Out on One Limb or Another: An Interview with Opin

After releasing their debut self-titled album last year, Richmond electronic band Opin are back with the Drifters EP, commemorating their expansion from the studio project of Landis Wine and Tori Hovater into a dynamic four-piece live band.

The addition of Ethan Johnstone’s bustling live drums and Jon Hawkins’ buyant bass synths are a sonic shot in the arm for the EP’s four tracks. “Shinzo no Tobira,” originally by Japanese new wave band Mariah, brings a heightened presence and edge to an ethereal pop tune with spirited synths and jagged guitar lines. Original tracks like “Hard Year” buzz and seethe with all the grit and emotion of Depeche Mode, while Jeff Zeigler’s production seamlessly stitches up synthetic and organic parts.

Look for Drifters April 20th as a clear, one-sided, vinyl 12’’ by Harding Street Assembly Lab. Preorders also come with two bonus tracks, including “Pressure Temp,” which is available to stream in the interview below.

Ahead of the EP release, Opin’s Hovater and Wine spoke to the All Scene Eye about the making of the EP, their new practice space, and their upcoming second album.

You released your debut full-length last year, and you’re working on the follow-up now. How does the EP fit into that timeline?

Hovater: I think of the EP as bridging the gap between the first album and the one that we’ll inevitably put out, probably sometime next year. We brought in Jon and Ethan, and they learned a bunch of the songs from the self-titled so we could play them live, but in the practice process, we ended up writing stuff just because we were all jamming together. That’s kind of how this came together. Now we’ve transitioned completely over to writing as a group, but this is kind of the in-between.

Wine: There’s one track that was there in demo form from the first record, two tracks that were entirely new, and then the Mariah cover, which was something we learned to play live because we wanted some sort of other variable.

Which one was the demo from the first album?

Wine: “How Can I.” There was a super minimalist version of that, just a bass synth and finger snaps, that was floating around on my hard drive. I think it was really subdued, so it didn’t fit the first record. I threw some ridiculous drum beat on it, and I think we just started writing around that, and it became totally different.

Hovater: I feel like writing “How Can I” was the moment we realized, “oh my god, we can write stuff together and it sounds really good.” I remember, Ethan might have been on tour with Night Idea, and Jon, Landis and I were chilling, jamming on this drum beat, and then it kind of materialized out of nowhere. We were like, “whoa, that was easy, and it was really fun, and it sounds awesome.”

I love that throughout this EP, the drums have a live sound, but the patterns can also feel like loops.

Hovater: We’re lucky to have Ethan; he’s an absolute beast. He can play anything and it sounds like a drum machine. He’s nuts. But still, having the live drummer is a really important part of our sound, so that we don’t delve so deeply into sounding uber-electronic.

Wine: We’ll generally spend a while working on something, and then we’ll be like, “alright, we’ll give Ethan some time to pick up on what he wants to do.” And then he’ll go through it once, and it’ll be perfect. And then we’re like, “oh, ok, we spent two weeks on that.”

Hovater: On pass number two, he’s already doing these crazy flourishes, like, “yeah, yeah, ok, I got it.” [laughs]

How has Opin changed as an experience throughout the transition from a studio project to a live band?

Hovater: From my perspective, it’s definitely been an exercise in letting go of any concept of where a song is going to go, and it’s really fun that way. You come in with a riff to build off of, and it could go in any direction, because you’ve got three or four people working on it at the same time. There are a lot of variables at play, but it’s been really interesting to see how the style has changed. We’ve all played music for a while, and I think we don’t really feel like we need to adhere to a certain style or genre all the time. Whatever we feel like doing at that moment, we go for.

Wine: I think the practice of the past year of just being in a room together more when we work on stuff puts us more on the same page. The EP has bits of it, but from the EP onward, we’re used to playing with each other in this particular dynamic, and that brings other types of ideas. We’re pushing each other to go further out on one limb or another, which has been really fun. That’s the best part of doing that sort of thing.

“Saw Chain Sunroof,” the first track on the EP, was actually just a couple layers of samples. It was just a weird, grainy drone. We put it on for half an hour, played to it, and recorded the whole thing. We edited it together later, learned to play it, and refined it. That was one thing we did that we’re still doing pretty heavily on the record–recording ideas you have, chopping them up and learning to play them, sending them back and forth through that process, and seeing what happens.

You’ve been playing that Mariah cover live for quite a while. Has your interpretation or performance changed over time?

