By MarQ Manner
Christopher the Conquered has seen his star rise in recent months after singer-songwriter Natalie Prass gave an early copy of his newest album, "I’m Giving Up On Rock & Roll," to Ryan Adams, who went on Twitter and Instagram and called it “crazy and incredible.”
This set off a small firestorm of press and attention for the musician from Des Moines, Iowa. Christopher has been putting in hard work for many years prior to this, though, including playing many shows here in Omaha and even doing a five-week residency at the Slowdown last December.
Christopher is a songwriter, performer and pianist who doesn’t really like his shows to be too hyped up ahead of time. He wants to take an audience by surprise and engage them. His new album is receiving rave reviews and he is an artist that you should try to catch, whether he wants us to tell you that or not. There is an honesty and sincerity to his music that does give the audience an opportunity to connect with the band, and the performances are also a lot of fun.
I had a quick chat with him over the phone recently where we talked about his history, making music in the Midwest, the new album and the differences between playing America and Europe.
You can see Christopher the Conquered on Friday, June 3, at O’Leavers with Rothsteen and Fun Runner.
MarQ - How did you get started in music?
Christopher - I started with Christopher the Conquered in 2006, but prior to that I had been playing in school and taught myself piano in the summer of my sophomore year. We started playing in my dad’s workshop we were recording on cassette things like Duke Ellington and stuff and then rock stuff like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Green Day.
MarQ - What was it like playing in Des Moines?
Christopher - We discovered other bands through Pure Volume and we were like, "This band is really great – oh, they are from Iowa." I went to a local shows and was so took by it and got involved in the scene and started touring in bands. That is how I met Patrick Tape Fleming (Christopher’s partner in the project Gloom Balloon and member of Poison Control Center) as I was going to Poison Control Center shows.
MarQ - You have toured a lot in America and just toured Europe. When did you start touring?
Christopher - I started touring actively on my own in 2013.
MarQ - You are known for putting on performances at a certain level. Does that put pressure on you to be “on” every night?
Christopher - I don’t feel like it puts pressure on me at all. I think, like for me, the only thing that puts pressure on me, is when a reviewer advocates, "This person is a wonderful performer and you must go to this," and I have had people that come to the show with that and there is a pressure to make sure it is really good. I almost do better when I have the element of surprise, as it can only be better than what they are expecting it to be.
MarQ - Do you write from personal experience, fiction or both?
Christopher - Most of my songs have been in a response to personal experience, but as I do this more, you have to depend on intense experiences to write songs and that is not a healthy way to live. Now I make observations, and if something can be the foundation of a song I write it down. I have tons of ideas down and that is the hard part of writing a song. That one phrase, and then I can write the rest of the song in context to that one phrase and foundation of the song. I try to write very honestly from that foundation. Like, "What what was my life like in the last 24 hours?" and creating a character or whatever using that. I don’t sit down at a piano with a new song until I have the chorus, or maybe the verse and I have some structure of the song and I can sing it a cappella.
MarQ - Are your shows different in America and Europe?
Christopher - Yeah, definitely in Europe where you can’t rely on language. Playing a show is trying to get people to interact on an emotional level. Depending on where you play people may not speak English as a first language. People have a grasp of English and you are adding music, rhythm and layers to someone's second language. My shows in Europe are much more about the physical performance and melodic performance and trying to create something beautiful.
MarQ - I assume Des Moines is a lot like Omaha in that the isolation from the music industry can shape the artistry.
Christopher - Being in a town where there is not really much of a music industry infrastructure. We don't have any record labels, publicists or management companies. We don’t have any of that stuff. There is no sense that someone is going to be talking about you in town and that someone is going to hear you and give you leverage on your career. I feel like people artistically really just do whatever they want because there is not even a subconscious bias that they are going to play for someone in the audience as that can affect their career. Musicians here are more independent and more unique and that doesn't mean it's better, but in communities that are independent from the industry they have more freedom.
