Of Houseflies And Drunk Dads: Ohmme Tells The Stories Behind 'Parts,' Track By Track

Aug 24, 2018

I love everything about Ohmme's debut album, Parts. Here we have two classically trained pianists, picking up electric guitars and diving into uncharted musical waters.

Ohmme's Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart take a joyous auditory romp on Parts, with unison voices at the album's heart and quirkiness at its core. The Chicago duo's desire to experiment and reach beyond their comfort zone explains why their list of collaborators includes fellow Chicagoans Jeff Tweedy (with his project Tweedy), Chance the Rapper (with his album Coloring Book) and Doug McCombs of Tortoise, one of the best known experimental bands of the past 20 years.

Here, Ohmme walks us through the ways houseflies, a selfish alcoholic, Arto Lindsay and a caring grandmother all wound up transformed into song.

1. Icon

The song is meant to be an antidote to the wretched times we live in; it feels uncomfortably happy, seesawing in a strange groove and never letting up. We repeat "I want a new icon" over and over again, almost as a mantra — when we recorded the vocals, we tried to be careful about singing that part insistently, but didn't want to sound whiny. It struck the balance we were hoping for: Sometimes a little bit of incredulity and lightness can help shake you out of a dysphoric state. A lot of the inspiration for songs on this record are drawn from this emotionally and mentally tossed-around feeling that a lot of people are experiencing these days. —Ohmme

2. Grandmother

Sima's grandmother cared for her grandfather their whole life, and when he started suffering from dementia, she was the only thing keeping him grounded. Now she is on her own and her body is giving out before her mind. She's a whip-smart woman, and this song is about her strength and determination, and a hope for her being able to unwind in her own way in the final years of her life. The song continues to chug forward like it might spin off the rails, but it holds on steady until the end. It's one take all the way through from beginning to end, besides some minimal overdubs to get that classic kraut sound. —Ohmme

3. Parts

Once a month, we bleed. It's really no fun. And sometimes you get laser-focused vision on the little, irritating inconveniences of life while you're in this state of excruciating pain. That wail you hear could've been recorded from my couch, though it was actually sung through the pick-ups on my Jolana Iris guitar. We like to write songs that are almost like diary entries for different parts of the body. This song is about being in a state of heightened sensitivity, when even the lightest touch or annoyance can set off a spiral of anger. I remember being in an Eastern European country in late August and lying down in a room and being danced all over by flies every morning. Their light touches waking me up before I was ready and thinking, "This is the most torturous alarm clock I can imagine in the world." It's a little bit of an outsize reaction, but I really, really detest houseflies. —Sima

4. Water

We opened for Arto Lindsay at Constellation in Chicago about 3-4 years ago. After the show, we spent a good couple weeks in some very abrasive improvising sessions together. We detuned our guitars and found the trashiest sounds we could, staying as ugly as we could with the sounds. It felt like playing in mud. Then we tried to improvise the softest, sweetest vocals we could manage over that. It was a sonic "pat your head while rubbing your belly" trick. "Water in my eye" was a line that came out naturally from this process that we became fixated on. The rest of the lyrics came about after — a lot of questions, a lot of trying to understand what influences human behavior. It's easy to be deeply confused these days and totally mystified by what makes people do and think what they do. Makes you feel like an alien encountering a strange planet of people that are simultaneously filled with enormous amounts of love and hate. —Ohmme

5. Liquor Cabinet

The outro of this song is one of our favorite moments on the record. Everyone was able to find their own distinct voice within the song that builds to create a cohesive whole. I love the tactility of the guitars and drums. Sometimes we stretch this song endlessly when we're playing live, because the interplay between all three of our instruments (five including voices) is so intoxicating. The song was distantly inspired by the eye-rolling effort of trying to begin a relationship with a selfish alcoholic. It's about trying to make room for someone in your life. Sometimes it's worth the effort, and sometimes you just have to sigh and walk away from it. —Sima

6. Peach

"Peach" is a song about wrestling with desires: sexual, aggressive, hungry. There's an ever-present pressure on women to bottle up these feelings and present them in a more palatable way. Fruit was a suited metaphor for this song — its soft and beautiful exterior is easy to grasp, but its interior can always be a gamble. Macie has this great ElectroHarmonix Octave Multiplexer that is the crux of the song's big, fat bass groove. There's an inner anxiety throughout the song, brought to life with the push and pull between the three of us. Matt Caroll's ability to go between being totally lock-step on drums with Macie and then bend into a freakout moment with Sima is one of our favorite trio moments on this record. —Ohmme

7. Sentient Beings

"Sentient Beings" came about by joining two ideas we'd been playing around with for a while. I don't want to over-explicate the lyrics of this song too much, because it's meant to speak to a lot of different sensations, but it was written in response to the disconnectedness I feel as a result of phones and technology. Phones have brought around one of the first stages of a dystopia — being tethered to an object. It started with the arpeggiated guitar, which we improvised and messed around with for a while; Macie wrote a string arrangement and we played with back-and-forth, unison and harmony vocals. The chorus started as its own separate idea — I always thought about it as something I could hear Nico singing in her low, bellowing voice: "Lost in your garrrrrden."

Bringing the two parts together made sense, going between a vacant wakened state and an imaginative dream state. That's the saddest part to me about our constant interaction with our phones: It crowds out the possibility of daydreaming. I rely on sleeping so much to let my mind truly wander. We recorded the whole song live in the same room with Matt on drums, me on guitar, Macie on violin, Ken Vandermark on bass clarinet and Tomeka Reid on cello. It was really important to us to have them on our record, since Tomeka and Ken are some of our favorite improvisers in the scene. They brought such a great atmosphere for the song, and really helped set the stage for the sonic universe that it needed to inhabit. —Sima

8. Left Handed

In my early 20s, I went to a family party with some friends I was very close to in grade school, but hadn't hung out with in a number of years. A friend's intoxicated father began to talk with me about my music career, and proceeded to tell me the only way I would succeed was if I "dressed sexier." To hear this from a man who'd chaperoned my sleepovers when I was 8 years old was very jarring to me, and made me question what it means to have my body commodified by someone who was supposed to be a caretaker of sorts.

The outro of the song is always a fun moment for us to perform together. Matt drumming holds it all down, while the two of us shift the harmony from our voices into the guitar and stretch out. If you can't tell, we've been listening to a ton of The Roches over the past year, so their music — the unison singing, guitar Fripp-ery, and their kind of "who-cares-you're-not-so-special" lyrics — were on our minds for this tune. —Macie

9. Walk Me

This song came out of an encounter I had while driving home late at night after a gig. While stopped at a neighborhood intersection, a man walked up to my car and knocked on my window. His face was bloodied and he couldn't open one eye. I rolled down my window and he asked me which way California Avenue was. I responded, asked him if he needed anything else and then drove away. Unsure of whether he needed more help, a ride or a phone call, I left feeling awful, because the shock of the situation created an uncertainty with how I should respond. This song is an ode to these situations in which there is no clear way to respond, and how you may not ever feel like you made the right choice.

Tomeka and Ken provided the perfect amount of texture to the song, creating this beautiful underbelly that lifts up the second verse into something much more orchestrated and visceral. We wanted the song to be a lullaby to yourself; one you would sing to yourself driving down a lonely road in near-darkness. —Macie

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