Under the Canopy with OAX
One of the most interesting figures in indie folk has somehow stayed beneath the radar, despite touring with the likes of Bishop Allen and The Rosebuds and appearing as a bassist in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. OAX (named for Houston’s majestic oak trees) is Giorgio Angelini, who has a new EP, This Distance. Here, he talks to me about Ramen, Ritalin, and his favorite tree.
ELM:Why did you release an EP now rather than wait for an LP later? Or are you working on an LP now?
GA: I was out of money! I’m still paying off my last record from my old band, 1986. Last summer, a flood of songs came to me, and my original intention was to release a full-length. But after recording in January with Ivan, I decided that it might be best to do an EP. Especially since I still have a year and a half left of school. A lot of people have asked me this question. And I hope it’s because they want to hear more music! Don’t worry, there will be more to come. Unfortunately this was just strictly a budget-issue. It just costs more to make more songs.
ELM: How did living in Houston affect your music?
GA:Houston gets a bad rap. When I was on tour or living in Nyc, I always found myself defending the city. Austin has those ubiquitously embarrassing bumper stickers “Keep Austin Weird.” Houston IS weird. Profoundly weird. And it doesn’t have to advertise it. I think coming back to Houston maybe persuaded me to be more honest. I think with my last band, I was trying to do things maybe that I wasn’t fully in control of, creatively. Oax is a more honest representation of myself, I suppose. (Btw, if you want me to espouse the wonders of Houston, I will gladly do so. But I’ll spare you here. But James Franco is moving here. That’s a boon to the cause).
ELM: I read that you recorded This Distance at home. Did anyone help you
make the record?
GA: I did have some help. I demoed the songs pretty intensively…as much to hone the songwriting as to hone my engineering skills. I’m a bit of a hyperactive type. So sometimes I work best when there’s someone around to keep me focused. (I wasn’t always the best lab partner in high school). I called up Ivan from the Rosebuds. We had been talking about recording a record together for a while, and he was in between records with The Rosebuds and GAYNGS– so it seemed like a good opportunity. Ivan flew down to Houston (and loved it here, I might add). It was a really laid back session. I’ve always had anxiety recording vocals in a studio with people watching. I’m not the most confident singer. And it takes me a while to get into “the zone.” Ivan proved to be a formidable vocal producer. He’s wildly undervalued in the “indie” scene. He’s got some of the best melodies around. And his voice is a classic. I think we did some pretty wicked things, vocally, on the record…doubling parts, harmonies, etc. Definitely the most happy I’ve ever been with vocals on a record.
ELM: Your lyrics are very pointed and direct. Have they always been that way, or have things changed in recent years?
GA: Again, I think it was about being honest with myself. And I think it was a combination of things: getting REALLY into Tom Petty last summer…and being around Justin Vernon. Tom Petty is the most economical lyricist on the planet. Some people might accuse him of being simplistic. Maybe on paper. But music isn’t about just being on paper. You can’t qualify lyrics solely on paper. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” would be really bad, lyrically, if it were set to a punk song. Equally, pretty much ANYONE trying to cover that song would render the words useless. When Petty sings “So let me get to the point. Let’s roll another joint. And head on down the road. There’s somewhere I gotta go. And you don’t know how it feels…to be me,” it just feels so heavy. There’s so much he didn’t write, but you feel exactly how he wants you to feel. Justin, on the other hand, writes some of the densest shit on the planet. It’s like Ulysses put to music. And it’s amazing. But I could never write like either of those two. Point being, they’re both extremely comfortable with who they are. I released my first record when I was 22, right out of college. Self-releasing, you become privy to a lot of information that sometimes an artist shouldn’t be aware of. For example, I was reading the notes from the programming directors from the radio stations reviewing the record. Though we did pretty well on the CMJ with that record, there was one director who wrote “Can never play this. Lyrics are terrible.” I think that comment has had more of a negative effect on me than anything else. For whatever reason, for the past 6 years, I carried that shit with me, trying to always over-complicate things in an attempt to make “smart lyrics.” This record, I think I figured it out. That is: fuck you, this is how I feel, and I’m going to write it down. Because in the end, lyrics aren’t just what’s written…it’s how they’re sung and the music that supports them. The sad truth is that whoever wrote that was probably a 20 year-old English major at whatever Liberal Arts college it was…AND…the lyrics were pretty shit, actually. So…
Lyrics are always the hardest part for me. I think I could release about three LP’s worth of material right now if it weren’t for lyrics. Maybe I’ll do a Sigur Ros thing or something. But anyway…
ELM:Who are your favorite writers?
GA: I was reading this book last summer while I was writing these songs: “The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Ramen Noodles Fixed my Love Life” by Andy Raskin. It’s a memoir. I really loved it. Might be more for men, maybe. But maybe not. In any event, I like his writing a lot. As it pertains to being an economic wordsmith, I guess Hemingway would be an obvious love. But probably reigning supreme is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Heartbreak through humor. It’s a magical combination. My brother just made me read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. There’s no escaping Calvino’s skillz as a painter with words.
ELM: On a similar note, I read that you’re in grad school for architecture (or architorture, as my architect friends call it). Who are your favorite architects?
