ARTICLE AND GRAPHICS BY CAI CRAMER
Okey Dokey is no longer a band. The Nashville-based group has evolved past the need for such constricting labels. Their new, sketchy-edged form takes shape as an ambiguous “community,” composed of each musician, producer, editor and artist who has touched their upcoming album, Once Upon One Time. Frontmen Johny Fisher and Aaron Martin are too humble to take all of the credit. The community’s new album is a coalition of a multitude of Okey Dokey sounds, from folk rock to orchestral pop. The three songs released ahead of the upcoming record have the cheery, pop-rock melody layered with dreamy harmonies and synthy beats that Okey Dokey fans expect, but with bleaker, more contemplative lyrics than in past albums. Don’t be mistaken, Fisher and Martin are just as quick to joke as ever. But their usual lightheartedness is blanketed with the weight of introspection as the artists grapple with the human experience of losing the people we love, and losing part of ourselves in the process. I connected with the two over Zoom to chat about their new album and making music during the pandemic.
This conservation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WNUR: You’ve recently talked about moving past being just a band, and now becoming a community in your “new phase.” I want to hear more about what that means exactly, because it’s a little ambiguous.
Martin: We would find that by the time we made an album, it took, like, 20 people. You know, between people that played with us or toured with us or managed us or book our shows or whatever, it just takes so many people that it seems almost selfish to say that it’s just us. It’s not really fair. And if we lost somebody, we as a community would be lesser than, if that makes sense. Without Aaron, we wouldn’t have a singer for our band, which would be a terrible loss. [laughs]
WNUR: I think that’s great. It puts more emphasis on who’s behind the scenes, all the work it takes to make a band.
Martin: In our own group of music makers, Jeremy, our third member, has always wanted to stay kind of behind the scenes. So now, this record is kind of thrusting him into everything as well. So yeah, you’ll get to know Jer.
WNUR: Something I was wondering about when I was listening to your new single “It’s Just You” is that it has an upbeat, lively sound to it, but some really heavy lyrics behind it. What was the influence behind that?
Martin: With this record, Jeremy and Johny were like, “You should just write really personal stuff again.” And I was going through my first year of sobriety, and I was getting out of a relationship that was very essential to me but was not meant to exist. So that song is about how you give yourself your own troubles, and to be happy is to make the bad and the good the same. And you know, I don’t believe in total nihilism, but I do believe in having enough nihilistic view to deconstruct what you’re dealing with and look at it objectively. I wanted to paint a picture of cults and religions and organized views because when you go through a breakup, the organized thought is that a part of you has died and you’re sad, and everybody looks at you like you’re a zombie. For me it was a total growth period. It was just like, here’s the loud truth. And it was really easy to write something that was just a shared experience that way. There aren’t any songs on the record that are meant to teach anything, because I just think that when you teach people shit, you assume they don’t know something, and I think that’s a pretty harsh assumption in general. And that’s why organized religions and cults or whatever are wrong, because it’s just like one person saying “I know everything!” and that’s just saying that everybody else is stupid. So yeah, that song was definitely meant to be pretty straightforward, but to open someone else up to write their own version of it, which is kind of how the whole entire record is.
WNUR: Do you think the whole album will have a really honest tone from you?
Fisher: Yeah. Except for “Delicious.”
Martin: There’s a song called “Delicious,” just because we thought it was funny, like, what’s a sexy song called? “Delicious.” [laughs] That song is all about being honest at that moment. It’s “tell me how you feel” kind of stuff. And then the last song on the record is one that I wrote about my dad, who died ten years ago as of Saturday.
WNUR: I’m so sorry.
Martin: Oh no, it’s actually like the reason I’m friends with Johny, and with this record, I wanted to write about this stuff for the first time. I’ve known Jessy Wilson for six or seven years and she’s an incredible singer. She was all over the last Tyler the Creator record, Igor. I had this song – I wrote it when I met her, and we brought it back for this as the last song. It was a good experience, which I think is going to help us write records in the future with even more neutrality and openness.
WNUR: How long has this record been in the works for?
Fisher: Probably a year and a half.
Martin: We finished it six months ago, writing-wise. And then we shopped it around for a little while. It’s been there, but we’ve also been coming up with content for it and trying to just make sure that everyone involved knows what we’re going for so they don’t lose sight of the point. There’s been lots of follow up with this record compared to other ones.
WNUR: What are the challenges of collaboration now, being physically distanced now from a lot of the people you’re working with? Has Corona changed your creative process at all?
Fisher: Not really. We rarely even work in the same rooms with anyone. We can all record on our own, and we’ve always been that way. We sort of send it around to each other, and we all work on it in our own time. So even on this last album we never ever got in the same room as the artists that we worked with except for Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket, which was cool. But other than that, everyone lives so far away, and we were touring at the time, so we couldn’t just fly out and work with someone. It was all fun, because you get surprised too. Instead of suffering through listening to the same song for like eight to ten hours in one day, to just send something off and then a few days later to get something back, and to be excited, you know? Like “whoah, that sounds amazing!” [laughs] Because I didn’t have to spend ten hours in one day with you listening to it all day, now I’m excited. It’s like Christmas!