MarQ - Tell me about the album "I’m Giving Up On Rock & Roll"
Christopher - I wanted to make a big-sounding album and I got Patrick to produce it and I had 30 songs and sent them to him. So instead of just picking the best songs we picked the best songs that would come together in a theme. The theme is not the album title, but moving on from my previous career when I had no vision of what I was doing or why I was doing it. I was looking at myself and I had become this artist that I don’t recognize. The album title is about that finding balance in life and finding vision in your entire existence and being present minded and appreciating the gifts you have in your life.
By MarQ Manner
Ryan Osbahr’s story coming out of the Omaha music scene involved some starts and stops along with some highs and lows. The former hard rocker has found a new direction and one that lay in his roots: country music. After performing with with his longtime rock band Icares for a decade, Osbahr took a break from music and Nebraska.
Upon returning, he worked on his friend Dan Olsen’s (Sack of Lion’s) album and found a calling rooted in his small town upbringing, trips on the road in his father's big rig and a desire to write music more fitting of the now 38-year-old. Osbahr still finds himself performing with longtime Icares band mates Tim Blair and Mike Torczon, among others, but this is a project that allows him to do what he needs to do on his own if need be.
Osbahr will be celebrating the release of his first solo album, “Easy Way Out” in Avoca, Iowa at Fred’s on May 27th and at Barley’s Bar in Council Bluffs on May 28th. I recently spoke with Osbahr about his history and transition to country music.
MarQ - Give me an overview of your history in the Omaha music scene.
Ryan - In about 1998 I moved to Omaha. I am from Avoca, Iowa, which is a small town of less than 1,000 people. I had left for college from 1996 to 1998 and came back in here to the Omaha music scene just as Grasshopper Takeover was forming and The Kind was ending. Five Story Fall, Box, Blue Moon Ghetto were coming around and I came into that scene. I formed a band called Goodspeed, that was my first band, but I could never keep the same members in that band. It was me and whoever else would play my songs, and it never gained any traction. I was in the first original version of Mandown and a version of Davis Hurley that had people that I worked with in the band. I did an acoustic album at that time that I never really released, but I gave out a hundred copies of so. I also played down at the The Exchange on acoustic nights with Michael Hobbs and Pat Gherman.
MarQ - How did Icares form?
Ryan - When I met the guys which eventually became Icares they already had seven songs and I was not the chief writer and I fought vehemently to not name the band that name. I joined and over time became the chief writer and took it in my direction and we made two albums, one in 2002 and one in 2009. We had several versions of the band but Mike and Tim were the same members throughout the entire thing. Shep was a member for awhile and that ended in 2009. I moved to Denver with my wife and I was ready for Icares to end at that time. I was burnt out from the music scene, I had been in it since 1998.
MarQ - And the music scene in Omaha at the time was changing.
Ryan - Hard rock was kind of popular when I was coming up. It started changing. I had taken Icares as far as I thought I could go with it and no one was really committed to touring. I was done being in a band. We tried very hard to be as good as we could with it. I was just really excited to move and get away from it and say that "‘I am not going to do music." I literally did not play guitar for two years while I was down there. I had it locked away in storage and after two years I got the itch. I met this guy and we called ourselves Red Letter Day, which is the name of about 9,000 other bands. I knew it was going to be short term and I knew we weren’t going to stay there because my wife started missing home. Played out with them and played quite a bit and got a little momentum. Came back here and played at the Hideout with Dax Riggs. That ended and we moved to Des Moines for a year and a half and then moved back here. My first idea was that I still want to play with Tim and Mike, but that I don’t want to call it Icares. I felt that was done. I didn’t want to do that. We started playing and we had all new material and I had nine new hard rock songs and I loved them. We started going right back into Icares mode and started playing the old songs. That kind of went on for a year and a half when Icares was one foot in and one foot out and we had started recording. One day I just woke up and said, "I am done doing this." I wasn’t done with Tim and Mike, I was just done writing for Icares.
MarQ - So when did the switch to country music happen?
