Interview: Oyarsa

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing the first-ever live set by Oyarsa, a new doomgaze/post rock project from Noah Sheaffer (also of Eaves) and Joe McElroy (formerly of Comrades). I loved their previous bands, so when I heard that they were playing together, I was eager to hear them.

There, at the impromptu stage at Audiofeed (which I feel I should explain is literally just a small pavilion at a county fairgrounds), they played live for the first time, before embarking on a tour with Adjy. To say that I was blown away would be an understatement, but that set was blown out of water when I saw them the following Wednesday on that tour.

The other night, I had a phone call with Noah to discuss what led to the formation of Oyarsa, life on the road after pandemic, and what the future holds.

Video by Casey Gallenberger

Tell me a little bit about how Oyarsa came together.

Through life changes and the fallout of having life stop moving because of COVID. My wife and I moved up to Colorado Springs, and I had already known Joe from music stuff in the past, and I’ve always noticed from when my previous band Eaves recorded with him that there was good chemistry there. So it was sort of like a natural progression.

And then life just sort of changed for both of us. My band took a break for a while. And then, Comrades swiftly came to an end, and there was a different sort process to sort of reassess where we were at.

I think for me starting this, it was almost intimidating. It’s a little sad, because a younger version of myself caught some early Comrades stuff and it sounded so inspired. And the end of things can be sad, but also good, necessary, right?  I recognize this to be a cool thing, but I know a younger version myself is definitely kind of bummed.

You’ve been on the road for a few weeks now. Like what’s it like to be touring again after the pandemic?

It’s interesting. Cause on one hand, it kind of doesn’t feel completely real. I feel very present, very excited to be on the road again and be here doing this, but it took days for it to really sink in. Life is just so different than when I had last toured.

My other band was recording an album right before the shutdown. Literally we finished recording, played one show, and then the world stopped moving. And I know a lot of musicians have felt sort of like prime important years of life [have been] robbed.

There’s that feeling of time running out, even though it’s not necessarily true. And being on the road again is very cathartic because it’s like a testimony to my own life to say like, “remember that this is important.” Turning that switch back on has been an interesting process while being on the road again.

Part of it too, is that this band didn’t play like local shows before we hit the road. We had this opportunity come up to do this and we just did it. The first show this band ever played together was the first show of this tour, which is backwards. I’m very thankful for it, but it was sort of like, there’s no in between, we’re just doing it again. So my brain still is adjusting to the fact that we’re out here doing this.

We played a show with All Hollowed. Who is also on Friend Club Records with us, and they went on a little tour before Audiofeed. They said that was their third show ever—that band started mostly because they couldn’t play with his other band during lockdown.

Yeah. That feels a lot like what this is to some degree. But I don’t view it as a substitute [for Eaves], really. It’s an extension. It’s something that I intend to keep doing with other music projects. But really it’s a blessing to be able to do music again. I think just being on the road again, it just feels kinda wild.

I don’t want it to be a substitute. I don’t want it to be a replacement in a sense. Or just like just something to fill the space, I think is what I could to really allow myself to just assign its own unique value rather than, sort of say, “okay, well, this thing is done, So now I’m gonna do this other thing.” This just a new thing in the midst of everything.

Photo by Casey Gallenberger

Along that line, how is Oyarsa different than your other projects?

Coming together to do this, we wanted to draw from sort of our own natural instincts and inspirations for writing. But because we were the primary songwriters in our respective bands in the past, we came together and said, “okay, We’re each really good at writing music [on our own], but how do we do this together?” And then on top of that, how do we make it not sound like everything else we’ve done? (Laughs) So it’s been a fine line to walk, to try and figure out how that would work.

Sonically there’s a big difference. We’ve gotten a very natural blending of our individual inspirations but with the intentionality of really doing something that pushes both of us out of our comfort zone. So instead of me writing some things that like in the past, maybe a little bit more like Thrice-y, post-hardcore vocal-forward music, instead of that we’ve gotten the chance to do something that is a little bit more doomy, a little more dark, balancing dark and pretty. Some of our influences [are bands like] like Holy Fawn and Deafheaven and some post metal influences. Like, I’m wearing like a Numenorean shirt right now.

So there’s like big theatrical dark stuff, but still, still utilizing some of our own natural playing. Comrades had a lot of really wonderful, melodic guitar driven music, Joe’s always been a tappy boy. So it’s like that sort of melodic lead guitar driven music blended with sort of a, doomier shoegazier sound. And honestly we didn’t expect to be as heavy and dark as it got, But we kept writing music and it just kept tending that way until we were like, “should we just commit?” We were basically like, “all right, let’s just take the gloves off and let ourselves be where we want to be,” and it ended up just being pretty raw, pretty dark, pretty heavy there’s and there’s a good mix of influence in there as far as heavier music and ambient music goes yeah.

