Interview: In Austin it’s not really an uncommon thing, but the sun’s out and I’m stoked. I’m biking and I close my eyes and enjoy every beam of energy it is sending my way. And while playing this risky game of biking with no sight I think about the man I am biking towards, Curtis O’Mara. After his show at SXSW with his band Grape St. he agreed to sit down for a beer and a talk. On purpose I haven’t done too much research on the guy. I have a feeling the talk is going to go in whatever direction Curtis chooses whether I have prepared something or not.
We find a table on the patio and chat about unimportant trivialities for a while. Curtis is wearing a leopard jacket and a sparkling Cannabis earring. A part of him seems exhausted – he came and met us straight from work – and then there’s the other part that keeps laughing and joking while emitting this indefinable energy.
When I ask him to introduce himself he gets somewhat flustered and a clear answer never really seems to find its way across the table. My next question about Grape St. gets him going though.
Tell me a bit about how Grape St. started?
I had toured for so long with Harlem (Curtis’ old band), a year or two straight. Touring was really awesome, but I guess it’s not for everybody even though you’re with your best buddies. We have our little spouts, but we’re not going anywhere out of each other’s lives. We just got really frustrated, and ended up wanting different things. I still wanted to continue touring because I loved that. I love playing music. The road was written for us if we wanted it to be. But we took a break and I kinda went a little stir crazy.
I moved in to a house, and it was a really cool place. Really empty though because I didn’t have any stuff. We had a foosball table and a bonfire in the back – I tried taking up gardening too. Basically, I just rearranged a bunch of dirt. I lived and hung out with good friends from Austin. We loved staying up super late, having parties, playing our guitars.
So this is how Grape St. started?
Yeah, I just wrote a bunch of songs and recording them in the house. We put the tape out and started playing a bunch a shows. I didn’t think I could fix the wounds from Harlem. We were on Matador Records and could do whatever we wanted and we made a lot of money. But at that point I just wanted to do a band that were even more how I wanted it.
Brendan and Carlton just joined the band. They actually never asked me to be in the band. They came to all of our shows and then they started to show up to our recording sessions. And then they helped with some backing vocals, piano etc. So they just became a part of the band.
Curtis starts talking about kicking a band member out because he doesn’t like negative, dark stuff. He has a reputation to think of, he says. I have to admit Curtis doesn’t immediately strike me as a guy that thinks about his reputation. Then again I get his point. Grape St. isn’t negative or dark. It’s hopefully, playful and it seems to seek towards a lighter place – whatever that means.
He starts talking about the transition from Harlem to Grape St.
I get nostalgic over those things. But the only way is up. Sometimes you challenge yourself and it can seem like you took the wrong route – but you will always be the one you want to be. Crazy stuff happened and that will come back to me. I’m not worried. Hopefully with Grape St. it will work. Or maybe I will quit and just start a new band. It’s like different chapters in your life – some seem like they are going in circles.
How did you come up with the name Grape St.?
I was touring with Harlem. The tour life is up and down – sometimes you love where you are and other times people are really negative or upset that you’re around. We played a show in San Diego and we got a room at the Hard Rock Café Hotel. All their rooms were like stages. We were pulling up there and I saw that we passed a street called Grape St, and I was like: ‘Oh my God’.
My entire life I have been obsessed with the color purple and it makes me feel good to just cloak myself in purple. I always try to perform in purple or violet. I feel too nice if I wear blue, but feel on the semi-dark side wearing purple. Purple is also the color of royalty. Also there is an insane gang called Grape St. They’re psycho, I tell ya.
Curtis tells us a bit about the gang very enthusiastically and finishes:
According to my band names, Harlem is like Harlem, New York. And big, black guys have come up to me and asked, why my band is called Harlem. I just kind of like that allure. And I think Grape St. is kind of similar. Crazy gang stuff that I’m terrified of.
What do you like the best: performing live or recording in a studio?
Both. Performing is different, it’s like – you have to give yourself a certain way. There’s a lot of you that goes into it whereas recording is a process I really love. It’s like making a painting. You get to look at it, and stop. You get to add to it and make it how you want it to be. And when the painting is done you get to look at it for whatever it is. It’s a Monet.
When performing you just have to be that painting for a duration of time.
Do you like to make it similar to the painting or would you rather do something else?
It’s fine when some band sound just like their record when they perform live. When you’re performing you’re performing with your band. I’m so grateful for the people that I play music with. What I give them in return is really nothing, but they believe in it with me. I can’t live without it – it’s like the coolest thing in the world.
Curtis continues talking about his friends. When it comes to this particular topic he can’t seem to stop. The bedazzled Cannabis earring reflects a ray of sun and catches my eye. I don’t know this man at all, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the people around him and his music are the most important thing in his life.
At one point Curtis stops himself and gets back to my question.
It’s a whole other personality that takes over, when you go on stage. When you’re recording you’re so isolated and know what you got to do. It’s all about tones and getting things right. When you’re performing you have to be a superhero. I’m not that in real life, but on stage I’ll talk a bunch of shit. I don’t feel all the things that I put on myself negatively, daily. That’s cool.
Well, I really liked your live performance. It was a good show. You could feel that you guys where happy to be up there – and being together.
Ha ha yeah. These are the only guys I like to hang out with. Otherwise I just hang out in my room and watch whatever.
Everyone laughs. Curtis is very honest about these things and it sets an easygoing mood even though the discussed issues aren’t always the lightest.
I’m not a guy anymore that will go front row to a Diplo show to loose my mind. I have always had the privilege to watch it on from the side. It’s amazing to watch all the people watching you. Even if you’re just playing the guitar, that’s good too.
You guys played some shows during SXSW. How was that?
We played 3 shows during SXSW. It was cool. I don’t wanna do favorites I liked them all. And there are a lot of reasons why I didn’t like all of them. There is a ying and yang feeling with all of the shows. The crowds were really good every time and we played really well. There were things I could complain about, but I don’t feel like doing that. I can’t complain.
What about other bands? Did you see something you liked?
During SXSW I was standing in this burger trailer at Hotel Vegas so I saw a bunch of shows. Some of them I felt like: ‘God, give me some tissues to cover my ears’. I saw a lot of the bands. But this I about me and not about all the bands I’ve seen.
Curtis laughs and tells me that it’s more than just about ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
I just like music. I also like bad music. I can read it too. I took piano lessons since I was 6 years old. Seriously.
Would you come back and tour in Europe?
Yeah, I have some gear in France. So I should just pick it up and then I’m ready. But it must be very hard to be in a band with me, because I can be pretty psycho. That’s just my personality. I get so worked up. What I want is not what everybody wants. You can be miserable. You can be without an umbrella in the rain, but water doesn’t hurt you, you know? There is always misery. It’s just about how you approach it. I don’t really care about either water or misery.
We all reminisce about playing in puddles in the rain as kids. We agree on the fact that no matter where you’re from in the world playing in the rain is universal for kids. On this note Curtis concludes very strongly that the world is one. I don’t necessarily agree but talking to him and listening to his stories I get his point – and where he’s coming from.
You released a record in 2013 – anything new coming up soon?
I got other stuff that’s coming in June. I got it all recorded and done. It takes some time for the records are being made. I’m out on Burger Records.
Are you going on tour as well?
Yeah, I would love to. I’m talking with an agency that will get me to Europe for sure. I only need a plane ticket. I have my gear there.
Meeting you guys is a step in the right direction, though. You’ve given me a reason to come.
Grape St. are: Curtis O’Mara, Brendan Bond, Jeff Crozier and Carlton Bostock
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/Kim Ambrosius & Sofie Høj
Photos: Sofie Høj