Omaha, Nebraska-based band Uh Oh initially caught my attention with the hugely energetic way they approach every one of their songs. Call it power pop, call it peppy garage rock–whatever you call it, the number one strength of Uh Oh’s music is in the palpable passion that comes through in every chord and drumbeat. Once you’re hooked by how hard the band rocks, you’re primed to notice the more subtle draws as well, not least of which is the emotional vulnerability in lead singer-songwriter Joe Champion’s lyrics. Champion says the thematic thread of the band’s debut full-length, Stay Close, has to do with the way social circles spread out as you get older, the anxieties and isolation that accompany that phenomenon, and how to start living with those feelings.
Lead guitarist Mari Crisler, Uh Oh’s newest member, joined Champion in the band’s conversation with FRONTRUNNER. We discussed Stay Close, the beginnings of their love for music, and how their inspirations have shifted over the years. They also shared their views on the recent “ebbs and flows” in the Nebraska indie rock scene.
How do you introduce or describe your band to people who aren’t familiar yet?
Joe: Energetic indie rock in the vein of… “[your favorite band here]”?
Mari: I just say “straightforward rock.” I feel like it doesn’t have enough nuances to make it entirely “indie rock” or “punk rock,” though it definitely has flares of each subgenre. It all aggregates to just be rock.
Do you consider your music to be “garage rock” at all? What do you like or not like about that term?
Joe: Well we’ve definitely played shows in a lot of garages, and our core is the classic drums/bass/guitar setup, but I think we try to branch into other genres a little more often than the classic idea of “garage rock.” We do have certain elements in common though – relatively simple and energized songwriting with melodies that hopefully make you wanna pick up a guitar and shout along with a bunch of sweaty friends.
Mari: We recorded drums in a garage, but that’s about as close as I’d say we are to garage rock. When I think of garage rock I think of more punk influences, or stoner rock. I think the term “garage rock” is inclusive to a lot of genres, but it implies a more DIY approach, much like “bedroom pop” does.
Who were some of your favorite musical artists or bands growing up? Do you see stylistic similarities between those artists and Uh Oh? What are some differences?
Mari: My parents raised me on Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Kweller, and Pixies, so along with that background comes an innate drive for me to write powerful indie rock. The band that got me into music was Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I say that with no shame whatsoever. They rock. John Frusciante is a guitar god, and pretty much everything I know about guitar I learned from him. So everything I play has an essence of that influence. But I also take a lot from the Strokes and Rilo Kiley when writing leads for Uh Oh.
Joe: My first wave of musical influences as a kid were classic 90s/00s punk and alternative bands, and 60s pop/Motown, stuff that made me understand the immediate addictive sugar rush a great song can have. Thanks to having some friends who were much cooler than I was, that veered off into indie stuff like Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, The Shins, Death Cab–things that were equally catchy but hit me on a way deeper level lyrically and musically, and that was the stuff that got me hooked on actually wanting to write songs that meant something to me.
Most recently my favorite artists are people who keep those ingredients feeling fresh for our generation, like Jeff Rosenstock, Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett, Modern Baseball, Ratboys, Hop Along, etc. All of those artists inspire me and the music I want to make. All four of us devour music constantly and learn from the stuff we love. If there’s any way that our band can connect with somebody the way those people make me feel connected through their music, that’s the whole goal!
When did you start playing each of your instruments and what compelled you to continue into adulthood?
Mari: I started playing music in 3rd grade, but I picked up guitar in 8th grade when I was 12. I was compelled to continue because, when I was learning literally every Red Hot Chili Peppers song on guitar and bass, I was enamored with the idea that there was so much music out there, and every door that opened led to a thousand more.
I also have been taking guitar lessons since I was 12 from a teacher who gives me a lot of independence in my learning, but he teaches me the theory behind the songs I love. Because of that, I kind of see music as a puzzle to figure out—there seem to be certain ways to write and play to make a song work best, and that idea is what motivates me to continue listening, playing, and learning.