Photo by Casey Gallenberger

Speaking of that big, heavy, dark stuff, How do you get that massive tone?

We’re sort of audiophiles. Both of us kind of come from the world of old tube amps. we’re both a big fan of old circuitry, like Sovteks, those big old Russian amps. We ended up stumbling into a really good deal on a pair of Atlas, 6×12 cabs. And it’s kind of cool to rep a Colorado custom cab maker. I have not met this person, but he’s sort of like an old doom metally kind of guy up in the mountains—I think he’s located in Boulder. But they’re big and they’re loud and they’re very heavy—physically heavy.

In conjunction with that, Joe likes to keep it simple with, with pedal work and I’m a nerd when it comes to pedal. I like stacking a bunch of effects on top of those big tube amps. The end result is like us asking the question, “how can we make this sound really, really big?” and just doing whatever we can to make it happen.

I had already had a baritone scale guitar from Baleguer that I got during lockdown. They’re a custom guitar company in Pennsylvania. My wife and I had a COVID wedding, which meant it was very small and no one gave us gifts—they just gave us money, which was actually kind of incredible. So part of that was a wedding gift I could say. So I’ve had that since then and going into this project with it.

Joe’s usually plays in like, Standardish tunings—drop D,  things like that. So we kind of met in the middle. I tune my guitar down to drop G sharp. The baritone scale helps that a lot. Joe plays like old Ibanez lawsuits. He found a really cool and recently he’s been touring with that. He has that set up I think in C sharp standard.

It’s a really wacky pairing, but they really stack to make it a pretty sonically, big wall sound, rather than everything being tuned to the same register. You’ve got just a little bit of something else going on and it makes writing a little hard at times, but it also, it helps us get outside our comfort zone.

What’s the writing process been? You kind of alluded to that earlier.

When Joe and I first started writing this stuff about a year ago, we really just wanted to learn how to write music together, so we just kept playing together and we kept working, and we just sort of followed the rabbit. Each time felt something start to click and present ideas together and just see where it goes and see how it developed.

And that was sort of how we got comfortable working with each other creatively, just by doing it. And so we got a bunch of ideas, a bunch of music to sitting in the banks. But with these four songs, as we got closer to this tour coming up, we were like, let’s solidify four that meet a mood that I think is cohesive, yet still variable enough to tell a story across them.

Even then coming together, when we first started writing music, there was the question of, “is this gonna be a vocal project at all? Is it gonna be instrumental?” And we ended up leaning towards, “yes, let’s do vocals, but let’s do it differently,” which sort of led me to throwing soft, airy vocals at times over top of big, big doomy music, and then still retaining some of those high energy stuff as well, a bit of screaming and whatnot, which is just kind of comes naturally for me.

And then, the challenges of transitioning to a new place, and overcoming various difficulties I’ve come into in the process of life changing so drastically. A lot of what this music is a representation of this season of life, where we’re coming out of being in lockdown and then dealing with one roadblock, and us learning how to not just overcome those things, but to be honest in the midst of the difficulties or sufferings that we’ve experienced.

The first thing we released, “Lament,” is sort of an illustration in a sort. It’s vague, as far as the actual lyrics go, but, they’re all leaning towards telling a story of honesty in the midst of suffering.

But part of that honesty is not dwelling simply on how difficult things are, but being able to recognize, and not just like a wishful thinking way, but like a truly, truly hopeful way, that there is goodness, not just at the end of the tunnel, but even in the midst and alongside the suffering. And being people who are very faith driven, we truly do know in ourselves that despite how difficult it is, even though the world may feel like it’s truly burning around us, we’ve been able to learn what it really means to lament. I think in this season means to say, “Hey, things are not good. And that is not okay, but we see that it will be, we know that it will be.” It’s the holding in tension hope, and honest suffering.

I had “Lament” playing yesterday when I was driving. And I drove past a panhandler, right as the lyric, “forgive us for looking away” played and it made me go “Ah!”

Actually, that’s very specifically What that line is referencing. There was a moment in our church, there was a message being given specifically for those who were suffering in the midst of the church and around the church and the people who have true lamentations to begin with. And it was, it was a moment where we were praying alongside them. And someone from the church was, was praying and they said, “Lord, we’ve often experienced these things ourselves and for the people who around us, who are hurting and suffering so badly. Please forgive us for looking away. forgive us to the times we’ve looked away.”

And it hit me. I was like, oh, like in midst of my own suffering, oftentimes I found it easier to look away, and to close my eyes. And, and not that we need to be the ones to fix everything, but I think not allowing ourselves the room to consider other people’s suffering is, I think a poisonous thing that happens when we allow ourselves to be so dishonest with ourselves from our own pain.

What’s been playing on repeating the van?