GA:Well, I go to Rice. Rice is currently staffed by a lot of ex-OMA employees. So Rem Koolhaas is an inescapable overlord of our study. But if I had to pick, hands down it would be Herzog and De Muron. Humor plays a large part of their work. They always swing for the fences in their work. Sometimes it’s to a detriment. But often it results in some pretty spectacular stuff. I’m very interested in materiality, and no one really does it better that H&D. But it’s beyond simple phenomenology. It’s about tectonics, rhetoric, and (aforementioned) humor. They seem like hyperactive designers; you can never pigeonhole their ‘style.’ And that’s pretty remarkable/admirable. Even someone like Zaha Hadid, who’s word is so fluid and seemingly without rationality (she would argue differently of course), you can always tell one of her works.
ELM: Once you finish school, do you plan to pursue both of your career interests, or are you going to just pick one. (If so, please say it’s
GA: Ha. BOTH, for sure! I am a really hyperactive person. I was on ritalin from the age of 5. As I grew older, I felt like there should be another way for this all to work. I also feared living my entire life being hooked on a pill…or what would happen when I started “Real life.” So, in High School I quit taking ritalin (and my grades suffered as a consequence, no doubt). But by college, I got the opportunity to actually figure myself out. I think it’s sad to see people medicate their kids so casually. I have a hyperactive mind. It didn’t mean I had a “learning disability,” it just meant that the rigid way my school (and most all schools) taught me was not particularly jiving with the way my brain worked. I find that I am at my most productive when I’m doing a lot of stuff all at once. It’s really surprising to me that no one has started a school for hyperactive minds…Like Professor X’s place for the mutants. It’s embarrassing to our society that we continue thinking that there’s only one way to teach millions of kids. Even Montessori is essentially the same. Anyway…I digress. Just watch Ken Robinson’s TED talk.
ELM: Looking at the song titles on your EP (“Love and Crashing,” “Liar Cheat Jerk,” and “Scoundrel,”) one definitely gets the sense of bitterness. Do you think there’s bitterness on this record?
GA: I mean, I try to write in the moment. That’s when I feel most confident about my lyrics. So often what you’re hearing is the way I was feeling at that particular moment in time. But it’s just that–a moment in time. So, the record might have some bitter moments. But I think I was conscious of the track sequence. Not that it’s a concept record or anything. But it’s essentially going through the stages of an argument. I find arguments painfully predictable. It’s amazing we always find ourselves in them.
ELM: You named your band after Houston’s oak trees. Did you feel a special affinity with the trees?
GA: There’s a massive oak tree on the way to Austin from Houston, on highway 71…about 15 miles outside of Bastrop. It looks like they curved the highway so that they didn’t have to cut this particular tree down. As a result, it sits right in the middle of the median; it’s branches hang over the highway. You never see that. And it’s probably a potential driving hazard. But it seems like there’s an obvious and overt respect for the tree there that supersedes all else. I like that.
ELM: What was it like touring with Bishop Allen and the Rosebuds?
GA: Great. I really like playing in other people’s bands. You get to see how other people write, which is fascinating. Bishop Allen had the most insane work ethic I’ve ever seen in a band. A lot of bands could learn from them (I did). Their EP project was ludicrous. I saw Guillermo Arriaga speak once at Rice last year (Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada is the best movie of the last 10 years). An aspiring screenwriter asked him about how he gets through writer’s block. Arriaga got pissed. He said that there is no such thing as writer’s block. You just write. It’s a skill, like anything else. You should never wait for ‘inspiration,’ because inspiration only happens when you’re writing. Bishop Allen (specifically their EP project) proves that. Rosebuds was awesome too. But for completely different reasons. There were some tough times there. But also some of the most fun I’ve ever had on tour. I was a part of the band playing bass when Justin Vernon was in it. That was the dream team. We crushed it. I actually started playing with them first as a drummer. I lied and told Ivan I could play. They were about to go on a US tour and I was just getting out of college. We were both desperate. Our first show was at CMJ for the Merge Showcase–which we were headlining. I remember all the Merge people were standing front row…and Ben Gibbard too. I remember the distinct urge to vomit. Not because I dislike Ben, but because I was a fraud…what was I doing there? I wasn’t a drummer. But it turned out great. And after the show Mac told me I was the best drummer that he had seen the Rosebuds play with. Which was less a testament to my drumming skills and more to do with the fact that The Rosebuds had mostly played with a drum machine before that.
ELM:Why did you choose “This Distance” as your EP title?
GA: It was a line from Love and Crashing. Part of it was phonetic. I liked the way it sounded. But also, it sort of conjures a lot of different feelings. Album titles in the past, for me, have always been a very tongue in cheek affair. “Nihilism is Nothing To Worry About” and “Everybody is Whatever I Think They Are.” This felt more honest, I guess.
ELM: “Love and Crashing” is my favorite song on the EP. Can you tell me
more about that?
GA: It was originally intended to be a much slower song. The first demo sounded a lot more like ‘Skinny Love.’ But even though I think it sounded pretty nice, it wasn’t fitting with the other songs. And it also just didn’t’ feel like a song that I would sing live. I don’t think my voice is strong enough to carry something that intimate. I need to rock! On a slightly emo-ish note, it’s the only song I’ve ever recorded where I shed a tear singing it. (cue the ‘awwwws”)
ELM: What was the first record that changed your life?
GA: It’s not terribly surprising, but ‘Nevermind’ was pretty disruptive to my musical upbringing. After that, probably Replacements – Let It Be. You’re probably finding a pattern here. I like humor. Any record where you can simultaneously put songs called “Gary’s Got A Boner” and “Unsatisfied” on it is A-OKAY in my book. ‘Nevermind’ made me want to be a musician. I think ‘Let It Be’ was more life-changing as it pertains how I wanted to pursue music–it showed me what was possible.