Faith, friendship and Farsi: The OaKs to release stirring sophomore album Songs For Waiting, the patient product of two years in the Afghan Mountains and ten years of spiritual and musical partnership, March 2008.
Band lyricist Ryan Costello details the story behind “Masood” — the hypnotic, hopeful tale of an Afghani teen and a mythic hero. Fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Steve Earle, Wilco, Sufjan Stevens abide.
One of the major surprises of CMJ 2007, Orlando band The OaKs is set to release its sophomore album Songs For Waiting on March 3rd, 2008. The profound and stirring album is the follow-up to the band’s Our Fathers and The Things They Left Behind which caught the ears and minds of many fans and scribes in 2007 with its unique blend of Graceland’s polyrhythms, Steve Earle’s politics, Wilco’s urgency, and Sufjan Stevens’ orchestrations.
The story behind The OaKs’ music is just as interesting as the sounds. In late 2003, just two years after 9/11, The OaKs’ Ryan Costello sold everything he owned, joined a humanitarian organization and moved to Afghanistan. Costello lived there for two years, working in the Central Afghan Mountains with returned refugees, teaching them creative agricultural techniques and becoming fluent in their native language, Farsi. Late at night, while the dust storms blocked out the stars and rattled the windows, he would sit and work out impressions of what he had seen and heard that day on his acoustic guitar. Costello also documented his time in Afghanistan with a series of moving portraits which can be viewed at ryancostello.com.
After returning to the United States, Costello joined back up with his long-time creative and songwriting partner Matthew Antolick, who was drumming full-time in a Moroccan band. Antolick and Costello began working out Costello’s melodic ideas and lyrical concepts, home-recording in Antolick’s apartment what eventually became Our Fathers and The Things They Left Behind. Exploring themes of self-sacrifice and introspection over roots-folk and jazzy melodic layers, Our Fathers… was an original breath of fresh air in the independent music scene.
The release of Our Fathers… drew immediate attention to The OaKs in Orlando’s press and music scene, and the attention quickly went national as Paste Magazine featured Costello and The OaKs in its July 2007 cover story “Can Rock Save the World?”. The OaKs also partnered with Global Hope Network on the release of Our Fathers…and agreed to donate 50% of the profits from each CD or track download to aid widows and recently-returned refugees from Afghanistan.
As the attention grew, Costello and Antolick realized immediately the difficulty of translating their multi-tracked compositions into a live setting as just a duo, and began working to put together a band of diverse musicians who could make the compositions come to life on stage. They were soon joined by Jeremy Siegel, a classically trained bassist steeped in Led Zeppelin and Bootsy Collins riffs, and also fluent in classical and jazz trombone. Tim Cocking came next — a piano major and audio engineer as dexterous on his keyboard and accordion as he is on his trumpet, and Greg Willson, a seminary student wielding a mandolin and electric guitar and playing the breathiest Stan Getz-style saxophone they had ever heard. Their lineup was completed shortly thereafter by Melissa Reyes, a singer-songwriter whose alto voice and folk harmonies perfectly complement Costello’s high vibrato. From the first guitar riff at The OaKs’ debut show at the 2006 Anti-Pop Music Festival, it was apparent that these people were meant to be making music together – the energy in the room was electric, and the reviews were raving.
Out of this natural chemistry was born many new songs over the winter of 2006/2007. Inspired by the unique talents of each new band member, Costello and Antolick began writing songs that would showcase the bands rhythmic tightness and diverse instrumentation. The result is Songs For Waiting. On the album, Costello delves into the life of one of his complicated mythic heroes, Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German Lutheran minister who was executed for attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler (“The Two Calls [of Dietrich Bonheoffer]”). In “Masood”, Costello paints a composite portrait of a teenage friend he had in Afghanistan who took on the mantle of his family after his father passed away, and of Akhmad Shah Masood, an Afghan war hero who was killed in the war of 2002.
Costello also draws from one of his favorite southern authors Carson McCullers in “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, writing about searching for truth amidst brokenness. He writes of his more personal experiences with spirituality and failure in the prayerfully repentant “Here I Am Again,” and with friendship across the divide of global conflict in “War Changes Everything.”
Inspired by Costello’s lyrical and melodic depth, Antolick pulled drumming inspiration from everything from Moroccan polyrhythms and bebop jazz, to John Bonham’s spacious power. The OaKs honed these tracks in the living room of Costello’s wood-floored 1950’s style house, and at live shows across the state of Florida, until the melodic complexity and rhythmic tightness of the music exceeded anything the band had done before.
