The self-titled debut from Overseas is a dreamy waltz of foreboding and reconciliation, a coin flipping head over tails in spotlight slow motion, landing briefly on its edge before accepting that it’s both sides at once if it’s anything at all.
For the first few songs, the band’s sound is wide open, immediate and full of wonder. Will Johnson warbles impressionistic, as if glancing skyward on one of those alive-awake nights where the almost-full moon seems three times its normal size.
But then a few tracks in, the record’s gaze narrows, spinning you back inside yourself. As always, David Bazan challenges us to challenge ourselves, diving fearlessly into the mundane darkness to ponder subjects and situations from which most of us would rather run. “Bank on the future, box up the past / Bury the questions you don’t want to ask,” he later harmonizes with Johnson on “Came with the Frame.” But you can’t always take Bazan deadly serious. Sometimes he’s a sardonic comic; Morrissey’s evil twin, bloody bit tongue swollen firmly in cheek.
Overseas is truly collaborative music made by old friends—Johnson of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, Bazan of Pedro the Lion and Headphones, and brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane of Bedhead and The New Year. In these songs, you can hear them losing themselves in the moment, grabbing hold of fleeting ideas, holed up in the studio in the sweltering Texas night.
To hear Johnson & Bazan—such distinct, singular voices—trading tunes on the same record is a powerful experience, Will all sighing yang to David’s self-reflective yin. Not to mention the latter’s understated bass playing, the former’s melodic drumming, and the subtle yet brilliant invention of bandleaders the Kadanes, who steadfastly pump the bellows that fuel the group’s creative fire, bringing its songs to life with their intuitive musicality. In collaboration, this quartet is tasteful, egoless, the collective emotional impact of their work always crater-deep. It’s a manifestation of the trust, camaraderie and mutual respect that comes with their enduring friendships.
“How long have I known Will?” Matt says. “Well I’m a year or two older, and I remember buying him drinks when he was underage. So I’ve known him at least that long.”
Back in the early ’90s, Johnson and the Kadanes were lighting up the Dallas underground in their respective bands, Funland and Bedhead. A decade later, both camps independently befriended Bazan. For Matt and Bubba, it was in 2002 when David played five solo dates opening for The New Year on a West Coast tour. Just a few years later, Will opened several shows for Bazan, and ended up joining him, Vic Chesnutt and American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel in the critically acclaimed Undertow Orchestra. Johnson also toured as The New Year’s third guitarist in 2008, and Bazan had been geeking out on Bedhead since he was a teenager. The foursome’s web of connections is vast and tangled, so when the idea of a collaboration came up, all were enthusiastic. Their beginning, though, was unexpectedly somber, cathartic and prolific.
In the last week of 2009, just days after the death of Johnson and Bazan’s friend Vic Chesnutt, Overseas met at Denton, Texas’ Echolab studios for their first recording session. “I don’t think it was any accident that we got together right after Vic passed,” Johnson says. “In some ways, it was a spiritual passing of the baton from all of the good energy of the Undertow Orchestra. It was a challenging time, but it was a cleansing experience to get back into the studio and get to work on something unknown and exciting.”
Johnson, Bazan and the Kadanes had originally hoped the sessions would yield a limited-edition 7-inch or tour EP, but when all was said and done, they walked away with the skeletons of 12 new songs. “We trusted each others’ instincts,” Bubba says. “It was all pretty effortless. Of course, there were issues to work through, but nothing was ever a big deal, conflict-wise. We were all very much of one mind.”
While another year would go by before they’d begin the three-year process of fleshing out tracks in fits and starts, Overseas was now a full-fledged band. From the beginning, collaboration was the focus, so most songs were brought in unfinished, and several were culled straight from what the group dubbed its “thin-air jams”—spontaneous studio improvisations that were mined later for song material. “It’s not an approach I use often,” Johnson says. “It was thrilling, and kind of a brain scramble at times. But in the end, I feel like the record accurately represents the varied musical colors of all four people. It aptly displays the feathers of the bird.”
Each member of Overseas can write songs, sing and play a variety of instruments, so the project could have gone in countless directions. Once they started recording, though, certain natural roles emerged. Bubba praises Bazan’s knack for spot-on gut instinct. Bazan, in turn, deftly sums up the rest of the band’s contributions: “Will does his homework most thoroughly beforehand. There’s a neanderthal energy and abandon with him behind the kit. And when it’s time for really fine, specific lyric work, he’s game for that, too. Bubba is the overseer, the taskmaster. In the moment, he won’t always come up with his final part, but if you give him some time away from the group, he always figures out a way to add that last 15 or 20 percent that pulls everything into focus. And Matt is the musical genius—he plays piano, guitar, bass, drums. There isn’t anything he can’t do well.”
While the Kadane brothers helped with lyrics and melodies, they were adamant that Will and David handle all vocals. “I’d played just drums or keyboard in a few bands,” says Matt, “and to me it’s much more fun when you don’t have to sing. And Will and Bazan have incredible voices, so that was covered.”
Also, coming from their various projects, each member of Overseas is a gifted producer. “And if you count [engineer and Echo Lab partner] Matt Barnhart,” Johnson says, “there were really five producers who, quite fortunately, see things in a similar way and speak the same language.”
“It should be said that Matt Barnhart is really the fifth member of Overseas,” Bazan adds. “I don’t think we’d make another record without him. And it should also be said that Tex-Mex is the sixth member of Overseas. Those Kadane brothers are waaaaay into Tex-Mex.”
While Overseas’ simple, daring new record begins outwardly with marvel at the world, a large part of its journey takes place across a single point in space. One holy, meaningless vertex. The battleground within one’s self. About two-thirds of the way through, when the gravity of Bazan’s reflection builds to a point of nearly overwhelming tension, Johnson slips back in through a crack in the dawn, acoustic strums gently closing third eye as we leave inner space. Serene. Like the first moment of clarity in the wake of a heady, cacophonous acid trip. All this now in the rearview, the record momentarily, fittingly, blasts free with “The Sound of Giving Way,” a big, symphonic, time-halting tune that would sound gorgeous cascading around an arena.
But before things get too untethered, the band lassos it all back to the quiet pondering of everyday routine. To doing the dishes, which has always been a philosopher’s job. Overseas makes the mind wander—it is an unconscious, spontaneous, understated treatise on passion, identity, love, lust, God, forgiveness, family, rock & roll and the road.
And when the last song, “All Your Own,” scrolls, there’s a taking stock, a sweeping out of ashes. There you are, soot-faced, ready for whatever’s next. Which is good. Because Overseas is already working on a new record.