Up & Coming in Music: An Interview with Oliver Hazard
By Sophie Cloherty
The yellow stage light refracts off the beveled face of Devin’s guitar, drawing out moments of blue and green and making shadows on the back wall of the Ark. I’m sitting to the far left of the stage encased in an intimate soundscape of tambourine and glockenspiel. This is how I understand Oliver Hazard: spinning moments of color and percussion that mix and refract out from a guitar and a three-part harmony.
Over the course of their hour slot as the opening act for The War and Treaty last Friday, the Ohio based trio play over nine songs. Their sound is self-identified as a “ramshackle of uprooted folk-stomp,” though band member Mike Belazis says he would consider adding the word “melodious.” The project of musicians Mike, Devin East, and Griffin McCulloch, that began almost exactly a year ago, is one of layered instrumentals paired with a particular attention to space and silence. Devin begins with a shaker, Griffin and Mike take turns at the glockenspiel, and a half-moon tambourine constantly switches hands. Many songs operate on multiple short crescendos of volume and intensity. At one point, Mike pushes a suitcase drum pedal with his foot and then begins to hit the tambourine in a juxtaposing pattern—all while singing.
To watch this band make music together is to visually understand how the body knows rhythm. Their melodies are sometimes injected with spontaneous shouts and one song slides in on whistling. The voice is more often used as instrument than as a vehicle for lyrics. Some of their most captivating moments are instances of three-man acapella. Though, the lyrics themselves are full of poetry. In the dark, I scribble down words I love and hope I can read them later.
When the lights come on at intermission I decipher some: “so I tied my shoes with a broken hand,” “so take your time, hurry up, I’m 45 enough's enough,” “fuck what they say, I don’t foxtrot that way,” “the sun don’t shine on the cigarettes no more...the sun don’t rise when the pigeons at your door” “Hey Louise, you found me again, whatever happened to that woman in the end.” The words weave tensions of casual wit and expansive emotional depth into succinct and light melodies. The lines are heavy with slant rhyme and the songs are rooted in the nostalgias of people in specific places and the passing of time.
Earlier that afternoon, above a bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor, Mike explains that this attention to poetics is part of the group’s foundation.
“We all identify as singer songwriters. I guess I was the one who said, ‘hey let’s do it together,’ but we haven’t used any old material that any of us have written in the past. We’ve tried to do that but the songs are so individualistic that it’s really hard to turn them into an ‘Oliver Hazard song.’ ” I later discover that the first songs of their upcoming album began with Mike’s pen in a kitchen. He describes their current process for writing as a fluid coalition of thoughts.
“Lately, someone will say ‘I had this idea’ and then someone else will add two more parts, someone will add an instrumental. We have a weird style where we hit record on our phones and do full stream of consciousness. We say yes to every idea and then once we land that idea and it feels right we just keep moving forward.”
The band’s process for writing is much like their manner of speaking. Griffin and Devin make their way over to our table and introduce themselves. They decide to interview me first. Griffin asks for my social security number. They riff off of each other. Someone begins to answer a question and someone else jumps in to add an anecdote about a recording of Allen Watz used to make a scene at a first dive bar show, a trip to the Toledo art museum that inspired one of the 400 band names they nixed before they found the one that fit, or how they’ve relabeled all their close friends “super-fans.”
They know each other as well as they know their instruments. They all met separately around the end of high school. Mike explains that Griffin and him are family friends. Devin recalls that he met Griffin on their high school football team. Griffin joined Devin’s jam band six years later. Griffin explains that Devin is a hair brush, New Balance shoes, (Devin insists he’s Reebok), and graphic tees. Devin jokes that Mike is a Subaru Outback and Kombucha. Devin’s shirt has a picture of a tiger and says Japan in slim red typography. Griffin’s wearing a red paisley sweater and Mike’s belt is a knotted orange rope.
