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Four years ago, with a first single (“Why I’m Here”) that was reminiscent of “Heart Shaped Box”, Oleander were written off by a few lazy critics as Nirvana wannabes. While the music on their major label debut, February Son, was full of Seattle sounds, the Sacramento quartet brought a musical depth that would become more apparent in the varied tones of their follow-up, Unwind. Once categorized along the likes of Eve 6 and Fuel, Oleander have since outlasted or outclassed their peers. Always seemingly on the verge of riding that next wave into mainstream success but never quite catching it while residing in the overflowing Universal Music stable, Oleander have now released their third full length, Joyride, on the much smaller Sanctuary.


Joyride is a blistering display of thick riffs and intensity with less bittersweet melody and more straight up rock. Sounding like a latter day Stone Temple Pilots at times, it’s not just the soaring vocals of Thomas Flowers that carry Oleander, or even the non-stop grinding of guitarist Ric Ivanisevich; it’s the rhythm section that has stepped it up into monster mode. On his second album with the band, drummer Scott Devours is unbelievably solid—settled in firmly with bassist Doug Eldridge when not threatening to steal the entire show.


Taking the stage at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in late March, Oleander would prove once again that their sound can hardly be contained in such small confines. Flowers led the band through a breakneck set, barely taking a breather—almost determined to show that this is an act that needs to be on the big stage. Beforehand, the vocalist sat down to discuss not only Joyride, but the music business in general, watching your peers gain success and how artists use the war for financial gain.



PopMatters:

It seems like Joyride is much more full throttle hard rock than Oleander’s previous releases.



Thomas Flowers:

It’s definitely more straight ahead rock than Unwind. On our first album, we had our whole lives to come up with the music, and that was what we were into at the time. Once we came away with the success of February Son, we kind of fell into the trap that a lot of bands do that have success with their first one, who think “Well, we’re just going to do it again—let’s go platinum this time.” We attempted to broaden the scope of what we were putting out there. Instead of just putting out rock songs, we had other types of music that we were exploring and we tried to put out a broader plain of music. That made it a little bit more difficult for people to get their head around it—especially if they were into the rock and roll aspect of this band.


So when we got done touring Unwind and we were getting ready to do this album, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do. We wanted to get back to being the rock and roll band that we were, only with the experience and the forethought of where we are now. We basically decided that we were going to create an unapologetic, in-your-face album.



PM:

Where do you think Joyride fits in the musical landscape of today?



TF:

It’s difficult for me to say about the landscape of the music business as a whole, we are actually being beaten up tremendously by the musical landscape as a whole these days. We’re pretty much scratchin’ and scraping to get any love at all.


I do think that, given the right support, our music can compete with anything out there. This album is definitely our best album, and it’s definitely one of the albums that if the masses of consumers out there got an opportunity to listen to, I think they would grab a hold of it and agree with me that it’s something that sticks.


Unfortunately, within this business, you’ve got a lot of politics, and you’ve got a lot of money being thrown around by a select handful of companies that support not necessarily artistic interest, but money-making interest. I think one of the things that we’re realizing today is that you can put out a tremendous album, and it might not get to see the light of day. Our record label is definitely giving us an opportunity to be out, and it’s definitely giving us an opportunity to be heard, but unlike five years ago when we started, the music industry has changed so much that there’s a lot less availability for risk.



PM:

Why do you think that Joyride is your best record?



TF:

Well, to be honest with you, I think it’s our best album because the first album, we were just upstarts. We’ve taken so much of what we’ve learned over the years and applied it to what we’re doing. We’ve never been better musicians, we’ve never been better songwriters, and we’ve never been better at knowing exactly what we wanted to do and how we wanted to sound. That in and of itself gives you the advantage to be able to say something like that.


Not only that, but unlike previous albums we’ve done where I’ve convinced myself that the albums were excellent, this one I walked into going “O.K., let’s see.” And every time I listened to it, I would give myself reasons not to like it, and every time I’d listen to it, it would prove those reasons wrong.



PM:

In the past, the sound of Oleander has been compared to Nirvana, perhaps unfair at times, but then you have something like “Why I’m Here”, where—



TF:

The first three notes sound like Nirvana.



PM:

Exactly. Definitely on “Where Were You Then?”, portions sound like Nevermind, but with Joyride it’s less apparent. The title track, I’m hearing a little bit of STP in the pre-chorus, but as a whole, you can’t really pull anything out. So where are you pulling your musical influences from?



TF:

That’s interesting. First of all, getting compared to other bands back in the day never bothered me. It’s just describing you to somebody, “Oh by the way, if you like Nirvana you’ll like these guys.” It’s ironic also that “Why I’m Here”, that “sounded like Nirvana,” was our biggest hit to date—so there had to be some originality going on in there somewhere. These days, to be completely honest with you, I haven’t been listening to music. The music I listen to is jazz, so the music that we listen to doesn’t have anything to do with the music we write. I did that intentionally so that I wouldn’t be jaded into overanalyzing what I’m doing and allowing certain popular sounds or styles to find their way in. I can honestly say that we never gave any thought to who it sounded like, and we never stifled an idea because it might remind somebody of something.



