Photo by Ash Dye
Art-Rock Duo Ohmme Talk Growing Pains, 'Fantasize Your Ghost' & Supporting The Community In Times Of Crisis
When Ohmme recorded their new album in isolation, the art-rock duo didn’t expect to release it that way too. Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart traveled 130 miles northwest of Chicago last August to record the bulk of their sophomore album Fantasize Your Ghost with a skeleton crew of collaborators in wide-open Wisconsin farmland.
The 10 songs Ohmme recorded in a converted barn build off their years of experience playing across genres in Chicago’s indie music scenes: raucous enough to shake crowded venues and complex enough for repeated headphone listening until their tour dates resume. On Fantasize Your Ghost, Cunningham and Stewart sing about the uncomfortable jolts necessary to escape personal or generational malaise, their guitars and voices stacked together at odd angles on the bedrock of Matt Carroll’s drums.
Though Cunninham and Stewart are in self-isolation separate from each other, they have stayed busy filming videos and performances sponsored by brands, radio stations, and even Chicago’s mayoral office. The Recording Academy spoke to Ohmme over video from their homes about improvised music, their confidence in each other and standing in solidarity with the ongoing protests against police violence.
Your last album Parts was recorded at home during the winter. Did this album feel more summery as a result of the time and the place that you were recording it?
SC: I feel like there's a brightness, and a little bit more sweatiness.
MS: Our songs are sweaty.
SC: There's also just a lot more of a feeling of being outside. I mean, there's a lot of ambient sound from birds and bugs and air. So it's an area record.
MS: That's something that we were really interested in when making the record too, is how much a place factors into what you're making, like how much people can pick up on that. Being able to be in a place that had a lot of ambient noise, like the animal sounds, and just like, you know, sometimes the wind blowing through and having a space that's super open, as opposed to a more closed studio vibe, or even recording something in the bedroom. Ithink that all affects the way that you perceive the record.
Did you show up to record with those songs all written and ready to go? Or was there some writing and improvisation in the studio?
MS: Definitely some writing and improvisation in the studio. I mean, we had a lot of the parts written out already. We had three days, two months before that, where we went up to Flying Cloud Studios in New York, during one of our tours, which is Sam Evian's spot. We workshopped some songs, but yeah, they weren't 100% finished by the time we got to the Post farm. There was definitely some writing that happened there. And improvisation too: there's even a track towards the end of the record, "Sturgeon Moon," that was a result of a night of improvising. And we ended up really liking how it sounded as a whole.
Yeah, I'm glad you brought that one up in particular, because it stands out being instrumental and a lot more experimental compared to the other songs. How did that kind of come to be?
MS: Well, the three of us are all pretty deeply enmeshed in the improvised music scene. Sima helped open Constellation, which is a really great improvised and experimental music venue in Chicago. And Matt is like an incredible improviser, like, just one of the best jazz drummers and improvised drummers around. So it's something that runs pretty true to our core. The band came out of this interest in improvising and experimenting and trying to follow the flow, while discovering new textures and new spaces with each other. So it was a purposeful thing, to record some improvisations.
SC: We loved it too. You know, we had other "song" songs written, but we just ended up holding them off of the album, because it was a really special moment in that barn. If there's people who have not listened to improvised music, I hope that it can be a little door into an incredible world of improvisers that have influenced us.
MS: We both love writing songs and translating our ideas into words, but I think wordless communication and kind of intuiting where someone else is going just based on the music is also something really important. You can convey ideas and thoughts and emotions just with that.
And I really like that immediately after that, the album closes with this very sweet sound on "After All," especially with the strings. Was that sort of juxtaposition intentional to wrap up the album?
MS: Yeah. [Laughs.] We like contrasts.
SC: "After All" was one that like, we felt was a little left field of the record. It was obvious pretty quickly that it was like, either gonna be the last song on the record or wasn't gonna be on the record.
MS: It's a goodbye song.
SC: Yeah. It's a hug. I always think about like, the scene in Sound of Music when they're like, the kids are all going up the stairs. [Both laugh.]
MS: We wanted the song to feel intimate. We didn't want to layer as many strings, so we approached it more as a string quartet, where nothing is doubled. It's all just one string playing one part. And I think that that does add to the sweetness of it because you're hearing like, the pure sound of the instrument, mistakes and all, without doubling to throw your attention.
SC: I really love that little taste of 1970s Hollywood strings. If we did it in multiple places, it wouldn't really make sense. But I loved having a little bit of that bravado.
I really liked the bravado of coming out of the gate on the single, "3 2 4 3," talking about tearing up and starting again, "different today but I’m the same." From one record to the next, how do you feel like you have changed?
SC: I think there's a lot of confidence now in what we're making and how we're making it. We made our EP first and that was really figuring out how we wanted to make sounds as a group, as a duo. And then Parts was kind of trying to capture this live energy. But I think now we trust each other, and we trust in ourselves, that we can kind of continue to bend and continue to experiment. And we're gonna be confident in what we come out with. It always takes work, we were feeling tons of doubt at moments when we were making this record.
I feel like I've definitely had to change the ways that I've written songs in the past couple years, just because your brain chemistry changes over time. You're still the artist that you are, but sometimes depending on what's going on in your life, or how your brain has been working, you just operate in a different way, and that means that sometimes you need to change how you get inside of yourself to make music. And I think that that process is cool. It can be painful, and upsetting sometimes, because if you feel like you don't know you, then that can be really terrifying to feel like you don't know how to work your own machinery. But it's also an opportunity to dig up things that you maybe wouldn't have accessed before.
Is that process what you were writing about on "Twitch"?
MS: Yeah, we were updating our OSX. It is about having this weird malaise. I've been working this way for so long, and I'm trying to do new things with this old way of looking at things. And it's not working, none of the things are computing, and why? It feels like you're not speaking the same language with yourself or with other people. Something cool about songwriting and making music to me is that you know, you can write a song and then a year later you discover new meanings for it.
How are you guys adjusting to working in this pandemic environment?
MS: It's forced us to look at how we work, and what we can do to work. I think that you know, on one hand, we're definitely welcoming this as a chance to breathe and reflect, and do all of the things that we weren't able to do because we were touring and making a record last year. So it's the complete opposite of the circumstances that led to us making the record.
We are missing playing a lot. And that's an understatement. I mean, the joy of playing with another person is incomparable. But on the other hand, we're trying to figure out how to get together in a [responsible] way. We might go up to the Post farm. Make sure that we're keeping healthy, so that we can release the record, and just get to play together and see each other.
How are you feeling about the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago and the city's response?
SC: We stand in solidarity with the protests. We are attending and involved in various efforts to support Chicago communities in this time of crisis including jail support and supplies and food distribution. It’s an important time to listen, help elevate the voices of POC, and de-center ourselves from the narrative as much as possible.