In late July of 2007, Costello put in for part-time employment at his social work job and The OaKs began recording Songs For Waiting. Using the warm, full sound of Costello’s old house, he and Antolick were determined to use no artificial reverb on the new album, instead using room micing techniques to mix the elements together in the style of their favorite 1960’s jazz and rock albums. Even synthesizers were played through amplifiers and speakers and run into the room to give them the woody ambience of Costello’s house. Over the next few months The OaKs employed trumpet, trombone, sax, Hammond organ, bells, synths from the 70’s and 80’s, acoustic and classical guitars, electric and acoustic bass, a plethora of shakers, tambourines, and hand-drums, and a Wurlitzer electric piano from 1959.
In mid October Antolick, Costello, and keyboardist Cocking began mixing the new album. Using as few modern mixing tricks as possible, including no artificial reverb or delay, they carefully arranged each song. Throughout the mixing process they were mentored and guided by Alan Douches of West West Side Music, whose hand has been on great recordings from Paul Simon’s Graceland to Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.
Finally, after over four long months, The OaKs’ Songs For Waiting was finished on November 8, 2007. The new album is scheduled for release on March 3, 2008.
Songs For Waiting Tracklisting:
Release Date: March 3rd, 2008
01. The Two Calls (of Dietrich Bonheoffer)
02. Masood (MP3)
03. Old Bones
04. Pike County
05. After the Fires
06. The Attraction of the Pilgrim
07. Here I Am Again
08. War Changes Everything
09. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
10. Song for Waiting
More about The OaKs’ song “Masood”:
It was early December, 2004. 26-year-old Ryan Costello had just moved into a new house on the west side of Kabul with a South African family, having lived there only one month. With only a scant knowledge of the local language, Farsi, Costello began walking the streets near his house during the day determined to make friends in the neighborhood. After several days of hanging out with and taking photographs of the local school age children, he was invited by a middle aged man into his mud-walled shop and offered tea. Not knowing the local custom of declining invitations at least three times, Costello said “yes”, which surprised the man who frantically looked around, realizing he had no tea to serve. At that moment another, younger man with a beard and leather jacket who had been standing in the corner of the shop spoke up, “You must come to my house and have tea with us.”
Just a few hundred feet away Costello approached an old rusty gate racked with bullet holes and walked into a courtyard where the shell of a blown-out building stood. Up the winding stairs and into a carpeted living room, with thin cellophane over the gaping hole blown in the wall, Costello sat and waited. After a few minutes, in walked a young boy, around sixteen-years-old, with clear eyes and a wide smile. “Hello – welcome. My name is Masood.”
Thus began a close friendship between Costello and Masood. Taking him deep into the heart of the city’s swarming bazaars, Masood helped Costello buy a Chinese bicycle for 20 American dollars. Masood and his brothers took Costello all over the ancient city, from the mined mountains on the outskirts of the city where the faithful gather holy water from a sacred spring to the bird bazaar where birds from all over Asia are traded and sold. Their unlikely friendship grew deeper, as did Masood’s English and Costello’s Farsi. Masood shared his life story, how his father had been a renowned judge before the war and how they lived in a large house, which they now huddled in the remains of.
One sub-freezing night in the middle of winter, Masood showed up on Costello’s doorstep with red, worried eyes. “Can I use your phone to call my brothers out on the west side of the country?” After some prompting, Masood shared with Costello that his father was near death with an undiagnosed illness. Masood took Costello in the cold night to his house, up the stairs and into a small back bedroom, where Costello saw Masood’s mother, brothers, and sister huddled around his father who lay on a cot on the floor, a loud rattle in his chest. Masood invited Costello to come and sit with him next to his father, and they sat together for some time. Masood asked if Costello would pray over his father, and, raising his hands in the Afghan custom, he did. That night, Masood’s father passed away.
The next day began 40 days of mourning. Masood came over to get Costello one early morning soon after, and Costello walked into their courtyard to find relatives from all over Afghanistan had come to pay their respects for Masood’s father. Many of them walked up to Costello and thanked him in broken English for coming to spend time with him in his last hours, and for praying for him.
Costello and Masood continued their close relationship for two more years after this, until Costello left for America. Masood changed after his father died, becoming more sober and pensive. He shared with Costello the weight he felt on his shoulders to rise up and provide for his family and to take on their name.
Three years later, as Costello sat around in his living room in Florida one summer strumming on his classical guitar, he began working on a song that would weave in the story of Masood with another Masood who was killed in late 2001, Ahmad Shaw Masood. An Afghan mythic hero who rose up mighty armies to fight first the Russians and then later the Taliban, Masood from an early age carried himself as a warrior and a walking message to his people never to let themselves be ruled from without. Called “The Lion of Panshir”, Masood gave hope to his people in a hopeless time. As a composite of one personal friendship and one mythic story, Masood came to be one of the centerpieces of The OaKs’ new album Songs For Waiting.
The OaKs Live:
01/05 Orlando, FL The Social