Calmer waters: After a turbulent period, Kurt Ottaway and Overcasters release The Whole Sea Is Raging
As monikers go, Overcasters is a magnificent name for a rock-and-roll band, especially one as noisy, tempestuous and imposing as the outfit that Kurt Ottaway leads. It also happens to be an apt metaphor for the ominous pall that's hung over the musician's endeavors from the very beginning.
Every significant event in his career — from the genesis of Ottaway's previous groups to the founding of his current band and the recording of its latest release, the fittingly titled The Whole Sea Is Raging — has been marked by some sort of turmoil, starting with an automobile accident right around his 21st birthday. "I almost died in a car crash," says Ottaway, a stalwart of the scene who's influenced countless musicians over the years. He was heading home from deejaying on a rain-slicked evening when his car stalled in the middle of an intersection and was broadsided. The impact was so violent that Ottaway's vehicle was sent barreling through the intersection and into a retaining wall, then flipped over into a field, knocking him unconscious.
"I woke up in the hospital, and they were picking shards of vinyl out of my face with a big syringe," he recalls. "I literally had my records embedded in my face because they shattered so much. That's how Twice Wilted came about."
"That's how Kurt starts all of his bands," says Erin Tidwell, Overcasters' time-keeper and Ottaway's significant other. "There's these little signs."
Indeed. Tarmints, the band that came after Twice Wilted, followed another momentous, life-altering event.
"This is a very dark thing. I'm just going to go ahead and divulge it," Ottaway confides. "I went out to the West Coast. I was very depressed about losing Twice Wilted, and I moved. I got out there, and I tried to get something going, and I just couldn't — I don't think I had quite the wherewithal, and people really didn't understand where I was coming from, and it was so cliquey and so transient in San Francisco.
"I tried and tried," he continues. "Set up practices. Put ads in the Guardian — 'Fearless frontman,' whatever. I got a bit depressed. I wrote a ton of songs, and I got to be a better guitar player. I spent a lot of time thinking by myself. I just got to the point where I was, like, ready to, like.... One day I woke up and I said, 'I've had it.' You know, I don't even really know where I fit here in the world at all. I said, 'I'm just going to cruise down to I-80, and I'm going to throw myself off a fucking bridge, man, because I've had it.'"
Ottaway's frustration with the music was compounded by the disintegration of a long-term relationship back in Denver. As everything began to pile up, he felt pushed to the brink. "Whether anybody wants to admit it, I think everybody grapples with that," he says. "That was my lowest point. I was heartbroken. I had lost a woman that I had been involved with for eight or nine years.
"I got down there to the bridge, and I watched the traffic going and realized how fast I could end it," he recalls, "and I don't know what it was, but I actually had the guts to call my mom. I said, 'Mom, you'd better just book a U-Haul, because I'm coming home — or else I'm going to die out here.' By the time I hit Denver, I had bass, drums and guitar, and we started working. And that's pretty much how the Tarmints started."
The origin of Overcasters was no less traumatic. Ottaway was swept away by Tidwell's powerful drumming in the band Cowboy Curse, and she admired his work, too, which led to the two striking up a friendship — and then a freak accident inspired them to take that relationship to the next level. One day, Ottaway got caught in the middle of a fight between his Chesapeake Bay retrievers. Before he could separate the two, one of his treasured dogs tore mercilessly into his picking hand, causing a severe wound that essentially left his thumb hanging. "Erin was there," Ottaway recalls. "I had a Tarmints gig coming up, and I didn't know if I could play guitar."
"But you still rocked it," Tidwell remembers.
"They put one stitch through this big flap," says Ottaway, "and I wrapped up most of my hand, held my pick, took a whole bunch of ibuprofen and just went. After that, I just said, 'You know what, Erin? You've got my full attention. Let's go.'" She'd been adamant about wanting to play with him in a band, and the time was finally right.
"It's kind of like every time there's been something traumatic in my life, it always kicks me up a notch," Ottaway explains. "Supposedly my whole astrological sign is based on that whole rebirth. I almost lost my hand, and that's when I started Overcasters. I figured, well, I may not be able to do this forever. I'd better get on the stick."
And get on the stick he has. Since forming Overcasters with Tidwell and guitarist John Nichols in 2007, Ottaway has taken the scene by storm, with a distinctive, thick, punishing sound that recalls an array of acts — everything from Swervedriver and Spacemen 3 to the 77's and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — and an arresting, projection-heavy live show. Overcasters' debut album, Revolectrocution, like Ottaway's previous releases, was a self-recorded, self-released affair. "I love DIY recordings," Ottaway admits. "I listen to our first record, and I'm like, 'Man, that's really cool. I like what I did there. I like the chronological progression.' But I think now you can put this record on anywhere, and it has the impact of how we sound live. It's a little bit more live and a little bit more alive."
Sure enough, as impressive as that debut was, The Whole Sea Is Raging displays a stirring sense of vitality. Produced by Rick Parker, a well-regarded producer who's worked with acts ranging from BRMC to the Von Bondies, the record boasts an immediacy of fidelity. The drums absolutely explode in tandem with Matt Regan's hulking bass lines, providing a brawny low end that sharply contrasts with Ottaway's careening guitar work without diluting the clarity of his vocals, which glide assuredly on top.
"A lot of indie bands are afraid to put the drums up front," Ottaway notes. "But Parker, all of his recordings, man, the vocals and drums are up front without sacrificing the atmosphere of the instruments. I think he really nails that."
That's high praise from Ottaway, a seasoned vet who's spent years in the studio perfecting his craft. The Whole Sea Is Raging marks the first time he's handed the reins over to somebody else — a daunting prospect initially, but one that ultimately paid off. "It was tough at first," he admits. "You know, maybe for the first twenty minutes...he pretty much said to me, 'Hey, man, you're here to enjoy this. You're allowed to be the musician for once. That's it. Just be the musician. Be the songwriter. Be the guy singing this tune.'
"He was very exact, very precise," Ottaway adds. "He didn't give me a lot of room to tell him what to do. I've tracked so much and I've been in his position so much, he didn't have to say anything; I knew where he was going. The vocal sessions — next thing I knew, they were done. He was like, 'All right, we're done.' I'm like, 'Wait, ten songs, in the can, done, vocals and everything?' He's like, 'Yeah, really good use of time, guys.'"
In fact, they didn't have any time to waste. Ottaway and company had only four days in the studio with Parker, so they needed to get things right from the start.
"We went in there with a healthy dose of fear," Ottaway confesses. "I mean, you're supposed to be fearless, but you go in with a healthy dose of fear and a little bit of 'This guy's a real cat,' I think. It makes you a little sharper. What happens is the little VU meter kind of comes up, and it's right on that fear, and then all of a sudden, once you loosen up and everything kind of hits, it trips over into the good meter."
And Ottaway and Overcasters (whose lineup now includes bassist Samantha Donen) keep tripping the good meter. Despite the gloom suggested by the act's name and the seemingly doomed trajectory of its frontman, the sun seems to have finally broken free of the clouds. Raging not only represents Ottaway's best work to date, but it's a positively exhilarating and uplifting listening experience.
"It's like anything, man," Ottaway reflects. "Nothing really great is going to come simply or easily. It's not going to drift across."
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