OMOTAI: Broad Spectrum of Heavy Music

Omotai, interview with Vinyl Sphere

Houston’s metal quartet Omotai has been active since 2010, and in the period of seven years the group put out three LP’s. Their most recent release is this year’s heavy chunk titled A Ruined Oak, which was released recently on a Purple / Silver 200 gram vinyl through Tofu Carnage Records. The album was mastered by James Plotkin (Khanate, OLD, Lotus Eaters, Scorn).

Drummer Danny Mee speaks for Vinyl Sphere about the band’s vision with A Ruined Oak, the vinyl edition of the album, and more.

Describe the musical vision propelling your new album A Ruined Oak.

Danny Mee (drums): There are a lot of different styles of heavy music represented on this album. The previous albums took the band in two pretty different directions: Terrestrial Grief has a bunch of fast, riffy, angry songs with a lot of blastbeats, while Fresh Hell has some more mid and downtempo songs and even some singing. We wanted to incorporate both of those modes of the band. And there were some new ideas coming in from Jamie [Ross, guitar & vocals] and me. So the vision behind this album is to take a sampling of a broad spectrum of heavy music that we’re interested in- thrash, death metal, black metal, grindcore, hardcore, punk, post-metal- and showcase some specific musical ideas that played around with those different styles.

What made this the right time to pursue that vision?

For one thing, Jamie and I had joined the band since the last record was made. We now had two guitar players, so the band was bigger and louder, and we just had more ideas bouncing around. This was our third LP, and we were working with a new label (Tofu Carnage) that puts a lot of thought into the whole process, from packaging to promotion to their whole catalog. And Sam [Waters, guitar & vocals] had a specific concept in mind for the record: a song cycle about the lost 16th century colony at Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina in the US, which has been a subject of fascination in American culture for centuries. He thought he needed at least 10 or 11 songs to pull that off.

So we decided that, at this point in the band’s “career,” such as it is, it was “go big or go home.” Which meant expanding on the relatively tight records we’d done before, and making an artistic statement that was ambitious and large in scale, to try to show people what this band is capable of.

Tell me about what you’re communicating with the album cover.

That’s a good question, because the concept of the record doesn’t obviously link up with the art directly. The source of the art itself is sort of interesting, because it’s a rendering of a photograph of a woodcut.

The pun in the title of the record (A Ruined Oak, which is a play on “Roanoke”) comes into play here, because a woodcut is in some sense, literally, a “ruined” tree (although I don’t know that this one specifically was oak).

The title of the woodcut is White Raven I, which is interesting because, of course, ravens are black. I haven’t talked to the artist about why the raven is white (the color is not obvious from the work itself), but one possible explanation is that it’s a reference to the Greek myth in which Apollo scorches the feathers of the raven because it brings him bad news, turning them black. That is quite relevant to the concept behind the record, which is fundamentally about misfortune and loss. And of course, the raven has been a powerful symbol for all of Western history, because of its association with death as a carrion bird, and that’s quite relevant as well.

What was the creative process for A Ruined Oak like?

Short answer: Lengthy!

Long answer: Sam came up with the bones of about two thirds of the songs in 2013 and 2014. He did basic demos of the riffs, and then we hammered out the structures and fleshed out the songs in rehearsal in 2014 and the first half of 2015.

Jamie wrote three of the songs (the title track, “The Savage Sky,” and “Augustina”) and his process is different- he’ll actually build the whole song at home, including the rhythm tracks, and then we’ll learn it mostly as written and usually tweak some things in the process.

At least one song (“Blackjaw”) started with some bass riffs that Melissa [Lonchambon Ryan] wrote, and then we wrote the rest of it in rehearsal.

Most of the vocals for the album were written after the music was 100% finished (and in some cases, after it was recorded).

Speaking of the album’s creative process, provide some insight into it. How did you document the music while it was being formulated?

Along with the aforementioned demos, we did full-band demos of ten songs in December 2014, which we used to write vocals and clean up some arrangements and performance issues (two of these songs we ended up cutting from the final tracklist). We learned 4 more songs in 2015, so I don’t think we have any full-band demos of those, except for maybe some very crude practice space recordings that we made on someone’s phone or something.

Overall, there’s a LOT of demo material for this record, both because of the volume of the material and because we really wanted to get it right. I don’t think any of us had done this much background work for a record before, and looking back I’m a little surprised at how much there was. The sound of the record is very immediate, especially by the standards of what other bands in this space are doing right now, but there is a huge amount of work backing up those relatively raw-sounding recordings.

Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?