Ryan - I grew up on country music, a lot of country music. You know when I started doing this I asked my wife, "Am I completely selling out who I am by doing this?" She said, "You are probably more country than 95% of people out there playing country music." I grew up in a small town, I grew up partying on small town dirt roads, I worked on farms and I am a small town kid. She said I should write whatever I want, and so that gave me the courage to do it. She has always been very supportive. And that is where I am. I wrote this album in a week's time. I don’t do anything for months and months and then it all comes out.
MarQ - Was your songwriting process different for a hard rock band versus country? What is different?
Ryan - I wrote everything on acoustic, where I used to write on electric. I bought a brand new Gibson J-15 guitar which I saved up up for and wanted for a long time. A new guitar can change your outlook on things and this one did that for me. My wife's cousin’s husband is a honky-tonk guitar player and I have known him for years and we have always talked about getting together and I had him in mind when writing all of these songs with him coming up with stuff on top of it. The process wasn’t all that different, but I sat down and said I was going to write something more easily digested. People have only heard hard rock from me, and I turn 38 tomorrow and my fan base doesn’t want to hear hard rock or grunge anymore. They want to hear something more digestible.
MarQ - Something more songwriter based.
Ryan - Right, in Icares I cared about the lyric but I wasn’t writing stories, it was more about the riffs. In this I am writing more about songs where the words tell a story or mean something and it comes together. I focused on that and this album came out of that.
MarQ - Were you writing from more of a fiction based or half reality/half fiction?
Ryan - It’s half reality and half fiction. My dad was a truck driver growing up so when I was 8 or 9 I remember going out with him on trips and so when I lived here from 2001 to 2009 I worked here as a dispatcher. So I have been around truck drivers my entire life. Now I work at the same company as I worked at before as a safety director.
So some of the songs on the album are about traveling. There is a song on there called "Two Trips To Nashville," and I have only been to Nashville like three times so I am not singing that Nashville is my place or anything. The opening track is “State Line” and it mentions a bunch of states and I wrote that from a truck driver's point of view.
I have songs on the album that are about my wife, that are about my family that are about my hometown and some of it is from a point of fiction and some from my own experiences. I never wrote that way. I always felt that I had to write about something that I knew about or that was mine. I had never thought about writing from another person’s point of view and that brings me to this girl I have been playing with, Billie Frost. She is relatively unknown around here, I met her through Dan Olsen from Sack of Lions and she used to play with Dallas Hendrix and then she played with Dan for awhile. I hooked up with her and she did that title track “Easy Way Out” on this album. She has a real country vibe to her and when people ask me about her I just say she is a firecracker, because she is. She is a lot younger than me and she just has a great energy and aura about her and she brings a lot to our live performance.
When I wrote this album I wanted it to be a full band and we have banjo, electric guitar, rhythm guitar, mandolin, steel guitar. It has so many parts on it and I wanted something to sell at shows, but also have something to play live. With me and her playing live and harmonizing it has opened a whole new door to me and now I am writing songs from a female standpoint. I am more excited now playing music than I have have been and I think the music I play now is more digestible. This is probably more of a me thing, but I never felt like Icares, even though we were up for three OEAA’s so we did get some recognition, I never felt like we fit in the Omaha music scene, or I didn’t fit in the Omaha music scene.
MarQ - You guys were pretty popular.
Ryan - I knew a lot of people and I knew a lot of faithful friends from out of town who would flock down, and they will for my CD release show also. So, I wanted to be able to do this myself, but try to translate it live. So now my shows consist of me and other parts that are on the album. So if my drummer can show up he can do it, if the person that does the mandolin can do it then he can do it and if I have to do it myself I can. I don’t have to maintain a practice schedule, and I like to practice by myself. Sometimes I play guitar like two hours a day. I wanted to be self reliant. So about two years ago I stopped trying to book Omaha. I still play here a handful of times, but I stopped trying to get into the in clubs and get onto certain bills.
MarQ - So you have been opening up for some national acts.
Ryan - That is exactly it, we started playing at The Twisted Tail in BeeBeetown who has national acts. We started playing out from where we are from. We (me and Dan) don’t need to constantly play Omaha venues to be relevant. I used to break my back to get into venues and it was so important and we decided to do our own thing and play these small towns and the response has been huge. Everyone is excited and they are there to hear us and that is different from what I grew up on.
