“I wish it was like that,” says O'Brother bassist Anton Dang. “It would probably have been less awkward.”
Instead, the tryout yielded a single participant, “some random kid” who had tossed demos the band's way upon hearing that they'd split with their former singer. Yet, when the hopeful got his shot to impress the remaining trio in the basement of their downtown Atlanta home, it quickly became apparent that he wasn't going to be that replacement. Aside from being younger than the current lineup, he hadn't grasped the playing skills the group needed and had zero experience singing live.
“It was a completely opposite direction than one we were wanting to go in,” Dang says.
The auditioner didn't help his case by picking up and screwing around with an Ebow (a contraption that plays a guitar using an electromagnetic field) instead of showing off his actual instrumental ability. The band tried to teach him a portion or two, but the aid accomplished nothing.
Dang remembers the experience as “a nightmare.” That debacle was enough to dissuade them from having a second open audition.
Waiting for the right vocalist to come along, the three men of O'Brother loped around for two years, working and spending free time writing and jamming in their basement. Eventually, the trio started hanging out with Grindcore drummer Aaron Wamack and added him as a guitarist even though “he couldn't sing and could barely play guitar.”
In another fortuitous turn, the group learned that their friend Tanner Merritt had left Post Rock outfit Ours to Alibi.
As a guitarist who also sang for a solo Folk project, enlisting him as O'Brother's last vital piece made sense. With the completed lineup, the rejuvenated outfit spent another eight months or so honing their material before finally hitting a stage.
Dang is confident the band made the correct decision in holding out for so long. The band’s original singer had an aggressive growl more applicable to a Hardcore band and O'Brother's early incarnation. Meanwhile, Merritt offers a weirder set of traits, like a falsetto and singing in an airy half-mumble in which his words waver in imprecise patterns. Another factor that worked toward Merritt's hiring was his lyrical competency.
A handful of motifs dotting 2008's The Death of Day, the inaugural work of the revamped lineup, stem from religion: God and The Devil are mentioned multiple times, while the comparably obscure reference of “Our bread, his body, left to rot” is heard in “Providence.” As the title implies, there's a funereal vibe to The Death of Day, but not all funerals have to be wholly gloomy. In some cases, a loss can spark a new path — an allegory certainly pertinent to the reborn O'Brother. The solemn, oceanic “Ascension” exemplifies this concept with a passage that says, “We'll spread our ash amongst the dirt/ To soil the seed that breeds the earth/ So we can live again/ So wait for me to bloom.”
The music, too, shimmers with a thirst for the epochal, as their material is dominated by textured murmurs of guitar that expand into all-encompassing, woozy swirls. Cursive's Emo-bred Indie Rock makes for another excellent comparison point. Aaron Wamack's addition to O'Brother drew in weightier influences like Converge, Deftones and Meshuggah. Classical music, film scores and Brian Eno's Ambient music also affected the group.
“We really like mellow, calm parts but at the same time, we want to come off as loud and heavy,” Dang says of the dichotomy that drives the band's aesthetic. “The Death of Day captures that. We’re hoping our next one is going to be quieter and mellower and, in the heavier parts, heavier than anything we could try to capture on recording.”
Still, as a young group, O'Brother knows not to think too big. They're untangling the knots in their songwriting as they collect material for an upcoming record, but knowing that they have a plan is enough to give them a jolt of promise.
“We've always wanted to take music seriously (but) taking two years off put a damper on things,” Dang says. “But now, we're at a point where we're doing exactly what we want to do.”
O'BROTHER plays Bogart’s Wednesday with Thrice and Manchester Orchestra. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.
Read Brian Baker's interview with Manchester Orchestra here.