Soul, Spirit, and Revolution: Meet otherworldly Philly noise orchestra Ooloi - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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There’s a moment in the video of their latest performance, around the 5:48 mark, where members of free post-jazz chaos band Ooloi sonically ride in off of the caustic waves of noise that drenched the opening of their set. They seem to stand around listlessly, transfixed, submerged in space and trapped like wispy insects in amber. A drone billows up, the strangled sound resulting from Ada’s saxophone at war with Joe Hughes’ no-input mixer. It’s an almost harrowing mix of sight and sound, how this band transformed so seamlessly from nervy noise-punk to menacing drone until you realize that these transitions are a part of the band’s need for liberation, for exploring wider realms of music that often feel like a tangible magic is taking place on stage. That brief moment of knife-in-heart drone squall, that’s Ooloi meditating.

Having recently released an expansive recording on Bandcamp, From The Dust, A New World Emerged, Barren and Awaiting Our Sorrow — a kinetic piece of future technology masquerading as Ornette Coleman informed jazz permutations — the five-piece Ooloi have been popping up out of cracks in the underground for a couple of years now, like a small insurrectionist army of cyberpunks wielding their instruments like totemic power-staffs. Their music isn’t simply “noise” for revolution’s sake though; there’s soul, there’s spirit, and yes, there’s a pedigree. Ada has been responsible for experimental electronics / beat gathering Backyard Bxss as part of the collective smth svnt, as well as their own solo work under the name Madame Data; Hughes is one half of the noise-rap duo Static Brothers; Christopher Johnson (aka Chritso) has been throwing their guitar around in outfits like Yarrow and King Azaz; while the brothers Ave and Lev Gordon are the guitar and drums noise-rock duo Sour Spirit.

But it’s with Ooloi that their otherworldy synthesis truly explodes. Their music, both live and recorded, is a wild conversation of multiple genres, layered, frantic, spiritual and textural, ready to infect us all. The Key spoke with them to find out more about how they move through genre, identity and the social moors of the Philly underground scene.

The Key: How, when and why did Ooloi form? Considering the disparate sounds of your other bands, I’d say the energy of Ooloi is quite different; was there a deliberate intention to venture further away from what members had performed previously?

Ave Gordon: Ooloi formed about a year ago. Lev and I had been talking about starting a noise orchestra with a rotating cast of all our bb’s from various lanes of the Philly DIY scene. We were already playing out with madam data as Sour Data, we’d done a collab set with Joe’s band Static Brothers and had also played many shows with Christo’s various projects. We hit all them up, they were down, we jammed, played a few gigs, had a coven type initiation & became a band. The energy is deliberately different with Ooloi. The music is a construct of a wide scope of approaches to music and improvisation. I think the reason we enjoy playing together so much is that we provide space for each other to explore new sonic territory. Our blended DNA creates a new perspective that is undefined. Nobody can put us in a box cause we are too deep, gang gang gang.

Christo Johnson: Ave started organizing folks to get together back in October of 2017, but we never actually got into the same room to play until December of that year. I remember that after we played, I had the feeling that it would be a waste to just have this project be a one-off performance — it felt so fun and real, and so connected in this special way that I was really hoping that a full-on band would be born from it. I’m so incredibly glad that it did. The way that we all vibe together—both musically and socially—is unlike anything I’ve really experienced before. Ooloi feels like home to me.

We didn’t have our first performance until I think May of 2018, which was at a Metropolarity reading at the Rotunda in West Philly. I remember feeling hella nervous about it while we were playing, but after watching videos of it later I was like “Holy shit, I want to keep doing this, this sounds like some fucked up magic.”

Ave is a connoisseur of many different sounds and knew exactly what he was doing when he asked everyone to come together for this project. Yeah, we all play very different styles of music in our other projects, but we’ve all for the most part crossed paths and gotten to know each other’s work at shows that we’ve played together, we’ve all gotten to know that there is some shared fire between us before actually getting to start creating together. I can’t say whether the intention to venture out so far was deliberate, I think that kind of just happened naturally, but goddam is it one of the most liberating musical experiences I’ve been graced with having. Shouts to my sonic siblings.

TK: On From the Dust, there are plenty of moments of fervor and fury followed by even more fervent and furious moments. Is the restlessness of the record a comment on jazz or experimental music’s orthodoxy? What is Ooloi’s place in that lexicon, and if so where do you fit?

Ada: I don’t speak for everyone, but I’m very rooted in that tradition. Both jazz and experimental music sometimes frustrate me, because some parts of those worlds have become very insular and elitist. I wish more would be done to acknowledge that those musics have histories that are rooted in black and brown labor, innovation, brilliance, suffering…

I think we’re too much of a “rock band” for certain kinds of experimental circles, and too much of an “improv quintet” for certain kinds of punk/noise circles, which leaves us in a strange place. But we’ve also been on some wildly diverse bills, and I’ve enjoyed that immensely, so it’s probably for the best. Would be nice to get paid more though.

