Ox Thief has stolen my ability to write an original title…
…and why you should listen to them
I didn’t know what ‘neo soul’ was until today, but I’m about to watch The Matrix on mute and listen to Ox Thief’s entire discography (which I hope to see grow much larger, and soon). There’s something to be said about Keanu Reeve’s journey juxtaposed alongside the provocative vocals of “Be Gone.” Patrick Hulseman really goes low in this song, and the horns that back him up make The Matrix seem too dull a film to accompany the jam. I switched to Cowboy Bebop in the meantime, which went as a perfect side-dish during this listening party.
The swagger that brass provides to any genre is very apparent in the music of Ox Thief. I’m usually a snob when it comes to when and where brass is allowed, but I’m all for integration of the instruments, because Ox Thief has shown me the light with the little spotlights on “Be Gone.” It’s like the instruments are having a political debate over if Bernie would have beat Trump— it’s evocative and lively as hell. This melts into the trademark jazzy jam-sess that I’ve already fallen in love with from the band.
If I had a late-night show, apart from probably being the first female to have one, I’d choose these fellas: Patrick Hulseman, Kyle Liss, Andrew Pilacoutas, Michael Cantella and many others. I don’t know who the ‘many others’ are in particular, but they’re all welcome to live with me when the late night show takes off. Until then, they can keep booking gigs in and around Chi-town, but avoid ‘taking off’ too soon; I want proof that I ‘discovered’ you.
So, I’m going to come out and say it, Patrick Hulseman has more soul in his low-register than I’ve ever heard in any of the bearded white fellas I took chorus with in high school. Sure, I may have a limited pool to compare him to, but I just wanted to point out how the typically gravelly depth in many bass/baritone singers is smoothed out in his delivery. We get it, you want all of our bodies, and hope to lure us in with song, jeeze. Seduction aside, the collaborative efforts of this band are akin to many large collectives. There’s something inspiring about the ability to bring more than four musicians into the same studio (maybe at different times, or standing room only), put together a j.o. (jam-out) session, and create music like Ox Thief.
In music, like life, it’s the little things that stand out. In Ox Thief, they have a song called ”Moment to Go,” and around 2:30 there’s a keyboard or synth-board outro solo that is a mixture of chip-tune in pitch, and electric organ in style, that trills, squeals, and boogies along with the percussion as they play each other out. I love that little thing.
Another little thing I love is in the song “Daydream”, that just allows the guitar to haunt around in the back, suddenly appearing through a layer of distortion to chit-chat a moment, before crooning its way back into the ambiance of the intro. Then it swells, calls to you from the distance again, as if you’ve forgotten your phone in their car, but you know you didn’t because it’s in your pocket— but you go back anyway, to the thumping bongos that have replaced that elusive guitar.
Although “Daydream” and its instrumental collage has a palpable emotion, it’s hard to pinpoint what that emotion is. For me, it evoked an uncertaining akin to walking into a room with a single purpose, and immediately forgetting what it was. The inspiration behind this song, as well as the entire album, was pretty surprising. I gave Patrick Hulseman a call to talk about it:
An 18-member band, depression, and relationships with addiction
“This album was really difficult to accomplish because I wanted to tell a story that was real to me: being in Chicago, a struggling musician, one common story includes drugs and bad relationships… I wanted this to be a story of someone trying to beat a struggle typically unbeatable.
“People trying to make the best of their lives but struggling with addiction— trying to make the best of a situation that was unbeatable.
“I started to identify with the struggle, and one thing I kind of saw that was consistent was that most [addicts] didn’t really make it, so this whole album proceeds in that someone is going to die at the end.
“This album had a kind of weird start—almost three years ago I was in a band and the band broke up while we were finishing an album to the point of creating a documentary–it was an awful experience to have something that you work hard at just dissolve.
“I had a lot of material that I wanted to refocus, so I sat down and borrowed a friends computer (because I didn’t have one) and recorded everything into it. After that I realized I didn’t need a band anymore. So I asked my drummer to help me out, and a friend who had a keyboard — luckily I’m a music teacher, so I was able to put together a team of people— but everyone I asked was already a touring musician, so they’d be involved for a month, and then have to drop out because they’d have to go on tour— so there was a slow forward movement.
