Jesse Tabish of Other Lives: "There were about thirty people and half of Radiohead there"
Other Lives (due at 1STBANK Center tonight with Radiohead) started in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 2004 under the name Kunek, but when one of the founding members of the band left, the remaining members switched to their current moniker. The band's orchestral arrangements and its knack for creating tense emotional atmospheres that unfurl into infinite vistas caught the attention of fans of evocative, expansive music.
Among those fans, evidently, were some prominent music supervisors, as the band's music has appeared in episodes of Ugly Betty and Grey's Anatomy. The outfit's latest record, 2011's Tamer Animals, is the perfect blending of melancholy sounds and an urge to transcend despair. We recently spoke with frontman Jesse Tabish about his career as a music teacher, Tamer Animals and how a chance show in Oxford resulted in Other Lives getting the chance to tour with Radiohead.
Westword: Are you still based out of Stillwater, and did you grow up there?
Jesse Tabish: Yes, I'm here right now. I did grow up here, from about age eleven on.
How did you get into playing music as a kid?
I started really early. My mother was a piano teacher, and I started lessons when I was young but stopped at some point, when all kids stop playing piano. In sixth grade, I picked up the guitar, and I've been writing songs and playing music for some time now.
What was the first music you remember that gave you the impetus to start making your own?
I remember early on, when my mom was teaching piano. I remember being really jealous that she could play so well. But I don't think it was really until I was eleven or twelve and I first heard Nirvana, and I had a little classical guitar and started putting chords together, that I had the urge to make my own music.
Did you have much access to a musical community in Stillwater?
Not really. It's hard to say. There's a really strong country-music scene in Stillwater, which I didn't really gravitate toward, ever. But that was kind of the music -- if there was live music, there was a lot of that. Not until high school, when me and my friends started getting together and listening to records and talking about music, did the kind of community and the idea of the early band get started. I was in bands in high school, but when I was about nineteen, I started writing some instrumental music, and that's when I formed Kunek, which was the first incarnation of the band.
Is it true that you're a music teacher?
Yeah, that kind of coincided with the band when I was nineteen. I knew I wanted to do music, and I was fortunate enough to get a job as a guitar teacher. Every day, I was learning music theory and teaching music. Going home and writing songs, working out lesson plans. So very quickly, my life became very musical, and my whole day was about music.
Did you have to go to college to become a music teacher?
No, it was kind of like a private thing. I did start having students that came in that knew more than me, so I quickly hit the books just on my own to know music theory, particularly chord theory.
Do you think it's important for your students to learn a bit of theory first?
It depends. Every individual is different. Especially with guitar players, there can be this lack of knowledge which plays into lack of music history. I wanted my students to understand that G C and D are also Beethoven as well and try to connect the musical language. That musical language, I think, can broaden your scope of understanding. It's harder with younger kids to make that connection about a 1-4-5 or a major scale. Suddenly it's such a larger idea than just a scale or just some random chords. It's the whole of Western music. That's why I think it's so important.
How did the name Kunek come about?
I haven't actually been asked that. Our drummer, Colby [Owens], he was attempting to write a sci-fi book, and the character was named Kunek. I thought that was fantastic. I think we were the only ones who liked the name. If I remember right, it was kind of this character who was some kind of alien who went out into the woods and ended up finding a city. I think it went on from there, but I don't remember.
Why did you change the name of your band to Other Lives instead of something else?
We had a founding member with us in Kunek, and we parted ways. After that, we wanted to take a different turn, and I thought out of respect to him and for us -- to give us a change of pace and a new mindset to start over.
The title of your most recent album, Tamer Animals, is interesting. What's its significance?
It was a book of poems by my very good friend Adam Wright. He's a fantastic poet, and he gave me a copy and I fell in love with it, and I instantly begged him to let me use that for a song. Why we ended up using it as a title? It represented the theme of what we were trying to get at, in that humans disconnect in some way with their environment and how that affects them and how we affect that.
You've been touring a lot in this last year.
Yeah, eight months or so.
How has that changed your perspective on being a musician and playing music out in the world today as opposed to maybe what you thought before you did so much touring?
It really does change. For a long time, I was really concerned about touring. I think it was something I always dreaded. I have some anxiety about traveling and all that. It's funny how fast you adapt, and it became very normal. I think, for me, touring has to be a healthy, positive thing. It has to be productive, musically. It has to be healthy, in terms of eating. With that in mind, I really enjoyed it. I took every opportunity to really live a musical life and try to make it a healthy one as well.
There are challenges, though. Fatigue, being at a bar every night -- all those things are part of the job a little bit. I think with the right perspective, it can be a healthy thing. That's not to say there aren't dark times on the road as well. But the last eight months, for me, have been really positive and somewhat energizing. It makes me really want to work even harder and write the next record and get the show better.
Your current tour coming up is with Radiohead. Is there anything about that that you find daunting?
It's kind of stunning. I think it is a little daunting. But at the same time, I think we're ready for it. At least I think... It's one of those things you never know, or you go, "This couldn't happen" or "Maybe we're not ready." There's definitely anxiety involved, but sometimes that can be turned into a really positive thing and everyone rises to the challenge.
Did they contact you about touring with them?
Yes, they did. We actually played a show in Oxford, in their home town, and they came out to the show. That was probably more nerve-racking than what we're encountering. There were about thirty people and half of Radiohead there. Definitely, my heart was beating a little faster than normal.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music