Wine: That was one where we thought we were going to have to do a lot of arranging, but after I decided I was just going to have the guitar be the loop–I like doing loops over and over and just slightly changing the phrasing–then we fell into it. It was one of those tracks that when we initially heard it, we were up in Philly, mixing the first record with Jeff [Zeigler]. Jeff put it on the turntable after we were done one day, and I was like, “I think this would fit with the set.” It was just where we were at the time and what we were playing, it fell into place. I was like, “you know, we should record this while we’re doing this,” because I know that Tori and I will sometimes burn through stuff. I was like, “this is a good cover, and we should capture the moment of that coming together without too much strain.” It doesn’t always happen that way.

Hovater: In our live set, for me at least, that’s a go-to track where there’s not too many surprises from one performance to another, and we’re pretty in-the-pocket. It’s a nice anchor to our live setlist.

Speaking of guitar loops, I’m interested in those slight changes. Towards the end of the song, it sounds like the guitar starts detuning.

Wine: I’m playing in open-C tuning. It’s kind of a John-Fahey-style American primitive thing, which originally just gave me easy access chords for the record, because I was trying to learn everything quickly. The way I have it set up now, you can kind of grab three octaves of the same note at once, and just bend them so you’re dealing with the dissonance between those three sustained notes. That’s what some of that is, and I’m sure there’s a lot of slightly detuned synths grinding in there as well.

Does guitar tuning influence the way you write?

Wine: I actually don’t write on guitar at all. I generally try to do that mostly after the fact. We’ll start out with samples, or beats, or keys. For the new record we’re working on, I tried doing a lot of stuff with bass, and more rhythmic lines. Through the last record, I played the guitar parts one or two times in the studio, but I never learned them. I just decided I would settle on that tuning, and learn them in that.

For the EP, I think we came up with the arrangements, and I would learn to play around that. I used to write a lot on guitar, and I feel like in the past four or five years, I’ve started writing from scratch in other weird ways. A lot of it is getting out of the habit of playing a certain style, trying to make myself never be comfortable playing guitar. Really, that’s my goal.

Can you tell me about some of the particular synths you used on this EP?

Hovater: Oh, wow, we used a lot. [laughs]

Wine: I checked with Jeff on this, because I wanted to make sure we had the list right. We used the same synth setup for the whole EP, pretty much. I’m pretty sure we did the initial tracking with the Korg minilogue, which is what we use live. It’s a super-versatile small synth that I love. We used a Siel Orchestra 2 on there, and a Sequential Circuits Pro-One. There was the Juno. Did you use the Mono/Poly?

Hovater: [sighs] I don’t know, there were so many. [laughs] I love Jeff, because he’ll just be like, “oh man, I know what would sound so sick on this part, stay right there.” And I don’t have to do anything. He just sets up something crazy, he’ll build some nutso patch and just be like, “alright, go for it.” So there were probably six different synths that got used on this EP. 

Wine: We had one stand, and we’d just switch them out, and we would layer them, and just cut the layers that weren’t working. It was a quick process. We were only up there for what, two days?

Hovater: Yeah. There was live piano, too, I forgot about that. He has this piano at his place that we miked. Definitely for Mariah. All of the synthy, piano-type parts, I think the base layer was done on that piano.

Wine: We also ran a mic out of the piano and into one of Jon’s pedals, and ran the inside of the piano through a multi-delay and back in. So it’s just a weird mix of stuff.

I might not have been able to pick out that piano in there if you hadn’t told me.

Hovater: That’s something I get really into, because I’m definitely a pianist at heart, and I get really intimidated by gear sometimes. If I can use a real piano at any point in a recording process, I’m very happy about it.

Wine: It adds a lot of weight, too, so you can layer whatever you want on top of the piano. It’s a really robust starting point, which is always great.

So, Tori, how did you get into the synth side of things?

Hovater: A lot of it is just in logistics. I have this old, old-ass Roland EP-9, and it’s this semi-weighted full-size electric piano that I played forever. It’s kind of jacked up right now, so I had to retire that thing, and I’ve played so many different keys in this band from the beginning to where we are now. I used to play a microKORG, and I still do from time to time, but I feel like I’ve exhausted everything I can do with that. But that was easy for me, because it’s a very approachable synth. Like I said, I can get really intimidated by gear, because it’s a lot. [laughs]

I have to say, Landis has been a huge help in making me feel comfortable dealing with that stuff. I was like, “I’m sick of this microKORG, I don’t know what I want to play, what are we going to do now?” Landis has pointed me in the direction, and collected a lot of gear that gives me the sound I want without having everything be too crazy. When we play live, I do use an Arturia MIDI controller that we send a live piano sound through, so we definitely still have some of that sound at a base level, but then I use the Korg minilogue. That was a really easy transition, because the microKorg and the minilogue have a similar feel to them. So, I don’t know, now I’m in synth world, and I’m fine with it.

Tell me a little more about this recording space you were in.

Wine: That is Jeff’s spot. It’s called Uniform recording, and it used to be some sort of store with a vault. A garage with a vault in it.

