O’Brother redefine heavy on their self-released new album You and I. Since their critically acclaimed debut LP Garden Window (2011), the Atlanta band has been pushing their blend of post rock, doom metal and experimental music in new directions. Follow ups Disillusion (2013) and Endless Light (2016) refined the band’s dynamic approach to sludgy noise-rock and expanded their sonic reach to include more sprawling textures and ambience. You and I serves as no exception to their commitment to defy convention, with a large portion of the album leading with classical guitar and piano compositions, massive and glitchy soundscapes, haunting vocals, and trip hop vibes beyond their signature chaotic sludge. Lead single “Killing Spree” lures listeners in with dreamy guitar and distant vocals that are unified with a Mezzanine-esque piano line and beat. The all-consuming second single “Halogen Eye” is sure to become a staple in the band’s catalog, featuring pummeling riffs and a brutal piano bridge reminiscent of Vheissu-era Thrice. Nearly scrapped from the album, the track found its final form with guest vocalist and guitarist Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro. You and I is the album O’Brother should have been writing all along; it’s their most cohesive and ambitious effort to date and further cements the band’s reputation as ever-curious experts in sonic experimentation. You and I is digitally available via Bandcamp starting Friday, May 1st.
Below are some highlights from my conversation with Tanner Merritt (vocals, guitar), Anton Dang (bass) and Michael Martens (drums) ahead of the album’s release.
What do you want to say about the new album You and I?
Tanner: Personally, I love all of our back catalog that we’ve created together, but I feel like this is closer to maybe what we’ve always felt that we should be doing. The progression or the incorporation of the different instruments just feels right. It feels like maybe what we’ve wanted to do for a long time and just made it there.
Anton: I would say that I totally agree with all those things. I feel like it came out that way because, as cheesy and lame as it sounds, we wrote this record because we wanted to. Obviously we’ve been writing music because we wanted to, but things kind of change when you’re on a label. With this album, we didn’t have to write this if we didn’t want to, but we really wanted to, and I think it shows on the songs and on the record this time around.
Michael: Yeah, it definitely helped bring it back to this being ours. It was always ours, but for a little while it started to not feel like that. Now, the only deadlines that we impose are ones that we’ve imposed on ourselves, which are healthy. But they are also full of a little bit more meaning. It’s an internal goal and just something that you can look back at and say, “Cool, we created another thing from nothing.” And we can keep more money now (laughs).
How did you decide on the first single “Killing Spree” and can you talk about what draws the band to trip hop influences?
T: I think we all felt that it was super appropriate given the time. I know with all of the pandemic shit, a lot of people are feeling a lot of stress and so we wanted to put out kind of a chiller, calmer vibe as a first look. We’ve had a lot of trip hop influence for a long time, but I think the way that we wrote previous records — all in a room together initially — it just didn’t come through as much. I think the way we approached this record by sending ideas back and forth — random demos with drum loops and stuff, different people would record different parts and put an electronic beat with it — a lot of that stuck. And so those influences came through a lot more heavily than they had in the past.
A: I think the the common denominator is our music is fairly dark, for the most part. I think trip hop is the same. It’s a lot of minor chords, minor notes. That kind of darkness with a downtempo groove is something that we’re all about and those are the two common denominators in our music and in trip hop in general.
T: Yeah, that downtempo, kind of electronic thing just feels right. There’s something hypnotic and entrancing about it. I think that’s something we always sought to incorporate.
M: Yeah, it’s a different definition of heavy music.
How did the second single “Halogen Eye” come about?
M: This one’s unique. It was hanging by a thread for over a year. I don’t even remember how the first iteration of it came about, but it was super weird and really electronic. We wanted it, but knew it needed to be a song. It was a bunch of parts and we just fucked around with it for the longest time until one day the structure of the song actually started to make sense.
A: But even when we went to the studio and we were tracking it, it still hadn’t fully clicked.
M: It wasn’t a rock song, definitely.
A: We started working on the chorus and then it kind of just glued everything together and it almost turned into the title track.
M: Yeah, “Halogen Eye” was definitely a strong contender to be the name of the record, which is just crazy. I think it’s testament to the record in general.
What is the concept and theme behind You and I?
T: That whole theme just kept popping up in songs. There may be an initial batch of songs and then as we build upon that, we find ways of interconnecting them. Everything starts to come together from those building blocks. We like to build out full albums instead of just lumping pieces together and so it’s just an amalgamation of things. We started working on the artwork and the ouroboros kind of logo on the cover and an overall vibe of interconnectivity. You’ll see the album itself performs on a continuous loop — it loops back into itself. We just wanted to build one cohesive piece.
Was there any particular music that was influential during the writing of this album?
T: It’s hard to say because we wrote it over the course of two and a half years. A lot of trip hop and film score type stuff. There’s a lot of composers that we’ve gotten into. I started playing more piano and Johnny and Jordan started playing more classical guitar so we approached compositions differently because of that. There’s a lot more of that than there was in previous records. We were listening to a lot more piano and classical guitar music.
A: We definitely leaned into more of our softer influences, I guess you could say. Personally, I was listening to a lot of electronic, indie pop type stuff.
There’s a Facebook group dedicated to the album called You and I and Us. What is everyone sharing in that group?
A: There are some pretty cool nugs in there (laughs). People have been posting videos and pictures of shows in the past, reliving some memories and meeting with random people. Our album Disillusion is a double LP. Three of those sides have the album on it and then the last side is blank. We put a secret track on it that plays from the inside out, but we didn’t tell anybody about it. Throughout the years, I would probably say a handful people have figured it out. Someone on the group outed us and everyone’s talking about it right now. So it’s pretty cool when things like that happen. It was just another way for us to connect with people on a more direct level.
T: I also saw something the other day that really gave me hope. Someone was like, “Oh, I really wish I had Disillusion on vinyl, but I don’t have the money right now or I can’t get ahold of it.” And then another person that they didn’t know was like, “Yo, send me your address. I have an extra copy. I’ll just mail it to you.” Other people connecting over our music is really encouraging to me.
M: It’s cool to see the band from their perspective. What’s important to them? What photo did they hang on to? What piece of art did they draw? What tattoo did they get? It’s cool seeing them post, “Hey, this is O’Brother from this show on this date.” For the longest time, the landmarks in our life were what venue we were at … We have our own interpretation of what the band means to us. The five of us are incredibly close. The five of us, our wives — we have our circle that extends out a little bit more of just brothers and family members that have been involved heavily in the band. To see the Facebook group bonding and then us also almost having a sense of self validation that this isn’t just important to us, it’s important to other people.
What’s your favorite album to listen to from start to end?
A: Mine is probably ( ) by Sigur Ros. It’s an album that I go back to every year and when I do, I listen to it straight for like a month at a time. I’ve been doing that for close to 10 years now and I’m still not tired of it.
T: I have three tied. Massive Attack’s Heligoland. Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Those are all three that are pretty heavily influential.
M: I’d say I probably fall pretty in line with ( ) as well. That was the record I discovered Sigur Ros with. I typically don’t get into bands until a decent amount of time after the other guys do, which is kind of nice because then I get to let them vet everything. If I just need energy or need to focus and get through something, I’ll just throw on Saves the Day Through Being Cool.