I wasn’t surprised that it rained last night. It always rains on the night of an Overlord practice. Rain or snow or wind or some combination; whatever it is, I’m prepared to ride my bicycle through it. It never bothers me. I’ve come to see it as a solid metaphor for the adversity that Overlord has always had to face. Practice itself has been swell lately. If I can get through the discomfort of the trip, there’s always something rewarding on the other side. It seems like a small price to pay.
That the band is better than ever isn’t the surprising part to me. What’s most amazing in 2016 is that there’s an Overlord at all. Everybody in the group has other projects and commitments, many of them consuming; still, no matter what else comes up, Overlord outlasts those distractions. Some of the obstacles that the group has had to overcome during the decade or so I’ve been in it: geographical challenges, including the frontman’s relocation to San Francisco, some not-inconsequential lineup shuffles, the defection of a few key allies to other cities, the loss of a permanent practice space, a scrapped European tour, the lucidity crash in NYC indiepop that made everything on the scene sound like the Pains plus a blender for awhile, and our bewildering name, which always makes the uninitiated assume that we’re a metal band.
Overlord is not metal. I doubt very much that a metal band would have me. For many years, I wasn’t sure why Overlord would have me either. Sometimes I’ve joined a band — My Teenage Stride comes to mind — with a clear need for something I know I’m able to provide.¹ Overlord wasn’t like that at all. The lineup I first heard at the old Knitting Factory in Tribeca sounded impressively complete, but George wanted me in anyway, and he can be a persuasive monkey. In retrospect, I’ll bet he asked me to be part of the band because he was under the misapprehension that I was a capable backing singer. I know he appreciated my spazmo enthusiasm during performance, though it must have made quite a contrast with his impassive mid-’00s stage demeanor. I remember long bike rides back from Williamsburg after practice, wondering if I’d contributed anything or if my bleeps and blorps were just messing up the songs. Once after a show in Philly that didn’t go too well, I wrote to George and explained that I’d always be a fan, but I wasn’t fitting in and Overlord would probably work better without me. He wouldn’t accept my resignation.
I’m glad he insisted that I stick around. George didn’t really have any suggestions about how I’d better fit in to what the group was doing, but he must have been envisioning a future Overlord that could accommodate my approach. The guys who were then in the band — Steve Schiltz of Longwave, and Jon Robb, a longtime Overlord collaborator who is in a Philadelphia group called Lo Power Plane that you might not know — played in a tight, resolute, super-locked-down Euro-style that did not beg for ornamentation from me. I love those guys and enjoyed being in the band with them, but I… I can’t really play like that. I don’t need to be in Phish, necessarily, but I’m always going to put intuition ahead of execution, which is a pompous way of saying I need latitude for my many screw-ups. What ended up saving me was the addition of Kerry Kennedy on second guitar, which saturated the top range and gave me a place to hide, and jump out from, like a mugger with a synthesizer.² Although George wasn’t hearing it then and still, I’m sure, wouldn’t want to hear it now, we’d started to resemble Oasis: songs influenced by classic sixties pop and the Smiths, wall o’ guitars, impressive rhythmic discipline, alternately anthemic and cheeky numbers but an atmosphere of seriousness, no small amount of stadium rock grandeur.
Cake Shop is no stadium, thank goodness, and there is limited demand for an Oasis-like band on the cupcake pop circuit. George, I think, understood this, and at some point (and I’m still not 100% sure how this happened) we acquired the Palomar III rhythm section. For me, this felt like coming home. Matt Houser knows the whole pop-punk playbook and his Costello too, and he’d put it to practice in my own band on many occasions. Sarah Brockett is basically a new wave kid.³ Brockett, I understand, played in one of the first versions of Overlord, long before I knew who George was, and thus began a long and fruitful musical partnership that, I hope, will last forever ever. Suddenly the band began to sound less European and more like the Cars. And if a band is going to make like the Cars… well, yeah, it’s pretty obvious where the synthesizer fits.
A wise woman once said that if you look around the practice space and you can’t identify the jerk in the group, it’s probably you. I must be the jerk in Overlordª, because I can’t even imagine three people I’d rather be in a band with than Matt, Sarah, and George. Even if they weren’t as good at what they do as they are, I bet I’d still feel that way. We’ve got a ten-song record coming out called The Well-Tempered Overlord, and every time I hear it, I’m astonished, and inspired, all over again by how beautifully my bandmates played. There’s a lot of love inscribed in this album — which is counterintuitive, since the songs are all about interpersonal disaster and aesthetic frustration. But ain’t that indiepop, something to see, little pink houses for you and me. Trust me, I’m not boasting not because of anything I did. I’m just proud to be in this group and absolutely confident that this is going to be one of your favorite albums of 2016. If I had the ability to do it, I’d link to the songs right now, but that’s not how showbiz works. I take the moral of the Overlord story to be one about patience and perseverance, not to mention the perennial cleverness of monkeys, so perhaps it’s for the best. One way or another, you’ll be hearing from us soon enough — at Pianos° on April 28, if you’re game.
¹The other model, which I always dig, is to join a group in its nascent stage and help shape the sound. That’s how it worked in Sasha Alcott’s first band. What I contributed to her music wasn’t all that hot (sorry, Sasha), but playing in that outfit taught me how to respond to other musicians. Before that, I was strictly plug in and twist knobs and to hell with the rest of you people.
²I don’t know if Kerry ever liked me much, but we played well together. One of my favorite moments in any show I’ve ever done with any band: me and Kerry improvising a lead line over the top of “Keep It From The Baby” at the Bell House. We’d just flown across the country after a show at a Nerd Nite event in Los Angeles, and were on an hour of sleep, max; we got into JFK a few hours before soundcheck. (The Wrens were headlining, which more than justified the trip.) Maybe exhaustion had lowered our mutual empathetic resistance, but we were really listening to each other that night. I miss her.
³One of the first times I ever felt like I was on the right track with Overlord: onstage at Cake Shop, I messed with the semitone knob on the MS2000 until I’d made the beginning of “Evergreen” sound like early OMD. Brockett, who was in the audience, lit up. I thought to myself, hey, if Sarah likes it, I’m going to stick with it.
ºI’m pulling double duty that night. I’m also playing with Mr. Flannery and his Feelings. Mike’s band is on first, then Glenn Morrow of Bar/None plays with his Cry For Help, then Overlord, then Richard Davies, and then Hamish Kilgour of the Clean finishes the night. Steven puts together ambitious bills.