Other Lives on Shaping Existential Dread Into the Lush Sounds of ‘For Their Love’
Oklahoma’s Other Lives play a singular strain of indie rock that strikes a rare balance between the elemental and the sublime. Their songs are rustic and earthy, with a distinctly heartland essence, yet dressed up in rich orchestral arrangements that give them a transcendent quality. It’s a sound that strikes a nerve and paints a powerful picture, at once inviting and slightly out of reach. The band made a breakthrough with their 2011 album, “Tamer Animals,” which drew wide critical acclaim, and led to tours with the likes of Radiohead and Bon Iver. Having grown and refined their sound with every successive album, they now take it to new heights on a sprawling new release, “For Their Love.”
The latest album explores eternal questions in changing landscapes. It channels existential dread through various avenues, to illuminating ends. Frontman Jesse Tabish’s songwriting is more personal than ever, and a search for individual meaning permeates the new music. The sentiments often come in teases rather than blatant outpourings, inviting repeated listens that uncover a wealth of imaginative detail. Tabish and crew reevaluated their recording process this time around, and took an approach that has resulted in a newly immersive, sonic gestalt that is simultaneously timeless and outside of time altogether. Tabish spoke with Entertainment Voice about the creative process, the quest for understanding, and the band’s new musical direction.
One quality that stands out about your music, and seems to have reached new heights on the latest album, is the lush orchestration. There’s a cinematic quality and a richness to it. Where did this come from?
Well, it’s kind of been the idea for a long time really, to bring in these elements of classical music and somewhat traditional songwriting. I think in our previous records, we’ve kind of been toying with that idea, of what’s that balance. I think particularly on this though, I realized that what was missing was a certain physicality from the music, from the band. I always felt like I wanted it to be a little bit more in bloom, in that you could kind of feel the instrumentation. That also means, for this record, it was about less layering, and the parts that were there, make them really meaningful, and kind of work them together, instead of just kind of layering, layering, layering, oh, let’s see what happens, you know?
In earlier days, I was really heavily into — and still am — Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, and a lot of those modernist movements, but I really got into soundtrack music in the last three or four years, particularly Ennio Moricone. I love that classicalism, but mixed in with this pop music — Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini. Those kinds of arrangements really lend themselves to song. What I love about those soundtracks is it’s not like here’s drums and bass, and then there’s violins recorded in the background. It’s so immersed. It’s really working on equal terms with the vocals and more basic instruments. I really love those 1960s arrangements, and that was definitely a big influence for these songs. It’s that juxtaposition between something earthly, something natural — that also goes for my voice as well, not over-tweaking too many sounds, I think that’s where that primalism and very human thing comes — but then to have the really high-minded stuff working alongside with it is that idea of “Here’s a song that has vibe and looseness and naturalism, but then we’re going to really peak with really thought-out arrangements behind it.”
Expand on the “less is more” approach that you used in the studio this time around.
I wanted the computer to just be a functional tool, and not so much an instrument. For instance, a lot of these songs just started out with me and an acoustic guitar and the vocals. What we used to do was layer everything, and then I would do the vocals at the end — which sometimes felt like there’s this giant mass of music, and there’s this head there, you know, singing on top of all this. On this, rather, I wanted to kind of guide everything around that basic vocal and guitar, so you kind of get to live inside the music, or at least the vocal gets to sit within the music. It settles in, rather than almost, sometimes feeling foisted on top.
On previous albums, the band members have each taken on numerous instrumental roles to create the grand, sweeping sounds on display. Expand on how the orchestration came together on the new album, in terms of individual roles and the collective dynamic.
With this, we all kind of moved out here to the woods a little bit. I wanted to live and breathe, in this record, in the room. I wanted to have that physical connection, looking each other in the eye. A lot of the tunes, I had the demo and arrangements already somewhat mapped out, but as far as the core of the band, we really got in there together, and you know, “Does this structure feel right? Does this tempo feel right? Is this the right thing?” I wanted to be a band again, and get off “three guys and a laptop.” I didn’t want that.
There’s a sense of existential quandary running through the new songs, of a search for personal meaning in the face of life’s realities. Tell us about how a few of the specific songs fit into this theme?
Absolutely. A lot of these ideas come from, essentially, fighting fundamentalist thinking. A lot of people I know have grown up with a fundamentalist background, and the strength and the time it takes to break free from this idea that someone else has the truth out there, and here’s the guidelines (laughs), and everything’s going to be alright. And so, a lot of that is that search for this personal freedom and this personal truth in the midst of tyrannical governments and fundamentalist religions and, you know, all the things that are repressing people, like these people can’t get married. That’s kind of the great hope against the, maybe, existential dread — finding that path, and breaking free from this dogmatic thinking.
Have you arrived at any realizations after the soul searching that went into the songs?
Well, you know, for me personally, this was also a record to kind of confront my fears and my, kind of, hiding — not only aesthetically with the music, and particularly with the vocal — I wanted to be up front, and not layer a thousand reverbs on my vocal. I wanted to get real, and look myself in the mirror, and see what it’s all about. So it’s not like the big light bulb has gone off, and go, you know, “I’m free from my fear” (laughs), not at all. But I think it started a process of really trusting my gut, and moving forward, instead of hiding. It’s dealing with that anxiety.
