Arena Rock? Hold the Phone…
In Channeling the Past, Omni Creates Something Quite Current
For a band that doesn’t sound much like its contemporaries on the Atlanta circuit, Omni does a nice job of providing subtle nods to its hometown. Most of all through its name – it’s doubtful many fans in the UK, where Omni met with an impressive level of early success, have connected the dots to the onetime sports arena that served as home to the Hawks and Flames for most of the 70s and 80s, which also happens to be the era of some of the band’s most striking influences. Built as part of the CNN Center complex in 1972, the Omni Coliseum was imploded in 1997 to make way for what is now State Farm Arena.
“You said to meet/ At the center of/ Lenox Square” are the first clipped words to emerge from bassist Philip Frobos’s mouth on “Southbound Station,” the opening track of Omni’s 2017 sophomore album Multi-task, but the regionalisms largely end there. It’s not every day you find early ’80s Scottish cult faves Josef K namechecked as a primary influence, particularly for an American band beyond the NYC radius.
Frobos explains that the affinity started with the somewhat better known Orange Juice, the flagship of that same storied Postcard Records scene. “A couple of the old guys at Criminal Records were like, ‘You like that? Check this out…’ Since then I’ve been able to do that for a few more people.” With the help of streaming services, it’s just a hop, skip and jump from there to more obscure period bands like Fire Engines. “We have really great shows in Scotland,” Omni guitar whiz Broyles laughs. The band also got a helpful early boost from BBC tastemaker Marc Riley, who quite possibly toured with some of those forebears during his days in The Fall.
Those foreign influences aren’t as prominent on the newly minted Networker, Omni’s first album with Sub Pop after a pair of releases on fashionable Chicago indie label Trouble in Mind. Networker finds Broyles and Frobos, abetted by longtime production foil Nathaniel Higgins, gradually expanding their musical palette, venturing onto the edges of math rock and moving keyboards up in the mix to spar with their trademark jittery guitars.
A heavy touring regimen fueled slower but steady build in the States as well (Frobos estimates 2019 was the first year the band didn’t spend six plus months on the road) and Omni’s hard work earned them a call from Sub Pop Records – sort of. “We got a call last spring saying they saw we’d be playing Seattle and they wanted to check us out,” Broyles explains. “The problem was, it was a different Omni.” Fortunately, they were already slated to play the Pacific Northwest a few months later so the connection was consummated soon enough. “We were excited that they were excited about a show that could have been ours,” Broyles smiles. As it turns out, label reps first saw them on an incongruous Halloween bill with a batch of metal bands.
Omni had already been through one rebranding exercise – they started out playing Atlanta clubs as Landline, a similarly anachronistic nod. “[Omni] started as a kind of joking name but it was eventually like ‘yeah, we can live with that,’” even though Frobos occasionally finds “your new release” served up in his streaming feed, “and it’ll turn out to be some DJ.”
Omni was already at work on Networker before Sub Pop entered the fray, so anyone thinking a higher profile label meant a bigger budget and a push for polish is overthinking things. After recording debut Deluxe intown, mainly at the Goat Farm, Omni used the same rural Georgia cabin – which has been in Broyles’ family since the 1940s (no word on whether it has a landline) – for Networker as it did for the Multi-task sessions. The biggest shift in process has been on the drums – which Broyles also handles in the studio. For Multi-task these had been recorded in Atlanta, at a friend’s home.
“In the city we could only record drums for a couple of hours a night after Nathaniel got off work and before it got too late” and too loud for the neighbors. “At the cabin we could keep everything set up and go later into the night. Plus Nathaniel knew a little more about what he was doing and we had some better equipment,” Frobos allows.
My first impression was that Networker had added keyboards to the proceedings – its minimalist cover art features three staffs of notes aligned with a drawing of piano keys – but Broyles points out they’ve been part of Omni’s arsenal from the start. “There wasn’t a conscious attempt to put them more forward,” according to Frobos, “it just kind of happened that way.” Broyles graciously makes me feel a bit less stupid by adding, “On the earlier records the piano would come in for a lead line that would match the guitar. I was listening to a song on Deluxe recently and it was like ‘I remember doing a piano on this – where is it?’”
