Exposed Meets Other Lives' Jesse Tabish
Playing the No Direction Home festival (alongside the likes of Hawley, Andrew Bird, Gruff Rhys and Wet Nuns) as part of what seems like an endless tour of their second, hallucinatory album Tamer Animals, just five minutes chatting with Other Lives brainiac Jesse Tabish from his Oklahoman base leaves you not knowing if you’re coming or going.
Like their music, which is constantly moving between places and styles – from the open -plained frontiersville of ‘Old Statues’ to the populous ‘As I Lay My Head Down’ – there’s a ghostly, hologram-like feeling to their startling sweeps of the US. We caught up with the not-all-there indie troubadour to find out that Stillwater runs deep…
There’s a strong sense of travelling rather than arriving on the new album in particular, which is interesting because I think Stillwater, Oaklahoma where you live sounds worth investigating. How does living in this beautiful, but slightly windswept piece of the US affect what you do?
Well, if you went to Stillwater right now you might not think it was an amazing place. You might just think it was some Midwestern town. But it’s about the idea of places and the idea of being able to conjure art to happen. Whether it’s on the road or at home it’s that conscious effort of wanting to make music all the time and being with that.
You do use this grand, western feel in interesting ways though – such as the video for ‘For 12’, which has this lonely spaceship pilot speeding above a desolate alien world. You know that bit in Aliens where they turn up at the alien planet and the colonists have ‘terraformed’ it – turned into a liveable landscape? Is there a bit of Other Lives in that? You almost seem to be populating these empty places with music.
Yeah! With Stillwater you’ve got this vast space untouched by humans just five minutes outside this very normal town with its Walmarts and churches and all the clichés of a Midwestern town. That all seeps in in a kind of subconscious way, though. And only by living here for ten years it has hit me slowly. It wasn’t like a Eureka! moment – just after a time of living in this place anybody’s environment ends up affecting them subconsciously in some way. Other Lives is just a way of tapping into that you know?
You’ve talked before about how bits of the album were recorded when you were on the way between places or passing through. But does that process end when the tracks are recorded? Are tracks influenced by or saturated with places they’re played in when you tour?
I don’t know that the geography affects the songs when we play them but that night after night after night of playing the music leads us to ask ‘How can we make it interesting? How can we expand upon this?’ Because it has to be a living thing. It’s not enough to just be ‘We’re playing these songs because we have to go on tour,’ Or whatever. The songs have to be living things or else they’re not real anymore.
We’ve been on the road for a year now, playing the songs from Tamer Animals. So introducing new percussion, new ways to present the songs comes out of necessity. When its ‘I have to do this or I’ll go mad,’ I think really great things come from that.
Are there any songs that continue to change or surprise you?
Well being on the Radiohead tour has been so fantastic. But being an opening band you kind of stick to a certain set. The greatest thing about headlining is that long soundcheck. Through soundchecks we’re able to work on new music and new interludes. So on headlining tours I’m always like, “Hey, let’s try and get there four hours early and do a long soundcheck!” [Laughs]
I’ve not heard of bands looking forward to soundchecks as a place to explore like that…
Well we’ve been deprived of them for such a long time. We love soundchecks! As crazy as that sounds it gives us an opportunity to tweak things – and there’s always nightmarish technical issues before shows that happen to us.
Tell us about your voice Jesse. I like it when lyrics aren’t easy to hear and I like that yours aren’t.
Thankyou – I totally agree!
Who are your favourite voices?
I think one of my favourites is [David] Gilmour. There’s this soft approach to his phrasing and vowels – very rounded. I just love the way words come out his mouth. There’s this thing where he can be singing something but he’s not shoving it down your throat. It’s not, “Listen to my words…” It’s presented in such an artful way.
I like the idea of having a vocalist almost as a third party. An observer, rather than this first person narrative telling you this story. I like vocals to come in sideways, as it were, and be a part of music rather than on top of it…
Same here. I like the fact I have to strain to listen, and I might mishear stuff, and that might be as interesting as what you’re singing. Other Lives don’t strike me as the kind of band that have the lyrics in the CD…
We don’t! I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for that same thing – for not being able to hear the lyrics. But I like the mystery of that, and how that approach fits with the music.
I think of Other Lives as this dislocated thing that’s moving between one place and another and as well as the music being like that I think the lyrics and your singing fits with that. It’s almost as if I’m in another room. Other Lives would work really well on poor quality bootleg cassettes – like the audience recordings of gigs where you can hear the guy next to the person taping it but you can’t hear the band?
We’d love that!
Some bands, there’s no room for the audience cos the band’s sorted everything out, they’ve worked out all the answers, they’ve got their message to get across… Other Lives, there’s stuff left for us to play with. It’s more of a conversation.
It kind of goes back to this idea of the participation of the audience. I love instrumental music so much because it puts the listener in a different position, where they get to experience and interpret it in their own way. Whereas a very prominent vocal makes the audience more of a spectator than a participant.
Heading East, the last track on Tamer Animals, is a great example of that. Was that part of the consideration when putting together that track? Providing something less than a deliberate full stop?
Well, I wanted it to float along and not have a definitive ending. It’s meant to be kind of a day dream. I just happened to be heading east and I just did it all in the van. It was so reverb-ey and dreamy I thought it was a queer way to end the album but I liked it. You know I have a ‘Heading West’ too?
Good to keep your options open! I think Heading East is a good example of providing the audience with options, actually. And that’s a great reward – to allow them to explore.
Right. Being a part of it. I want to take the personality of Other Lives out of the equation. There’s no frontman, there’s no show, there’s no gimmicks. It’s a simple idea.
I think that comes across. Are you looking forward to performing at No Direction Home in Sheffield? How much do you find out about the places that you play?
I’m around people who know what they’re doing, which is lucky cos I’m a complete idiot when it comes to driving. It’s really important to me to go out and experience the place I’m in. But normally I play dumb and follow where the boys in the band take me.
The Album Tamer Animals is out now. Other Lives play at No Direction Home which runs from 8th – 10th June.
Interview by Rob Barker