It’s clear that what’s most important to all three-band members is how their shared origin in and around Waterville, Ohio, has shaped their individuality as a band. Mike explains that amidst Northern Ohio’s hardcore industrial grudge-garage rock scene they’re “some of very few people doing this folk thing. No one is really doing what we do. It’s a small town so your options for people who have the same taste as you is limited.”
The band name that stuck is also a familiar one for the members. If you Google Oliver Hazard, you’ll find Oliver Hazard Perry, an American naval officer. Mike’s town, one over from Griffin and Devin’s hometown of Waterville, is named for Commander Perry who championed the battle at Lake Erie during the war of 1812. The name and its history are still revered there.
“We decided to go with something that had some historical and cultural relevance to us and to where we grew up. It also sounds like a human, like an individual singer/songwriter.” Mike looks at Griffin and Devin, “which one of you is Oliver?”
Griffin says he’s actually Perry. Devin picks up where Mike left off.
“It actually makes us more of individuals at the same time. We want people to say no, no, no, that’s not it, that’s Mike, Grif, and Dev. There’s something exciting about clicking on our name and finding out it’s three people, not one, and no one’s Oliver.”
The band formed when Mike, home for the holidays from his seasonal job in San Francisco, started writing in his kitchen and Griffin started harmonizing. They added Devin to the mix and Mike booked a show without telling anyone. They threw a name into a Facebook contest for studio time and in what now seems like an act of fate, they won.
That’s when, Griffin says, he (or maybe it was Devin) gave the group an ultimatum: “I’m not doing this unless we’re serious about it.” They all agreed. Over the span of two weeks the trio wrote and composed an album. Mike went into his attic and found an old suitcase kick drum. They combed Devin and Griffin’s Waterville house, which the group describes as an “antique shop of toy instruments” for more sounds. They recorded the record in one take, live in the studio. Mike explains the albums stripped-down and organic feel.
“We had four days to prepare to record after we wrote all the songs. We had to streamline it. We couldn’t all learn all the parts and we didn’t add anything on top of it after.”
Devin adds, “there was no expectation for it at the time so it didn’t need to be complicated. It was for us.”
The band as an entity seems to identify most with the house in Waterville where Griffin and Devin live. Mike points out that it’s featured in almost every one of their videos. They talk about the space like a loved fourth band member. It’s a dreamscape of golden lighting and wood floors, a graveyard of kazoos and African drums, mandolins, and banjos, a shrine to the late-Friday night jam session.
“It’s a really old house,” says Griffin, “The walls keep getting covered with random things that we find.”
Mike adds, “They’ve got every weird instrument you could possibly think of, and we just started putting them into our music.”
The trio agrees that their band mantra is “we’ll get there.” They make it clear that they are very much in a stage when it’s more about the music— amplifying it, experimenting with it— than the band’s image itself. Mike explains the philosophy like this: “When we’re writing a song: we’ll get there, if we want to eventually play a bigger show: we’ll get there. If we’re talking about a future show and we have to prepare things for it: we’ll get there.”
Griffin corrects him, “Really it just means we don’t have a touring vehicle yet.”
Devin offers, “Maybe we just procrastinate.”
Mike cites the poem “The Station” by Robert Hastings, as a point of further explanation, but then retracts it: “Actually this poem might be the antithesis to our mantra. It has no relevance, it’s just a really good poem.”
Back on stage the trio plays a mapped out version of musical chairs between sets. They are exactly the endearing, humble, and present group I met above a bookstore just four hours earlier.
Mike sheepishly moves up to the microphone, “We’re Oliver Hazard. We’re not nervous at all.” Mike and Devin share a word while they tune their guitars.
Devin explains to Griffin, “We were saying how jealous we were of your sweater.”
Griffin retaliates, “I love paisley!” Another fan of paisley in the audience cheers, and Oliver Hazard launch’s us into their kaleidoscope echoes of each other and Ohio.
"Hey Louis" and "Caesar" are currently out on Spotify. Their first album will be released in June.