13 years in the pursuit of art for art’s sake. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I have a hard time with music reviews. While everyone agrees that Music (with a capital M) is “good”, opinions differ wildly when you start getting specific. Entire careers are built on defining which songs, genres, and artists are more or less “good” than others. Like all forms of art, we’re nurtured from a variety of experiences and inputs that informs our specific appreciation for it. But in the same way, like all forms of art, music is in the eye of the beholder. While those more learned and experienced with the landscape of music, sonic influences, and theory may speak to both its charms and “failures” with a rich vocabulary and context, music is, without a doubt, subjective. After all, art is art.
With that said, we’re confident in saying that indie-rock band Other Lives makes damn brilliant art. And we’re not alone. When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke releases a remix of one of your songs (and invites you to tour with him) you’re certainly doing something right.
Shaggy frontman Jesse Tabish, along with the eye-smiling Josh Onstott and ponytailed Jonathon Mooney together make up Other Lives. While visiting our studio, they banter with one another like brothers in between shots. Beyond their quietly southern charm, there’s a real affection that’s present in their company. Their shared years of history, similar stylistic interests, and a decade of experience playing together reveals itself in a familial chemistry, not to mention a sonic chemistry that’s unlike anything we’ve ever heard.
The three longtime friends all grew up in (or within minutes of) Stillwater, Oklahoma. Each was exposed to classical music at a young age in families with a strong value for artistic expression. And when their paths intersected in Jr. High and High School, it was a serendipitous match.
“We weren’t originally that close, but we were both really into punk rock,” says Jonathon of himself and Jesse Tabish. “Blue spiked hair, the whole thing,” he says, with a laugh. “We grew up in a town with country music, and we were the kids listening to Godspeed and Sigur Ros and Radiohead. There weren’t a lot of folks who were into that, so those bands brought us together in a way.”
After Josh Onstott came into the mix in high school, the three would often find themselves at the Bohemian Lounge, a local coffee shop where they would hang out, play songs, and, naturally, form a band. “It was a really pure place,” says Jesse. “We wanted to hide out and make music. There weren’t any plans to get signed or anything. We just wanted to make music. We were doing it just to do it. For art’s sake.”
A load of odd jobs, three albums, and thirteen years later, Other Lives is still doing just that. Though they’ve since relocated to the west coast, developed a cult following, and been signed, they are still, at heart, three easy going Oklahomans that love making music. Nothing more. Nothing less.
That love is manifest in music that is nothing short of brilliant. And equally brilliant is their ability to pull it off on stage. All three pull double and triple duty on guitars, violins, clarinets, keys, trumpets, and drums to produce lush waves of sound that bring together both the organic and the meticulously crafted. Familiar instruments used in unfamiliar ways make for a sound that is approachable in melody while decidedly unique in execution. And immense in scale.
“We realized the limitations behind the typical band format: guitar, bass, drums,” says Jonathon. “We had multiple conversations at length about the idea of creating new sounds. Not to say that we’ve accomplished it, but that’s been a goal all along.” The band’s love for classical music from early on proved to be a natural expression. Using orchestral instrumentation in a sort of pop song structure, they’re fond of replacing guitar with woodwinds or replacing piano with strings. Experimenting with unique combinations isn’t the exception. It’s the norm.
With technology’s help, self-recording and producing such complex arrangements is a reality rather than a dream. The group can live into their experimental nature, taking the time needed explore with new sounds without paying large sums of money for studio fees. And beyond the freedom to experiment, having a limited budget has actually forced them to get creative in ways they might not have otherwise.
“When we first started the band, we daydreamed about having a really large ensemble,” says Jesse. “But because of the lack of big money, we were left to our devices, which actually ended up being great. I think if we would have had the budget, we would have just hired a woodwind section and a string ensemble. But in hindsight looking back, that’s when things really got interesting. When you don’t have the funds and have to work within your means, you have to figure out new ways to do your thing.”
“Art, to me, is the most natural thing that humans can do. I think we are here as creative beings. I think everybody has that capacity. I think it’s in everyone. So for me, it’s waking up every day and trying to tap into the source. Letting that flow through me. I think it’s the most natural thing we can do.”
The result of doing their thing? Three three full-length albums that mix classic instrumentation with alt-indie rock and accessible melodies. Think Fleet foxes meets Kurt Vile meets Radiohead. Or better yet, just buy all three albums and set on repeat. All of them are similarly soulful and hauntingly beautiful, but each is marked with an intentional evolution of sound. While their sophomore album, Tamer Animals, moved with the pulse of waves, their most recent album, Rituals, moves with percussive beats. Their attention to both panorama and precision sets a vast landscape against which the rising and falling of vocal melodies paint poetic pictures of indecision and loss, but ultimately hope. Jesse’s voice, so natural and unaffected, is instrumental in its own right, pulling the listener through massively orchestral compositions with a slow but assured, almost cello-like, timbre.
“You’re recording all these layers, layers, layers,” explains Jesse. “It involves being playful. It’s fun, you know…just playing and coloring and coloring and layering. And then you have this big mess and edit some things away, and then ‘Ah, there it is!’ It’s almost as if you’re painting and painting and painting until you see a face. You explore and record, and there’s so much trial and error of getting these worlds of musical instruments and songs to coexist.”
The analogy of painting, coloring, and layering is a worthy one. And while the “stumbling” element to discover a song during the writing process may come across as overly humble, anyone who has spent time writing music knows it to be true. But it’s not easy, either. It’s a process that requires a tremendous amount of work. Work that, for these guys, doesn’t feel like work at all.
“Being at home and writing is just fun. It’s our best and worst quality,” says Jesse. “We do it cause it’s fun. That’s where I want to be all the time. At home, experimenting with songs and sounds. It’s not a product to us. It’s a real process and real love. It’s not like ‘oh we gotta get a record out’. It’s pure fun. That’s what it has to be. If it’s just product based, I’m not into it. It has to be some sort of release. It goes back to our roots of doing music for music’s sake. Not trying to buy or sell it. Just doing it because it’s in you.”
By their account, that’s what they’ll continue to do, day in and day out. It’s what defined them when they began and what will define them moving forward. “That’s what art is. It’s about daily work,” says Josh. “You choose to do that every day. It’s blue collar work. It’s not like we all get in here and plug in and go like it’s magic.”
For blue collar work, they certainly have a lot of fun while doing it. And as it turns out, the end product is, in fact, magic.
Credit: The video below and select quotes throughout sourced from our good friends over at Yonder.