This interview is week 13 of Sean Claes' 52 Weeks of Austin Music Interviews.
Nerd Rock FTW!
Talking with JP Pfertner of Oh Look Out
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a band called Built By Snow. I've never been a major fan of the synthesizer-driven bands that, to me, always seemed to be a Devo parody... and not a good one. When I saw BBS play, though... they were different. Yes, they have the sound akin to a Devo, but lyrically and musically they were extremely tight and together achieved a pretty amazing sound.
Then they disappeared somewhat. I didn't hear about them for a while. I got an e-mail from my friend Ryan Cano of Austin's The Loyalty Firm about this new band by the name of Oh Look Out. He sent some music to me, and it reminded me of BBS. I dug it, so I scheduled an interview for my 52 Weeks of Austin Musician interviews.
Lo and behold, there was good reason Oh Look Out had a similar sound, as this band is from the mind of JP Pfertner, who is the lead vocalist of BBS. There's similarity, but there ius also a different vibe to Oh Look Out that I found refreshing.
So, I took the chance to talk with Pfertner about his new project, BBS, and fatherhood.
Sean Claes: You seemed to have taken the same genre as you did with Built By Snow into Oh Look Out. For fans of Built By Snow, how does this outfit differ?
JP Pfertner: Yeah, Oh Look Out is really picking up right where Built By Snow left off. There is plenty of poppy/hanclappy/synthy goodness, and we are also moving right along and trying to build off of what we started with Built By Snow... adding more harmonies, different instrumentation, tying songs together, stuff like that.
The whole first album Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright was full of songs that I started writing to be on the next Built By Snow album, so I think BBS fans would really dig it!
Claes: Is Built By Snow on Hiatus, not together, or is this a side project?
Pfertner: BBS is on an extended hiatus, but we will still pop up on occasion to play a show. A couple years ago my wife and I had a son, and I realized that I needed a break from the band so I could help at home and still get sleep at night.
During that break, our bass player Ben moved to Atlanta and I kept working on new songs. After a while, I had a whole album worth of material and that was how Oh Look Out started. We had all agreed that we would only play as Built By Snow if we were all involved, so this album turned into a new band.
For now BBS has become the side project and Oh Look Out is my main focus. We're all still great friends in BBS and love working together, but I don't think there will be new stuff for a while.
Claes In late 2011 you released Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright. How has the album done thus far?
Pfertner: The album turned out super rad, and I learned a lot while making it. I bought Pro Tools and some basic recording gear... then recorded, mixed, and mastered the album on my own. As soon as it was all finished, I just put it online for free download and that was that... I started working on new songs the next day.
I didn't do any promotion, didn't print up any cd's, and didn't have an album release show because I didn't have a band to play live. I think that people who find the album have been enjoying it, but I really haven't done much in the way of spreading the word.
The last album I worked on before this was "MEGA" with BBS, and after it was complete we put so much effort into promoting that I didn't have free time to write new songs again for almost a year. I didn't want to end up stuck in that position again, so I finished the album and got right back to work. Now, 7 months later, I've already got an entire new album close to finished. My hope is that in time people will stumble onto Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright and it will be like finding a twenty dollar bill in your coat pocket... you know, "Has this been here this whole time?!!"
Claes: You’ve released the album free on http://ohlookout.bandcamp.com/. Why release it for free?
Pfertner: I really just want people to hear it. I didn't want anyone's money situation to be a reason why they weren't downloading the album and rocking their brains out in their car. Of course I wouldn't turn down anyone who wanted to pay for it, so I also released it on iTunes/Amazon/etc.
5. Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Pfertner: I have a different favorite track every time I listen back to the album. For fans of BBS, I think "Bass, not an 8-track" "Ahhh!" and "This Is Heavy" might be a good place to start. But I think the album as a whole is way better than any one song.
Claes: One of the standouts for me is “Analogatron.” What can you tell me about that track?
Pfertner: I wrote this one while BBS was still playing. We started practicing it before our break, and we were really ripping it up! The song on the album is actually the same "demo" version of the song that I first recorded and showed to the guys in BBS.
It's written about our jobs at the time... we all worked together at a TV station. I have a pretty ridiculous imagination... and I'm a bit of a dreamer... I really keep hoping that someday my creativity will lead to something more than a normal job. I was feeling stuck in a rut, like we were repeating the same day over and over and over again, and I wanted to get out. The optimistic part of my brain was having fun daydreams about walkman robots coming to life... but my pessimistic side felt like I was moving backwards, and I would never get ahead.
Claes: One thing I’ve really enjoyed about Built By Snow and Oh Look Out is the, for lack of better term “Nintendo nerd rock” sound. Kind of a Devo-esque sound. Is that a fair assessment of the sound? How would you describe?
Pfertner: Yeah, that sounds about right... The Cars, Devo, and Nintendo are definitely some of the main driving forces. I wear the "nerd rock" badge with honor! Also, lately some of my more overdriven guitar fuzz influences have been slipping in, like on "Analogatron" and some of the new songs I'm working on. Oh, and my casiotone keyboard has been getting quite the workout lately.
Claes: A lot of the songs are nostalgic of the 80s. Are you even old enough to be nostalgic of the 1980s?
