Oshwa isn’t trying to be a complicated band. While their most recent album, Chamomile Crush, showcases the Chicago four-piece’s ability to integrate complex polyrhythms and intricate, interlocking parts into sophisticated, fun, and deeply weird indie pop, their 2013 EP, Tigers, shows them moving into more straight-ahead territory – while still keeping it sophisticated, fun, and weird. I visited them in the Pilsen (neighborhood in Chicago, not fourth most populous city in the Czech Republic) apartment where they practice, and talked to them about their musical backgrounds, being called a math-rock band, and their plans for their next album.
ThrdCoast: What are your musical backgrounds?
Mike MacDonald: I guess just writing songs on the guitar. I wasn’t trained like [Alicia Walter and Jordan Tate] were trained, so mostly just chasing a certain aesthetic all the time and trying to find it. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid, and I haven’t found it yet.
Matt Noonan: I dunno, I was in high school band. I was in pit for a while, playing percussion and tuba. That’s about it, though. I actually blew a whole year of my life studying music in college.
Jordan Tate: I did that too.
MN: And now I’m here. So that’s cool.
Alicia Walter: I took piano lessons as a kid, all through high school, and I was in high school marching band with Matt. I went to Illinois Wesleyan to study piano performance, but I transferred out because I thought I hated it, and I kind of did. But I ended up going to Columbia [College] for music composition, and that’s where I graduated from. So I actually blew more years studying music than Matt.
JT: I played piano through my childhood, and also went to Columbia for composition. Basically exactly what she said.
TC: How did you all meet and start playing music together?
AW: Matt and I went to high school together, Jordan and I met in college. Mike and I both used to live in a co-op up in Rogers Park, and we lived in a house with a bunch of people. I started playing as a solo project in about 2010, and then asked Jordan to play a show. So it was originally just me and Jordan. It was a really different setup; I was doing a lot of vocal looping and playing the ukulele. Mike started playing with us after a few months – he joined on guitar, and that’s about when I switched to guitar too – and then Matt joined us a little after that. So now we’ve been a band for… I don’t know, two years?
MN: I feel like we’ve been saying two years for two years.
MM: It can’t be two years. It’s like four.
AW: It’s not four years.
MN: It’s approaching four.
MM: Definitely more than two.
AW: Yeah, but we weren’t even a band then. I mean this.
MN: We were called the same thing.
AW: But we, physically, have been this band for two years.
TC: Do you think the solo work you were doing at the beginning impacted the direction the band decided to go in?
MM: It’s kind of different now.
AW: Everything’s changed.
JT: Yeah, it’s evolved throughout the time we’ve been a band.
AW: I think it would’ve changed even if it were me personally writing that music – four years ago, I was a very different person with a very different writing style – but we each changed a lot individually, and the way we write our music did too. Like, we still have some universal truths that we sound like. We still sound like Oshwa, but our sound itself has evolved.
MM: As different members came in and started playing, you started to hear the different elements. Like, Jordan’s drums, my aesthetic, and Matt’s aesthetic, you can start to hear that in Transmissions from the Midwest.
AW: Yeah, that was our first release as a full band. And ever since then, it’s been full band songs. The stuff before that is more, like, bedroom recording stuff.
MN: We’re a band now.
MM: Everyone writes their own parts, it’s collaborative. Whereas on the Midwest album it was less collaborative, since Alicia was writing some of my guitar parts. The next album was a little more collaborative, with a lot more guitar work from me, so you can hear that difference. It’s a lot more colorful, I’d say, and in some ways it’s a lot more thick, where that album is a little more spaced out. But you can still kind of hear some of Alicia’s solo stuff in that album.
TC: What else, musical or non-musical, influences your songwriting?
MN: Barenaked Ladies [laughs].
AW: Yeah, right. I kind of feel that my listening has changed so much in the past few years. I really only used to listen to bands that I would identify with as a direct inspiration. I would listen to bands that we kind of sounded like, I would only listen to quirky indie bands or something. But now I feel like I listen to so much more music, just generally speaking. I don’t know. I don’t even know how to directly answer that.
MM: It’s kind of a hard question to answer. I mean, we get them from so many places that it’s hard to even answer a question like that.
AW: Well, I think we all have really high individual standards for our own performances. We’re all very particular people, and we’re not just approaching this as a very hands-off process. Our writing process is pretty intense, and we’re very specific and very intentional with our parts. I think even our own standards, and how we treat our band as a job kind of influences what we sound like.
MM: It sounds like us.
TC: So talk to me about what the songwriting process is like. Can you walk me through the creation of a song?
MM: It kind of changes from song to song. Usually we start with a section or a part that I wrote, or that Alicia wrote. Lately Alicia’s been writing more whole songs.
MN: Whole structures, anyway. Maybe not whole songs.
MM: Whereas on our last album, that was not the case at all. I would write a section, she would write a section, we would do a section together, and we would figure out as a band how to put them together.
JT: Overall, it’s going a lot more smoothly. Because Alicia’s presenting it totally complete, where she has a song all written out and she plays it for us.
MM: So you can kind of understand the vibe a little better, as a whole.
AW: And it’s inherently cohesive, whereas before we were trying to force parts together.
MM: It came off really episodic. Like, take the song “Chamomile Crush,” where it’s like, two different ideas entirely.
AW: Yeah, and I think we thought it was – not that I don’t like the music, I do like that album, but it’s a little more streamlined now.
MN: Even our writing style is more accessible.
AW: Everything’s way more accessible.
MM: It doesn’t confuse older people.
AW: And that’s a difference, too. I noticed at Wicker Park Fest, when we had just played three new songs, that our newer stuff really is much more accessible to my parents, and your dad.
JT: It’s dad rock [laughs].
AW: But I think accessibility is a good thing. My mom used to – I don’t know how she’d describe our music, but she thought it was crazy, and really couldn’t hear anything that sounded familiar, because it is really different. Now I think we’re way more appealing to a general audience. In a good way.
JT: Yeah, we weren’t really getting anything for being so outlandish, I guess.
TC: I’ve even heard it called math rock in the past. What’s your relationship with that term?
AW: I think that’s from multiple things. The video for “Old Man Skies” was one of the first songs that we released before the album [Chamomile Crush] came out, and that song happened to have irregular time signatures, and some noodly guitar parts. And our label is also associated with a lot of math-rock bands.
MM: It was put out by Matthew Frank, who plays guitar in The Paramedics and There There There, and there was also a lot of stuff posted on Reddit calling us a math rock band, and I think people just saw that and went with that, since that was the math-rock crowd. But we’re not necessarily a math-rock band at all. The next album’s going to be so different that people will realize that.
MN: I’m not offended by the math rock thing.
AW: Yeah, I’m not offended by it.
MM: It’s just inaccurate, I’d say.
MN: Sure, but I think a lot of our stuff is very compatible with people who are into that. We’ve played with math-rock bands and those people could still find us interesting, while acknowledging that we’re kind of poppy.
AW: It’s a good qualifier for a band, where if you’re just another indie pop band, and you’re kind of experimental – that word I don’t like either – I think it helps people understand.
MN: People who are hardcore into math rock might give us a shot.
TC: So you’ve mentioned new material in the works. What comes next, is it a new album, a tour…
AW: A Grammy? Yeah, we’re approaching the halfway point of being done with writing our sophomore album. Long game is hopefully to be done by next summer. Or at least to be able to tour by then, whether or not it’s recorded by then. And then, yeah. Put out an album. Tour the globe. Open for Beyoncé.
TC: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
MM: We’re playing a show with Buke and Gase on Monday, October 6th at The Empty Bottle. Come check us out.