An Interview with ON AN ON

I sat down with Nate Eiesland, Ryne Estwing, and Alissa Ricci of ON AN ON as they started their first headlining national tour. Their debut album, Give In, was a critical success and the unique ethereal sound of the album makes it a must-hear for indie lovers.

Si: So the band used to be Scattered Trees but that project disbanded right before the scheduled studio time. With only three weeks of studio time, what direction did you think your music would take or did you not start off with a specific direction?

Nate: It was interesting, we were three members of a band that at one point had six members and that ended. We decided that we wanted to start a brand new band, something fresh. And part of the priority for us, musically, was to go into it what that clean slate and not necessarily have this we want to be this, we want to sound like this, and more of a priority and value the experimentation and capture that exploration. It was kind of exciting because we didn’t necessarily know how it would turn out on the other side. That kept the experience very lively because we weren’t trying to pursue goals as much as trying to explore what we were as a new band and as a new group. It came out as it did. I don’t know what the next record will sound like, it’s just that kind of thing, we’re just more interested in exploration than arriving.

So you came up with this new name, ON AN ON, why did you choose that name, was there anything behind it, did you want it to inspire your music?

Alissa: There’s not really much behind the name, there’s a few different stories floating around, kind of things that when we were starting the band, the stories floating around at the time. But I think looking back at it now, the name has a longevity but I don’t think we were thinking about that at all. But creating something that might just be more sustainable, as artists, and as musicians, not in a money sense but just in a satisfaction sense, and in an overall just something we were more ready to pursue.

ON AN ON is a lot more electronic than Scattered Trees, why did you decide to incorporate electronic elements, is there any specific inspiration or influence?

Nate: I think we were all really just wanting to do it, I think that’s the bottom line of any sound that ON AN ON makes, we just want to do it. So the electronic thing is something that we’re all really into and that we all really enjoy outside of the music that we’re making two years ago. And it was something that, in the studio, was this very immediate, this would be great, let’s do that, let’s explore that, and when that lost its spark, we were really really pragmatically no harm no foul and that didn’t really go anywhere, or if there was some magic there that we needed to find and excavate. An electronic element was really important to all of us because we just enjoyed that sound and what that lent to what we were doing as a group without a drummer too. We tour with a drummer but, in the studio, that was where we started—with a drum machine. So I think a lot of the places where we started just exploring over these rhythm tracks where we got off all of these really old drum machines that Dave Newfeld had and we just kind of went from there. We never wanted to get away from that as much as add to the vibe that we knew was there in its infancy.

Out of the entire album, “The Hunter” seems to be the most electronic. Is that a direction you’d consider taking, going a lot more along that line?

Nate: I think that is a corner of the shape of ON AN ON. That sound, I really think we definitely could explore that sound further and anything in between and we could also go way more scaled back. That’s just the freedom we’ve given ourselves musically with what we want to do. But I don’t think we would pursue it further as in make a whole record of that because I don’t think that is as interesting to us as well, but I think that there is a soul and emotion to that sound. But yeah, I think that that sound in of itself is something we have a lot of fun around and that we were inspired by. But I think we want our group to be more multi-dimensional than that. We want to make sure we maintain the ability to do that but also, something that’s super pared back, we want to that to feel at home on an ON AN ON record as well.

So your debut album is called Give In, and you only get one chance at a debut album. What did you want to be as an overarching theme or a cohesive statement from that album?

Alissa: It was such a quick and exciting time—our other band broke up and we still had this studio time scheduled —and we were like, what do we do? And all three of us still really wanted to make music and we started a new band. I think that the momentum and the energy was so new and exciting and we were just ready to get in the studio and make music that I don’t think we had time to think that it was our debut, I don’t think, it was so much more about the process and the experience of doing it more than what it meant. So that would be definitely something that we didn’t really take into consideration until after the fact.

Nathan: I think the immediacy was the heart and soul in just that sort of if we liked it we explored it and if we didn’t, we didn’t.

Alissa: We definitely didn’t overthink things.

Nathan: Exactly, it was very organic and very natural. We didn’t really think of it. Maybe it’s time to think of those things before another record but I don’t know.

Performing live is unique from band to band, what do you try to bring to your live performances in particular?

Alissa: Good vibes.

Ryne: I think the goal is to be as “live” as possible on stage. I mean, we all go to shows and I tend to really like to see bands actively playing as much of the parts as possible and that’s more just connecting to me, maybe as a musician, but I would like to then do the same to people who come to see us and want to hear all the melody lines or the hook sections played instead of just an automated track. So that’s kind of the goal, to make it the most live experience as possible for the listener or audience member.

What was the best concert you’ve been to recently?

Ryne: Probably Big Freedia at SXSW, that was really fun. She’s a part of this movement called sissybounce, which has to do a lot with twerking. But it was so fun, and she has so much energy onstage and dancers with her, it was such a breathe of fresh air at SXSW and it was the last show we went to and it was just so yes.

Nathan: It was so free, it was so full of energy and everyone was going so hard on that stage that it was so inspiring, it was great.

Now as you’re moving on from Scattered Trees as ON AN ON, and you’re on your first tour, is there anything specific goal you’re trying to accomplish?