MarQ - You grew up playing rock and now you are playing to country music fans and are they accepting to you?
Ryan - It took awhile. I would go out there and still play a couple Icares songs, a Stone Temple Pilots song, an Alice in Chains song and then I was like, I would be watching Dan and he would be playing some country cover and they would love it. So, I was playing a lot of the wrong songs. I will tell you, seeing Dan record his Sack of Lions album sparked me, I thought I should be doing this also. It was exciting to change, and I went from 80% rock covers, and we do a lot of covers, we do our stuff, but now 60% of my set is country. I grew up on Dwight Yoakam, and that is why I love what Matt (Whipkey) gets to do. I think of Dwight as the king. It’s different for me, but it’s better. We started doing the pre-sale on this album and nothing has been easy for me in this process down to the iTunes pre-sale. I would say that I have sold more on my pre-sale, though, than Icares did in nine years as a band. I think that is because it is a lot more digestible.
MarQ - There has to be less pressure now also.
Ryan - It took me awhile to realize and let go of that, and it's not that I didn’t want to and that I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could write something different and do something different. It was the best thing I have ever done. I do everything on my own terms, and that is the nice thing.
By MarQ Manner
There are few artists that can maintain a fan base, and one that seems to get increasingly younger after their passing. Johnny Cash is one of those artists. Omaha sees a few Johnny Cash tributes every year, but the one that has been the most consistent is One More Round featuring Bill Forness.
One More Round is endorsed by the Cash family and played the grand opening of the Johnny Cash Museum. The band will perform songs from Sun Records to Def American and Johnny and June tunes will be in the mix also. One More Round perform at The Waiting Room on May 28th with Tiny Monsters. I had a quick chat with Bill Forness over the phone this past week.
MarQ - Before performing Johnny Cash, what kind of music were you performing?
Bill Forness - I was signed to an indie label in the '90s doing rock music and that sort of thing. I was transitioning to more of my writing being acoustic based. Eventually, I had some Johnny Cash songs in the set, and they were going really well. A couple of incidents happened that showed me how much Johnny Cash has touched people's lives. Someone proposed to his girlfriend to "Ring of Fire" and he was waiting for it-as he said I was the closest thing to Johnny Cash. I was like, "Wow this is something." People gravitate to him.
MarQ - When did you start doing Johnny Cash?
Bill - Six years ago was my first solo performance. May 2nd, 2010.
MarQ - What attracts you to Johnny Cash?
Bill - His longevity is really impressive. Someone that is able to write material that the kids still love. College kids will come up to me sometimes and tell me about a song on Sun Records and ask if I do it. He was about ready to go to Branson. He had done a couple of shows there and they were going to give him his own theater and he would do the Johnny Cash TV show there. Rick Rubin kept reaching out to him for just one meeting. When that happened he made those albums and kept touring.
MarQ - Do you find it hard to perform Johnny Cash every night?
Bill - This is different for me to play. I love to play acoustic and that in itself is cool for me. His songs start with acoustic and go from there. There are not any songs I get tired of doing. A lot if it depends on the audience and we don't do the same show every time. Everyone goes wild for "Ring of Fire," but some also crack up at his humorous songs. He put humor into a lot of his songs. We also do '90s songs like "Rusty Cage" "Personal Jesus" and "Hurt."
MarQ - Do you feel pressure from long-time Johnny Cash fans to "get it right"?
Bill - People travel from far away to see us sometimes. They take it very seriously. This is not like an Elvis in a jumpsuit tribute. They will come up to you with a gentle, "It's good, but I have my eye on you." We get a lot of requests to learn songs, but he has written over 1000 songs and we do take those considerations seriously.
MarQ - You've come through Omaha for sometime now. What is the reaction like?
Bill - Each show is getting bigger and I love the crowd here. Some shows are sit down, and that is fine, but in Omaha they are up front and ready for it.
MarQ - If you couldn't perform as Johnny Cash, who would you want to perform as?
Bill - Jim Morrison