Brownell was thrilled to have the perfect song for the perfect occasion, a story of survival for the turn of the Y2K century. “We started with the sound of the clock, you know, bowm! bowm! —Jimi Hendrix-style,” he says, making the sound of a clock’s booming strokes and emulating the crash of guitar strings. “We hit the chord 12 times to signify midnight.” The crowd roared, but just as the band struck the midnight hour and launched into “Post Millennial Success,” everything fell apart.
“I look out and I see somebody staring at me and suddenly I can’t remember a single fucking word in the song,” Brownell remembers. “It was horrible. I had been so overly excited like it was gonna be this big thing in my life.” He laughs. “And unfortunately the world did not end at that moment.”
That a song called “Post Millennial Success” would turn into a kind of millennial failure that very night is exactly the sort of offbeat resonance that defines Oblio Joes. This is a band that has outlasted everyone else, surviving almost 15 years together to become the longest-lasting original rock band in Missoula. They may not be hiding out in the mountains per se, like the character in the song, but the Oblio Joes have rooted themselves here in a mountain town that doesn’t promise much interaction with the world of upward musical mobility: no major labels, no massive crowds of devotees. But perhaps for that same reason, Missoula doesn’t offer as many of the big-time pitfalls that tend to destroy bands.
Over the years, the Oblio Joes have played innumerable house shows, watched the rise and fall of dozens of local venues, and seen band after band form and fade, or move on to more populated music scenes like Portland and Seattle. They have recorded five full-length albums, two EPs and a seven-inch split-single (with former punk band Humpy), and appeared on several Montana compilations. But with the exception of a few tours, they’ve never really spread their musical wings beyond the boundaries of the Missoula valley. They’ve developed a modest, steady following over their tenure, received jealous raves from other bands—local and touring—for their lyrics, their hooks and, above all, their knack for continually churning out new and challenging material. Musician Tim Graham (who now lives in Portland) once filled in on bass for a couple of shows and says there’s a transcendent quality to the band’s music. “It sounds cheesy but their music is kind of timeless,” he says. “Everyone always asks themselves why these guys aren’t famous, but they’ve been asking that question from the beginning. You look at how they’re still playing their music—even as music fads change—and you can still ask that same question about them now.”
In the early years, the Oblio Joes may have been like any other band, playing gigs and hustling to make a name for themselves. Not anymore. They still play the gigs, still record the albums—their newest, Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling, will be released at an Oct. 27 show—and still rehearse as often as twice a week, but making a name is no longer their goal. Success, at this point, for this band, is defined differently. The question is how?
“I’m just always wondering,” says guitarist Stu Simonson, “do people think, ‘when are these guys going to give it up? Do they think they’re relevant?’ I kind of worry about that, like if we appear like a bunch of old people hanging on to our early-20s.”
“It was the fall of ‘92, I remember it well,” Brownell says in a fake old-man voice. He offers a sagacious pause before Simonson, in his own faux-elderly voice, adds, “they had just installed electricity.”
The small room at the back of the Ear Candy record store where the Oblio Joes have gathered erupts into crazed laughter. In this dimly lit, nearly empty room the band is sprawled out drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, as they have since the beginning of their time as musicians. Drummer Dan Strachan is absent—family obligations. Keyboardist Ian Smith is watching his son Henry jump up and down on his keyboard case with a sharp fatherly eye. John Fleming, who plays bass and owns Ear Candy, has his own eye on a baseball game roaring from a small screen in the other room, though the sound is almost drowned out by a racket of pounding and chair-shifting upstairs. The Oblio Joes don’t bat an eye at the distractions. Their public lives consist of loud rock shows and now, with all the band members in their 30s, their private lives are dominated by spirited young children. Not much fazes them.
“[Before ‘92] we had been playing in a band called the Flannelles,” Brownell explains. “We played a couple house parties, had our big blowout show at Trendz where we headlined.” Brownell smiles and says with feigned drama, “what happened after that is kind of controversial. There was some moment where [some of us] decided we wanted to play more like Pavement and the Flaming Lips than Sonic Youth or Soundgarden.” So with that rift in musical direction, the Flannelles broke up. Brownell and Simonson moved into what became known as the Pink House (for its bright pink color, of course) with Strachan, and the Oblio Joes were born.
“It’s been kind of the single overriding law since we first bloomed out of the Flannelles that nobody can tell another person what to play,” Brownell says. “There’s been so little conflict, almost no conflict in this band, which is really, I think, pretty rare.”