Hovater: He uses the vault space as an isolation booth for vocals and stuff like that, and then all the actual instruments he has in this giant garage space that he mics up, but it’s all in the lower level of his home.

Wine: Yeah, and then he’s got a spiral staircase that leads up to his actual pad upstairs. He’s got an incredible selection of mics, he’s got a mind-bending amount of synths, so it’s a great place to be able to set up and get really good sound out of just playing in a room.

I’m really fascinated by those repurposed spaces that weren’t meant for recording to begin with.

Wine: I think it’s all about repurposing stuff to whatever end you’re trying to get. There’s so much about recording and about gear that’s flexible and meant to be used at home. If you know what you’re doing, and if you nerd out enough, you can adapt any space you want into something that’s at least functional for your purposes.

Hovater: The first record is a prime example of that. I wouldn’t say it’s an exaggeration to say there were 10 to 15 different places where a bunch of parts were recorded, including my old living room on my old piano. Wherever we could throw some stuff down, we would do it.

Wine: We had a practice space at the time, and we would set up there sometimes, and it would be less than ideal. You’d have maybe half an hour to run through some part, set up, try to record it, get it on the hard drive, and then my old computer would crash immediately after, and we would have to just hope that it stayed. So that record was really just Jeff very patiently piecing together a lot of things that we were just like, “alright, this is our drum machine we did here, and this is something we recorded in the practice space, and this is something we have to record here.”

How did you come to move into the new practice space, where you recorded the bonus EP tracks?

Hovater: That space is my house, which is really awesome. Landis and I don’t live too far from each other. We’re in the same neighborhood, maybe ten blocks away. I was looking to move last May to a new spot anyway, and the pieces fell into place so beautifully. I’m in another band, and my bandmate let me know that the house attached to hers–it’s a duplex with a shared wall–was for rent. I was like, “hey, if I move in there and make a lot of noise, are you going to be cool with that?” And she was like, “yeah.” We loved being at Sound of Music Studios, but it wasn’t super convenient, so we made the executive decision to pull out of that space and instead rent this house where I live.

It has a big extra room upstairs, which was perfect. It’s carpeted, and there’s a little closet we can use as an isolation booth. Again, my bandmate from my other band is on the other side of the wall, so that’s been totally cool. But that definitely lends itself to a lot of productivity, because at any given time, I might come home, and Landis is already there working on stuff, and it’s like, “oh, yeah, I’ve got an hour to spare, let’s do it.” That’s been really crucial.

Wine: It’s given us the flexibility to sit with ideas for a while. I’ve been in bands before where you show up, and you’re like, “alright, we’ve got two hours, and you have to bring your best ideas,” and everybody has to be relatively awake, and not tired from whatever job they just finished working. It’s a big ask, and sometimes it’s tough to get people in the area of creative comfort when you’re in that sort of situation.

It’s nice to have a setup that’s completely catered to how we want to work. We can just tinker around with stuff. Also, a lot of the first record was done essentially in the box, in the computer, because of how we were working. Now, this has given us the chance to do everything outboard, with just, weird stuff. Jon was doing bass synths, but now he’s doing lead and everything. He has an entire modular rig that he uses sometimes. We’ve got ridiculous amounts of options now, which is great. Or it’s terrible; we’ll see. We haven’t finished the record, but it feels like a good thing right now.

How far along are you on that record?

Hovater: We have gobs and gobs of songs we’re working on. None of them are finished yet, but I would say we’re 60-75% through a good number of them. It feels like that’s part of the nature of the space, too. We get together and hang out at my house, and then we’re like, “how do we feel today? What do we want to work on?” Sometimes we’ll blow through five different tracks, and sometimes we’ll be in the mood to focus in on one thing. So I don’t know, we’re kind of scattering ourselves about right now.

Wine: We’re aiming to have something closer to finished, or a better idea of it, by the end of the summer, so we know what we need to do with it. I think we’re still going to use other spots for a couple of different things. We’re not at that point yet. We’ve got stuff we’re really excited about, so I think it’s just making sure that we don’t fuck up the delivery. [laughs] So we just try to make it better instead of backsliding.

Hovater: I feel like it’s crucial that we’re able to record ourselves and listen back, even in practice. In an ordinary setup where you’re sitting there trying to write stuff, it’s hard to track your progress when you’re stop-and-go working on something and you can’t listen back. Our ability to record everything in a semi-official sense as we’re working on it definitely helps the creative process.

Wine: Absolutely. We’ve got it set up now so sometimes we’ll just run songs for 15 minutes at a time, record everybody playing them, and we’ll cut out a chunk of 20 seconds from this part, 15 seconds from this part, combine them, and when we go back to play again, that becomes the thing we’re playing, as opposed to a long, formless thing.