Martin: Johny’s favorite band, maybe ever, is The Shins. Their bassist did two of the songs. That was huge. Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear, which is one of my favorite bands ever, he did two. And Dave Harrington of Darkside, Filip Nikolic from Poolside, and Carl Broemel and Jeremy of course. It was just really cool because we were able to siphon in a lot of influences that, to me, also kind of bookended a moment of a relationship for the three of us. The process just kept folding on itself and felt really natural. And that’s what helped it move along while we were touring and doing all this other stuff. A lot of new forms of trust in different areas.
Fisher: And we got to use the excuse that we play music to be around our childhood idols!
Martin: Please hang out with us! [laughs]
WNUR: That’s kind of what I’m doing right now, using the excuse that I’m a journalist to talk to my music idols!
Fisher: And being friendly goes a long way. Just being easy to talk to, you know? We offered the idea of people making songs with us early on when we were first hinting about turning into a “community.” So we’ve had bands and artists send us songs, and then we’ll record on them and mix them and then send them back. And that has just been a hoot. That’s kind of what we did for this album. It’s a full circle moment. We get to record with people that we look up to, and then we hopefully get to also pay it back by being like, “if you live in a teeny town with no recording studios or no other people to jam with, you can send us songs, and we’ll make them for you and then send them back to you.” And I think that also feels good – to know that you don’t think you’re too cool for school.
WNUR: I bet that means so much to the people you’re mixing and recording for. And if you get to have fun in the process, what more could you ask for?
Fisher: Yeah, the night our whole tour got canceled back in March, I had to track this really high vocal, and I was being annoying singing really high, but I thought I was hidden away in this house we were all staying in and that no one could hear me. And for two hours, I’m just singing crazy annoying notes that are just wine glass shattering, and I go downstairs and I’m like, “Yeah I just had to wrap up some quick thing,” And everyone was like “Yeah. We know. We heard you. For two hours.” [laughs] I really want to do a thing where we pitch songs that we’ve already written and there’s no lyrics and just have people buy the songs from us. But then we’ll just go in and write the whole song about them, just like, “Oh, Jessica bought a song. Our new song is called ‘Jessica,’ coming out next week!”
Martin: Jeremy does that a lot for me. I’ll be like, “alright, here’s the vibe.” And it becomes this hilarious, just super upfront song about pretending to be that person that I’m not. It’s so much fun.
Fisher: Yeah, which I do think we did a lot more in the first few albums. In terms of like, jokes. It was big jokes that we got to tell in the forms of songs that people were like, “eah, this song’s so cool,” but it was a lot of us poking fun at things whereas this newest one has some deeper thought. We’re not constantly making jokes.
WNUR: So if you could change anything about the industry, or even the music and art scene itself, what do you think you would change?
Martin: I would say the biggest thing that I’ve tried to change in myself the most in the last six months: I don’t believe people come up with shit on their own. And the assumption that you create anything alone that is worth a damn to me is more and more hilarious. Just dropping that “aha, I’ve done it” from everything. The reason people really appreciate what I’m doing is because I’m really in tune with what a lot of people might need, or what would benefit them. And I think that’s why not being on the stage all the time is kind of jarring for some people, because when you see everyone collectively enjoying the song with you, you forget your solitude for a minute. The whole room is together. And I hope that’s what Corona has reminded the music industry, along with myself.
WNUR: Along that line, you guys have done a few virtual concerts recently. What has that been like?
Martin: I was the most nervous about it, I’ll admit. It feels like ego to say this, but because of how much work we had done on the record, our band as a craft, I felt apprehensive about jumping into something with a lot of technical question marks. But literally after the first five seconds of being a band again, it was super obvious that we are capable of molding our sound to where it goes. We’ll be doing more as they come, and happily as they show up.
Fisher: It’s weird to finish a song and just have the room be silent, and you’re like, “All right….” [laughs]
Martin: We just bought a laugh track from some old shows.
Fisher: Oh yeah, and a clap track! It at least helped us feel good. [laughs]
Martin: Getting the audio to come through the screen at the same time as us doing anything is hard. I mean, we’ve had a three minute lag on something. [laughs] We forgot to turn the audio off of YouTube the last time we were doing it, and we were getting this crazy echo. But we figured it out, and it’s been fun.
WNUR: I imagine the sound quality might be a big obstacle over Zoom, because it just doesn’t sound the same as live.
Fisher: Yup, yup. I mean, if you’ve got big speakers at home and a whole system, I guess that could be cool. [laughs] But most people are just watching on their sofa on the screen in front of them. It’s gonna always sound a little bad, but we luckily are able to link ourselves together through this weird hodge-podge of cords and wires. We filmed one with, like, six or seven cellphones. That one was fun, actually.
Martin: It’s been exciting to develop. I think it’s just getting used to the idea of orchestrating a performance no matter what the format calls for. It’s what performers should do.
Fisher: So long story short, you’ve gotta figure out how to livestream. [laughs]
Once Upon One Time is set to release on Oct. 23, 2020.