“I tried to write hopeful representations of life stories,” explains O’Brother frontman and guitarist Tanner Merritt of Endless Light, the Atlanta-based experimental rock band’s third album for Triple Crown Records. “I think our last record was the angry, we’re-going-to-do-what-we-want record. That’s where we were: super dark and not for everyone. Endless Light all-around reflects us as people in our time of like we’re in. The record is more levelheaded. It draws from more planes of emotional existence.”
That emotional heft is what O’Brother have built their career on. Since forming in 2008, the band—Merritt, guitarists Johnny Dang and Jordan McGhin, bassist Anton Dang and drummer Michael Martens—have consistently pushed musical boundaries, building a blend of post-rock, grunge, alternative rock, and metal into a swirling blend of sonic destruction on a pair of full-length albums (2011’s Garden Window and 2013’s Disillusion) as well as a raved-about live show, seen on tour with the likes of Brand New, Thrice, Chevelle and Manchester Orchestra.
But where the band really succeed on Endless Light is not how far they’re willing to take their art—it’s more about how skilled they’ve become at knowing when to pull back and explore more minimalistic tendencies to accentuate both the heavy and soft sides of their sound. There’s a thin line between exhilarating and exhausting, and O’Brother toe it effortlessly on the album’s 11 songs.
“When we went into talks about writing this record, we were all obsessed with the utilization of empty space as an instrument, utilizing the space between everything to also create an artistic statement,” Merritt says. “In the past, our three guitar players would try to stack parts on top of each other, but here we’ve just lopped some stuff off and people aren’t always playing. We thought: Is this part absolutely necessary, or can we drop it and get the same thought across? Let’s give every part the space to breathe within the song.”
The result is an album that’s in some ways challenges your definition O’Brother. Known for their sprawling, spacy progressive rock—and proclivity for slow-burning songs that in some cases push 7 or 8 minutes in length—the songs on Endless Light are far more concise and precise than anything in the band’s back catalog. (Look no further than tracks like the album-opening “Slow Sin” or riff-heavy “Deconstruct,” both of which would be prime candidates for lengthy, extended instrumental sections in O’Brother’s younger years.) The group took steps toward this direction on Disillusion, but they’ve fully realized the less-is-often-more convention here.
“Shorter songs are awesome,” Martens adds. “When we were writing, we asked ourselves, ‘Do we really need to do this part six times, or are we OK with four?’ We didn’t just drop everything into a formula and write O’Brother’s version of a pop record, but we started realizing we didn’t have to do all these things—you know, it’s awesome if a part only happens once.”
In early 2015, the band—along with producers Brad Fisher and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell—settled in at the now-defunct Southern Tracks Records studio in Atlanta (where Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and AC/DC have all made albums) for a week of initial tracking before shifting work to Manchester Orchestra’s Favorite Gentlemen Studios in the Atlanta suburbs for overdubs. The time at Southern Tracks marked the first time the band had recorded live in six years—and even though only the bass and drums from these sessions made the album, the process helped lay the foundation for most accurate representation of O’Brother’s live show ever committed to tape.
“I think there’s something magical when you look at recording as an art form,” Merritt says of the recording process. “You’re trying to capture the best moments and takes, and those subtle nuances are what makes it perfect rather than playing every single part 50 times. We’ve always felt our band is something you have to be present for, to feel it in person to truly get it.”
Martens also notes the band’s newfound focus on economy allows O’Brother, for the first time, the ability to have an album and live show serve two very different—but ultimately interconnected—purposes: “O’Brother to many people is that opus, longer-song thing, but you can still do shorter songs and have the live show be a different experience,” he says. “I think it’ll be really fun to take some of our favorite rhythms or sections and switch them up, but it’s nice to not already be starting from a point where they’re too long. It’s, ‘OK, this is a good length, now take me as long I want to go.’”
This emphasis on succinctness also permeated the way Merritt approached writing lyrics. In the past, the singer thought about his words as an overarching theme, certainly in line with the conceptual nature of O’Brother’s music. Here, the focus shifted, with Merritt realizing sometimes the best concept is no concept at all—which ultimately freed him up to focus on individual songs instead of worrying how they all fit together to serve an ultimate goal.
These stories are culled from Merritt’s personal life—like “Black Hole,” which touches on the singer’s father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and the title track, written in remembrance of close friend and former crew member of Daniel [Need Last Name], who passed away in 2014.
“When I was writing the song, I was looking at his artwork,” Merritt explains of the song “Endless Light,” noting that the album’s cover is one of Daniel’s original art pieces and serves as a tribute to their friend. “He has a really unique art style; it’s quirky and intense and also really dramatic. It’s beautiful and it’s fitting and says everything we wanted to. The song is about becoming one with the universe and creating this other world that he was meant to live in. It’s about him finding his place in the universe he always dreamt of.”
It’s in a song like this that the true mastery of Endless Light shines through: It’s an album that kicks back at darkness, an album about having the resolve and courage to face life’s big issues head-on without letting them consume you. It’s deeply personal to the five members of O’Brother, but imbued with a sense of relatability that’s destined to impact anyone who listens.
“I always try to go back to the moment when you were younger and identified with a record on a level that will never exist again,” Merritt says. “I think there’s this magical time in life where things resonate with you on a special level and stay with you forever. I just hope people appreciate it and find something they need out of it.”