Music Interview

Interview: Oceanator

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“You’ve been reading too much into / the things I never said.” With an accusation and a killer riff, Elise Okusami of Oceanator walks into the new and improved space she’s built for herself in the vast world of indie rock. It’s grungy, bright, and altogether her own. I first heard her latest record, THINGS I NEVER SAID, in the middle of a quarantine depression (two words synonymous with each other at this point) and suddenly remembered what shows felt like again, a sensation I didn’t even know I had forgotten. The tight progressions of Okusami’s guitar drive the record, her words sung so directly they feel spoken from a friend. On each confession, she abandons any level of self-consciousness—she allows herself and her decisions to be seen, and invites us to do the same, all with the loose but powerful energy emanating from an intimate stage.

Stepping into Oceanator’s world leaves you invigorated—for the future of indie rock, for the feel of a live show, and from wondering what it is that you should walk away from in order to find a better path. Ahead of a digital live release for the album, available this Friday, on a particularly dingy Monday, I asked Okusami some questions about her music and, much like her songs, she had an effortless way of putting me in a better mood.

Nobody’s going to argue that 2020 was a terrible year. But in the midst of it all, you’ve released a killer album, received great press, high praise, signed to Polyvinyl, and from what it sounds like, it’s set you up for an even better 2021. What was that like, to tow the line between “Could anything get any worse?” and also “Holy shit, this is amazing?”

Elise Okusami: Yeah, it was definitely a weird feeling. Especially because a lot of that with Polyvinyl and Big Scary Monsters wanting to put out the record, I just didn’t see happening. I didn’t think that would be even a possibility. So, going into it with releasing the record, I was just thinking “Alright, let’s just put this out” and if a few people like it, then when we tour again, people would hear it. We ordered like 400 vinyl, and I was like, well, we’ll never sell all of those but it will be great to have them for tour! And yeah, it went way way better than I could have expected. So it was definitely weird to be feeling like, super excited about all of that stuff while at the same time being like, constantly worried about everyone. And alone, doing all this stuff from my apartment, and also, besides COVID, just everything else that’s been going on—I’m trying to balance that. And yeah, in the beginning I definitely felt bad about being excited. But I talked to friends and kind of came around to the fact that I can be happy too, everything can’t be terrible all the time. You need something to keep you going.

You’re coming out with a digital live stream concert recording in May for THINGS I NEVER SAID—which is perfect because I’m just desperate to hear it live. What was important for you to capture in this live re-recording, and were you always planning on doing some kind of live release?

EO: Definitely wasn’t planning on doing a live release for this record. It kinda just came about as an idea because we did this live stream tour in January, and we did the whole thing in my brother’s studio. And since we had everything already in the studio, seven nights of live recordings, I was like, we should do something with this. And I also wanted to be able to pay Andrew and Tony some more money for taking a whole week to do this with me. So I was like alright, let’s put out a record. But also I thought it was fun because, part of the reason we recorded it the way we did organically was to capture the live energy. So even though it’s not at a show with a crowd, I think there’s still a different energy to the songs. It’s just the three of us, there’s not a lot of layers in the recordings. So yeah, it’s just 11 songs, some new ones and a couple old ones, a cover from my friend David, a song I’ve loved for like 10 years. So yeah, we’re just doing it on Bandcamp and a vinyl release and that will be it.

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Well, then you’ll be able to actually play some live shows pretty soon, so.

EO: Yeah, hopefully. It’s gonna be fun to hit the road again one of these days. 

So much of the love and praise for this record was wrapped within the ethos of, “This album represents so much of what we’re all feeling right now”—stuck inside, dealing with solitude, dealing with anxiety—it came out as such a relevant record during such a depressive time. I’m curious what that means for you? Are you surprised or did it feel like a fitting response?

EO: Yeah, well I had written it well before all of this, and I didn’t even really think about how these songs thematically would kind of… go. With the times. So I wasn’t that surprised when people thought that. Even I had some records that came out for me, like the Illuminati Hotties record that I loved, and that Jeff Rosenstock record that came out, and they both felt very much like they were specifically about all of this, but were written before 2020. So when people say my record spoke to this time, I was like yeah… I see it. Makes sense. It was something that we were all already distilling and processing, and then these records just kinda came into our hands, so I get it.

Yeah, for sure. And I do want to say that it is an optimistic record, but what you’re singing about and the grunginess of it all, felt so of the times. Like, “I’m going outside today” from “Sunshine” just knocked me over the first time I heard it. It felt so perfect.

EO: Yeah, I have to put that song on for myself at times.

You have these explosive one-liners, sometimes because of sound, where you’ll deliver a turn of phrase with a huge climatic riff that just knocks me over the way it’s paired with the lyrics, but other times it’s just because the phrase or words themselves are so cutting in their simplicity. “January 21st” I think is a perfect example, or “Heartbeat.” What’s your songwriting process, to get such perfect distillations from these massive feelings down to such simple lines?

