Considering how huge the Georgia music scene has gotten in the last 20 years, it’s shocking to consider how few hard rock/metal bands from the Peach State have broken out on a national level. There’s Sevendust, Mastodon and… um… Baroness, maybe? It may be a bit early to add O’Brother’s name to that list, but their debut album shows plenty of promise, with epic, almost orchestral opuses that include nods to influences such as Sigur Ros and Mogwai in terms of grandeur and conceptual scope.
O’Brother has been around for years, with bassist Anton Dang, guitarist Johnny Dang and drummer Michael Martens getting together back in 2005 and replacing their original frontman with singer/guitarist Tanner Merritt in 2008. They released a 2009 EP, The Death of Day, which gave glimpses of the artfulness they aspired to. But the band built up its devoted following the old-fashioned way, playing local venues such as the Masquerade and Drunken Unicorn, and touring relentlessly whenever the opportunity arose.
“We would play anywhere, any time, for any amount of money,” Martens recalls. “You can find good music in Atlanta every night of the week, which makes it a very competitive market to be from. You can’t oversaturate yourself, but you definitely have to do some extra leg work to be heard.”
“We started by playing locally a bunch,” Anton adds, “then we started booking our own tours around the southeast. Thankfully we’ve been on a bunch of tours opening for great bands, so that helps. But we’ve never really fit into a specific scene: We weren’t pretty enough for the indie scene and not burly and hairy enough for the metal scene. We’ve always tried to make friends with bands, venues and promoters that were kind and genuine, and treated everyone with respect.”
O’Brother has toured with big-name national acts such as Thrice, Cage The Elephant and Circa Survive. But it was their connection with fellow Atlanta rockers Manchester Orchestra that ultimately proved most beneficial, as frontman Andy Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell wound up producing the band’s epic debut effort, Garden Window.
“We’ve been friends with Manchester Orchestra for about six years now,” Dang says. “All of them have been supportive since the beginning, but Andy specifically helped us out with anything he could, from putting us in contact with someone [at record labels] to helping us make a record. He and Tanner spent a lot of time in the studio together working on melodies and harmonies. I would get a rough mix of what they did that day and I was blown away every time.”
Garden Window’s songs vary broadly both in style and length, from the relatively accessible driving rhythms of “Lo” to the 14-minute epic “Cleanse Me,” which takes listeners on an extended aural journey that traverses expansive sonic territory. That diverse range of sounds comes from an experimental approach to songwriting in which some songs are created spontaneously as a group, while others are written by individual members and then fully fleshed out in practice.
“Sometimes songs would come straight from jamming,” says Martens. “Others would come mostly from one person, and then get reworked into something we were all happy with. Either way, we tend to take our time writing, and then Andy brought experience in polishing a few rough edges that the songs still had.”
The results have earned the group mostly positive reviews and favorable comparisons to alt-metal icons such as Tool, Deftones and Queens of the Stone Age. On an album where six of the 11 songs go well past the 5-minute mark, perhaps it’s not too surprising that the dreaded “p-word” (prog) has been tossed about by more than one critic. But Dang, for his part, seems okay with the prog-rock tag.
“In all honesty,” he insists, “I take it as a compliment. We’re not a straight up prog-rock band by any means. None of us are talented enough to be considered prog musicians. We can’t shred. But progressing is something that I hope our band will continue doing. We’re never going to write the same record twice. If whatever you’re doing isn’t progressing and moving forward and improving in one way or another, then maybe there’s something else that you should be doing instead.”
Diesel and dust
As for O’Brother, in recent months they’ve returned to doing what they do best—hitting the road, touring relentlessly and converting new fans one concert at a time. When we spoke, the band had recently returned from a tour with California-based post-hardcore icons Thrice, and Dang was clearly still coming down from the high of the experience.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” he says. “A couple of us grew up listening to Thrice, so having the opportunity to share the stage with them and become friends with them is something we never thought would happen. Thrice, along with many of the other bands that we’ve had the chance to tour with, has taught us a lot of things. O’Brother has done a lot of touring, but I feel like we’re still learning new things from every band we go out on the road with.”
Although Garden Window had only been out for a few months at the time of our interview, Dang and Martens were already looking towards the future with excitement. The band has plans to tour both domestically and abroad over the course of this year, and they hope to find some free time in between tours to get back to writing new material for their second album.
“I don’t think any of us really thought that this record was going to be received this well,” Dang confesses. “It’s a very ambitious record, in that it’s all over the place. You can’t tie this record or our band into any one specific genre. We only hope to continue to grow musically, and hopefully the people that like our band will be open minded enough to grow with us.”