Ami Jones talks instruments, sweeping prairies and artistic freedoms with Jesse Tabish of Other Lives
Jesse Tabish’s voice over the phone is relaxed and soothing. He chews over his words at a slow, considered pace somewhat alien to Hong Kong ears. Then again, the frontman of American indie-folk band Other Lives is from a rather different world. The singer’s slow drawl – one which carries itself over easily into a soulful and unearthly singing voice – is pleasantly tinged with a native Oklahoman twang, one that sounds positively relaxed despite the whirlwind year the five-piece have experienced (read: opening for both Bon Iver and Radiohead, playing Coachella and touring Europe before heading Asia-side).
Recent global jetsetting aside, Oklahoma, it would seem, is still very much where the Other Lives’ heart is. It was in the US state, in the suggestively named town of Stillwater, that the band first took form in 2004 under the name Kunek. And, even eight years on, much emphasis has been placed on the group’s Southern prairie origins, both by the media and the band itself. A track on their most recent LP Tamer Animals is titled Dustbowl III and reviews of Other Lives’ music are constantly peppered with adjectives like ‘panoramic’ and ‘rustic’ to describe their haunting, cinematic sound.
“It was a very conscious decision to write music to our land, to Oklahoma,” says Tabish, from Munich, where they’re mid-tour. “We’re really inspired by a lot of film compositions. And so we thought, you know, let’s really think about writing this soundtrack music to the plain.”
It seems clear that, from the outset, Other Lives were offering something determinedly different. The band features a unique, orchestral array of instruments and none of the members seem satisfied with sticking to just the one. There is some consistency – Tabish is the lead vocalist and guitarist, Jenny Hsu plays the cello, Josh Onsott the bass, Colby Owens the drums, Jonathon Mooney the violin – but in practice the Other Lives sound is composed of a finely-tuned mishmash of organs, French horns, lap steel guitars, percussion, clarinets and much more, many of the instruments played by different members from song to song.
“In the early days, we were very intent on everybody playing their instruments and so everybody who played something, that instrument was in the arrangement,” says Tabish. “I think the biggest thing that we learned was that it’s far more important to make records than to be locked in by what we can play. So the thing is to try and not be a band – and to forget the band when you’re making the record.”
This maturity and growth is more than apparent on the outfit’s sophomore Tamer Animals, out last year. The elusiveness which makes the Other Lives’ music so compelling was always present but defining them is always a challenge. It has the atmospheric ambience of Radiohead but also the subtlety of classical instrumentation, with a splash of folksy broodiness over it all with Tabish’s melancholic vocals and enigmatic lyric-writing. There’s also a flair for the dramatic and a sensitivity which isn’t too distantly related to Florence and the Machine. From their previous (and first) record, self-titled Other Lives, the group’s sound has grown palpably richer and more intricate, and feels much more like, dare we say, a labour of love.
Tabish comments that this development is all down to the simple fact of artistic freedom: “The main difference is that we were able to record [this album] ourselves. We had all the time that we needed and wanted when we were doing it ourselves. We really wanted to kind of forget about being a traditional band and make it more of a recording project. So we basically threw out the instruments that we played and thought we’d be idealistic about it. The first record is primarily what every band member can play. It’s more of a band record. We wanted more dimension and more arrangements – and we wanted different instruments to play with the bassoon or the bass clarinet. I was so amazed because everybody ended up learning new instruments.”
There is something refreshingly idealistic about the Other Lives as well. Tamer Animals is really an album in a sense which is rarely achieved. Rather than the usual pick-and-choose trail mix, it feels much more tailored towards letting itself wash over you in one 40-minute wave. “It’s not like a concept record, musically,” says Tabish. “But we did set out to make an album, a coherent album. We’re really kind of old-school about making records. It’s still about the record, it’s not about one song or singles. It’s about creating a body of work and a general kind of feeling.”
The band are close to finishing up on their next album, which is projected to be released in October, and, apparently inexhaustible, they’re already looking to start work on yet another once they finish touring in December. Those rolling prairie hills stretch ever onwards and so – we hope – will they.
Other Lives play Grappa's Cellar on Wed Aug 22. Tickets: 2521 2322.