Ohmme: Moving Forwards In A State Of Flux
There’s been plenty of time to look in the mirror of late. Both in a literal sense due to weeks-on-weeks of lockdown, twiddling thumbs, and staring aimlessly into the void of our own reflections, but also metaphorically, with many of us trying to piece together our place in our world. Before the rest of our world was engulfed in the Covid-19 pandemic, however, art-grunge duo Ohmme had been negotiating this process of self-reflection and reconstruction for some time.
Chicago-based multi-disciplinary musicians Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart formed Ohmme in 2014, having brushed shoulders on more than one occasion before then during sessions as backing vocalists or instrumental collaborators for a variety of local artists and musical projects. Both were classically trained as pianists from an early age, yet both saw their attentions turned towards electric guitar, choosing to confidently wade through uncharted waters: “I think both of us, at least on the piano, know exactly which chord we need before we play it”, Sima noted when we caught up a few weeks into lockdown, “and that's why the guitar appealed to us – it was this 'unknown', and we had to wrestle with it.” It’s an experimental desire, fascination even, to pursue and explore ideas above their stations that’s earmarked their work thus far.
Both debut full-length Parts and their eponymous EP firstly established and then reinforced their penchant for angular guitar riffs and irregular time signatures, their unique use of harmony often the centrepiece of their compositions. The vocal tapestries they effortlessly and instinctively weave (since becoming the duo’s hallmark) is predominantly why they banded together in the first place: “It was definitely something that came naturally, and was one of the reasons we started Ohmme. We were singing together in a bunch of different groups, projects, sessions, singing backup, and we quickly realised we both had an innate ability to know where the other one wanted to go. Especially in recording sessions, when someone just says, "Go for it", we have that ability to move naturally through some ideas without necessarily needing to talk about them. That intuition. Since then we've spent a lot of the past five years maturing together – we spend pretty much every night in bed together, you know, she's my sister. Our relationship has definitely evolved.”
This symbiotic relationship, this sisterhood, provided the foundations for Ohmme to set their stall from the get-go. Their ample resources as diverse, multi-instrumentalists has seen them become frequent and in-demand collaborators to a wide variety of artists, with credits on tracks by Chance the Rapper, Whitney, Richard Thompson, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, as well as a revolving door roster of artists in their home city of Chicago. What would come to symbolise the next stage of their creative evolution on upcoming sophomore album Fantasize Your Ghost, however, is disassociation – from themselves, and one another.
Given their similar musical backgrounds, subsequent conversion to guitar music and organic kinship, Sima and Macie are two sides of the same coin. But now it was time to break the mould, albeit a subconscious avenue taken given their inclination for disruption: “One thing that both of us have recognised, is that we've both been mentally playing with creating different versions of ourselves. Playing with the ideas of those people; you're going down the road and you can envisage tributaries of those personalities peeling off in different directions. The curiosities.”
‘3 2 4 3’, the first single released from Fantasize Your Ghost once again presents their seamless vocal unity, a choral delivery of “Different today, but I’m the same” emphasising the aforementioned thematic duplicity, meandering in and out of a merry-go-round tempo. Arguably the main driving force behind inventing different versions of themselves though, comes from their life on the road. Continually moving, and trying to veer forwards in shape-shifting environs.
“We've been travelling a lot, and changing as people. Doing that whilst you're on the road during this funny cycle of staying with new people, I think we're both finding it hard to say exactly who we are, and exactly what we believe when everything is in flux around us. It makes it hard to define yourself.” Throughout the writing and recording of Fantasize Your Ghost, Sima and Macie used this state of flux to their advantage, a fertile breeding ground for their improvisational impulses. Hitting a crossroads, and taking a step forward together.
Their brand of ‘gospel-grunge’ isn’t all self-serious and existentially themed, however – Ohmme are, in Sima’s own words, “disloyal to one genre”, continually striving for the “tension between harmony and chaos”, and they’re playful with it. Their latest single ‘The Limit’, an off-kilter, trippy art-rock stomper merges their knack for unpredictable riffs with curious and ethereal vocals, à la Kate Bush. The beloved pop enigma became a greater influence on the record than initially expected: “Macie introduced me to Kate Bush and my mind was totally blown. When you discover an artist, not just when you're young, but in your twenties, that's going to be part of your life.”
In conjunction, polyphonic harmonies and electric guitar often result in some progressive rock-ish amalgam, a bastardised genre in some circles, but a natural conclusion for contemporary guitarists with classical beginnings. The duo knowingly, and lovingly, embrace this ‘prog’ notion (“Our classical training comes out all the time. We end up laughing.”), with Brian Eno influencing Ohmme’s recent direction, and on a more tangible level with former Deerhoof drummer Chris Cohen who co-produced Fantasize Your Ghost.
“Brian Eno is a major influence on this record. There's a lot of strings – they're very much in the style of what you'd hear on Kate Bush records. Grandiose, but really unique. Not just 'pretty' parts, they're charging, almost aggressive.” And beyond the jolting St.Vincent-like riffs, Bush’s influence is pretty clear. On first listen, Sima and Macie’s ability to reach those ear-bending, high-pitched wails in tandem bursts out, but on repeated plays it’s their simultaneously unconventional and poppy rhythms that keep you on your toes; there’s echoes of ‘Hounds Of Love’ in album opener ‘Flood Your Gut’, and the punchy textures of ‘Twitch’ reminiscent of the bold, chest-pounding string sections of ‘Cloudbusting’.
Ironically, given that the album is partly inspired by life on the road, it’ll be some while before Fantasize Your Ghost can be road-tested, though Ohmme are confirmed to support Waxahatchee on her US tour later this year. Meanwhile, with live music facing an uncertain few months ahead, Sima and Macie, alongside the rest of the music industry, dipped their toes into livestreaming throughout quarantine. “It's been an interesting challenge, creating that campfire feeling to share with your fans. But ultimately I miss live performance. I want to be part of that ecosystem again.”
Fantasize Your Ghost is out this Friday (5th June) via Joyful Noise Recordings.