Live & Direct: Oh He Dead
Washington D.C. band Oh He Dead was in town Thursday, Sept. 21 opening for Devon Gilfillian at the Thunderbird. They stopped by WYEP for a Live & Direct session with Rosemary Welsch.
Their latest single “California” appeared at #382 out of more than 1,200 songs on our listener-voted Countdown to Fall!
Intro: Space and Time
Learn more at: instagram.com/ohhedead
Host: Kyle Smith
Audio Engineers: Tom Hurley & Thomas Cipollone
Videographer/Editor: Thomas Cipollone
Program Director: Liz Felix
VP, Broadcasting: Mike Sauter
Looking for more Live & Direct Sessions? You can find them here.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rosemary Welsch: We are live with Oh He Dead here on WYEP, playing the Thunderbird tonight with Devon Gilfillian following them, and a new album called Pretty. And you know, this album for me kind of makes me think about swaying in the hammock or swaying on the dance floor. You can do either one with this record. It’s named Pretty and it’s really a gorgeous record. In 2019, this band released your first album, right? So you’re on the verge of doing it all. You got the album out there, you’re going to tour. You’re going to get busy. And then everybody has to sit down because there’s this thing called a pandemic.
Andy Valenti: I heard about that.
Welsch: Yeah, I want you to talk a little bit about that, because when you’re like, you’re ready, you’re ready to get out there on the road and suddenly it all stops. How do you keep your band engaged and then also your audience engaged? And I think that’s a really, really interesting thing, how you handled this as a band.
C.J Johnson: Yeah, I think, of course, like anybody else, we all had our moments. You know, nobody wants to sit in the house for seven days out of the week all day, 24/7. But we definitely are stuck to just doing what we could. Alex would play guitar all day and send us stuff and, you know, me and Andy would write over it sometimes. I think it was Thursdays, every other Thursday, maybe we did a little segment called “Jammy Jams” where we would go live and play for our fans and stuff. So, you know, we did what we could in that moment.
Welsch: I like “Jimmy Jams” because that name has a specific reason.
Johnson: We were in our pajamas and we were playing jams.
Welsch: So you weren’t in the same place, right? You were all in separate places where you were doing this?
Johnson: No, we actually, at the time, lived right across the street from each other. So I would just go over to Andy’s and we would do the live and then just go back across the street.
Valenti: It was kind of a funny situation because when we started our band, it was just the two of us. We were an acoustic duo and so we kind of went back to our roots and we were a little quarantine bubble with each other. So C.J. Claire, our manager, and I would all get in my like English basement apartment in D.C. that had like no light and set up a camera and and get in our onesie pajamas and, and just do like an hour every Thursday.
And it was really nice. It was a great way to just keep playing music for us and it was strange performing for a screen for like a year. In weird way, it felt like we were just performing for, like, robots because if we did a good job, we would just get emojis back. And it was like the robots are like, ‘Very good job, excellent song.’ But our fans really liked it. Like they would send us really nice messages saying, you know, we were helping them get through a difficult time. And that felt really good.
Welsch: When you go through really tough times like this, it can have an impact on the relationship. So maybe you become tighter as a band. Who knows where the band would have gone if you’d gone out on the road? You’ll never know that. But I look at that first album and I look at this record, and a lot of times when you put out a first record, the idea is then you build on that one for the second one. It almost feels like to me because that one got truncated, that maybe this is the album, the second album that really where you’re gelling as a band.
Valenti: I think so. It was interesting because it was a lot of it was written remotely, and it was written over a lot of Google Drive and Dropbox files. Alex was brilliant during the pandemic. He just turned into this song writing machine and he would send C.J. and I song ideas all the time, and then C.J. would come over in our quarantine bubble and we would just sing over it for a couple hours and try to figure out the parts. It was a totally different experience because when we recorded in the studio, it was the first time we played some of the songs together as a band. So it was actually almost the opposite, where we were kind of constructing piece by piece, which is different than what we’re used to because we consider ourselves a live band. You know, we practice every week and we try to be as tight as a band. And now we have the fun kind of challenge of trying to translate these recorded songs to a live set that feel, you know, really congealed. So if you come to the show tonight, you’ll feel the live songs have a slightly different energy than the recordings. You know, it feels much more like a rock band performing these kind of pop songs, I think.
Welsch: Well, you know, I find it almost impossible to put a label on you like this is a funk band. I’ve heard people say that. I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, it’s more like a dance band.’ ‘No, it’s more like a, you know, a pop band.’ I don’t think that we can put you into any category. C.J., I’m wondering, like your background with music, from what I understand, you have like a really wide range of music, including stuff that was made before you were born.
Johnson: Yeah, I would just generally tell people like, ‘none of this makes sense.’ People will tell us a funk band, soul band, and I’m happy to take whatever we’re given. But yes, I pretty much listen to everything from. Decades ago to now, the present, doesn’t matter. I just love music.
Welsch: So I should tell people that we have Alex here and we have Andy and we have C.J. So the three members of the band, C.J., I think it’s kind of an interesting story. How did you get pulled into this band?
Johnson: [laughs] Well, this goes way back. When I was in high school, I had a teacher start the musical program for our school, and I played in both the musicals that we did, which was Grease and Rent, and she was just so taken back from my voice. She was just like, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’ And I was like, I just I just want to get by, man. I don’t know. She was like, ‘You need to be singing.’ I’m like,’okay.’ And I went away to college, and at the time when I was away, she was actually neighbors with Andy. And Andy was in a different band, and she went to go see them at a rock-and-roll hotel when it was up in D.C. And, you know, she really loved him singing and she loved the music and she was like, ‘I need you to meet this former student of mine. Like, she has a wonderful voice. I think you could help her.’ And fast forward, I come home, we’re on summer break, and I meet Andy and I go to his house and we just jam for the first time. I don’t even know what song we were singing, but we just harmonized so perfectly and we just kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘We should be a band.’
