Turning Black Tables: An Interview with Other Lives

The buzzed about Other Lives are somewhat Americana, somewhat space-bound, and all sorts of acclaimed. Sitting down with PopMatters, Jesse Tabish opens up about songwriting, incessant touring, and new-found fame.

Other Lives have been on an ascending path for some time now. Bolstered by success via featured spots soundtracking big moments on even bigger network television shows and their recent stints opening for both Bon Iver and Radiohead, they've never showed signs of slowing. Tamer Animals, their most recent full-length effort earned universal acclaim and high praise from several notable publications and appeared as a high ranking entry on multiple year-end best-of lists. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the band or their work ethic. Other Lives remains a touring machine that very rarely gives itself anything resembling a normal break and when they do, it's to record and prep for another tour. Through that practice, they've managed to become one of the most practiced and engaging young bands in the US, immediately silencing and converting the vast majority of the uninitiated. All of this points to bigger and better things for the band, who were kind enough to set aside some time to speak on several of those topics during a very small reprieve from one of their most recent tours.

It's been fascinating to watch the band go from relative obscurity to one of the most buzzed about bands of the past year. Everything seems to be in a transition period and a large portion of that is due to an excellent video for Tamer Animals single "For 12", which also spawned a sprawling interactive website for Tamer Animals. Something that seemed very far removed from the bands earliest days, .making the transition from the heavily orchestral-influenced atmospheric instrumentalists to a hushed Americana band. Other Lives haven't seemed to have any major problems in figuring themselves out since then and have only improved as they've grown.

Their impressive career trajectory had fairly humble beginnings, first in Tyvek, where they dabbled in the aforementioned instrumentalism that I was fortunate enough to become familiar with shortly after Other Lives released their self-titled debut. After becoming somewhat familiar with the band, I made a trip to the University of Madison, WI to see them open for Elvis Perkins in Dearland at a free show where they worked a small miracle; silencing a noisy audience. Their set that night in early 2012 was haunted, hushed, and extraordinarily elegant. It converted me from a casual fan to a stronger one. Since that gorgeous set, there haven't been many bands I've seen accomplish a similar feat. After they finished playing, I spoke with frontman Jesse Tabish briefly, who humbly expressed great joy and gratitude, winning me over further. I recently spoke to Tabish again, who hasn't lost an ounce of his humility or personality and seemed grateful that anyone cared and braved the questions I had with a wrecked voice and defiant spirit.

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Tamer Animals had a lot more emphasis on the drums. Was that a conscious decision to bring out that sound more or was it just a natural progression?

It was definitely a conscious decision. What ended up happening was that we'd kind of record one drum, because we were doing it ourselves it never seemed big enough. We ended up layering and layering and layering and end up having two or three drum parts going on at the same time and we'd be mixing them in or out. We were all really bored with the regular trap set and the drums -- just the sound of a drum set. Just the sound of a regular hi-hat or a snare, it just seems so dull. We definitely wanted a different sound on percussion.

Was there an immediate effect after having "Black Tables" featured in an episode of Grey's Anatomy or was that impact a gradual one? How did the decision to include your music on the show come about?

Well, the decision was they were paying money, to be quite frank. [laughs] But I think it's been a gradual thing. We didn't really see it when it first happened -- but now when we go out and play the song live, even though they may not be familiar with our first record, they're really familiar with that tune.

What prompted the transition from Kunek to Other Lives? When did you start experimenting with vocals and realize it fit? There's a radical departure when listening to some of the songs on the Kunek LP and the first track off of Tamer Animals.

That kind of came in during Kunek. I'd been writing a lot of instrumental music and the idea kind of came in with that. What happened, actually, was we had a founding member of Kunek have a mutual parting. After that we felt we had a chance to move on to a different place. We wanted to start working on the next sound and that prompted the change.

You finished a tour with Bon Iver a few months ago and are about to start one with Radiohead. Do you ever find yourself adjusting your set to complement the band you're opening for?

Oh yeah, we do that during the set. It's not really about complementing the band that we're opening for it's more about whether we have 30 minutes or 50 -- but we've been working on the set for the last nine months. We're kind of making it a little bit more like something that runs together. Throwing in interludes and new songs. I don't think we really think about "we need to pick these songs because it fits this band" -- we want to present our record in the way we feel fits best.

You've noted one of your biggest influences is Leonard Cohen and have even covered him on occasion, can you explain the depth of that influence?

It's one of those things where I [got into] him later on. "Partisan" just really hit me. That style of fingerpicking that he does, he does it in a few other tunes, but it really connected with me. I never really wanted to do a cover before but that song just really clicked with me and clicked with the band. It's one of those songs that we just feel lucky to be able to play and do some justice.

One of your first big pushes was a tour opening for Elvis Perkins in Dearland, did you learn anything from that particular tour?

We talk about that tour quite a bit. Touring with Elvis and the band -- they were such great people to be around. It was maybe our second or third tour, we were still relatively new. They were such fantastic guys and we've actually kept in touch with them like most of the bands we toured with. I think one of the biggest lessons is staying positive on the road and those guys are a great example of that, they just have such a positive vibe to them. I think that's so important to be on the road -- you can make it what you want to -- it can be productive, it can be a very positive.

A point you've brough up in the past is that you find yourself heavily influenced by composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and Ennio Morricone -- which is especially evident on tracks like "Old Statues". Do you feel more connected to their work than what's happening in popular music today?

Very much so, I'm not trying to be a snot or anything. I haven't listened to a contemporary record in a very long time. It's not that I'm not interested in what's going on currently it's just that I almost exclusively listen to instrumental music because I'm a participant with instrumental music. It's where I gather some of my muse from.

Has constant touring affected the way you write or your writing process?

It has, it's a little more rapid and there's actually a lot more ideas. The only downsides to writing on tour is that you, at least we don't, get any physical recording -- it's all on keyboard. It's definitely an amazing thing to have eight hours in a van to be able to work and have nothing around you, nothing to do, just the windows looking outside and to be able to write music in that eight hours of quiet time, just wow, it's pretty special. It's definitely not something I could do at home, you know, there's just too many distractions.


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