Pfertner: Haha, I guess I look young for my age. I was born in 1980... I grew up with an Atari 2600 and wore the crap out of Asteroids and Pitfall. My first cassette tape was The Cars... they were one of my Dad's favorite bands so he got me into them when I was young.
I got a Nintendo for x-mas 1989, and that changed everything! Oh, and I had probably watched Back to the Future and Goonies at least 200 times a piece by the time the 80's ended. In high school I picked up a 4-track cassette tape recorder, and have been bedroom recording ever since. Those kind of things just stuck with me through the years and come up often in lyrics because they are such great memories.
Claes: You’ve got robots, classic video games, outdated audio equipment references and tons and tons of fun keyboard jams on the album. Then, you’ve got a surreal lullaby song of longing in “Short Waves.” How’d that one come about?
Pfertner: When I first started recording "Short Waves" it had a lot more instrumentation on it... there was a mellotron, lot's of backup vocals, bass, drums... it was way overdone. I stepped back and listened to it and realized that this song was getting swallowed up by all the noise.
A few years ago I wouldn't have had the guts to record a song so stripped down, but I guess I was finally ready to go for it. I started the song again from scratch, re-wrote the piano part, and practiced the song over and over for a whole day. Once I had it down, I recorded the keys and vocals both live in one take and that was the version that ended up on the album. That was a big step for me... I had never tried recording like that before.
Claes: I dig the “done on notebook paper” artwork. Who does the drawings and how do you come up with a new design?
Pfertner: Thanks, I do the drawings! I don't know where these weird picture ideas come from though. It just started happening, and now I've got this growing list randomness that keeps pouring out. Lately my brain has just been taking over, and I'm letting it.
Claes: You recently became a father. Has that had any effect on your writing?
Pfertner: Becoming a father has actually made me more productive creatively. I used to take my free time for granted and I would wait until I had some sort of inspiration to get me writing. Now, I only get a small chunk of time every day in between family time, work, and sleep... so I have to make the most of every opportunity.
Even though I have way less time to write than before, I am getting a lot more done. I've realized that creativity likes to find you working. Oh, also my son Charlie is in the room with me a lot while I'm messing around with recording... In fact you can hear me talking to him at the very beginning of the recording for "Ahhh!"
Claes: What is the current line-up for Oh Look Out?
Pfertner: Oh Look Out is me, Matt (he also played with me in Built By Snow), Bryan (used to have the bands Aster, and Red Falcon), and Kevin (who was in The Boxing Lesson and Say Hello to the Angels).
We all rotate instruments, guitars, keys and bass. Kevin plays drums, but also has a keyboard next to him... sometimes he drums with one hand, and plays keys with the other! The guys are all great songwriters too, so the band has started taking on a collective feel. Everyone is throwing in songs and ideas! Lately we've been pouring all these songs into a pile and seeing where they take us.
Claes: You play May 5 at the Old Pecan Street Festival for free on 6th and Trinity at 6:00p. What can folks expect?
Pfertner: Some fuzzy guitars mixed with bleepy keyboard awesomeness all packed inside a cannonball of energy! We'll play a handful of songs from "Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright", some new stuff, and probably mix in a few Built By Snow songs.
You’re also on the bill for The Impossibles reunion show at Mohawk on June 9. How did that come about?
I grew up loving The Impossibles! Their original drummer (Pat) was a good friend who I went to high school with. I started going to their shows when they just had a demo recording out, and kept going every time they played in Austin until their last show in 2002.
Over that time I got to be friends with Rory (guitar/singer/songwriter of the Impossibles) and even got his help on a recording with an old band I was in. In BBS, when we were writing for our album MEGA, we actually were talking about having Rory record and produce the it... but it ultimately just didn't fall into place. Anyway, Rory got in touch just before they announced their reunion show and asked if Oh Look Out wanted to play. Of course we did!
Then the show sold out so fast, that they decided to add a second show the next night... and Rory asked if Built By Snow could play that one. Of course!! So our bass player Ben is flying into town that weekend... Oh Look Out the first night, BBS the second. It's gonna be so rad!
Claes: What are some of your favorite places to play in Austin?
I really like Mohawk... that outside stage is fantastic! Also, the new Emos East is very band friendly... parking, easy load-in/out, great sound... we played there once so far and I enjoyed it. Of course, it won't replace the old Emos, which obviously holds a place in everyone's heart. Still, when I was in high school "Liberty Lunch" was my favorite club. I saw Weezer there on the Pinkerton tour, lot's of Impossibles shows, Superdrag, and a bunch more. When it was torn down and turned into a parking garage, I didn't think anything could replace it... and then Emos stole my heart. Maybe that will happen again now with another club...
Claes: What are your thoughts of the state of live music in Austin, Texas?
The bands are as good as ever in Austin right now... great new music popping up every day! But just like everyone else, I'm a little turned off by the changing of Red River. For me, that street has always been what made Downtown Austin fantastic. 6th Street gets all the praise from the city, and Red River gets the shaft. It's just sad. I really wonder what Red River will look like 5 years from now...
Claes: Anything else to add?
Pfertner: Lot's of new music is coming soon... so stay tuned!
Sean Claes is the owner of Austin's INsite Magazine and has been a freelance entertainment writer since 1996. If you like what you read... please share. To visit Claes' homepage, go here - http://www.seanclaes.com/.