During the Pink House era, the Oblio Joes were at the center of Missoula’s emerging punk scene. Early rock bands like Honkey Sausage (later to become the Fireballs of Freedom) and Humpy would lower their equipment down the trapdoor into the basement and play music together until dawn. The same day in 1994 that the Oblio Joes released their very first recording, All Ages Show, on cassette, was one many locals remember well: a dozen rock bands played a Poverello fundraiser called Povstock across the street from where the Roxy Theater was burning down. It was one of the first times the Oblio Joes realized how large the Missoula rock scene was actually getting. In the two years that they’d been at it as Oblio Joes, a handful of other bands had sprung up and the scene seemed on a roll.
In the years that followed they frequented multiple now-extinct venues including Connie’s Lounge, a dark and larger version of Jay’s. Some nights they played above the Golden Pheasant Chinese restaurant (now Feruqi’s) in an apartment where the smell of duck and spiced noodles floated up through the floorboards. There were a lot of house shows back then, and the Pink House practice space coupled with a developing camaraderie with other musicians solidified Oblio Joes as a central figure in the scene.
Smith remembers seeing the Oblio Joes play a couple years before he joined the band. It was a Halloween show at Jay’s and the band was wearing garbage sacks onstage. Brownell listens to Smith recount the story with a look of amusement and finally says, “wow, that sounds really cool.” Simonson and the rest of the band crack up. It’s been so long Brownell doesn’t even remember that show; he might as well be hearing about it for the first time.
Keyboardist Smith also remembers being intimidated by the band’s reputation when they asked him to join up, even though they were all already friends.
“I think the night that you asked me to join the band was at a party at your house on Hickory Street,” Smith says to Brownell. “I just thought everyone was drunk, and somebody said, ‘I think we should have somebody play keyboards.’ And I didn’t know how to play keyboards at the time. I had a Wurlitzer at the house and I’d been listening to Wilco’s Being There. I was a guitar player but I really liked what Jay Bennett was doing on piano in that record. That kind of created an impetus for me to figure out how to play chords. I wasn’t really sure you guys were serious until you called me back maybe a couple weeks later and were like, ‘hey, we’re practicing. Bring your keyboard.’”
The years that followed fueled the Oblio Joes’ success as a Missoula band, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t go through their fair share of problems. As it turns out, the New Year’s show when Brownell forgot his words was just one incident during a larger period of uncertainty for the band. Oblio Joes’ bassist at the time, Tor Dahl, had moved out of town and could rarely make it to shows; during the same year, Simonson and his wife decided to venture out of Missoula and try a new life in Olympia, Wash. In those days, Smith would be seen at shows playing both keyboard and guitar, with Graham on bass. “That was really an odd period,” Smith says, “because we had started recording and then Stu moved, and we’re like ‘oh my God what’re we gonna do?’” Brownell says the world of the Oblio Joes began to take on a surreal form. As if starting to lose their collective mind, they changed lyrics, he says, so that songs about record labels became songs about pancakes. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on.” It could have been the beginning of the end for the band, but after a year in Olympia Simonson and his wife changed their minds and moved back. He had become homesick and missed the band, which he had come to see as family. Simonson says a bit sheepishly, “I talked to these guys and I asked them if I could still play with them.” It was exactly what the band wanted to hear. Within a year after Stu moved back, the band had enough material to record an album, and in 2001 they released the cleverly titled Sin Tax & Some Antics. Dahl had come back long enough to play bass on the record, but just days after it was done, he left for Alaska and Fleming came on as the band’s permanent bass player. The final lineup had been solidified, but even more than that, the Oblio Joes say they suddenly felt on track again, ready to push forward and comfortable in their collective skin. “When Stu moved back I think it sparked something for us,” Smith says. “We finally were like, ‘okay, now we know what the fuck we’re doing.’ Almost as soon as he came back we started writing again.”
It’s not that other local bands don’t present memorable lyrics, but if you ask any showgoer what it is about the Oblio Joes that makes them come back for more, they’ll tell you it’s about catchy melodies and a whole lot about Brownell’s wordsmithery. “Ginger,” one of the band’s most requested songs, has the haunting opening line, “Oh Ginger! Can you hear the ticking clock, do you wonder what has got a hold over you and me?” Songs like “Space Opera” occupy an otherworldly realm, literally, when Brownell sings: “You’re on Mars and I’m so far orbiting a different star on a planet with no hope for rescue. No hope for me and you.” Later he sings, “We’re not star crossed, we’re just unlucky.”