Interesting question. I think at the level of the song, yes, the structure of each song got a lot of careful consideration. But the tracklist of the whole album is pretty close to the order in which we learned the songs! We didn’t realize that at the time, but that’s probably why it just made intuitive sense to us. In that respect, listening through the album tells the story of creating the music. Sort of. (laughing)

Did the environment in any way influence the vibe the album transcends?

I’m not quite sure what you mean here, but I will say this: our practice space is a dirty, bare-bones sort of a space, and we recorded the album in our practice space. So I think some of the rawness and immediacy of the record probably come from that.

A Ruined Oak was mastered by James Plotkin. How did it come down to that?

James had also mastered Terrestrial Grief and we found him both easy to work with and in line with our aesthetic. Speaking as someone who is not on that record, I think it sounds bad as fuck.

We had considered a couple of other mastering houses that our label had worked with, but a lot of their recent work had the really in-your-face sonic profile that’s been big recently in grindcore and extreme music more generally. While we love to listen to a lot of that stuff, we felt like Plotkin was going to give the record a little more room to breathe.

How do you usually go about creating a new song?

With me living in a different city from the rest of the band, demoing songs has become really important. We don’t have as much time to bang things out in the rehearsal space as we used to. Sam will usually record a bunch of riffs that go together and we’ll arrange them in practice; like I said before, Jamie tends to work out the whole picture in advance. Melissa will also write bass riffs that we build around in the rehearsal space.

The lyrics usually get written after we are comfortable playing the song.

But the whole process has been very much in flux because we’ve been working on this record for so long, and also because my wife and I just had a baby, which has been making it more difficult for us to all be in the same place at the same time. Because of that, we’re not sure exactly how things are going to work going forward- but at the same time, we already have three new songs written. So we’re figuring it out.

Which bands or artists influence your work?

The first Sumac record came out right in the middle of the whole process and everyone paid pretty close attention to that because it was so different from everything else that was going on. I heard Sam and Melissa mention Horseback a few times during this time. The last couple of Kowloon Walled City records have been important to everyone as well. Cult of Luna has come up a lot.

I know Sam was listening to a lot of ‘80s thrash and death metal during the making of this record. And speaking more generally, Matt Pike’s work with Sleep and High On Fire is a big influence on the way he sounds. Failure got back together in 2014 and they are Jamie’s favorite band, so I think he was listening to them a lot; Cult Leader’s first LP came out in 2015 and that was pretty big for him too.

I don’t know where exactly Melissa’s ideas come from, but she spent a long time playing in loud indie rock bands along the lines of Shiner, and as a bass player I know she’s a big fan of David Sims from the Jesus Lizard. She has also admitted to being a Pantera fan. As for me I’m always listening to a lot of Mastodon, but before Omotai I played mostly in punk and math rock bands. I also spent three years in a band that played Zimbabwean marimba music, which rearranged my head a bit.

Here’s a fun tidbit: we wanted the bass guitar to be prominent on this record, because so much of the time it gets buried under the guitar in heavy bands. And I remember playing for Melissa and her husband Chris, who engineered the record, And Justice For Jason” which is the bootleg remix of Metallica’s And Justice For All with the bass turned way up. And lo and behold, we got a mix with a ton of delicious bass guitar.

Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?

In the moment, I think all art serves a purpose in terms of forging communities of people and shaping how those communities act. And of course art is political in the sense that it both reflects and shapes the worldview of the listener. But I don’t think there’s something specific that we’re trying to accomplish in the world directly through our music.

OmotaiA Ruined Oak DLP available from Bandcamp

Same as with your previous albums, 2012’s Terrestrial Grief and 2014’s Fresh Hell, A Ruined Oak was also released on vinyl. What in particular makes you gravitate towards this format?

There are some career-related reasons why it made sense for us to put this record out on vinyl- including the fact that Tofu Carnage is an all-vinyl label! However, I think the real reason is that putting your music on a physical format represents a more significant commitment to the music, because it’s an expensive pain in the ass, so you really have to believe in what you’re doing in order to make it happen. It has a way of sharpening your focus and forcing you to make tough decisions about what’s going to be on the record and what you’re going to do to get people to buy it.

Additionally, speaking purely for myself, I like vinyl records. I grew up listening to them and I think they’re fun and beautiful. Ultimately those are the qualities that I’m looking for in music, so to me it makes sense to listen to and put out records in that format.

With the album out, what else do you have in the pipeline?

We did a short tour in October to the western US. We’ll be playing some more regional shows over the winter and next year to support the record, and beyond that we’ve already started working on material for our fourth LP. Hopefully this one won’t take so long to make!

A Ruined Oak is out now and is available as digital download and 200-gram Purple / Silver vinyl from Bandcamp. Follow Omotai on Facebook and Instagram. For more information about Omotai visit their official website.

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