Even if you’ve never attended an oso concert, chances are you’ve heard them play. Thanks to a strict DIY diet of house performances, street performances, and guerilla-style take away shows, the Santa Barbara-born four-piece have made themselves ubiquitous to those inside and outside the so-called “music scene.” (It also helps that their frontman can often be found singing and strumming from atop a four-foot unicycle.)
During the past six years, the band, who classify themselves as a blend of gypsy, jazz, and folk rock, have played everywhere from the garages of Isla Vista to the stages of SOhO and Velvet Jones, opening for nationally touring experimentalists like Deerhoof and Dengue Fever. Yet you can still find them busking through downtown’s weekly Farmers Market. It is that very combination of energy and humility that’s earned the band praise—and fans—throughout the county, even if they’ve yet to realize it. Ask lead singer/guitarist Phil Taylor, and he’ll tell you most people in S.B. don’t know who oso is. But bookers and more than 2,000 MySpace fans will argue otherwise.
“Someone called us the DIY cultural ambassadors of Santa Barbara,” Taylor joked recently over dinner. But it’s not so hard to see why. In addition to their frenetic, Balkan-style jams, the quartet has traveled the world—largely by foot—to bring oso’s music to the masses. And it’s these trips, most recently to Eastern Europe, that have helped inspire the band’s latest recorded offering, Harm Reduction.
Recorded in Lompoc’s Certain Sparks studio with the help of former Le Petit Protest frontman Randall Sena, Harm Reduction succeeds where past oso recordings have fallen just short. “Aside from the engineering, Randall was good just for encouraging us and giving moral support,” said Taylor. “Sometimes you need that help.” To that effect, the disk’s 12 tracks crisply and cleanly capture the band’s enigmatic live set as closely as ever; the drums sizzle, the violins sway, and the guitars reverberate with the intensity and fervor that oso has long been known for.
“I think maybe it sounds more aggressive than people would think, which is kind of a weird thing for me to say,” Taylor reflected, the just-finished tracks playing quietly in the background of our conversation. “But at the same time maybe there’s more emotion—I think the writing will be the best writing I’ve done on an album.”
Lyrically, the record is undoubtedly the frontman’s best to date. The songs fluctuate between folksy dialogues and protest ballads, but the conviction in Taylor’s voice rings loud and clear on each.
“I think the collective songwriting is tighter and more mature,” continued bassist Andrew Fedders. “It’s centralized and there’s a consistency through all the songs, which is not to say that we didn’t have that on other albums, I just think it’s better on this one. They’re all from the same source of inspiration.”
While the songs on Harm Reduction pull largely from the band’s trials and triumphs on the road, it’s the group’s collective consciousness about their future that underscores each track. Following the release of Reduction (which gets a proper send-off next Thursday, June 10 at SOhO), the band is taking a hiatus for at least the next year. For Fedders, that means venturing up north to San Francisco, getting married, and finishing his PhD in education. For drummer Tim Beutler, who currently teaches at San Roque School, the impending future is still to be determined. (He and violinist Nick Coventry departed to Korea just days after our talk to perform with the Santa Barbara Dance Theatre troupe.) And for Taylor, it may mean returning to the Balkan countries he can envision calling home—at least for a little while.
“I want to be living and working as a full-time artist and musician,” he explains. “I think I’ve had more training in paring down my lifestyle in not needing as much money to exist, so you can devote more of the time to the stuff you really want to be devoted to. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Whatever the future may hold for oso, it stands to reason that their impact will live on in the Santa Barbara music world for years to come, if not in live form, than at least on record. With Reduction, the group seems to have truly come into their own both stylistically and conceptually, making for a swan song that’s simultaneously sweet and tough to swallow.
“Part of making this album was just about moving ahead with as much forward momentum as possible,” said Beutler. “In a lot of ways, we don’t know when we’re going to get back together, so just to know that we’re leaving with our rocket ship flying off, instead of just a fizzle out is important. Even though we spent so much money and time making [this record], it’s been so worth the effort. We may not be in some kind of band collective mindset, but just getting the music out there is even more impetus on some level for it to exist rather than for us to exist. It’s got to be listened to.”
The release of oso’s Harm Reduction will be celebrated with a CD release show at SOhO Restaurant and Music Club (1221 State St.) on Thursday, June 10, at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com.