In Brownell’s lyrical universe, planets are used as a metaphor for a dissolving relationship, but the magic is that he never admits it, never brings listeners back down to Earth again. His songs occupy strange worlds that resemble this one only in the emotions they evoke, and somehow that allows Brownell’s lyrics to come across as outrageous, even as they’re disassociated from heavy-handed symbolism.
With few exceptions, it’s subtle turns of phrase that make an Oblio Joes song, in the service of storytelling that is somehow both celebratory and sorrowful at the same time.
“John Brownell is a fucking songwriting God,” says Volumen frontman Shane Hickey, “and all other songwriters who hear his work instantly love it and hate him for making it so easy. It’s pretty rare that a band can create a song that compels you to sing along. It’s even more rare that a band can create a song that compels you to sing along at the very first listen and magically put the words in your head. ”
Gibson Hartwell of Tom Catmull and the Clerics, and formerly of Tarkio, ended up playing banjo and pedal steel on two tracks of Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling. “I mean, everybody in that band gets right behind the songs with all that they have,” he says. “Johnny is super-sharp with his imagery, but he lays his lyrics out so casually, without a hint of pretentiousness. That’s a pretty nice combination [and] I guess that helps you get past the storyteller and into the story. That’s one level, but there’s a lot more going on there. Thank God we can’t figure it all out.”
For Chris Knudson of the International Playboys, the songs of the Oblio Joes have caused him some moments of emotional outburst. “With the right amount of alcohol,” he says seriously, “they are the only band that has made me cry—not because I was sad, but because I was happy—while singing along to their songs.”
Lyric writing came to Brownell in high school, when he wanted to be a fiction writer. “Problem was,” he says, “I found that I loved to sit down and just write pieces of stories, but could never put it all together into any kind of cohesive beginning, middle and end. I loved writing character descriptions, short bits of dialogue, things like that. I guess this translates pretty well into song lyrics.”
On past albums, Brownell has enjoyed telling stories from a distance, describing a fantasy world, or one that at least included characters that didn’t appear to resemble the Oblio Joes, even if the emotions themselves were authentic. But Brownell concedes that such distancing was a bit of a smokescreen and only recently, under a cloud of depression, did he admit that many of his characters were, in fact, him.
While making Let’s Decom-pose and Enjoy Assembling, Brownell not only went through a divorce, but his father was struggling with health problems. One night he had a dream in which his father said to him, “John, remember that the book can be read backward or forward, and the whole book can be rebuilt from any single page.” As Brownell awoke he had a fleeting vision of a countryside full of teepees and a leatherbound book in front of him with the title, “The Book of Teepee.” Several times that night he woke up to write, and by morning he had penned almost an entire song. Brownell says the hard times during the making of the new album are what make the record so much more personal than others the band has recorded. “I was feeling utterly alone,” he says. “I was thinking a lot about how I’d always kept friends at arm’s length, about how all of the sad songs I’d written in the past—in third-person narratives—were really about me and I never admitted it to myself.”
In light of that revelation, Brownell sat down and wrote “Grey Skies,” mostly for himself, though he later played it for the band, which recorded it as the last track on Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling. In the song Brownell sings:
“I’ve been talking to lots of people/And even to a lot of things/Asking them what they think of me/And seeing what that brings/And the words that they use to describe me/Always have the same ring/They say don’t worry John, you’re a nice guy/Now shut up and sing.”
Brownell wasn’t the only member of the band going through hard times while making Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling. During the two years it took to write and record the new album, three members (including Brownell) went through divorces.
“If you listen to the album’s lyrics, and musically too,” says Smith, one of the divorcés, “you can hear all the shit that everybody went through.”
During the making of the record the band was flipping through old pictures of themselves when, in a moment they talk about as if it were fate, they came across a picture of themselves holding up the instructions for a Chinese puzzle ball. It was just a scrap of paper they’d picked up from a 25-cent gumball machine, but it illuminated the way in which this record can be read as the band’s own puzzle, a piecing together of the emotional debris of the preceding years. The manual’s first line reads “Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling” with fairly incomprehensible instructions thereafter, but it’s what you do with the puzzle that became meaningful to the band.
