Artist Spotlight: Oceanator

    Oceanator is the project of Brooklyn songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Elise Okusami, who formed her first band in fourth grade with her brother, Mike. Growing up, Okusami lived in Maryland and went to high school in Washington, D.C., where she got into the local DIY scene and started playing her first shows. After graduating from college, she moved to New York City and played in multiple bands before adopting the Oceanator moniker and releasing her self-titled EP in 2016, followed by 2018’s Lows EP and her debut album, the impressively dynamic Things I Never Said, in 2020. Today, she’s back with her sophomore full-length and first since signing with Polyvinyl, Nothing’s Ever Fine, which she co-produced with her brother and Bartees Strange. The tone of the record is generally much less defeatist than the title might suggest: it oscillates between a state of hopelessness and cautious optimism, channeling desperation and unfettered joy as it drifts through bright summer jams and hardcore-leaning rippers, roaring punk tunes and dreamy, reverb-drenched guitar passages – there’s even a boisterous sax solo from Jeff Rosenstock on highlight ‘Bad Brain Daze’. The journey feels both personal and collective, and as loud and chaotic as it is, Oceanator makes you want to dive right in.

    We caught up with Oceanator’s Elise Okusami for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the origins of the project, her new LP, and more.

    You started performing and releasing music in school alongside your brother and some classmates. What are your memories of that time?

    Yeah, we just used to have band practice every Saturday. Band practice was the thing, it wasn’t so much about playing shows in the beginning, because we started the band in like fourth grade. We would  play songs we were working on and writing together, and we would also play a ton of covers. Basically, it was just about playing music together for a few hours every Saturday. I just remember doing that and playing the same covers over and over and then learning new ones, whatever was on the radio, and just having a really fun time, being in a basement, being loud. [laughs] And then we had enough songs for an album of our own, so we recorded that. I think we didn’t end up doing that until eighth grade. That was cool, that was our first recording experience. We did that all at home a program called Cubase, which kept quitting because the recording was too short, it would say, no matter what length it was, so we’d lose a lot of takes. Most of my memories are just of jamming, playing whatever.

    Do you have any memories of enjoying music before you started a band?

    I definitely enjoyed it before then. As a kid, both my parents listened to a lot of music, so I had favourite songs when I was little that were mostly oldies, like ‘60s soul stuff, because that’s what was beng played. But it was kind of all right around the same time, I got my first guitar, and I heard a Green Day record for the first time. And then my other friends were starting to play instruments, also – that was all right around fourth grade. And I think in third grade is when I first started getting my own CDs. I know kids really loved Ace of Base when that record came out, and I remember getting that CD.

    Were you into the songwriting aspect of it early on?

    I was definitely into the songwriting aspect of it. I started writing songs almost immediately, and I still know some of them. They’re pretty terrible, but it was a fun thing to do.

    After moving to New York City, what was it drew you to the DIY scene there? Did it feel like a natural extension of what you had experienced in high school?

    I was in the DIY punk scene in high school, I played in a thrash punk band in DC, so pretty much all the shows I played were in that kind of punk scene. I moved to New York after college, and yeah, it felt like an extension of that, but slightly different. It’s a different city, and people just do things differently. It didn’t feel like a whole big new thing, but it was exciting to find this slightly different scene to be in and learn from people about how they did things slightly differently appear up here. Obviously, there’s way fewer house shows in New York City than there are in DC, where there are houses that, like, people can live in together. But it was definitely fun to meet a bunch of new people and play music with new people and kind of branch out.

    What prompted you to start Oceanator? What was your vision for the project at the time?

    I started it because I was playing in a bunch of other bands, but I kept writing these songs. I just had all these songs that I was writing and I was recording them, just because I liked doing that. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. And then I got so many, I was like, I kind of want to start performing these, and so I made this project and got some friends to do a show with me. It went well, and I decided to put out an EP. So it just kind of started because I had songs that I wanted to perform, and it definitely got way bigger than I was expecting, but in a good way. This has been a very cool journey to go on, get to perform my songs and take them on tour. But when I first started, I kind of thought it was gonna be my little side project and one of the other bands was going to be what I did most of the time, but it just worked out this way.

    I know some of the songs on Nothing’s Ever Fine date back to even before then, like around 2014. And 2016, that’s when the first EP came out. Can you talk about the timeline of the songs on this album?

    So, the oldest one on this on this record is ‘Beach Days’, that’s the 2014 song. But it it had completely different lyrics and it was more jangly and had less guitar riffs. I liked the song, but I didn’t think it was done, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so I just kind of left it there and didn’t put it on any any of the other records that came out and in the meantime because it wasn’t finished. And then I was just writing stuff – I had parts of ‘The Last Summer’ and I had parts of ‘Bad Brain Daze’, and ‘From the Van’ was completely a full song. And then I got a baritone guitar and wrote ‘Stuck’ and ‘Morning’ and ‘Post Meridian’ and ‘Evening’ all in a day, basically, like all the riffs. And that’s when I was like, I hear what the record is gonna sound like, the world of the record, and so I started finishing up songs that I had been working on that I felt like fit in that world already. ‘Beach Days’, I was just playing that those chords one day and I was like, I can just make this a ripper, maybe that’s what it needs. And that’s when I was like, now I like this song, I’m just gonna put new words on it because I don’t like those old words.

    There were some other songs that I had been working on that maybe were closer to being finished than some of the stuff on this record, but they just didn’t seem like they belonged in this sonic world. Maybe they’ll go on the next one, I don’t know. Maybe they’ll just go nowhere. But that’s kind of how I went about it. Once I had the bones of it and knew what space I wanted this record to occupy sonically, I finished up the songs and wrote a couple more songs that fit in that world.