What is our place in the traditions of experimental music, jazz, punk and other genres? Well, for me there’s certain touchstones — Sonny / Linda Sharrock, Ornette’s Prime Time, David S. Ware, James Blood Ulmer, a lot of AACM (Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians) stuff. I think we fit into that lexicon somewhat as outsiders, not all of us are in that world and I love that about the band. I think we fit into it as bearers of a promise that was made by experimental music, the promise to put disparate elements together with deep faith, and to approach that existential interface with grace and love. I recall vividly a conversation with Keir Neuringer from the most excellent quintet Irreversible Entanglements. He said that people kept talking about the fury and power of [his] band, and he wished they would also realize that it is music made out of deep love, for each other, their craft, for their people, and the rich history of the music. I think a similar thing applies to us.

TK: Your name is derived from an alien species created by visionary sci-fi write Octavia Butler. Can you talk about how sci-fi relates to your music? There seems to be an underlining, noisy ambiance, like a twisted Cronenberg soundtrack or strange French new wave ruminations amidst the chaos. As well, keeping with the name discussion, the Ooloi are a sort of third gender in Butler’s work, how does the challenge to gender norms relate to the bands performance?

Ada: I think, on a direct level, since some of us are gender nonconforming / non binary, and all of us want to dismantle the cis-hetero patriarchy, the parallels are fairly obvious. More deeply though, in the book, [the Ooloi are] these magical, powerful creatures, and Butler writes them as complex, sophisticated characters who are entangled in webs of power and love and desire. I think we’d like to embody both that power and that complicated-ness knowing that all of us have work to do, that the world could be so much better and that we can remake it.

As for sci-fi, we’re just massive sci fi nerds. Butler is the obvious reference, but also Samuel Delany, Akira, Star Trek, Blade Runner, lots of anime. Since we all share that love it’s pretty natural to think of what other worlds music can create. There’s an aspect of what we do that is speculative, in the sense that we’re trying to imagine what we could all sound like together, and also that we’re trying to imagine the sounds of worlds filled with new things, ways of being, and the rage of passing from this world to the next.

TK: Is there a potential for politicization in jazz and experimental music, or the ability to, for lack of better term, speak on social issues to express something beyond musicality? If a band like Public Enemy or Bikini Kill can wear their politics on their sleeve through lyrics, how does experimental music convey those messages? Or does it at all?

AG: There is potential for politicization in jazz and experimental music, but it is presented a lot more abstractly than say punk or rap. With punk and rap you speak directly on a subject and get your shit off using however much metaphor and riddling as you want but for the most part people know what you’re referring to based upon your words. I feel like being an instrumental band we can’t do that, and I’m OK with that. The improvisational nature of the project means that if I’m thinking about how I.C.E. are Nazis today, I’ll push that specific anger through the bass, through the ether and your gonna get hit in your soul whether you recognize it or not. The politics are less tangible but we exist in this world so it is there. In fact I think the most political part of Ooloi is our existence. By existing and expressing ourselves as black and brown musicians in genres that are viewed as “white,” it opens the dialogue of “why the fuck ain’t there more of us?” or “why aren’t we being represented in the media?” I’m not trying to say we’re the first by any means, but we are carrying the torch. Shouts out ONO, Dream Crusher, Moor Mother and Geng of PTP Vision. These people have done so much to push the black noise agenda and I am constantly in awe of their energy and all the work they do with their own projects and by working to put other people on.

TK: I often talk with bands who are on the outskirts of Philly’s punk scene musically, bands like Hermit High Priestess or Ramona Cordova who eschew the Ramones or Black Flag rip off for work that’s more challenging or sonically outside of punk and hardcore’s main reach, but who still perform music in DIY spaces. What bands do Ooloi play with in general? Can you detail either struggles or triumphs with regard to playing in Philly’s DIY scene? Is it important for Ooloi to be visible in both DIY punk type spaces and perceived loftier arenas like Ars Nova or Philly’s jazz / experimental community?

CJ: Totally, this is one of the things I love the most about the DIY scenes that I’ve moved through here in Philly over the past few years — there are so many musical folks who thrive on those outskirts, who are able to carve out their own space and be included in events that are all too often one-dimensional. I feel like Philly is really the first place that I’ve experienced and understood the importance of mixed band bills, and there are still a number of promotors and artists who make it a priority to embrace them and crank out freaky and wonderful shows.

Ooloi has played everything from an independent press’ poetry reading in a tiny church, to experimental hip-hop shows at proper venues, to punk shows in grimey West Philly basements. I think what’s most important, more than being accepted or recognized in different scenes and at different kinds of venues, is for us to make a point to not pigeonhole ourselves and try to find a home in any one particular niche or subculture. I don’t think we’ve ever played a wack show to be honest, each and every one has been special and weird and fun in it’s own way. What’s most important is that we play shows where we know for sure that we can get down with the other people who are performing, where we know we’ll have a good time. And because our musical interests and connections are so varied, we often find ourselves playing some very interesting and diverse gigs, many of which I personally would have never imagined playing in other projects.

I think it’s important to us to be visible period. One of the most exciting aspects of playing live with this band is really seeing who vibes with us, who sees what we’re trying to build and is genuinely excited about it, versus folks who are just like “who the hell are these mostly black and brown queerdos and why aren’t their instruments making 4/4 timed rock music.” If we get just one person in the audience who is the former, I’m pretty dang satisfied.

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