New York State of Mind
"Go play in New York."
That's the advice OHNO singer-guitarist Steve Holt has for pretty much every local band, and the rest of the group seconds the motion, nodding in unison as soon as he says it. At the moment, they're not going anywhere, just waiting for a shipment of clothes to be delivered to Ahab Bowen, the vintage clothing store off McKinney Avenue where Holt works.
Although the five members of OHNO are not going anywhere now, they usually are. And in the days after our conversation, they will be traveling to Kansas and Iowa, trying to pick up a few new fans along the way. They've been successful at doing that so far. Last weekend, they were in Oklahoma, playing in Tulsa and Norman. "We kind of walk in and nobody knows us," keyboard player Rahim Quazi says. "And by the end of the night, the stage is crowded."
OHNO has been especially prosperous in New York, which is why Holt is so adamant about his advice, repeating it several times throughout his monologues about the band and the music industry. The group's first performance in NYC found it opening for The Strokes at the Mercury Lounge, just before they went to England and came back as the saviors of American rock and roll.
That gig led to others, and those gigs led to some pretty important fans, including John Alagia. Don't know him? Don't worry: He's a fine-print kind of guy. But he's important because he's mixed pretty much every Dave Matthews Band album, and he produced John Mayer's recent Room for Squares. If you have a closet full of khakis, that pretty much makes him a god. OHNO met Alagia after an ASCAP showcase in New York: "We thought he was coked up," Holt says. "He was talking so fast."
Alagia badgered the band for a CD to take home with him, but the group was reluctant; they weren't happy with the recordings they had and didn't really want people to get the wrong idea. "We didn't mean to be playing hard to get," Quazi says, "but that's kind of what we were doing." As the budding friendship between Alagia and OHNO strengthened, they figured out a way to solve the problem: Alagia recorded them himself.
(Before we go on: If you don't know much about OHNO either, yeah, their involvement with Alagia will probably give you the wrong impression. Forget it: They don't sound like Matthews or Mayer. Best starting point is somewhere in England, the exact location depending on whom you talk to. Some people say Radiohead or Coldplay. We hear Super Furry Animals.)
Besides helping them get the sounds they were looking for, Alagia has assisted OHNO in other ways. He hooked them up with a manager, their new manager found them a well-connected lawyer and somewhere in there, the labels started coming around. (Some should be at Trees on September 6, checking out OHNO's show with Dexter Freebish.) "We love that guy," Holt says of Alagia. They aren't planning to release the recordings they've done with him just yet, waiting to see if they can find a label to fund a full album. "He's been the doorway out of this sort of isolation hell of being from Dallas. Every band experiences this. I know. It's really rough being from Dallas. You have to get out to open any kind of doors, real prospects for the band. You just have to get out of Dallas, man. There's no industry here."
Holt knows about the highs and lows that come with getting out of Dallas and getting onto the roster of a major label. His last band, Tablet, signed a deal with Mercury Records, releasing one album (1996's Pinned) before they were dropped. But he doesn't remember much about that time. That's why he's looking forward to everything he hopes is about to happen.
"None of these guys here, none of them have ever had a record deal; none of them have ever recorded a major-label album," he says. "I've done those things, but I was fucked up and loaded the whole time. Really didn't get to be present and enjoy it. And so I get to experience my own feelings, and I can watch these guys and their reactions. And it brings me joy. It's just fucking fun. Jim, he's been struggling in this scene. Band after band after band. None of them ever getting beyond a certain level. Vince has toured around as a hired gun with certain people, but he's never had his own band. Rahim, same story as Jim. Marley, he's 20. It's exciting and fun, because I love these guys. We're tighter than best friends; we're brothers. We're all here. None of us have drug problems. None of us have mental problems or relationship problems beyond the normal wear and tear. So it's fun. That's the way it's supposed to be."
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