Ohmme and the Beautiful Madness in Mundanity
Written by Jack Riedy
Parts Takes a Deeper Look at the Everyday
How fitting that I met David Lynch fan at the Ohmme show. At the Chicago band’s concert in the end of August, I chatted with a stranger who gushed about the director and his quest to show the uncanny lurking beneath the mundane. Ohmme took the stage under wide paper streamers looped from the balconies down to the stage set up in the center. Thalia Hall looked like a school gym gussied up for prom, a universal adolescent locale now filled with raucous noise and bartender tip jars. As the lights strobed along with the agile guitars, it felt like the whole building left this plane of existence entirely.
The show was in honor of Parts, the group’s extraordinary new album. Like a Lynch film, it’s a feast of juxtaposition: meticulous arrangements borne from reckless improvisation, songs about alienation sung in harmony, a debut from lifelong members of the Chicago music scene. Singer/songwriter/instrumentalists Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham have played with acts ranging from Chance The Rapper to Whitney to Al Scorch. On Parts, the musical partners have created 9 tracks of unpredictable rock that push back against the crushing weight of daily life’s indignities and obstacles.
When I spoke to the pair calling from their tour stop in Burlington, VT a few days after the album’s release, they were thrilled to finally share it with the world. After two years of writing, Cunningham said “It’s exciting to see the songs tendril out to new places.” “And become their own entities,” Stewart concluded.
Many Ohmme songs deal with feeling disconnected from the world around you, even with everyone constantly present in a box in your pocket. “Liquor Cabinet” is about trying to knock down the walls an addict puts up. A ten-ton riff plays in unison with “Are you drinking out of my liquor cabinet?” but the rage quickly subsides into disappointment and doubt as the vocalists muse “I thought I emptied it last year.” On the throbbing “Water,” the duo croons “We made a killer from a lover from a memory.” Cunningham said of the line, “I was thinking about how people can be changed by really intense emotions, like how an intense lover can turn into a murderer. The fine lines of human emotions, and how people can snap and cross over them really quickly.”
“Grandmother” was written about Cunningham’s, who cared for her husband through his battle with dementia and now faces the difficulties of age without him. As Cunningham sings “Who’s looking out for you?”, the music builds from beatless drawl to frantic sprint. Despite the song’s concern, Cunningham’s grandmother is persevering. “I don’t think she’s heard the album yet. I want to get a video of her hearing ‘Grandmother’ for the first time,” Cunningham said. “And the armchair that I mention in that song is now in her new room at my parents’ house, so she gets to look at it everyday and think about her love.”
Parts was largely recorded this February, at Cunningham’s home studio dubbed Fox Hall. “The depths of winter in Chicago always feel like a good time to make a record,” she said. “It’s easy to be inside and stay inside and have no desire to go out.” The duo enlisted Matt Carroll to play drums on every song. They praised his beats as another element to experiment with. “He loves a lot of female vocal-based music,” Cunningham said, “so it was great to have him jump in because he knows how to play drums to voices.”
For this album, the group sought to write songs that the three musicians could record and perform as a trio. “Improvised music is really important to us, but improvised music without any boundaries becomes fucking around,” Stewart said. There’s a more practical consideration as well. “Everything that’s played on the record is in the van with us,” Cunningham added. Their writing process consists of writing fragments of songs individually, then finishing them together. “We see both of our voices together as one voice,” Stewart said. “Through the arrangement, it truly becomes an Ohmme song.”
“Icon”, the album’s first single and first track, mixes surreal imagery like unpoppable balloons and liquid conversation with a killer chorus: “I want a new icon.” Stewart and Cunningham’s vocals are chirpy but insistent, repeating that sentence until it becomes a mantra. Fortunately, the pair can still name plenty of inspirations who have endured: Jeff Tweedy, Jim O’Rourke, Yoko Ono, Yuka Honda. “I think we had two icons on our record,” Cunningham said, referring to cellist Tomeka Reid and bass clarinetist Ken Vandermark. “Tomeka was one of the first female improvisers that we ever met. Seeing her and wanting to see more women improvisers in our scene was a big thing for us.” Stewart added “There are icons out there. You just have to know to look for them, and know what you want to be idolizing.”
Constellation is the hub for Chicago’s improvised music scene, and it was the site of Ohmme’s debut performance. The club’s owner, Mike Reed, gave Stewart and Cunningham sage advice. As Stewart explained, he said “‘You have to do this. You should not stop doing this. Why would you stop doing that? That’s not even a thing.’”
Ohmme brought Parts to glorious life at Thalia, performing in the round on a stage centered in the hall. With no front barrier to press against, the crowd expanded and contracted relative to the aggression of the band. Cunningham sang with eyes scrunched shut, dropping dissonant slides between her vocal lines, while Stewart’s guitar lines sounded like laser guns as she locked eyes with the audience. All the while Carroll provided a reliable thump and crash. The band brought out Lia Kohl and Vandermark midway through their set to supplement the sound, as well as opener V.V. Lightbody to sing on “Grandmother.”
The band filled out the setlist with tracks from their self-titled EP and two covers. “Give Me Back My Man”, by The B-52’s, was inspired by their love for the band’s “mix of Kraut and theater,” Cunningham said. David Bowie’s “Girl Loves Me” was chosen because the original artist was never able to perform it himself before his death. “We love Bowie, but so many of his songs have been covered a million times over because they’re so...iconic! Yeah, let’s keep using that word,” Stewart laughed. Preparing a previously-unperformed cover for the release show, they sought to pull the song from the recorded ether and make it their own. The final rendition was electric, the English/Nadsat lyrics pulsing through Carroll’s ominous groove.
The show ended with “Woman,” the first track on the Ohmme EP. Billowing squalls of feedback were suddenly pulled taut into a final descending riff. In the moment before the crowd caught their breath, Stewart and Cunningham thanked them for supporting the band and the album. The lights came up as the band strode offstage, bringing Thalia Hall back to reality. The streamers still trembled with the sound’s kinetic energy, little twirling aftershocks. Parts has been making waves too, spreading through those in the know since its release. With a fantastic debut and a ferocious live show, the members of Ohmme are on their way to becoming icons.