In their crammed practice space in the basement of Current Space, the members of Oh Hang, drummer/singer Emmanuel Nicolaidis and keyboardist/producer Stephen Santillan keep a whiteboard with a list of new songs on it leaned up against a wall.
But these aren't new Oh Hang songs. Rather, they're for a to-be-named project that Santillan and Nicolaidis are doing with Jeffrey McGrath and Christina Billotte of Slant 6 and Quix*o*tic. The group will debut at Fields Festival in August.
This says less about Oh Hang than it does the creative partnership Santillan and Nicolaidis have been building on for years, ever since meeting outside St. John's Church on St. Paul Street following a Stranger Than Fiction show.
From their first band, which covered songs from "Jesus Christ Superstar," until now, they have found a collaborative relationship that continues to evolve and provoke new ideas, even as they respectfully disagree on how to tackle ideas—a relationship Nicolaidis likens to film critics Siskel and Ebert.
Santillan says he'll typically come up with an idea, "and then when I bring it to Emmanuel, sometimes he just comes out of like the total opposite spectrum and brings in something I never would have expected."
"Yeah, without sounding dramatic or whatever, we don't agree on very much. So we do really come from different perspectives," Nicolaidis adds. "And early on in the writing process of any song, that can be a little hard."
"But we do eventually find that common ground and start heading in a particular direction," he continues.
The inspiration for Oh Hang struck close to a year after the 2011 dissolution of Thank You, the polyrhythmic, swirling art rock band that included Nicolaidis on drums, Michael Bouyoucas on guitar, organs, and vocals, and McGrath also on guitar and keys. Santillan was brought on in the last year, but even he could tell it was short term.
"I think I pretty much knew at the time the days were numbered," he confirms with a grin.
He looks over at Nicolaidis. "Right?"
"Anyone could have walked into the situation and noticed that," he confirms with a lilt in his voice.
Nicolaidis recalls how he initiated the conversation to stop the band in the summer of that year.
"I felt like I lost direction. I just feel like I didn't really have much to say," he says. "I wasn't really putting out very much of anything that I felt was very good. And I felt like I was doing it more to meet deadlines—finish songs to get records out—than I was because I had so much to put out."
"Also, I really wanted to start playing the drums differently," he continues, "because I felt like I kinda plateaued and was just pulling from the same bag of tricks."
That might come as a surprise to anyone who saw the band, when he was, in this writer's opinion, one of the most exciting and dynamic drummers to watch and hear live. He broke down his drum kit to just the snare, challenging himself to think of a new approach to the instrument and find ways to produce odd sounds.
Nearly a year after Thank You's last shows, at the ATP Nightmare Before Christmas in England, Santillan approached Nicolaidis with an old recording—what would become 'Oasis In Slow Motion'— they had put together that he thought they should do something with.
"It was pretty much finished," Santillan says. "All the vocals were there and the structure was in place."
The recording featured Santillan on drums, but he instead started using a drum machine to replicate his parts. Another older recording was found, inspiring even more new ideas for songs. Santillan started adding more production and beats, drawing inspiration from hip-hop.
"Not that it sounds anything like hip-hop, but [I was] figuring out how they cut up samples and stuff like that. And I think that added to whatever else we had before," he says.
Nicolaidis would then try to write drum and vocal parts that interplay with the beats and samples, a somewhat complicated process that would involve him sitting behind the kit, tapping along at first and then crafting heavily rhythmic parts.
Then, it became a matter of peeling back layers from the song, or pulling it in one direction or another, until it cohered and related with the other pieces they were working on. They played their first show as Oh Hang in 2013, but they soon drew back, continuing to learn and tinker with the songs they were working on, as well as writing new ones. It wasn't until last year that they released a debut album, "Country My Skull," on Friends Records.
With its heavily percussive tracks, whirling sounds, and vocals that meld into the racket, the album does feel like it dovetails nicely with Thank You, as well as More Dogs, the heavily instrumental, percussive group Nicolaidis, Santillan, and Bouyoucas played in from 2000-2006.
But Oh Hang also feels a bit more contained and focused—these are still pop songs at their root, even as the polyrhythms pile up. And with the squawking and fuzzy noises layered in throughout, it feels like Middle Eastern and African influences are being pulled into the melange. There's a lot to unpack in "Country My Skull," but the thrust of it is still excitable rhythm.
So even though a question about reference points draws long pauses initially, it's not surprising that the answers eventually land on Syrian musician Omar Souleyman, Talking Heads, and Greek music Nicolaidis heard as a kid, as well as experimental rock group This Heat and old bootlegs of the Beach Boys album "SMiLE." (The question also yielded a Santillan joke that they were inspired by prog rock band Rush, a playful troll that led to Nicolaidis admitting he kept a picture of Neil Peart in his wallet until he was 16.)
With album one out of the way, Nicolaidis and Santillan are hoping to start scheduling more shows. And they're starting to write more, though their admittedly long process may mean it takes a while to get to album number two. But there's value in taking your time.
"I think anybody who collaborates and has been in a collaborative situation would agree that as frustrating as it can be sometimes when you can't get your ideas out there like you want, there really is nothing better than having another person's perspective shed a light on your ideas that you never would have considered before," says Nicolaidis. "They're seeing what you're talking about from another place than where you are.
"That's where, I think, really well-developed ideas come from. A lot of people can do it on their own for sure, but there's really something to two or more people getting together and brainstorming over something and coming out of it at the other end with this finished piece that's all theirs and not just one person's."
Oh Hang plays The Crown on May 29 with The Creepers and Dogs In Ecstasy.