    ‘Beach Days’ is actually one of the ones I’d guessed might have existed for a while, but it was more because of the lyrics. It feels like a pretty foundational song for Oceanator as a project. Can you tell me what you love about being by the ocean?

    It’s funny that you thought it was the oldest based on the lyrics, when the lyrics were some of the newest on the record. So, that one and ‘The Last Summer’ are twins lyrically in that way, where I was finishing the lyrics for both of them after we’d recorded everything else, all the music was done, and I had to go back down to do the vocals. I kind of knew where on the album I wanted them and what the rest of the album was about, and I had some words here and there for them, because I already knew the melody so some words started popping out that I had to write around. But I was thinking, because they’re both just rock songs and I wanted them to be fun, these early songs are going to be about, like, good times of the past, things that make me happy.

    I just like being at the beach. You’re just sitting in the sun, you can’t do anything other than hanging out. You’re not going to the beach and then, like, pulling out your laptop and doing work or whatever. And a lot of time, when you go to the beach, your phone doesn’t even get service, which is nice – especially at Rockaway here, which is what the song specifically is about. You get on the beach, that’s it. You’re not getting texts, so you can’t get distracted, you’re just hanging out with your friends. Sun shining, the ocean is just loud. You get that constant background of the waves, which is just pleasant. And ideally, you can hear some like seagulls and stuff flying around and squawking or whatever. It’s a good place to take a break from everything else. A beach day is a day where you’re like, “This is my day, I’m not worrying about anything.” It’s more of a day off than, like, taking the day off and going to a movie or whatever, because you’re still kind of in the world.

    Were you conscious of balancing the fun side of the record with the heavier, darker moments?

    I kind of wanted it to be like you’re going on a little journey. So like, ‘Morning’, you wake up, ‘Nightmare Machine’, you’re remembering all your horrible nightmares that you had and also creating new ones just because of anxiety, just worry about all the possible things that can happen. But then it’s the morning so you’re feeling good, you’re like, here are some nice things, ‘The Last Summer’. ‘Beach Days’ are the pleasant, fun things, and then it starts going downhill from there with ‘Solar Flares’. Then we flip the record and it’s afternoon. You’re feeling more and more bad. Because later in the day, you know, you kind of get those afternoon scarries. But also thinking about it in terms of like a 30-year period in your life where things start good and then more and more things happen that pile up. Especially ‘Stuck’ is kind of about that, where every bad thing that happens just keeps weighing you down. It’s like, they don’t go away, they just add to your trauma.

    And then I think of ‘Summer Rain’, the second to last long, as a little bit of a sequel to ‘Solar Flares’, because I kind of picture it being after you’ve escaped whatever the thing is and you’ve found your new home. But I also feel like it’s at the end of this day, kind of processing and sitting and trying to find a place that’s calm. And then ‘Evening’ could go either way, depending on your mood. It could be like you’re going into despair or you’re feeling big and hopeful. And then the day starts again.

    You co-produced the record with your brother, Mike, and Bartees Strange. Considering you’ve collaborated with your brother for decades now, what was the dynamic between the three of you?

    It was great, honestly. Before we were 100% committed to doing the record there at the studio, I went over to look at the studio and Bartees showed us around. Him and Michael just started talking about gear and microphones, and they were just saying all these words – I was like, “I don’t know what you guys are saying, but you both sound very excited about this.” So we ended up doing it there, and the first two days was four of us, my drummer Andrew Whitehurst came down and did most of the drum tracks. And then it was it just me and Bartees and Mike, and I would talk about the song and what I wanted to go for, and what pedals I had used in the past that were making close to the sound that I wanted but not quite what I wanted. And they just have this exhaustive knowledge of gear and sounds and are super into that stuff, so they knew how to bring out what I wanted to happen. Between the three of us, we just got these perfect guitar tones. It was super fun to get to do that and to work with two people who we’re on the same page about what I wanted and could bring it out even further, get the sounds super dialled, definitely way more than I could have done myself.

    There’s this catharsis and communal joy to ‘Bad Brain Daze’, but I think it’s even more powerful that you end the record with two more meditative tracks that are more about finding the beauty in being alone. Did you go back and forth in terms of how you wanted to end things?

    No, I kind of felt like ‘Evening’ always had to be the last one. Specifically because of the riff, how the end riff is in the middle of the record and at the end of the record. I wasn’t certain at first where ‘Summer Rain’ was gonna go, it was originally a little earlier in the record. But then I felt like, if I’m doing this arc, that at the end of the day, even if you do have a big fun night out, you’re by yourself at the end when it’s time to go to sleep. Even if even if you’re not technically by yourself, you’re always kind of by yourself because you go in your own brain, you know, to go to bed. It felt like the right way to do it was to have this big moment in ‘Bad Brain Daze’, and then you’re taking that and everything else that’s happened and try to settle with it.

    Could you share a moment that recently made you feel alive?

    The first thing that’s coming to mind is, there was a moment on the tour when we were playing in Pittsburgh. We were playing ‘A Crack in the World’, and I saw these two kids waving their arms back and forth to part of the song. And I was like, “Oh, that’s fun,” and I did it too. And then the entire room did it. I got goosebumps. I was like, This whole room is doing this. We’re all doing this together, just waving our arms. That felt pretty big, and also made me feel like we really were all connected for this moment at the show. Which is why I got a show – to hear the music obviously, but also the best shows are when the whole audience and the band are all together, when we’re all doing this thing and experiencing this moment together.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Oceanator’s Nothing’s Ever Fine is out now via Big Scary Monsters/Polyvinyl.

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