Welsch: Yeah. You know, there’s some things just come really natural. And I have to say, if a teacher is looking at you and saying ‘you need to sing,’ that has to give you some inspiration. But I think it’s also a leap because, you know, going into music is kind of a risky thing, taking on the arts.
Welsch: It is, yeah. She had the belief and I don’t think I’d be doing this without her, you know?
Valenti: Are you ready for the M. Night Shyamalan twist?
Welsch: I am. I don’t see it coming.
Valenti: That mystery teacher is our band manager, Claire, who’s sitting in the booth now.
Welsch: And is very proud of you. I can tell. So if you’ve just tuned in, the band that we’re talking to is Oh He Dead.We’ve been playing their song California. They have a brand new album, it’s called Pretty. It’s a great record. If you have one of those days where you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I need a boost,’ I say, put this record into your ears and you’ll start feeling better right away. So could you do a couple more tunes for us, please?
Welsch: We’re live and direct with Oh He Dead.They will be playing tonight at the Thunderbird, opening for Devon Gilfillian. They have a new album called Pretty, and I think you can see it just there is just a melding of souls that when you’re playing together, just like you guys are supposed to play together, it really does feel that way. You’re described as a D.C. band. Washington, D.C. band. Are there any natives in the group? [C.J. raises hand] Anybody else in the band originally from D.C.?
Valenti: I’ve been there 12 years now, so I don’t know what the qualification is for calling myself a D.C. local, but I think I’m getting close, if I’m not there.
Welsch: Yeah, it’s kind of that way in Pittsburgh. If you’ve been here 12 years, you’re still somebody who’s pretty new, right? So Washington D.C. has a pretty vibrant music scene. We hear all about it. It’s pretty diverse, too, isn’t it? And you also have NPR in the area. You did a Tiny Desk competition. Is that true?
Valenti: We entered the contest, I think, five, four or five times now. And we’ve made the top shelf finals, I think, two or three times. We’re getting so close to getting on that Tiny Desk, we’re going to get it.
Welsch: I think you’re going to get it. You have to get it. With this record, I don’t know how you could not get there. West Virginia plays into this record as well. So let’s talk about let’s go from D.C. to West Virginia, which is in some places kind of almost a suburb of D.C. these days. So what happened in West Virginia, doesn’t stay there?
Johnson: No, it doesn’t. What happens in West Virginia comes out on the radio show and we’re doing it now. So we took a trip out to West Virginia and we get this cabin. It’s really nice. It’s not even a cabin. It’s so nice and it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nobody’s around. And we just kind of lock ourselves in. And we as a band, as a group, we try to finish at least five songs. Sometimes we come out with more and sometimes we just get the five done. But I think this year was our second time going back and we’re excited for some stuff that we got done this year too. But that first year got us that first Tiny Desk song that we put out, which was Lonely Sometimes and that that put us on a map, I guess.
Welsch: There seems to be a real fellowship in this band. I know you’re going to get this question a gazillion times and you’re probably already prepared for it, which is people say, like, ‘Where did this name come from?’ But that really comes from kind of just the back and forth that happens in the band. The Oh He Dead name.
Johnson: Yeah. I killed a guy.
Welsch: Not really.
Johnson: Not really. Okay.
Welsch: That’s the M. Shyamalan
Johnson: And I’m joking. Okay. I won’t do that anymore.
Valenti: We were laughing on the way here because this is the second ever radio interview that we did. And the first time we did one. C.J. made the same joke, but she didn’t say that she was joking. And Alex in the car was like, ‘C.J., you can’t make that joke because they can’t see your face. They can’t see that you’re laughing. So people on the radio might think you’re actually a murderer.’ And I think C.J. was like, ‘Well, oh, well.’
Welsch: You’re really you’re ready to take that on. But it’s basically, you know, a song. Something that you joked about.
Johnson: I wrote this song before I was even a part of this band. It was called Better Than You. And in the song, I find my boyfriend cheating on me with this woman. I go and I grab a gun and I shoot him. And Andy, when I used to play with Andy, he say, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that guy in the song?’ And I just like, straight face go, ‘Oh, He Dead.’
Welsch: We got those murder ballads out there. We have to talk about California, the song California. And it’s just an incredibly catchy song. And I know people are just gravitating towards it. But I also want to talk about the video because it’s just so much fun. All these women who are having a party and I’m watching this video and thinking, ‘How do I go to that party?’ So tell me about that. It was a real party, wasn’t it?
Johnson: It was a real party. My friend was getting married and last minute, like none of her other friends wanted to come, so it was just us. The people in the video just scrambling around the whole day, trying to get stuff for this party that was supposed to be happening. And we knew we were going to film it, but we didn’t know that it was just going to be like the six of us. We thought it was going to be an actual party. And we’re going to all types of stories trying to get stuff for this party. And the camera guy comes and the AirBnB we got is also funny because he sent us a message. It was like ‘no noise making, no, no parties, none of this.’ And we were like, [scoffs] well, we’re making a video and it’s going to get crazy. And here the camera guy comes and everybody is getting dressed and they’re ready to. Rock out to this video. We’re just like, We want to make the best of it. We’re just going to dance and whatever happens, happens.
Welsch: This guy with the AirBnB is now going to promote his AirBnB as the place where your video was shot.
Johnson: He probably didn’t even know.
Welsch: Well, maybe he’ll find out. So if you are looking to have a good time tonight, Oh He Dead is going to play at the Thunderbird and the new album is called Pretty. And we’re very happy to have you here and we’d love to have one more song.