Dancing with O'death

It is All Soul’s Day, when the veil between the living and the dead is said to be at its most diaphanous. And so we present a feature on the eligaically named, NYC-based band O’death, written Katelan Foisy. A multimedia artist, writer, model, and tarologist, Katelan is known as “La Gitana” and the “Mistress of Magic”. She can be found on the internet almost everywhere. ~Mer

Portrait by Katelan Foisy.

O’death is one of those bands you remember falling in love with.  I first heard them back in 2007 in the former apartment of William S. Burroughs. I was making cowboy coffee and my boyfriend at the time was queuing up music for our Darwin’s Nightmare Party, a party to “celebrate” the naturalist’s birthday.  “You’ve got to listen to this band,” he said as I poured loose coffee grounds into boiling water. He hit play and I stopped, mid-pour, to turn around. “Who is this?” I demanded. He told me it was O’death, a Brooklyn-based band he had seen a few weeks back. I left the coffee as we danced on cigarette strewn, whiskey stained wooden floors. The song was “Down to Rest” and I was entranced. It had the feeling of a small town forgotten and decayed, remembered only by the myth passed down by word of mouth by elders at camp fires.

Spring, 2008.  I walked into a coffee shop to deliver a human skull to an artist when a poster caught my eye. It was for an O’death show. I remembered that night again like it was the first time. I immediately went home and tried to befriend the band. They were about to come out with a new album Broken Hymns Limbs and Skin and commissioned me to do a portrait as part of the press packet. I listened to the album.  It was more refined than the first but still pulled the listener into a world between waking and dreaming. I remember thinking there was something incredibly special about this band; it wasn’t just that they had taken parts of old time Appalachia and made it contemporary, it was that they could make you feel you were part of the story. This could be explained in the way they’ve recorded each album.  Head Home and  Broken Hymns, Limbs, and Skins were recorded live.  As you listen, you see them on stage. What you hear on the album is as passionate as a live performance.

Photo by Glukkake.

Outside, their most recent album, was recorded in fragments. David Rogers-Berry, the band’s drummer, had recently battled Osteosarcoma (a form of bone cancer), undergoing chemotherapy and a shoulder replacement. Where many would have given up, O’death embraced this as an opportunity to experiment with sound. The album’s lineup of Gabe Darling- banjo/ukulele, Jesse Newman- bass, Greg Jamie-singer/lyricist, and violinist Bob Pycior lead the music towards a slower, more melodic turn.

Each O’death album has a distinct feel while retaining the band’s singular magic. They transport listeners to new places. Hearing an O’death song is like falling into a small book of short stories told in a cave by a fire, on a ship during a storm, in a pub on the streets of England, or while hidden away in a swampland cabin. Their music transcends time. Upon first listen, a characteristic track might be mistaken for a classic folk song. However, their words are striking in the contemporary dialogue with time and humanity they invoke.

Despite an old time feel to their music, the only song actually based upon a historical event is “Fire on Peshtigo” from Broken Hymns, Limbs, and Skin.  It was inspired by the 1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin firestorm that killed 1,500 and which occurred the same day as the Chicago, Holland and Manistee, Michigan fires.

Revisiting this musically inspired new or renewed interest in those who had long forgotten (or never known of) the United States’ largest number of deaths by fire. One of their most popular songs, it transports the listener to the small town of Peshtigo where one becomes not a voyeur but part of the tragedy itself.  As the lyrics retell the story, the music creates a frantic, haunting energy that pulls the listener to the burning 1871 town fleeing to the water amidst the chaos of flames and terrified citizens but getting burned anyway.

“O how had it filled the night with broken empty song
Stepping on the neighbor that I once had seen as friend
Alone, Breathless air
And robbing life of dignity to every desperate end
Alone, Breathless air, Lake on fir, Land too

Walls of fire, all consuming, reaching for me in the waves
Eyes upon burning slowly it’s left before me charred remains
And the god who pushed me in has ripped away my earthly flesh
Now I’m bound for his last judgement, O my lord I must confess”

Ultimately, Broken Hymns, Limbs, and Skins is a story of life and death. It speaks of what one wonders in the moments before dying, in those times when one has survived the impossible, and it celebrates life’s inherent mystery. In all, this is an album about strength and perseverance.

When Outside made its 2011 debut I listened to it on repeat-  memorizing words, entranced with the intonation of the album.  This was softer, ghostlike in its presence but incredibly strong as a whole. Although sonically different from their other releases, it retains the same charm of being in a room with someone who has lived through a myriad of experiences as they tell their tales. Greg’s vocals take on a particular presence, one which evokes an intimate conversation between two people. “Bugs”, the first single, conveys the sense of two people discussing life and of the times passed between them. Outside was, and is, an incredibly human album.

“I’ve been wasting most my time
Waiting for the day
When like bugs we figured out
How to make light stay”

There are a lot of personal demons exorcised in this album as well as immense growth, the pondering of life, and an exploration of the dance that tricks of the mind play on a person. As human beings this is why we converse with each other, create art, and experience life in its bittersweet form. While I listened to this album I thought of a quote my Godfather shared with me years ago, “For every wound, there’s honey to sweeten the sting and heal it.”  Honey is a natural antibiotic and if applied will heal wounds. Essentially, life is a struggle both internally and physically.  But it’s the sweet moments that pull us through and make us want to keep going. If you can’t dance with your demons, you won’t move forward.

“Black Dress”, which has been described as “non-linear”, is the second single off the album… although it feels strange to talk about these songs as singles, since they weave together like chapters in a book. The song begins with a historical feel and ends on a very simple note. This track stood out immediately due to its concept of time and tale being entwined.  Despite all that has happened, you wake up the next morning and experience the same repetition of other days. And yet, that day to day structure gives you a sense of purpose and relief, a small reminder to live in the present.

“when the longing time had evened out
when we reached the end of Spring
and her covered eyes pressed close to mine
we would clip the children’s wings
I’ll come for everyone in my long black dress
i’ll comfort everyone when the homeless child (would) rest

Pray for me
Just Pray”

“Walked her home from school one day, and drove her off to work.
Now that all is figured out and all her life has worth.”

Some songs like “Don’t Come Back” have no lyrics but the music tells a story itself.  For me,  it was a structured song, with hints of military percussion and dances with the dead in the strings. The piano and glockenspiel tinkled like tidbits of memory.  The song is like a memory. As I listened to it, I grew inspired to create a number of paintings.  Most of all, most importantly, the band strives to connect with its audience, allowing the music to be open to interpretation rather than identifying the origin of each lyric and melody.

Ultimately, O’death would like to remain a “cult” band. Recently, they shared the following:

“We’re just really real about what we do, and we connect deeply with our audience. We just keep it going. There’s a lot of things we suck at like networking, being fashionable, and taking good pictures.  But the things we’re really good at are the thing that really counts… or least should count… you know – THE MUSIC.”

Next week I return to the old Burroughs apartment for a photo shoot.  This time, instead of hearing O’death for the first time, I’ll be able to tell my tale on how they influenced my art.

O’death will be touring with World Inferno Friendship Society starting November 3rd. For more information please go to www.odeath.net.  Sign up for their mailing list, even. They promise not to spam you. In fact, they probably won’t write you at all.

One Response to “Dancing with O'death”

  1. Steff Says:

    Thanks for posting – record now ordered!