Because Omni still plays out as a trio (Chris Yonker has manned drums in the touring lineup going on two years) most of the songs must be reimagined for the live setting. This burden falls to guitarist Broyles, whose onstage wizardry can be breathtaking (Frobos meanwhile focuses on bass and vocals). “It’s a matter of transposing everything, figuring out how to move the keyboard lines and incorporate them into the guitar,” Broyles explains. “I’ll think, ‘Well, I can’t play that, I’ll have to come up with some other way to do it.’ It’s kind of fun for me, to re-write the part, strip it down and build it back up.” At the time we met over coffee in East Atlanta, Broyles had yet to sort through how the recast most of the new songs.
“It’s a fun thing to witness as well – how is Frank going to play both of the “Equestrian” guitar parts?” Frobos chimes in. “Somehow it always becomes this cohesive thing and I don’t even have to think about it – it’s fascinating.”
Networker is seeing an unusually rapid-fire release, being unleashed to the world in early November after being finalized only in May. This is a refreshing change from a pattern of bands hitting the road to present as “new” material they placed in the can more than a year earlier. On one hand, Omni had the luxury of extra writing time while waiting for Multi-task’s release. On the other, the final stages of Networker’s prep felt a bit more pressured, as any slips would likely have pushed its unveiling well into 2020.
In hindsight, Frobos sees this as a benefit. “We probably got some results from the rush – if we had more time I’m not sure we would have been as productive. I was writing lyrics last minute in the kitchen before we recorded for songs that ended up being two of my favorite on the record” – the brief and uncharacteristically direct “Moat” being my pick of the two (”Blunt Course” is the other).
Networker’s incremental shifts are more progression than departure. The opening guitar riff of “Courtesy Call” brings to mind Television’s “Marquee Moon,” and for the first time I’m occasionally reminded of later-era Deerhunter, with whom Broyles served a stint. “Skeleton Key” even shows off a hint of boogie swagger. Before pigeonholing them as a revivalist band, however, bear in mind that seeding an Apple Music station with Omni is as likely to yield Thee Oh Sees and Parquet Courts as Pylon and Josef K.
Their affinity for Scottish bands doesn’t extend to cover versions, which aren’t a meaningful part of the Omni equation. “We tried to cover Alex Chilton’s ‘Hey Little Child’ but it just sounded like we were trying to do a country rock song,” Broyles laments.
Perhaps a bigger change than labels or recording regimen is Frobos’ marriage earlier in 2019 – one of the benefits of a temporarily less harried tour schedule. This news caught me somewhat by surprise, given that Frobos writes the band’s lyrics and the last words he utters on Networker are “Are you breaking up with me?” “I think some of that was, well, we met working in bars, but she’s now made the move to 9-to-5 and getting a Masters’ degree, while I’m the one who’s still up late at night and need to find ways to be disciplined. It’s a bit like, ‘Am I a problem in this equation?’ and dealing with that inner monologue,” he clarifies. Maybe the more apt snippet can be found on the new “Present Tense” – “You were getting dressed for work and listening to the news…”
Like many artists Frobos seems understandably uncomfortable dissecting his lyrics. “Then I have a bit of snarkiness from past situations in there as well. It’s never totally literal.” After back-to-back albums titled Multi-task and Networker he similarly downplays any intended social media critique. “I think it’s kind of impossible not to think about that stuff these days, it’s so in your face. But I wouldn’t say we have a message – just a little bit of satirical narrative.”
Frobos still occasionally picks up a bar shift when in town, and Broyles does some freelance design work, but Omni is essentially a full-time endeavor for both these days. “It’s way easier now that the wedding’s over, which was like having an extra job,” Frobos jokes. Broyles became an expert couch surfer during their unusually lengthy 2019 Atlanta stay. “I keep meaning to find a place to live when we have time off, but then that will just disappear,” he shrugs.
Higgins, Frobos’ former Carnivores bandmate, plays a role beyond that of a typical producer and verging on de facto third member. “He’s a part of the process – we’re always bouncing stuff off him, he’s the first one to hear it,” Frobos says. Higgins manned drums in the Landline era live lineup before opting to focus on the studio side, presumably once Omni’s aspirations to spread its wings beyond the local scene became clear (Higgins’ own spare-time venture Raided Age can be found playing occasional opening slots around town). “The three of us share the production role, but if we’re unsure of something he’ll definitely make his opinion known.” Broyles particularly appreciates Higgins’ project management bent and style of tough love. “He definitely helps me to complete things, because I have an issue with something of a perfectionist streak. After a while he’ll yell, ‘you can try it two more times, then you never get to do it again!’”
Not surprisingly, Omni is slated to head overseas for a decent chunk of its early Networker touring. With a little luck, like their namesake arena they’ll be blowing up soon enough.
Photo by Emily Frobos.