There’s a real truth to that as a useful method. There are surprises and developments in listening back.

Wine: Definitely, and I think there’s virtue in sitting and hammering stuff out. Sometimes with Jon, he’ll work on a part for like, 45 minutes, and he’s like, “alright, that’s it.” And that’s how he plays the part forever. Sometimes with Tori, she’s feeling out an idea, and we’ll play it forever, and I’ll just drag a couple things, so the next week we’ll be like, “where did that part come from?” And it’s like, “oh, you played that at some point.”

Hovater: It’s probably worth mentioning that I’m almost always smoking weed when we’re doing this. [laughs] Getting into that groove, vibing super hard, and playing a bunch of stuff, and I’ll completely forget it. And like I said, thank god we record it, or there would be so many ideas just lost to the annals of time.

Write drunk, edit sober, right?

Wine: That’s the thing, it lets us get a good combination of stuff we fuss over and stuff where we’re just letting it happen. Especially for the next record, I think it’s about finding a balance between happy accidents and stuff that feels like a broader scope of what we were trying on the first record. Not really refining it, but expanding on the concept of it.

If you could tour with any band, who would you choose?

Hovater: First I think about bands who I think we kind of sound like, but I’m a big fan of shows and tours that showcase things that are slightly different in style. I hate sitting down and having the feeling that I’m listening to the same music all night, you know what I mean? I’m a really big fan of Crumb right now; they’ve got a cool style. I feel like it’s enough like us, but it’s different enough that it would be an interesting combination.

Wine: I keep thinking of bands that I’d like to see over and over. It would have been really fun to tour with Stereolab in 1994, but, you know, I would have just liked to see that. There’s no good footage of it that I’ve seen. There’s a lot of contemporary bands that it’d be amazing to tour with. All the stuff I saw from the recent John Maus tour was phenomenal, now that he’s got a full band, and is doing his thing in the really intense, live, cathartic setting.

Where can people preorder the EP? 

Wine: We’re putting this one out with Harding Street Assembly Lab; they do really good short runs of stuff that they put a lot of care into. With this EP, we were really happy with how it came out. We knew it was probably going to live digitally for as long as the server stays up, but it was nice having something we could actually take on tour and give out to people. Nathan, who runs Harding Street, suggested a one-sided clear vinyl 12”, and I couldn’t say no to that. It’s going to be a cool little artifact of that period in time of us as a touring unit.

This is probably more my inexperience than anything, but I’ve never heard of a one-sided 12” EP, and I think it’s a really cool format. 

Wine: Well, I’ve never heard of one making money, so that’s also very true.

[all laugh]

Wine: I like weird formats. Mostly consuming music digitally, and through spotify and things like that, I don’t have a vast record collection, but at the same time, I still appreciate the value of making an art object. Something that will stick around in people’s houses or bins.

When it’s something really singular, I think that also adds to the appeal of the object.

Wine: And that’s what we’re trying to do more, too. Especially with shirts and records and all that stuff. We’re kind of one-and-done with everything. We have maybe four copies of the first LP left, but we’re not going to repress it. It’s available digitally forever, but we’re not going to go around trying to resell another run of 500 of those.

Hovater: To press harder on that, I really like what you say about that being a moment in time. We have so many friends who are artists in different ways from us, and, I mean, I can’t create visual art for shit. It just is not a thing that exists for me. Landis’ fiance, for example, has done a lot of cool design stuff for us. We have a friend who recently finished a video for us. It’s really fun to kick around with them, and play them our new stuff, and if it interests them, be like, yeah, sure, you want to design a shirt, or a poster, or a pin, or the 12”, or whatever, go nuts. I think that’s a really fun way to collaborate with people. It’s like, wherever they are at this point in time with their art meets us where we are with our art, and it comes together in a really cool way.

I think that’s one of the really magical things about DIY communities.

Wine: Yeah, absolutely. We did a limited edition number of the tapes with Citrus City, too, and I feel like whenever we bump around and do stuff like that, we interact with people we like, and do small things without trying to make some crazy tent pole out of it. And that works for other people, but we have a tendency to finish stuff and immediately be like, “well, that’s done, let’s do this thing.”

So to everybody reading this, don’t hold your breath for the 10th anniversary reissue.

Wine: Hey, you know what? If somebody’s got a weird enough format, it’s fine.

Hovater: [laughs]

Wine: Call me in a decade. On some sort of device that could be or could not be working anymore.

Hovater: We’ll just be teleporting straight to you in a decade.

It’ll all be telepathic.

Hovater: Yeah, just think about me.

Wine: I’ll call you from my Amazon community home, or whatever corporate structure houses us all at that point.


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