Touring with a solid new album, O’Brother embark on their first headlining tour this August. Photo: Alex Gibbs
Atlanta-based experimental rock band O’Brother has gained an amazing amount of traction in a short time, releasing their first EP, The Death of Day, with the current lineup in 2009, and their first full-length, Garden Window, in 2011. Touring with bands as big as Manchester Orchestra, Thrice and even Alice In Chains, these guys are finally taking on a headlining tour of their own in support of their sophomore release, the excellent Disillusion. We hooked up with vocalist Tanner Merritt to find out exactly what it’s been like recording the new album, and how these dudes manage to consistently keep putting on such show-stealing live performances.
I still remember the first time I saw O’Brother with Biffy Clyro and Manchester Orchestra. I picked up a copy of The Death of Day after the show, and they stuck with me long after. I was beyond stoked when they finally announced Garden Window. I think their debut album has weathered amazingly well in the couple years since, and Merritt agrees. “[We’ve] definitely come really far. There were some dark days when we started booking our own tours, never knowing if people were going to show up, but we’ve gotten to do a lot of things that we never thought that we’d be able to do. The response has been awesome—greater than we expected,” he says.
Instead of returning to Favorite Gentlemen Recordings, headquarters of their close friends in Manchester Orchestra and recording studio for Garden Window, O’Brother enlisted the aid of an old friend, producer Mike Sapone. “Mike Sapone mixed our last record, and we were really happy with the way it turned out. It made a huge difference. We kind of built a relationship with him because of that,” says Merritt. Recording in Long Island at Sapone’s studio, Merritt says that they enjoyed the comforts of an isolated creative environment, away from the distractions of daily life, free to focus wholly on the new album. “[It’s been] my favorite by far. It was the first time that we got to leave our home and go somewhere [to record],” he says.
Garden Window had a very different sound from The Death of Day, much more upbeat and earthy, and Disillusion is a much darker, more somber album than either. “I think it was more of a natural progression in the direction that we’ve been heading since the first release. I think we just kind of realized what we do best. Garden Window was all over the place as far as dynamics and tempos, and I think Disillusion is honing in our sound,” he says. The recently released song “Context” is a good example of the album’s vibe, marrying the darkness and sweet melancholy of The Death of Day with the richness of Garden Window, but taking both in a more refined direction.
Though I’d expect that playing such incredibly complex and atmospheric songs live would lend itself to a lot of difficulty and a lot of compromises, Merritt says that such rich dynamics are the easy part: “None of us are extremely technically proficient musicians, so I think our sound has always been built around layers and dynamics rather than technical riffing. I think it just comes naturally to us.” With that in mind, he also says that a lot of Disillusion was written around being able to translate well to a live show. “We’ve only played a couple songs from the new record, and only at a handful of shows, and that was really fun. Usually, I’m most excited about what’s new, and it’s refreshing to play new songs. We’re all excited to play a lot off this new record,” he says. For my part, I can definitely say that I’m excited, too.
While Disillusion marks the next step in their musical progression, O’Brother are also taking the next big step in their career by headlining their own tour this summer. “The thought of headlining has been terrifying for a while, although it’s something that we knew we’d have to do inevitably,” says Merritt. While they’ve been touring pretty much non-stop for a while, it’s usually been supporting other bands, and Utah fans of Thrice will definitely recognize them from Thrice’s farewell tour last year. In a slightly more intimate show, they also played Kilby Court twice last year, once during their co-headlining tour with Junius (Junius didn’t make that particular show due to getting stuck in the snowy mountains, but O’Brother enjoyed playing to a packed room regardless), and again during last year’s Crucialfest. Fitting, then, that Kilby Court is going to host them once more during this year’s tour in August.
Fans of both O’Brother and vinyl are also in good company, as Disillusion will also be released in record form on Aug. 20 via Triple Crown Records. The band is extremely excited for the release after going all-out with the packaging, a collaboration by artists Yaroslav Gerzhedovich and Ian Rowan. As a proud owner of one of the 500 limited-edition copies of the Garden Window vinyl release, I can speak firsthand to the significant love and attention given to an O’Brother record, full of gorgeous, full-frame artwork. Don’t forget to catch O’Brother in person during their Salt Lake City stop at Kilby Court on Aug. 30, supported by Native and Daylight.