O'Brother's Path to Disillusionment

Wherein HM spends some time learning their ways

Photo by Alex Gibbs

One of the most exciting things about going to concerts is catching obscure new bands. Some are hidden by the shadow of the headliner, while others steal the show. When I first saw Atlanta’s O’Brother open up for Thrice and Manchester Orchestra, I didn’t think anything of them.

Now, just three years later, the post-hardcore act is putting out their second full-length album after a nationwide tour with ’90s grunge legends, Alice in Chains. The band is still just beginning an impressive career. Vocalist Tanner Merritt took some time to answer a few questions regarding touring, new music and songwriting.

You play in a fairly unique band called O’Brother. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Well, the band started around 2006 under a different lineup. I guess this incarnation started around the end of 2008. I would describe us as a melodic, heavy — but also ambient — rock band.

It’s interesting. You guys often change genres in the middle of your songs.
Yeah, it tends to jump around a bit.

And you guys have had an incredible year this past year. Can you tell me a little bit about what you guys have been up to?
Hum. This year?

We started the year off right after New Year’s. We went to Long Island to start tracking our new record, and actually started on my birthday, January 7, with Mike Sapone. He is a producer there and has been a friend of ours for a while now. He mixed our last record, and we knew him through mutual fans and other bands. So we tracked in Long Island for the month of January, came home for a couple of weeks, and then went to Australia to do Soundwave festival. It was our first time in Australia.

How was that?
It was a blast; just a beautiful country. The shows were so fun.

Soundwave is a pretty big festival in Australia, so what is that like?
Yeah! We were definitely one of the smallest bands at the festival, a lot of bigger rock bands (were playing). Then we had a little bit of time off and did a run [of shows]. It was a mix of some headlining shows and a string of shows we did with Alice in Chains. That is about all we have done this year.

I saw that you guys were touring with Alice in Chains a couple months back, and I was really surprised about it. How did that opportunity come up?
You know, I don’t know exactly. I think our booking agent was trying to get us on several tours, and one of the tours we were trying to get on conflicted with Australia. Somehow I think they got in contact with the people that work with Alice in Chains and sent them our record. I guess that they liked us, so they asked us to come out.

That’s crazy. What was the reaction to your music like from the fans and the band?
The band was incredibly nice. I mean, we kind of went into it expecting that a band that size would be busy, so we (thought) we wouldn’t see them that much. But the first day we were there, they all came and introduced themselves and asked us if we needed anything. They were just really hospitable and really nice, especially for people that have been doing it for as long as they have.

Their first album came out the year I was born, so I guess 25 or 26 years ago. It is incredible that they all still seem to enjoy what they do. The shows were awesome as well, probably some of the biggest audiences we have ever played for. It was a really good opportunity for us.

What have been some of the most interesting things you guys have experienced on the road so far?
Aw man, everything. The cool part about touring is that it is always changing. You find yourself in problems you’ve never experienced before. In that way, it just doesn’t get old; there is always something different. I can’t think of any specifics.

You guys have been on the road a lot.
Yeah, we have been touring extensively since, like, 2009, and that first year and a half or so, we self-booked shows at DIY venues and art spaces. We had a good run of really rough touring. It was still always a good time. You get to meet so many interesting people.

You guys went on tour with Thrice in 2009, so was that your first tour?
Yeah, I think so. The first time was in 2010. We did a couple weeks with them on a co-headlining tour they did with Manchester Orchestra. We had just gotten off tour with Manchester Orchestra — so we did two tours with them — and then Thrice asked us to come out on two full U.S. tours after that one. One was in 2011 and another in 2012, so we have toured with them three times now.

Every band has things they do on the road to pass time and stay sane. What do you guys do to keep yourselves entertained on the road?
(Laughs) Well, we all actually get along pretty well. I think it’s everyone’s general sense of humor — we’re just a pretty goofy bunch of dudes. That helps alleviates the stress of the day-to-day activities. I guess for personal space, I usually like to take the overnight drives because everyone else is asleep and I get to listen to music and zone out. I kind of feel like I have my own time and space.

Yeah, personal space is hard to come by on the tour.

(Laughs) I can imagine. In the past few years, you guys have also been able to play several different festivals. What’s the difference between playing a festival like Cornerstone and playing one like Rock on the Range?
Very different. We played Cornerstone once … I think that was in 2009, so it was pretty early on in our touring. But it was awesome. … Cornerstone isn’t around anymore, is it?

Okay, so the audience there seemed pretty receptive to whatever was going on. I think it was kind of like a built-in audience, you know? People would go to Cornerstone just because it was Cornerstone — they go every year. Rock on the Range definitely had less of a variety with the bands. It was a lot of rock bands. We kind of felt a little bit out of place, but it ended up being a really good thing. We had a good crowd.

Also, I think the idea of a camping festival feels more homey. It seems like people are there for the long haul, to see bands and whatever else is going on.

