Interview with guitarist/vocalist Sam Waters | By Hutch
Houston’s Omotai were poised to kick off a tour on Sept. 29 and drop their third album—an audacious double-LP—on Oct. 6. Then, Hurricane Harvey arrived in late August to wreak havoc on their city. Despite the unpredictable devastation, Omotai forged ahead with their plans, completing a 10-day jaunt around the western U.S. and releasing A Ruined Oak, their third album in five years, via Tofu Carnage Records.
With the addition of two new members, the band’s writing has surged on A Ruined Oak, along with deep production. Fusing an eclectic bunch of influences, the main grit and rumble remain—everything is just done better and with more conviction. Mixing influences such as Black Tusk, Intronaut, Pelican, Bison B.C., a touch of Converge, and a chunk of Kylesa has rendered a distilled product. Dual female and male vocals scream over a groove-motivated cluster of gritty riffs. As much as this record gut-punches, the technical perseverance elevates their sound—especially the intricate guitar work, piercing leads, and precise yet loose drumming—but Omotai bring a caustic execution of original ideas and fortitude.
Guitarist and vocalist Sam Waters shares some insight into A Ruined Oak, the band’s situation post-Hurricane Harvey, and much more.
First off, how is everyone in the group recovering from Harvey? What is the emotional status of the group?
We’re holding up fine, but there’s definitely a lot of anger simmering. I watched my parents lose everything—not because of the hurricane itself, but because of decades of poor city planning and restrictions on rebuilding that essentially preclude their recovery. Houston has always been this cautionary tale in poor administration, but Harvey drove it home in ways that shocked a lot of people.
It may seem less important considering the bigger picture, but it was rather bad timing for an impending album and tour.
It’s important in that it demonstrates what Houstonians can expect moving forward, both environmentally and governmentally. But yeah, we’ve been looking forward to the album and the tour for a while now.
We wanted to go big and wrote a ton of material for [A Ruined] Oak, put more thought into how the record would play as a fully realized whole, and pushed ourselves quite hard, particularly on the vocal front. It definitely wasn’t easy—I had a pretty heinous car crash in 2015 that left me with some serious injuries—but my friends [drummer] Danny [Mee] and [guitarist] Jaime [Ross] had joined the band since the last album, and they were hugely influential on the effort, and [bassist and vocalist] Melissa [Lonchambon] and I were really able to lock in with them. They helped make the band stronger than it had been, and it was a really positive experience despite the pitfalls.
I think we’re all happy with the songs, and hopefully, that enthusiasm for the material will come through in our live set. We may have to drop a handful of dates due to personal commitments, some of those hurricane-related, but for the most part, we’re adhering to the itinerary.
You contributed a song to Making Waves: A Benefit Compilation for those Affected By Hurricane Harvey, released by Miss Champagne on Sept. 5 and featuring 15 Houston artists. Can you share a bit about the track and the comp as a whole?
The track is called “A Cruel Weight, Thy Wound,” and it essentially tackles abandonment and “missingness,” realizing what you had and what you lost. We felt like it would be fitting, and we were really stoked to be asked to contribute. Houston mostly wavers between indie shoegaze and noisy punk, both of which you’ll hear on the comp, so we were touched to get the nod even though we’re a bit of a non sequitur. Some of Houston’s old guard contributed, but there’s also a healthy dose of new blood on there.
Would you explain your band name?
My friend, Matt Loftin—who played with me and Danny in a band about a decade ago—had been teaching English in Japan more recently and suggested that I give my new band a Japanese name. It’s a rendering of the word “severe” or “heavy,” which started as a joke, but it was also enough of a blank canvas that we weren’t nailed to a particular aesthetic—although, nowadays, I’d instantly think new black metal.
How do you see A Ruined Oak in your canon of output? What does it represent about Omotai at this point in time?
I think it’s definitely our most fully realized effort to date, and it represents where we want to be as a band. We’ve always aimed to be pummeling, but we also try to write songs that are sophisticated and challenging. There are so, so, so many ways to be totally boring and sound like every other band out there. That’s not to say I play in the most original band, but if you don’t at least try to speak in your own voice, why stand up to be heard? I think this record is our voice, more so than previous albums.
What themes or mindset molded A Ruined Oak as you were writing?
Personally, I’m drawn to the idea of perpetual unknowables, answers that just can’t be had. I think an important part of growing as a human is the process of letting go of the desire to have all the answers. Having curiosity and imagination is great—it’s crucial and should be encouraged—but I think the desire for hard answers can also make people susceptible to manipulation, whether by religion or political maneuvering or whatever else. So, we were kind of hoping to explore that a bit within the context of a historical mystery that probably doesn’t have a hard answer forthcoming.
What about recording? Producer? Duration? Process?
We’ve always recorded with Chris Ryan, who runs Dead City Sound. He’s also Melissa’s husband. Chris is, like, this genius of simplicity: have your stuff rehearsed, record live with good gear and crazy good mics, a couple of guitar overdubs and vocals, and it’s in the bag. We write the music first, maybe have some vocal ideas that we bat around, demo some vocal lines and rehearse them, then record vocals last. It’s worked out pretty well for us, although this album took an insanely long time to record because of the aforementioned car crash. We started recording it in mid-2015 and intended to be done that fall, but we didn’t have the finished product until almost a year later.
So, a double-LP, huh? How does the vinyl and packaging look?
Dude. It’s insane. We had a good idea of how we wanted it to look, the image and artist we wanted and so on, but Sean Mehl has this crazy gift for design and layout, and he perfected the original idea in a way that we weren’t expecting. Just laying eyes on it for the first time was really fulfilling. Everything from the image and texture of the sleeve down to the color of the vinyl—it was like unwrapping a jewel.
Photo by Angela Lee