PM:

Live, you tend to stay away from the slower songs. On the new record, you’ve stayed away from the slower songs. Is it a conscious decision, or just happenstance?



TF:

Definitely with this album it was conscious. I think that we’re a rock band, and although there’s definitely a softer side of this band, which we expressed on the Unwind album, this was our album to come out and just try to put a blistering piece of work together.


[Live], we’ve already got “I Walk Alone” in the mix and “Why I’m Here”, and those are two kind of mid-tempo songs. If you’ve only got 13 songs to play, and seven of them are slow songs, you’re pretty much going to bore people to tears.



PM:

Seeing both sides of the fence over the years, how do you look at being on a large label and then a smaller one? With Universal, do you feel like you were lost in the shuffle after getting an initial push?



TF:

Absolutely. The pros were that they were obviously a major label with major money. The pros were that they could afford you an opportunity you wouldn’t necessarily get at other labels. The cons were that you were one of many bands, and unless you are the big dog on campus, you’re not necessarily going to get the attention that you deserve—or need. For example, February Son went gold, so we got touted as heroes for the label, slightly underneath (former labelmates) Godsmack, who went platinum. With Unwind, with the “failure” of it, selling only around 250,000 copies, the phone calls stopped coming in, the promo people stopped putting posters up—priorities obviously shifted.


I have aspirations that with a smaller label, with a drive to break something a little bit more current, that an outfit like Sanctuary Records would spend the attention and the monies and the devotion towards building us up.



PM:

You’ve been on tour with some pretty high profile - at least now—bands as they were up and coming; Creed, 3 Doors Down, Nickelback…



TF:

There’s nothing quite like being educated and groomed and having the generosity of people in the business that are your peers but also your mentors extending wisdom to you which you’re grateful for. Everybody, from Candlebox to Creed, they took us in, they really showed us how to do things.


The negative side to it is, you get to walk out in front of 25,000 people and lay it down, but you’re watching bands grow while you’re not necessarily growing, so it’s almost a tease to be able to go out and experience it but not experience it for yourself.


One of the things that we’ve always wanted to do was throw the party instead of just being invited to the party. But I’d rather have the experience than not have the experience. It’s hard to find drawbacks when you get to play in front of 25,000 people.



PM:

There were a few tribute records put out, but the song “Champion” from Unwind was one of the surprisingly few singles that were dedicated to 9/11. How did that come about? Was that your decision, or the label’s for something like that?



TF:

We saw it as an opportunity collectively between the label and ourselves to contribute something, to try to make an impact. We’d be lying if we said that we were solely trying to be the nameless band that was contributing—we were also at the same time trying to get some recognition via the song. Our intentions definitely were good to submit something to the relief fund. The only sad thing about it is, unfortunately, later on, I saw them for like, 25 cents a copy—I see them on Ebay for like a penny. I’m like, “Man how much is really going to [the fund]” you know? It just didn’t fly, and it was endemic of that whole album actually.



PM:

With the state of the world as it is today, something like the “Champion” single, something like the new 3 Doors Down video (for “When I’m Gone”, which features the band playing for soldiers stationed overseas), how much of that can be construed as a capitalization on tragedies to make a buck for the band?



TF:

That depends upon the record label and the people that are distributing the album and how they’re marketing it—



PM:

But something like the 3 Doors Down video—



TF:

I like that video because it reminded me of when we went to Kosovo and Bosnia and how important it was to those people that we were there because it meant the world to them that somebody from America would come across the ocean to perform for them.



PM:

With “When I’m Gone”, it’s not like they’re interspersing footage of the troops while they’re playing on a soundstage somewhere—they’re there, interacting with the soldiers and it rings true—but that’s just one example.



TF:

I think that for people to profit on something like that is totally understandable given the nature of this business. We’d be willing to bet that there are a helluva lot less artists thinking in terms of we can really make a lot of money if we just go give the visual impression that we’re supporting the troops.


I think that 3 Doors Down probably thought, “My God, that’s a great idea, let’s go play for the troops,” and probably the business said, “Yeah, let’s make a buck off of it at the same time.”


I personally would not do something like that in order to make a buck, but certainly if the buck was there to be made in the aftermath, we wouldn’t turn it down. But we haven’t exactly gone out of our way to make camouflage Oleander t-shirts either.


The one thing we did take away from this war that we incorporated into this tour; this is the “Rock and Awe Tour.” Instead of the Shock and Awe? This is the “Rock and Awe.” On the occasion when nobody shows up, it’s the “Rock and No Draw Tour.” Previous to that it was the “Turn That Frown Upside Down Tour.”


We try to take things in this band with tongue and cheek because there’s so much fuckin’ shit in this world and our own lives to get bummed out about. This is the place where you can really melt down if you’re not grounded in some sense of positivity, so we really just try to make the best of the shit that’s out there.

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