Yeah, definitely. What are some of your favorite festivals to play?
South by Southwest is really fun. It’s really different because it’s not just in one central location; there are a bunch of outdoor stages. It is in like every club in Austin, spread out all over the city. There is a lot of walking involved, and it’s packed with people. It’s a really good time. I mean, there are thousands of bands that go every year. And we also got the opportunity to play Reading and Leeds in the UK last year.

That is awesome.
Yeah that was a lot of fun; those festivals have been around for forever and have had some pretty legendary acts.
It’s good to see the band getting on these festivals. Moving on to the new album, what can fans expect from Disillusion?
I feel like it’s a pretty natural progression from the EP that we did, The Death of Day, and then Garden Window. I feel like it’s just more focused on honing in on the direction we are trying to go.

What is the direction?
I don’t think we know exactly yet, but I think we are getting closer. I can’t say what the ultimate goal is, but I do know that everything we have released, we have been consistently happier with. We like the way things have turned out.

Good. What are some of the influences?

Yeah, for this album specifically.
Man, a lot of things … I think a lot of us got into heavier music over time. O’Brother really didn’t start out as a heavy band, and I think that, even though a few members were really into heavy music, everyone wasn’t. But over time, it kind of progressed that way as we mutually got a little bit heavier.
I know a lot of us were listening to the newest Old Man Gloom record No, and (the band) Cult of Luna. A lot of us were on a really huge Pink Floyd kick right around recording. I feel they’re one of those bands you rediscover every so often, and it just kind of happened that we were all listening to them. I was really intrigued by David Gilmour’s guitar playing and sound, so that had some to do with it.

Cool. What are some of your favorite tracks on Disillusion?
The title track is one of my favorites, and “Oblivion.” I think that one will be fun to play live. We have been playing “Contexts” and “Perilous Love” live on the last run we did, and those were really fun. I think they were invigorating. Maybe it was just because it was really exciting to play something new.

One thing I was pleasantly surprised by when listening to the album is that, while it is definitely full of angst at times, you stay clear from most profanity. Was staying clear from most profanity a conscious effort, or did the lyrics just naturally come out the way they did?
I don’t think it was a conscious effort. I have never really successfully … Well, it has never been a point of mine to use profanity in a song, regardless of whether or not I use it in my day-to-day life. Usually, when I hear it, it sounds forced and not poetic at all.

Yeah, I totally agree.
Which is the way I tend to approach songwriting, you know?

Very cool. What are some reoccurring lyrical themes on the album?
A lot of it was an overall upset with society and the way things are unfolding in our current age, and a lot of it was how it paralleled to personal issues of mine and the rest of the band’s lives at the time. There are different instances, but that is the overall direction of it. Just in general, the mind opening to the fact that, more often than not, life is not the way you want it to be.

And it is completely out of your control most of the time.

So if there is one thing you want listeners to walk away with from hearing the new album, what is that?
Well, I don’t want to convey a sense of hopelessness which, looking back, I feel the record could be viewed as. I don’t think that was our intent. But I guess I would want people to find hope somehow.

I can see that. To me, one of the most intriguing songs is “Transience.” Can you explain the meaning of that one?
Transience itself, you know, is the feeling of being entirely temporary. I think lot of it is just thinking about your impact on the people around you, the impact your life has and the legacy that you leave. And then, personally, it came to a point of realizing how selfish, really, that thought process can be at times if you become consumed with it. That is the very general and vague meaning.

You do most of the songwriting for the band, right?

Where do you get a lot of your influence lyrically?
Everything that goes in and out. Everything is stored somewhere to come out at a different point. I used to read when I would be writing songs; sometimes, I would look up sonnets and stuff from Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer just because their use of, like, the iambic pentameter. That, and their use of the English language was amazing.

But sometimes, for certain things, I will just do research and try and look up as much as I can pertaining to a subject and see if that sparks any ideas. And then sometimes it is more just off the top of the head. It depends.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters, lyricists or even poets?
Tom Waits is a really good lyricist. Sometimes it is just goofy, but it is just really weird (laughs). But man, this is hard. I have always liked the way David Bazan writes songs lyrically.

Oh yeah, Pedro the Lion.
Yeah. And his newer records, like Curse Your Branches, I think.

I love that album.
Yeah, it was awesome. I don’t think I could ever write songs like he does. His approach is just way different, but his lyrics are amazing. I can’t think of a lot off the top of my head.

Those are some really good ones though. What does the end of the year look like for O’Brother?
We are doing our first full U.S. headlining tour starting in August with a band called Native and a band called Daylight. We are really stoked about that. We are also playing Lollapalooza right before that.

How does that feel?
Awesome. I have never gotten to go to Lollapalooza, so it is great that we will be there. They have a bunch of good bands playing. I want to see Queens of the Stone Age; I have never gotten the chance to see them. So yeah, we are stoked about it.

Finally, if fans wanted to help you guys out in anyway at all what could they do?
Come to shows! That is what the music industry has come to. The best way for fans to help the band is to go to shows; support bands by coming to shows with friends.

O’Brother was posted on August 13, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by .