Jersey City’s Overlake Talks New Album and Hudson County’s Evolution
Jersey City-based band Overlake is Thomas Barrett, Lysa Opfer and Scotty Imp — a fuzzy as hell act who could easily be described as "shoegazey," which I guess could be an accurate description. However, when I listen to their debut album, Sighs, I don't hear the hallmarks of shoegaze, save of course the blankets of fuzz and the warbled subtlety of Barrett's vocal, which is shockingly falsetto as much as some others. (Shocking, of course, because Barrett is a mountain of a man with a grizzled beard which makes him appear all the more imposing.) Instead, when I listen to Sighs, I hear tinges of great songwriting wrapped in a heavy sonic blanket. I hear the melody of Yo La Tengo. I hear the rhythm of Harry Nilsson. I hear the snark of Liz Phair.
It's easy to compare this band to My Bloody Valentine or Swervedriver or The Jesus and Mary Chain because of how they sound. But like any great band, the sonics would mean naught if they aren't built over a foundation of great songwriting, which Overlake has in spades.
I spoke recently with Tom and Lysa about all sorts of action.
Overlake. What's up? Listen, first off lemme say that I am SO PSYCHED for this record. It sounds amazing, it looks amazing, and it seems that people are really reacting to it well. Tell me a bit about the process of making it.
TB: Thanks, dude. We started in February 2013 with our friend Thomas Unish manning the board in a small studio space he was occupying in Dumbo, Brooklyn. We were going through one of our drummerless periods, so I ended up playing drums on the record. I'd already played drums on all the demos, we had a clear idea for the album and didn't want to wait, so we just went in and did it ourselves. We did all the basics there, along with all the guitar overdubs and some vocals. Tommy eventually had to leave the space, so we finished it at various locations, like our rehearsal space and his apartment. It was done in early September.
LO: Thank you! We were literally all over the place during the recording process. Like, Tom would record some tracks with Unish in our rehearsal studio, and then a few nights later I would run over to Unish's apartment to lay down some bass parts, and then we'd go back into the rehearsal studio to get the vocals. Sometimes there would be a band practicing in one of the spaces next door, and the only thing we could do was to wait it out. Despite the setbacks, I think Unish did an excellent job in the Gordian task of making it all sound like it's coming from the same place and keeping it true to our vision.
I know it's your debut as Overlake, but you both have lots of experience making records. How was this time different? Was it? Maybe it wasn't.
TB: This was a different experience because we weren't a full band when we started the record. In my past bands, we'd just practice and practice until we felt ready to record. Overlake didn't have a permanent drummer during this time, so that wasn't an option. I think we ended up having a different mentality going into the studio than we would've had if we'd been an actual functioning band at that time. Maybe we didn't know it then, but not having a permanent drummer probably made us feel like we were still in some kind of embryonic stage, and the only thing we really had to focus on was making a good record. We definitely took our time with it. There was still an ongoing search for a drummer going on, but it was secondary.
LO: For me the difference is more emotional. All the bands I've ever recorded with were already established by the time I'd joined them, so I was always playing on songs that were already written. This is music that is coming from our hearts, so I feel way more connected to it. Not that it's too precious or anything, but I definitely feel a sense of letting loose a child-thing into the world, which is not a feeling I get when I play on other people's records.
I know it's painful to describe your own band, but if you had to describe Overlake to someone who's never heard you before, how would you do it?
TB: I don't mind name-dropping other bands if it's helpful in describing your own band. That's fine in my book. I also don't mind throwing the word "shoegaze" out there. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just a cool word that instantly conjures up all sorts of pleasant sounds when you hear it. But yeah, I'd mention bands like MBV and Dinosaur Jr and just call them two of our biggest influences. And if they don't ring a bell, then I'd just call it lush and loud, guitar-driven pop music.
LO: I think I've said "shoegazey noise-pop" more than once. People sometimes need a point of reference; I have no problem giving them one. In fact, I just had to describe our sound to the president of the company I work at during the week. He has no idea who bands like Dinosaur Jr or MBV are, I think he's more of a chamber music dude, but as I continued with some older points of reference, such as "alternative rock," "college rock," "modern rock," I realized he wasn't going to get anything I was saying. At that point I gave up and the only thing I could come up with was, "Uh, it's weird and noisy."
What were your three biggest musical and non-musical influences during the making of Sighs?
TB: That's a tough one to answer. I think the biggest template for how I personally wanted the record to sound was the album Nowhere by Ride. That album just sounds like a big, breathing ocean from beginning to end. That's where a lot of the influence for the vocals comes from. There were also some Built to Spill songs that I looked to for guidance, like "Velvet Waltz" from Perfect From Now On. I wanted "We'll Never Sleep" to have a similar feel, so we dirtied up and compressed the hell out of the drums to make them sort of lo-fi sounding, and threw in a mellotron part to give the song a little more sweetness. Non-musically…well, let's just say I have some friends out there with whom I had the great fortune of spending some time, got to learn some valuable lessons from, and now I'm just trying to follow in their footsteps and achieve some of the same goals making music that I love making.