“It’s this thing you throw against the floor and there’s this little construction manual on how to reassemble the puzzle,” Brownell explains. “And that’s where we got the idea for the record. In fact, I think the whole concept of Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling is the concept of therapy and recovery.” Smith adds, “That theme of breaking apart and picking up the pieces, trying to enjoy the whole fucking process is definitely prevalent in it.”
This album is also different in that whereas most of their previous albums were recorded in a studio, Let’s Decompose and Enjoy Assembling was recorded in the back room of Ear Candy and mixed in Brownell’s basement. Which makes it in some ways a tip of the hat to their first album, All Ages Show, recorded in the early-’90s at the Pink House.
“Another part of this record, and why it took years, is we enjoyed it, we enjoyed coming in here,” Simonson says. “I love the recording process because it’s a collaborative process where everyone’s input has an impact on the song’s final form.”
If therapy for the Oblio Joes lies in making a record or writing songs, perhaps that’s one of the reasons the band has managed stay together so long. Surprisingly enough, the band members don’t see each other that often, except to practice or record, and so those tend to be important times for them. “There is something about recognizing the music as something beyond just normal interaction,” says Brownell. “I don’t even talk to these guys much during the day. But there’s this weird connection, really I think you’re giving a piece of yourself to everybody. And that for me goes back to trust.”
Strachan half-jokes that the band’s longevity is due to laziness, as if not being in the band would be harder than carrying on with it, something true of all good—or bad—habits. To others, it goes back to the lack of conflict and to their devotion to each other: any show you go to you’ll see the bandmates with their arms across another’s shoulders, or hugging—sometimes drunkenly—as if they hadn’t seen each other in years. But Brownell points out that one of the main things that keeps the band afloat is that the goals they set for themselves aren’t the kind that would break the band apart if left unachieved. The number-one priority is always that they play music together, even if no one else hears it. The truth is, the band doesn’t care a bit about marketing. They admit to being the worst self-promoters of any Missoula band. “We’ve never been ambitious about any kind of promotion and touring, and it seems like only recently we’ve started taking that stuff more seriously,” Simonson says, and then thinks about it. “Well, maybe. The thing is, we all have jobs at this point, we all have kids.” But might there ever come a point when they’d call it quits, when life for the Oblio Joes might not include being in a band together?
“I can imagine in this fantasy land in my head not playing with the Oblio Joes,” Brownell says. “But I can’t imagine not playing music. But then I can’t imagine playing music without the Oblio Joes.”
People tell the Oblio Joes all the time that they could market their music to a wider audience, and that if they toured more they could position themselves to become Missoula’s next indie-rock darlings like Colin Meloy and the Decemberists, traveling to Europe and Japan.
In all honesty, the Oblio Joes aren’t against the idea. It’s not as though they purposefully avoid opportunities to seek farther-reaching recognition, they just have better things to do, like supporting their families and staying in a town they love. “We’re making more of an effort now to go play in Bozeman and Spokane, ’cause that’s just three hours away,” Fleming says. “You can play and come home the next day and it doesn’t intrude on your responsibilities. If that’s what we can do, that’s what we can do.”
Certainly life hasn’t always been easy for the band, individually or collectively, but what’s currently defining success for Oblio Joes has more to do with finding satisfaction in things the way they are. And maybe a little immortality.
“What I think would be great,” Fleming says, “would be in the year 2023 when some guy is compiling a compilation—you know how they compile surf comps and power-pop comps, all these great bands from the late ’70s nobody’s ever heard of. I would love it if the Obes would be on one like ‘10 bands that sound like Pavement.’ I think it would be cool if years down the road we had just one song on a compilation like that.”
There’s a parable that sticks in John Brownell’s mind when he thinks about the Oblio Joes. It’s called the Fisherman’s Parable, and it begins with a fisherman who spends his days on a beach, fishing whenever he wants and eating at his favorite restaurant. One day a businessman happens by and the fisherman takes him out on his boat to fish. The man tells the fisherman, “you should charge money for this,” and the fisherman replies, “what would that get me?” The businessman says, “you could get a better boat, you could catch more fish and get more people to give you money.” The fisherman asks, “but in the end, what am I going to do with that?” Here Brownell pauses for effect before delivering the punchline. “And the man says, ‘well then you could retire and hang out in a little restaurant and you could go fishing whenever you want.’” Brownell laughs.
“That’s kind of the way I think about the Oblio Joes. What the hell would we want more than what we have right now?”
Oblio Joes play their CD-release show at the Old Post Pub Friday, Oct. 27, at 9 PM. Free.