Joe: I got my first guitar in 8th grade and slowly, painfully (for my friends and family), taught myself how to play and write songs with my friends. My first band was really fun and passionate until it naturally fell apart as the other guys got new interests. By then I realized that music was just part of who I am, and it gives me way more joy and gratification than just a hobby or pastime. So when that band ended I played some awful acoustic shows for a while to try to stay sharp until I was able to pull friends together to start Uh Oh. It just keeps getting more fun and meaningful to play music with these people who aren’t just great friends but share that same half-crazy passion for music.
As you’ve matured, has your songwriting style or process changed at all?
Joe: Definitely. When I started Uh Oh I made a conscious decision to wear my heart on my sleeve with as little ironic distance or cop-outs as possible in the songs. If I wanted to write a song about something sad, I would speak it plainly. If I wanted to write a song about something happy, I’d do the same. That was something I learned from becoming a giant Bruce Springsteen fan over the last several years – if you want to give your music a chance to stick with people in their own lives, you owe it to yourself and the person listening to give an honest version of whatever it is you’re writing about. There are only so many times you get the chance to sort out your weirdness through your songs and I want to make each one count, if I can.
What do you consider the major themes to be on the new record, Stay Close?
Mari: There’s definitely a focus on growth, keeping your loved ones close, telling them you love them, and dealing with change.
Joe: Something we talked about a lot was the awkward struggle to keep friendships as you grow up. It’s started feeling like with every step of life we all get more spread out, whether it’s across the country, the craziness of jobs, or family, or relationships–or sometimes darker struggles. That idea has been rough on me for awhile, and then I happened to go through the type of anxiety and depression that I had never experienced before. And it all folded over on itself when I didn’t really know whether I had those people to lean on anymore, and whether they’d feel they could lean on me when it was their turn to feel shitty at some point. So the question I kept asking myself so often while I was walking my dog in the middle of the night or whatever, was: In such a gross and weird world, what can we do to make each other feel less alone when it’s natural to drift apart?
It wasn’t a direct concept at all and I wasn’t intentionally injecting all of that into the album, but those anxious feelings and questions definitely pop up pretty often throughout the album when I listen back.
How do you view the role of a recorded track versus live performance?
Mari: Recorded tracks are where we can sit down and get something to sound exactly the way we want it to. Live performance is more of an exercise of our bond as bandmates and our enjoyment of music.
Joe: It’s really important to capture as much live energy in our recordings as we can, while also taking time to come up with fun stuff that can only be captured in the studio. Mari and I had a full day where we just went over to Erik’s and messed around with glockenspiels, wood blocks, saxophone, etc. It was one of my favorite days of recording, even though we can never recreate those parts live.
On the other hand, we take live shows really seriously, to try to make those versions of the songs unique and energetic and get the shows to be as fun as possible for us and whoever is around to catch our set.
Can you characterize the Omaha music scene in this moment? Where has it been, and where is it going? Does everyone love Bright Eyes?
Joe: We love Bright Eyes–I know that much! [laughs] The indie rock scene here has had ebbs and flows since those classic Saddle Creek bands were the faces of Omaha. We weren’t around for that so it’s easy to just enjoy their music without wondering whether our city could’ve become “the next Seattle” or whatever. As for the little part of the scene we are in, it feels like it gets re-energized every few years. There are incredible artists playing all over Omaha and Lincoln, with new spaces popping up quite a bit too. It feels really good.
Mari: Omaha is dead. Lincoln rules. I think there’s a shift towards DIY, like there has been. The scenes go in waves, and it was at a peak when I first started playing shows in 2016, but now it seems to be at a valley, or on the up from a low point. Pretty much every band that was around when I got my start has petered out. But there are new bands popping up. There’s a very prosperous hip-hop scene and hardcore scene in Omaha.
What does Uh Oh have in store for next year and beyond?
Mari: We’re going to keep writing and rocking. We’re hoping to go on some weekend runs and maybe a full tour at some point.
Joe: The album means a ton to us so we’re going to keep spreading the word as much as we can! Right now we’re working on the next batch of songs and planning out future shows. And maybe a band vacation to Costa Rica, who knows?