“As this was happening, my personal life was a mess: my grandparents died, my aunt died, I got very depressed, and had very little success in dealing with my day to day life. And putting [the album] all together— it all seemed that it just wasn’t going to happen.
“We had a lot of horn players, a big horn section was touring in China. So people would have to imagine a horn section for 64 bars. Then the horn section came back in town a day before we had to exit the studio. They recorded the entire horn section in one take, which is pretty amazing.
“Guitarists were hard to nail down, cause everyone’s really good at guitar. Two of them I had, one of which is named Mel (who is on Empire), he’s a great guitarist, but he’s always on TV so he’s hard to nail down. The other guitarist who I got on the album named Justin has a completely different style, so I like to feature some of his weirdness. He’s featured on “Daydream”.
“[On “Daydream”] there was a process of struggling with addiction–all the different steps–even the ones that are upbeat at–I didn’t want to beat anyone over the head with it, but I killed them at the end. I wanted my parents and students to be able to listen to it, but also tell a story that was true and real. And that was really hard— at the end of the it all I was more-or-less living as the character that I wrote, so after the album I had to fix myself.
“After that all ended, the album came out, and I could take a breath and get ahold of my life— I put things back in order and really quickly wrote a second album. But after I did it, I put it on the backburner so I could touch on it again with a healthier mindset.”
(Hulseman seems bent on thanking everyone involved in this project, as became apparent toward the end of our chat:)
“Mike and Kyle are both very talented and helped me transform songs into more unique soundscapes than I had originally imagined— without them this would have been extremely difficult to accomplish.
“I’m a big fan of the musicians that worked on this album. Every person brought their own soul to it and made it so much better. Every single weird thing that fell through was extremely necessary— As things would fall through, things would fit better in the long run.
“It was pretty immense transformation: when I wrote the tracks, I wrote all the parts, so it was all my ability to do things. I can play all the instruments decently. So it sounded like me playing a thousand instruments over each other. It wasn’t what I was going for, I was just sketching.
“When I heard it in the studio, I remember being brought to tears [by “Thief”] when trying to record the keyboard solo on track 2— that one was a pretty personal song for me and finally hearing that being recorded was— yea, I remember being brought to tears from Kyle’s solo on it. It was at that point that I realized ‘yea, this is actually gonna become a thing.’
“It was terrifying also, like a child. It took way too much out of me, maybe the way I approached it. The next one I definitely won’t fall so much into my own story.
“I can get sensitive in trying to describe my own work—- I don’t want to flavor people’s perceptions of it.”
I’m into season three of Trigun now, and I think I should head out. You can borrow the Ox Thief CD I have–actually, just take it. I’ll buy another one. I can always listen to it on their ReverbNation, or buy it on CDBaby. I just want you to sit down, get vulnerable and naked, grab some cereal, and listen to Ox Thief. Extrapolate the feels, and search for the original inspiration behind the album.
Below is the much-deserved list of credits from the album. This way we can sift through our favorite performers, and find their other bands and works.
Name – Instrument – (Tracks featured)
Patrick Hulseman – lead vocals, producer, minimal keys (1-6)
Andrew Pilacoutas – Drums (1-5)
Kyle liss – Keys and production (1-6)
Mike Cantella – bass production (1-6)
Liz Jackson Hearns – vocals (1-5)
Windy Lawlor – vocals (1-5)
Gracie Harper – vocals 1-5
Jen McClemore – vocals (1-5)
Mel Washington – guitar (2, 3, 5)
Justin Chaves – guitar (3, 5, 6)
Roy Mcgrath – tenor sax (3, 5)
Victor Garcia – trumpet (3, 5)
John Mose – trombone (3, 5)
Bryant Smith – trombone (3)
Lucas Ellman – baritone sax (3)
Xavier Galdon – trombone (3)
Samuel Lauritsen – trumpet (3)
Kyle madsen – tenor sax (3)