Ohtis Interview : Upcoming Album, New Single
I don’t exactly remember how I found Ohtis. More than likely, I was googling something about Prussia or Jamaican Queens for a Mostly Midwest article, and I probably googled Adam Pressley (who was/is in both of those bands), and then I found myself on another page, some music blogspot from 2008 perhaps, which I then followed down a progressively deepening internet rabbit hole until I eventually came across a different band Pressley was in, Ohtis, and their 2008 album If This Country Had a Heart, That’s Where I Was Born. The album was free and up for download. So I downloaded it.
I wrote about my newfound love for this album a few years ago (back when I thought the songs they were putting online were “singles” instead of random one-offs), and my adoration for this album has only grown since that summer. Simply put, it’s a complex, fully-realized artistic statement that rewards repeated listening and familiarity. I love its warped country rock palette. I love its strange, wistful, sardonic attitude and tone. I love how it dwells at the intersections of so many paradoxes: belief and doubt, fear and nostalgia, ironic humor and sincerity. I even love its b-sides. Honestly, I could go on and on about this album, but I think you get the point: it means a lot to me.
This album came out in 2008, and though there’s been some activity on the Ohtis FB page in the intervening years, we are only this year starting to see Ohtis congealing back together into a band. There have been a few shows in Michigan and Indiana, I think, and a briefly available acoustic EP.
But most excitingly, there’s a new single, “Runnin’”, which heralds the approach of that new LP. The song is a beautiful slice of dusky country-americana. In comparison to the multi-layered, meta-self-aware, multi-part songs of If This Country Had a Heart…, the new song is skillfully restrained. Lyrically, it pairs painful flashes of memory (“You woke up drunk on the kitchen floor/ The day your daddy died you didn’t drink anymore/ You gave up the beer but you still got the fear/ I’m terrified with you brother now I’m here”) with a yearning chorus, one that moves from possibility to fantasy as it shifts from the concrete to the unknown, all while charting some tragic relationship between speaker and subject.
I reached out to Adam Pressley and primary songwriter Sam Swinson via email with some of my questions about their new album, working together from different sides of the country, and what we can expect from Ohtis in the coming months. You can stream “Runnin’” below, and read their answers below that.
It’s been eight years since your last album. What was the hold-up? Or maybe more accurately, why now?
Adam: Our band and personal relationship both fell apart about eight years ago. Around this time, I decided to quit Ohtis and move to Detroit to join the band Prussia. Over those eight years, Sam and I kept in touch and continued to produce Ohtis songs together, without ever planning on releasing any of them. Eight years later, we both feel passionately about ‘taking the show on the road’, so now that’s what we’re doing.
The first single is a bit more sedate and straightforward than anything off the 2008 album. How does the new material differ from past Ohtis stuff?
Adam: We tried to make the sound of this album minimal, whereas we tried to make the last album very dense. On “Runnin'”, I focused a lot on making the instruments themselves sound as good as I could, probably because I had all this leftover creative energy from keeping the production so simple.
I think it’s also just not 2008 anymore. We’re different people than we were then, and we’re both influenced by different music. I was listening to a lot of Animal Collective when we made our last album, yet I would get SO OFFENDED when people compared us to Animal Collective. So far the only comparison I’ve heard for the new stuff is Tom Petty…
Sam, to my ears, your songwriting walks a tightrope between bemused introspection and life-or-death lamenting. Is your sharp wit an escape hatch from serious matters, or a way to understand these things better? Or neither?
Sam: I grew up going to the First Assembly of God Church, which is a cult. I think I always managed to somehow have a good sense of humor about religion, even when I believed hell might actually be a real place God sent people for an eternity of torture (up until I was about 25). It was a pretty twisted way to be, and probably made for some unusual songs.
Some of the strongest Ohtis songs deal with themes of Christianity and guilt and, like, Old Testament God Fearing in a really fresh and exciting way. How has your relationship to these themes changed since your last album?
Sam: I stopped “drinking the kool-aid” right around the time I stopped doing drugs. It was a double whammy. But don’t worry, there will still be plenty of good ol’ fashion Old Testament God fearing for your listening pleasure on the “new” record, because that’s just my style baby. Hope you like it! Nowadays, I read a lot of sci-fi. Two favorites are Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings. As far as religion goes, I really admire a barely known woman named Peace Pilgrim. There are documentaries about her on the internet. Her sister, Mildred, who’s about 100 now, will send you books and inner peace pamphlets for free if you contact her through the website. Happy postulating 🤘🏻. Been watching the original Cosmos a lot lately. I also think a British art educator, John Berger, was ahead of his time, and ours… I recommend his BBC series, Ways of Seeing.
I read elsewhere that you two work on songs from almost-opposite sides of the country: Detroit and LA, correct? Do you see this as in impediment to your process, or a catalyst? And how exactly does that process work? In your Assemble Sound write-up, you call the process “uninhibited.” I’d like to hear more about that.
Adam: We’re making it work long-distance. Sam’s here in Detroit as I type this. He’s in my living room watching some arty movie he downloaded. While he’s in town for a month, we’re going to play some shows, shoot a live video, mix the album we just finished, and start recording another album. So, we basically go hard as fuck when we’re both in the same place, in order to accomplish the same amount of work as a typical band- one where they all live near each other.
Part 2 of your question: I said it was uninhibited making this album because neither of us were thinking, “this is going to be a song on an album that we’ll release.” We were just making these songs for fun in our spare time. I made some creative decisions I never would have made, had I known we’d release it.
I’d occasionally get a song attachment in an e-mail from Sam, and even though I was in love with these songs, I was working hard on pursuing Jamaican Queens, and there was no way I could effectively devote myself to both bands. Plus, Sam was heavily addicted to heroin throughout some of those eight years, and if there’s one thing about heroin addicts, they don’t make the best bandmates.
PS: Let it be known that Sam is now in recovery for his addiction, and doing very very well. We’re all happy he’s still alive, let alone thriving like he is.
What does the future for Ohtis hold?
Almost have a full October/November tour fully booked right now, plan on touring the west coast at the beginning of 2017.