Words by David C. Obenour
The music of OXBOW is loud. It’s intense. Beyond the visceral experience of both of these dynamics, their music and lyrics would still demand your attention. However, after listening for three and a half decades, it turns out the music of OXBOW is also often misunderstood.
Returning for their first album in six years, one of the most unique and captivating bands out there is not leaving anything to chance. Love’s Holiday is a statement of intent. Singer and lyricist, Eugene S. Robinson claims that there have always been love songs throughout their catalog. People just didn’t hear it. Didn’t understand it. It’s always been there and it’s there again for Love’s Holiday. A fifteen voice choir, guest appearance from Lingua Ignota’s Kristin Hayter, strings and woodwinds. Listen through the guitars, the impassioned vocals, and understand.
Off Shelf: It’s the first new OXBOW album in six years. Was there any re-evaluating of the band and your work as an artist that you did over the pandemic?
Niko Wenner: About twenty years ago I realized that I could write a decent OXBOW song in open D minor tuning without thinking about it and, a bit disgusted, began striving to push into something different. Into new challenges. But I figured we’d always be what I called, “some guy banging on the guitar and some guy screaming.” With a lot of reflection, including during the pandemic – is it really over yet – and the help and encouragement of Joe Chiccarelli, we’ve struck off into music that feels natural but is in many ways different than what we’ve done in the past.
Personally, it was also a time for a great deal soul searching and evaluating of everything, particularly in context of some major life changes. During various lockdowns in succession I had – ready? here we go – a significant back injury, lost my job, we had our second child – a good stress, within a few weeks my cousin died of suicide and my father died – both pandemic related. As someone prone to intense reflection anyway, being unable to receive physical or mental care – because people were dying in droves, for fuck’s sake – that all kinda sent everything sideways. I’m still here, while millions died of COVID-19, so no self pity. But for about 18 months I was unable to move forward with the album OXBOW had started. I credit our record making partner, Joe Chiccarelli for saying “Hey let’s record some vocals!” and getting me back to work. The result is Love’s Holiday and yet another record nearing completion.
Eugene Robinson: The pandemic was a media blip. Not saying it didn’t carry very real weight but what it has to do with the creation of art? Not much in my mind despite all of the chatter about people discovering their real selves during shutdown. But part of artistic significance is always finding something in the well worth evaluating. This happens with or without a pandemic. I get that the pandemic serves as a narrative framing device but we were living very real lives that involved all of those very real adult issues of life, death, love, bills, failure, promise and the fleeting and possible illusory nature of what success might mean. So re-evaluate? Not any more than usual. Clubs were not booking and bands were not playing. In the timeline of OXBOW two years of pandemic time, providing no one died, meant nothing. Outside of a generalized sense of doom and foreboding. Which we carry with us every day, anyway.
OS: You talk about the genesis of Love’s Holiday as songs written about family. How did that differ but still feel like OXBOW’s music to you?
NW: I’m drawn to strong statements and powerful emotions, this is something we in OXBOW all share. And our music, recordings, and performances reflect this. Sometimes it’s the most subtle and fleeting thing that provokes the biggest response, that’s also part of what we do.
Within paying attention to all that, and paying attention to what moves me that hasn’t been directly in our music before, I started new music. Continued to start, really. It’s a constant. The departure of my parents to somewhere else, I’m not certain where, and the arrival of our children, were two wonderfully, in our faces, big events. The love that describes all of those things, I realized later, without forethought while writing – this – was the connection within all these songs.
ER: That was Niko’s take. Lyrically, what I wrote about was pre-family. That is very specifically love. Or eros.
OS: What does Love’s Holiday mean to you as a name for the album?
NW: Clarity, is more than ever a goal for us as a band and having “Love” in the album title is part of this.
ER: It’s clearly a play on words. Has love absented itself on holiday or does it embody our holiday. Love, in general, seems to be a sword that cuts both ways. Going in and coming out. I’m glad that musicians have focused on both the former and latter but it seemed to me that there was a dearth of material about the transit between the two.
Other than that, it drives the point home for those with ears to hear.
OS: What is it like releasing something so intimate? Something that started as a thing shared just with those closest to you? Does it change your relationship to the melodies?
NW: It’s intense. There’s a reference to my daughter in All Gone for example, and after finishing arranging the voices I just wept for reasons clear to me but also slightly mysterious. But when I had to approve the test pressings for the album, I just broke down repeatedly when listening to that song on the vinyl of Love’s Holiday for the first time. Our albums have always, without fail, had very deep and painfully personal music and performances on my part. I’d say that Love’s Holiday is the most clear and transparent expression of this continued process.
Playing these songs live for the first times on this last European tour was disorienting and required some tongue biting and concentration to not lose it on stage. It’s good to feel, it’s good to share that with an audience, it’s too much to do that every damn night. Gradually some calluses formed, from necessity. Now it’s possible to just visit those emotions in the songs without having to stay there. Whew.
ES: For me? The lyrics? It’s funny. I only one time told the person I wrote a song about them… in this instance S Bar X off of An Evil Heat. In general she was so not interested that I never did it again. So what feels intimate and in actual fact is intimate but I’m fairly certain most of the people who have inspired some of these lyrics, to a certain degree, care not at all that I have done so. Make of this what you would.
OS: How do you think this album has changed how you think about OXBOW? Or how has it solidified things you thought before?
NW: We did things on this record that I doubted we could and which we will do more in the future. Concision, clarity in texture, simplicity. All in service of sharing what are naturally, traditionally, OXBOW thoughts. It’s gratifying, and for example it’s cool to see people in the audience bobbing their heads along to songs like, “The Night The Room Started Burning.” Cool to be able to expand on, as I said above, the “banging and screaming.”
ER: This album is a document. So not so much how we think about OXBOW but how we think about everything. And does it solidify anything? By record’s end it should be clear that the quicksilver nature of love makes any kind of solidification a fool’s errand.
OS: Can you talk about the inspiration behind the broader instrumentation on Love’s Holiday? The use of strings and classical instruments, and full choirs? Do you see OXBOW continuing to explore this approach?
NW: I enjoy music created for and performed on strings and winds and percussion of all sorts, and those timbres and textures are natural to me. I think this point is very important, because it’s the most interesting for folks, musicmakers, to make music that is the most “them.” And me making music that is me includes all those textures. I’m very fortunate to have whatever modicum of skill in dealing with those sounds I’ve been able to glean through a lot of work and love and to have access to people who make those sounds on those instruments.
OS: I was really drawn to how you said it chagrined you how no one understands that your songs have always been rooted in love. Where do you think that disconnect has been?
NW: Perhaps, the complexity and grating quality of some of our previous music, which I love, and which is an accurate reflection of the feelings we desired to convey. Perhaps all that “too much” in the hearing, distracted listeners from the fairly simple desire for connection always at the root of what we do.
ER: All of the fancy bells and whistles that attend seeing/hearing OXBOW live. Someone once asked me if my songs were all about how tough it is to be young, black and gay… so… people have read into us what it seemed to make the most sense to read into us.
But I am glad to be able to state a very clear intent on this record. And the next one as well, which we’ll be finishing in much less time than this one. This one I am tentatively thinking, working title-wise might be called I LOVE YOU ALONE. At least that’s what I think when I hear it. I could be alone in this. No idea what everyone else is thinking but this sums it up for me.
OS: If you’re trying to reconnect listeners and fans to that inspiration of love in your music are there songs you’d pick out? Things in general that you’d draw people’s ears to?
NW: Lovely Murk.
ER: Lovely Murk.