LO: When we started making the record, I had just finished reading Big Day Coming, the Yo La Tengo bio that came out in 2012. There was a relief knowing that there are other bands out there, successful ones, that go through tons of musical challenges, but what it always boils down to and keeps it going is that absolute love of making music. I learned a lot about patience in the YLT story. Keep on going. Do what you love. I gave MBV's Loveless a good critical listen a few times over while we were making Sighs, dissecting the sounds and levels of bass and vocals. And finally, yeah, I will echo Tom's sentiment in that I feel extremely fortunate and grateful for the talented friends who have been mentors to me through the making of Sighs and beyond. SO thankful.
What's next? Sh*tloads of touring, I hope?
TB: Some touring, not sh*tloads just yet, but some scattered local dates between now and June. There's a Midwestern jaunt in July, and then hopefully a West Coast jaunt in October. We're also working on some new songs and preparing for more recording. No idea when, but it's coming down the pike.
LO: Eventually we shall do sh*tloads of touring.
How does this town influence what do you do?
TB: I'm not really influenced so much by my surroundings. I'm more motivated by seeing other people around here form bands or take on creative endeavors of their own, whatever they may be. It's nice being a part of this kind of artistic community in that way. Not that it's a competition or anything. People are just constantly motivating and driving each other. It's nice.
LO: Yeah, it's a great community. I absolutely love what everyone is up to.
What do you miss about the "old" Hudson County?
TB: I miss Hoboken in the late '90s, early 2000s, back when you had things like the IMF festival and original bands were playing in clubs and bars all over the city. It wasn't relegated to just Maxwell's, there were dozens of other haunts. I remember going to see Plug Spark Sanjay and Ex Models at Planet Hoboken right across from the PATH station in 2000, then going to see my friends play in Stretch (now Nova Social) with You Were Spiraling (now Spiraling) in the back room at the Shannon Lounge. That era is long gone. And I obviously miss Maxwell's like everyone else.
LO: I would agree with that completely. Hoboken had tons of places to play. Bars and private places alike. I remember this one show in the '90s, it was at someone's place on 14th Street. I remember it had a big flower on the door. The Faint played there with the Wrens and some other friends' bands. It was a great day/night. Up until about two years ago, you could still see bands in great spaces like that: Moonlight Mile—before Mike Moebius had to move it to Jersey City, and Bill Hamilton's loft, both of which have been cleared to make way for condos.
Where do you see this area in five years?
TB: I don't know. Right now, there's a lot of effort being made to create some new kind of nightlife with venues like Lot 13 in Bayonne and The White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, whatever that turns into. Hopefully, this will last and all these new venues will still be thriving and other new venues will be turning up. This area's due for a renaissance, and there's a lot of creative and talented people currently living here who are all part of it and trying to make things happen. Not just musicians, but actors, writers, visual artists, chefs…all kinds of folks. I think it'll last. Creativity has a way of perpetuating itself.
LO: There is a lot going on, a lot on the horizon, and I'm truly excited about the possibilities.
What brought you here?
TB: Initially, what brought me here were some guys I met in my mid-twenties who all became my lifelong friends. I met John Fesken from Plug Spark Sanjay in 1994 through an ad I placed for a band. We fell out of touch but reconnected later, and soon after I was introduced to all these amazing people, like Joe Centeno, also of Plug Spark, and Jason Cieradkowski, with whom I played in this country band called The High Canadiens, and then years later in the American Watercolor Movement. Everyone was highly artistic and lived in this house on Sip Avenue in Jersey City. I only finally moved to Jersey City in 2011, but I feel like I've been a part of the madness since the late '90s. I wish I'd moved here a lot earlier sometimes, like during that time. That was a golden era if there ever was one. It's kind of legendary, to me at least.
LO: When I first came to Hoboken, I was going through a divorce. I wanted to move to Hoboken so I could be close to Maxwell's and see tons of shows. My friend from work happened to be subletting a room in her apartment, which was $480 a month, and the apartment was like 1,500 square feet or something. It was huge. And so I moved and went to Maxwell's a lot and saw tons of shows. Years later, I ended up working there and dating one of the bartenders, with whom I'm still attached. It was a magical time for me. Life-changing. I met so many amazing and creative people, and I'm still friends with every one of them.
What keeps you here?
TB: Jersey City just feels like home to us. My girlfriend and I have been exploring other places and may eventually move on at some point when the time comes, but there's a good rhythm going on with everybody right now. It's a nurturing environment where everyone is always really accepting and supportive. Not that similar communities don't exist elsewhere, but this one feels truly special.
LO: Well, I've since moved to Newark. But we're moving back in November. So, I guess the question for me is not so much what keeps me here, but what's drawing me back. It's all about the people. I've never met so many genuinely supportive people in my life. It's a special feeling, where every day I'm happy to be alive. For example, I'll walk around Jersey City on a sunny Saturday, see like five people I know out and about, doing their thing, enjoying the day, and I feel really lucky to be alive and know all of them.