Your song “Sound of Violence” has lyrics that seem to express a degree of ennui, leading up to the striking eponymous line, “Still nothing compares to the sound of our violence.” What is the “sound of violence” to you?
You know, it’s one of those lines that just came to me. It’s kind of that play on “the sound of silence” (laughs). It’s one of those — and this happens a lot to me — it’s an essence of an idea. It’s not right on the nose. It’s an essence of an idea that gives, kind of, a larger meaning, and then I go, “Ah, ok, this is kind of what the tune is about.” Here we are, 2020, and you would think that we would hopefully be a more peaceful species. But, you know, to counter that, that chorus comes in, “Somewhere we’re laughing in far away places,” this beautiful, hopeful thought that one day, in some other place, or maybe in some other realm, or just in our mind, things are not what they are. So that line, in particular, is a little bit of the finger pointing to a greater feeling about this, you know, mysterious thing (laughs).
“Nites Out” is an especially haunting track that shocks with its dizzying whirlwinds of strings. How did you create this chilling soundscape, and what were you trying to convey with this?
You know, actually I was writing another song, and I had this really spooky arrangement. I kind of have a real thing for Halloween, and usually around Halloween time, here in Oregon in particular, the weather really starts to turn, and it gets a little spooky, and I always liked writing tunes, and I always try to write a Halloween song or something (laughs). So it kind of came out of that, but I didn’t want anything overtly scary. I wanted a little twinkle in the eye. But yeah, it just came about. I always love when this happens. You’re thinking about a completely different thing, and then I just picked up the bass, and put this kind of punk thing underneath these strings, and I thought, “Oh, I like how that all conforms together.” It came in like five minutes. It’s just one of those things when you go, “Ha! Thank you for that.” (Laughs).
On “Lost Day,” you sing, “I‘m on an exit out, no you won‘t see me this time,” and then on “Nites Out,” you repeat, “Exit out now / Release me.” Explain the significance of exits in the album.
Yeah, I think it goes back to that same idea of an individual carving out his own way, and kind of checking out of the scene a little bit, and going, “I’m going to go this way. I’m going to follow my own thing.” I think that’s where that exit thing comes back, absolutely.
Your song “We Wait” addresses, for the first time, the murder of a close friend. How did this powerful backstory finally make its way into a song, and dId writing and playing the song afford you a sense of catharsis?
Absolutely, yeah. I formed All-American Rejects when I was fifteen, and a member’s brother in law was murdered, and he was like the brother I never had. You know, it completely reshaped everything. A year later, I quit the Rejects, and I really started to find myself musically. It put me down a really serious path, but it’s also an issue that I had not been dealing with for a long time, and something in the back of my mind that I’ve always just put out because I was very scared to address it again. And that greater theme, for me personally, on the record is to deal with these real things. There were years and years sometimes where I wouldn’t even think about Tommy — that’s the guy’s name, Tommy — and it was just a way to remember him again, and a way for me to heal from this, and this is a reason for a lot of my anxiety and fear, and at this point, I’m just trying to look at this in real time, and feel from it.
The tragedy at the center of “We Wait” shaped your life in many ways, among them leading you to leave the All-American Rejects, a band you started in high school. Needless to say, Other Lives represents a dramatic stylistic departure from the Rejects. Was this a transformation triggered by the incident or merely another facet of an eclectic musical taste?
You know, at the time I didn’t think of that, but when I look back at it, it absolutely shaped everything. We go fast-forward six months later, and the All-American Rejects become world famous, and I’m figuring out what the fuck I’m going to do with my life, and musically. So it set me into a really somber, but very focused musical world. After that tragedy, music became very serious to me, and I fell in love with the piano, and would just spend hours and hours and hours alone, writing piano music, and it just put me on this completely different trajectory of instrumental music. I found bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Sigur Ros, and just opened my mind to this really beautiful, but also at times haunting and somber, music that really struck a chord with me very early, and has continued to influence in that kind of direction.
A lot of your lyrics are quite cryptic, having a powerful, provocative effect, but defying easy interpretation. For instance, in the ending bit of “Hey Hey I,” you sing, “How many years for the one to follow? / Been drinking the water until you said / Hey, now, maybe that’s alright / They only come at night.” Shed some light on these words, and tell us a little about your strain of lyrical abstraction.
(Laughs) You know, I think that line is a funny way to poke fun at myself. I never want things to become too preachy, or too, say, “Hey, this is the right way. Look how messed up everything is, and here’s the solution.” That line is kind of a “Wait a second. I’m also a consumer as well. Have I drank the poison as well? Or have we all drank the poison?” (Laughs). You know, it’s a little bit of a question mark at the end, you know, don’t be too sure of yourself, a little bit of an inside joke to myself.
While the current pandemic has brought tours to a standstill, it also has people consuming increasing volumes of music in their newfound free time. How has the situation affected you and your art, and do you foresee any new trends coming out of it?
I’m the worst person to ask for current trends in modern society (laughs). On a personal level, right now I’m working on another record, and to keep that wheel going. But on another level, it is going to completely change not just music, but music will also be a byproduct. You see this in other times — you know, 1962, Vietnam War and how art reacted to that, or World War II, how art reacted to that. So I think you’re going to see art reacting to this in some new form, some beautiful new form. There is an exciting element to that. I have no idea what that is, but there will be a shimmer of light from all this.
“For Their Love” is available April 24 on Apple Music.