Uh, the wind. (Laughs) We drive a terrifyingly old van. It’s a tank and it’s wonderful, but. Very sketchy. The radio doesn’t work, so we have a Bose Bluetooth speaker in there that is often drowned out by the wind.

But when it’s not—especially being with Adjy, who is a very storytelling band, we kicked off the tour on a night drive. I think the first time I consciously noticed music we listening to was when I was driving. Jay (Costlow) was up with me. She hadn’t heard the Dear Hunter yet. And they’re like a big storytelling band that has wrote albums in acts and forms. I absolutely love the band. I grew up listening to them and I found sort of a kinship in Adjy’s music and theirs, which was really fun to just dissect that again with someone else. And we listened through like an album and a half and I got to kind of nerd out and tell the people in the van, the story, as I understood it.

So we started with that, then went from that to Turnstile’s new record, and then we are diving back in to Saosin and Circa survive and some of the older, deeper cuts that we all grew up listening to you. Jay plays a, a surprising amount of really deep early 2000s hip hop, and I’m just like, “where is this coming from?” And it’s sick. But if we’re not all talking, we kind of end up throwing headphones in and everyone kind of lives in their own little world as we, we just kind of kill these long drives. But I think the presiding listen has been the wind.

Photo by Casey Gallenberger

Explain where the name Oyarsa came from and why CS Lewis’ space trilogy is his best work.

I don’t know if I credit it enough to say it’s his best, but I can say it’s my favorite work from Lewis. Don’t get me wrong. I grew up on the Narnia series. I love it. It’s got a special place in my heart and I think they’re, they’re profound in their own way.

But the sci-fi trilogy is so special. I think they’re just the best books. I found myself in tears in the second book, just the beauty of the state of character’s hearts. It is just such a beautiful snapshot of, of creativity in a world that didn’t even completely understand how sci-fi would develop. It’s pre moon landing. We didn’t understand what it was like to travel in space yet, as a culture. And I just love that Lewis [created] this beautiful experience for people that sort of mystified and demystified the idea of space at the same time.

I think it’s really cool to see him in a sense cut loose. I think in a sort of fantastical sort of way because the Narnia series is very obviously like “this is allegory. This is how it is.” And people get that and that’s obvious. It’s supposed to be for children and it’s great. But this is not written for children. They are written for adults to experience a beautiful world. It’s very extremely foreign to anything I’ve known. So to me, I just love that.The main character is based on Tolkien—he’s a philologist—so it’s cool to see their friendship displayed in that way.

As for the name Oyarsa, it’s funny. We went through like 400 freaking names before we ever resolved on one. I presented Joe with a lot of ideas and we just kept going back and forth and nothing sank in. We were almost settled on a couple, but he brought up Oyarsa and I had thought of it before, but it didn’t quite fit right in my head yet.

But, they are really unique characters, these governing bodies of the planets. So when he suggested that, we sat on it for a couple days and I was like, yeah, well, that’s it.

Would Oyarsa ever play in a Treehouse? (author’s note: Noah and I first met playing a show called the “Baugo Boo Bash” in someone’s backyard where the bands played in a literal tree house)

Oh my. Only if it’s at the back of a trailer park, it’s Halloween and the trees are basically on fire, as is tradition. I’ll never forget watching them start that bonfire and just keep putting wood on it and keep putting wood on it and keep putting wood on it. And then I mean, literally, branches were on fire under the trees. Like they, they started bonfire under trees. 

But I would say like, “yeah, of course after this tour and all these house shows, we should, that’s like nothing, we play out in a treehouse,” but honestly, this tour has been so great. these are some of the best house shows like attendance wise, people like just the attitude of people, the bands we’re playing with.

And on top of all that, the houses have been so nice. We played a house yesterday. I think we walked in and we all simultaneously had the same thought, like, “are we supposed to play here? Like, is this it’s too nice.”

So I think a treehouse is still pretty low on the bar right now.

Well, getting the gear up would be…

Yeah, the 6x12s would be rough. Maybe as long as they have like a lift. Or like, a crane. Or no, how about this? We play at the foot of the tree. The crowd has to be in the treehouse.

Without giving away any of your secrets, uh, what is next for Oyrasa?

We’re sitting on a bunch of music, so next on the list is get home, try and replenish bank accounts a hair, and then finish up music. The past year left us with a lot of really good starts. And even this set we’ve been playing, these four songs are very ready for us to finish putting them together.

And the first of them being “Lament,” which we already released. We’re at a point now where we want to go ahead and take these songs and make them a real thing. And perhaps we’re gonna do probably some shorter sort of weekender runs right now just to kind of get to know the west a little bit.

And, uh, yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see where we go from there.

Oyarsa’s single “Lament” is available now on Bandcamp.

Follow Oyarsa on Facebook and Instagram.

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