Sundance is making a concerted effort to connect indie musicians with indie filmmakers. Video games and television might play a bigger role in generating income than album sales. YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, eMusic, are relatively new players. How does an indie musician sort through the various vagaries of the industry and emerge on the other side intact?
JT: I know…it’s definitely a conversation that’s had among a lot of bands in our situation. Being able to get from place to place and have a hotel every night….I feel in some ways it’s important to be able to do that. We obviously feel lucky to be able to do that. At the end of the day we want be able to go home and write records without having to work part-time jobs. In some ways for us, we’ve never known anything else. We’ve been living in Stillwater — our home — and we love Oklahoma. We can live there like we’re successful.
That’s one way we combat the fact that there’s not too much money. I feel like we’ll continue to do that. If no money is there, at the end of the day what it comes down to me is to be able to have time. There’s not a real way of planning that. We’re tight on our budget, and smart about things, which I think is a good rule in general.
I don’t know where the industry is going but I feel like I am part of a band that is part of a collective and I love music being free out there, Spotify for example, all this music is being let loose. I love that. I think a lot of bands are happy about that music is getting out there. I feel that collective vibe from a lot of bands self-producing and recording at home, and I think a whole subculture of indie has surrounded that idea for the past ten years.
WE: Neil Young recently commented that a lot of the sonic fidelity of music was being lost with the way we experience music; does that indie ethic impact quality?
JT: We have the saying like, “What would Neil do?” It applies to a lot of things. We’re not writing a rock record but that attitude of independence embodies what we’re trying to accomplish.
WE: Of the two artists, which is more “Stillwater”: Garth Brooks or the All-American Rejects?
JT: Ha. Garth.
WE: Favorite Dust Bowl-era artist…Woody Guthrie or John Steinbeck?
WE: Groupies or Band-Aids?
WE: Whether past or future, discuss your “Golden God” moment.
JT: No, that’s not happening. I’m way too careful.
JT: Music is about people. It’s about putting people in a positive place.