EO: It goes one of two ways for me, lyrically. It either just comes out in one go, and I’m, like, “Oh great, that’s the song.” And maybe I’ll change one or two things here and there, but that’s the song. Or, I’ll just keep writing the same thing over and over, like “Hide Away” is one that I wrote in my journal like 29 times, and each time was something different and it kept getting shorter and smaller, until I was like “OK, that’s it, that’s what I’m trying to say, the most clear way and also the way that fits the song best.” Because almost always I’ll have the music and structure done before the lyrics. So even if I know what the songs are going to be about, the words often get twisted around to fit the music. If I’m already in a good spot then it comes out clearly because I already know how to express it, but if I can’t quite grasp it yet, I just keep writing, or I’ll sit and just sing it with the guitar to see if, like, my brain and fingers can just do it for me if I don’t think about it too much.

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Some of these songs were written and recorded as far back as 2012, and most of the record was finished in 2018. The album reads as a story, but in reality it’s more like a curated and multi-faceted project. What was your process for putting these songs together, and what was it like to see them so well-received long after the fact of writing them?

EO: The reason that some of them are as far back as 2012 is because they didn’t feel like they fit on my past releases. And I liked them as songs and I wanted them to be put out in the right place. Especially “I Would Find You,” which I wrote a long time ago and finally released with this record, and now it’s the most played song based on Spotify. That one is one of the older ones, and I really liked it, so I wanted to make sure that it was surrounded by stuff that made it feel like it was in its right home. So I guess the process of putting this all together, I had that song and a couple others, and then I had written “Goodbye Goodnight” and “A Crack in the World” and maybe “Hide Away” at that point, and I was, like, “Okay, I think these are coming together, these fit together,” and “January 21st” was the last song I wrote, which I wrote on that day—once I knew what it was going to sound like and what the overall arc would be, then songs just kinda filled themselves in. There are a couple other songs that didn’t make it, because they didn’t make sense, and they might show up in the future, or they might be gone forever. Who knows.

I read that you were working in event management before the world shut down, so between that and being such a practiced live musician, you must feel doubly optimistic in this bright new vaccinated world we’re all about to celebrate. What are some upcoming vacc-safe plans you have that you’re most looking forward to?

EO: I’m really excited for all of us to go back into the studio. Just because it will feel… normal. Because it’s going to be me and my two co-producers, Bartees Strange and my brother Mike, so it’s just going to be the three of us in the studio. And we’re all going to be fully vaccinated so I’m very excited. And yeah, I started a little record label last year and one of the things I wanted to do was host pop-up events with other labels and creators, and we hopefully are going to be doing that later in the summer. I already talked to a friend who’s going to come make pizza, and have some artists come along, people who paint or sew, and just have a little outdoor party.

You’re making me want to move back to New York.

EO: Also shows. I’m very excited to go see a million shows. Just come visit, it’s not that great!

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I’m not gonna say I’m up Twitter’s asshole or anything, but I have seen some Twitter exchanges between you and Bartees Strange, and I also saw a tweet from Cheekface that you two may be working together for a future project, so I did know ahead of you mentioning it that he was producing your new project. So anything more you want to share about that, I’m all ears.

EO: Yeah! There’s not too much to share, I wrote like 14 or 15 songs and we’re recording some of it and Bartees is gonna produce.

That’s gonna be fucking sick.

EO: Yeah, yeah, it’s real. It’s happening.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you’re surprised projects under Oceanator have become a main focus, as a big part of your music career has been in playing in other people’s bands, and even starting your own label Plastic Miracles. What can we expect from you in the future, both from Oceanator, but also in any other collaborations in music? In other words, what do you hope for yourself and your career?

EO: Yeah, I guess I kinda thought “It’s too late for me, Oceanator is never going to be a thing,” so I’ve always been doing other stuff. Which I’m still excited to keep doing, but yeah, Oceanator started taking up way much more of my time, which is pretty exciting. Kinda living the dream, I guess. I still want to keep putting records out with Plastic Miracles, last year we did 12 or something, and I don’t think I’ll be able to do that many again. But I want to keep doing that and I got some songwriting stuff with other friends coming up, I just want to keep playing music with people and touring with other bands, too, when Oceanator isn’t touring, and play some more drums since with Oceanator I’m on the guitar, I don’t know, I’m still kinda figuring it out. I don’t want to fully believe it’s going to happen until it’s happening. So most of the stuff I’m focusing on is the stuff that I can do right now.

You can check out Oceanator’s latest live album, I’M GOING ONLINE TODAY: A LIVESTREAM CONCERT RECORDING, over on Bandcamp

Devyn McHugh
Dev can’t cook, but she can in fact listen to music. To say her taste is paramount is to be correct. If you ever meet her you should say so, and also compliment her tattoos. Just don’t say anything bad about Mitski Miyawaki, stella beer, or the city of Boston. Kidding, you can totally talk shit about Boston.

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