Nate: It feels really fresh. I think because [being in Scattered Trees] is part of our bio, we’re such a new band to even have a story. Because we have the measure of success that we had now and I think the trajectory, almost—things are going really well for us—people think that as Scattered Trees must have been right there. But we weren’t doing that well and it was really rough, we toured for a long time and it wasn’t super super beneficial. So this feels great because we made an album that we didn’t compromise on, we feel fantastic about the music we’re making live, and the fact that we get to tour. This first tour, there’s this general attitude like, let’s see what’s out there, we put our record out, let’s see who’s into this stuff. We’ve got great reception when we were touring and supporting other bands, and that’s been wonderful and we want to do a lot more of that. This is our first headlining tour and it’s sort of like, okay, let’s see. I think we’re all very curious to see how it ends.

Alissa: It’s one small step. I’m okay if some shows are really packed and some shows aren’t, I think that not putting so much pressure on ourselves is something we’ve learned from being in past bands. So as much as we’re curious, it’s not some sort of big thing we’re going after.

Nate: It’s not a measure, it’s not like we take our cues from that.

Alissa: It’s more on the side just that now that our name isn’t under the supporting marquee, now that we’re headlining, it’s just cool to meet the people that are coming and make that connection with people, there to see us, you know what I mean? We’re really honored by that.

Nate: It’s pretty incredible seeing people sing along with something that you’ve made. It’s just wild because you realize that these people have spent time with your art to recognize this. And that moment where you play a song and then a couple seconds later, people start cheering, because they know, they’re like “That’s that song!”, that feels amazing, it’s electric. So we’re just pumped to be on tour, to seeing people who are into what we’re doing and just play our asses off.

Alissa: Just having fun.

Ryne: I think we also just not had a lot of time to think about what this tour’s going to be like because we’ve been busy since January with other tours. I feel like this is a bit of a good experiment for us to keep learning about our live show and I’m excited about that, what we’re going to learn from this.

Alissa: There’s definitely different decisions when we know we’re the last band of the night to play.

Nate: Different things to explore when people are there and they’re not going to feel like you’re playing too well, something like that.

Alissa: But no, we don’t really have goals besides enjoying what’s happening and keep going, making more music.

You worked with Dave Newfeld on the album, an acclaimed producer who’s worked with artists such as Broken Social Scene, and since you were going into the studio so fresh, what kind of direction did he take in shaping your music?

Alissa: Since we had played together in the past in other bands, the chemistry that we had was really established and his role was coming alongside us and opening up the recording experience and having it be less of a performance mode and more of an experimentation and exploring mode and being okay with things that we weren’t necessarily comfortable with right away, singing-wise or playing, or just going off on the fly. We worked one on one with him a lot, each of us and him, and I think his role was really just in shaping a new approach to the studio and obviously, we had fun, you know, smoking joints and listening to lots of music late at night on his amazing speakers and talking a bunch of music. So that was obviously really influential as well, just the relationship that we built with him.

You mentioned that he made you do little things technically that you weren’t maybe as comfortable with at the beginning, so when you do a live performance, are you going to improvise or go beyond what it sounds like in the album?

Alissa: For me, I leave little things open ended in my parts that I play live so that I can change them up when I want. It’s more in the recording process that that really takes place, and once we settle into something in the studio, we really want to try to reflect that and bring that to the live setting. As with anything that is recorded and then live, it’s so much rawer and more real and so there’s an almost automatic sense of realness to that experience. I think it’s just a sort of natural thing that comes about.

Ryne: It’s a tough thing live too to toggle between because a lot of people can come to shows and be like, “Why didn’t you play it exactly like the record?”

Alissa: And other times, they’re like, “It’s too much like the record.”

Ryne: So I don’t know, I guess it’s the more we play live with people, we’ll find that nice place medium wise but as for right now, it’s just so fresh that we’re not trying to find that.

Nate: I think what really guides us when we make decisions for our live shows though is, what are our favorite parts of the albums, what are the moods of these songs, how do we convey that? Because in a room with 50 to 500 people, doing exactly what’s on that record, performing that, even if you had to, say you had five, six members to pull that off, it might just not hit, as much as that makes sense or doesn’t make sense. Doing exactly what’s on the record because it’s not what you’re listening to on your headphones and you can hear every detail, it just doesn’t hit as hard live. So when you’re making that art and there’s that kinetic exchange with the audience, there are different approaches and different things that you take to get that same soul and mood from a song whereas I think it sounds different most of the time. And I think the space from what the record sounds like—the mood and the soul of that song and that recording—to making the entire room feel that, what’s in between those two things, is what we’re most interested in exploring live. So I think it might sound different on the next tour, you know? But I think we’ll still be trying to convey the same moods.

You mentioned sissybounce, a genre, so if you had to make up your own genre what would you name it?

Nate: I feel like I need a couple of days to answer this one.

Alissa: What did other bands say when you asked that?

Savoir Adore said “adventure rock.”

Nate: I thought you said “indentured rock.”

Alissa: You have to work out for your rock, your rock-hood?

Ryne: I’m thinking about it. There’s a lot of really cool…but it’s kind of happening already. It’s like, afro-cuban-pop, but also dub, that’s all kind of melding into dance music as well and a lot of it is really laid back and nice, just nice to listen to. Nicolas Jaar kind of does that, he’s a super laid back producer and he’s also really young, I think he’s still in his undergrad. But he’s all over Pitchfork and just doing his thing, he’s really talented. I don’t know if that’s…I don’t know.

Alissa: What about blending LARPing with music? I feel like that should be a genre.

Ryne: Like adventure rock?

Alissa: Yeah, well, I don’t know what they’re thinking when they say that. What about costume pop?

Nate: I like fantasy pop, that’s interesting.

Thank you to Nate, Ryne, and Alissa from ON AN ON for taking the time to talk to me and Chris Vinyard from Big Hassle for coordinating!

-Si Chen

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