Thump. Thump. Thump. “Oh, I was young… so young. I didn’t know.” You might fill a suitcase with what Mike Belazis doesn’t know. In fact – he even carried an empty one with him all the way to Bigfoot Studios in Maumee, Ohio. Yep, you read that correctly: the band used it as a kickdrum. Maumee is where Oliver Hazard recorded its first album, although the band itself is from a few miles away in an even smaller town. But don’t let the tiny names fool you. Oliver Hazard shouts loud – their spirit is very, very big… and it has begun to echo across the country. Things certainly didn’t start that way. “In the beginning, Griffin and Dev used to have to plug in all my shit for me,” laughed a cheerfully nostalgic Belazis during our interview. It is important to acknowledge the part that nostalgia plays in Belazis’s life. He is quick to recount old memories, his bandmates even quicker to exchange anecdotal friendly fire on one another. They share the kind of comradery that makes you envy what surely was a benevolent, small town childhood. At the same time, it makes you hurt and makes you long for a sweeter, simpler epoch.
That nostalgia is what drives much of Oliver Hazard’s written material on its debut album. The three-piece band is from Waterville, Ohio. Their second track on their first and only album, 34 N. River, is called “Henry & Pearl,” and it commemorates a dinky-yet-lovable little Chinese Restaurant run by local figures named… yep, you guessed it – Henry and Pearl. Before Oliver Hazard, Belazis had never even played a live show. There’s a lot he doesn’t know. But what Belazis does know – along with bandmates Griffin McCulloch and Devin East – is how to write, record, and perform the kind of rootsy hymns that keep your foot tapping indelibly as you are whisked back in time. On “Hey Louise,” it doesn’t take long for Belazis’s rustic yell to give way to a softer echo of “oohs,” followed by a delicate ringing on the most innocent little glockenspiel you could imagine. “Hold me tight, and talk to me/ Why the hell are you still here?/ Hey Louise, you found me at last/ Whatever happened to that woman of my past?” the trio cries. It’s the kind of begging you hear from a young child: desperate, and laden with a pathos that is emotively sincere.
Oliver Hazard will continue to benefit by never growing up. So far, the outfit has enjoyed amazing luck: the guys – three old friends who reunited to bring music to their community and beyond – originally won a radio contest to record their first song for free. That turned into the studio agreeing to allow the band around three hours, which it used to record its entire first album. Oliver Hazard has since had its day at Bonnaroo. It has accompanied Philadelphia indie-folk group Mt. Joy on a prolific tour. It is now preparing for another one [hyperlink to tour details]. Most of all, the band has retained an understanding of what it means to do its very best despite whatever circumstances arise. The youthful energy that Belazis, McCulloch, and East emit is its lifeblood – and what do youngsters do better than holler and stomp? Just turn on “Train Track,” and the guys will happily indulge in that very activity as they mockingly remind you: that’s all “[they] have to say about that.”
In anticipation of their second album, we teamed up with Oliver Hazard to bring you a sneak peak of their new single, “Take Me Back.” You can check it out here:
"Take Me Back" - Oliver Hazard
Richard Tulis: You guys put your album together in two weeks. Can you talk about how you were able to make that happen?
Mike Belazis: Sure can. So basically, the way it goes is… I was living across the country. Griff and Devin were living [in Waterville, Ohio]. And my family still lives [in Waterville]. I was working a seasonal job and came home for a month – it was December of 2016. I had a bucket list of playing a dive bar show. I wasn’t ever a performing musician, but I was more of a closet musician. And then Griff and Devin both were in bands and were a little more competent on stage, and so I called them up and said “Hey, I’m gonna write some material.” I started with Griffin and called him. I said, “You want to help me write some stuff? I got this show in two weeks.” Griff says, “No.”
Griffin McCulloch: ‘Cause you didn’t have any material. I mean we jammed together when he was in town. But we hadn’t written anything. Basically in that gun-to-your head scenario, we took the gig. I was reluctant – I said hey, we gotta get Devin on board, because we don’t do enough on stage. I was out of the closet, musically, so I figured I’d help out. (Laughter.)
MB: So it all started because [Griff] and I were working on this song called “Caesar Knows,” kinda in that first day or two. We showed it to Devin and he was like, “Eh, it’s pretty cool.” He’s a guitarist, but he also started playing the drums when he was first starting to play music. He pulled out a tambourine and a shaker, and I was like, “Where’s your drumset?” He was like, “Na, man.” So I found an old suitcase in my attic. That was our kickdrum. And Griffin had this little Glockenspiel that we had from seventh grade band practice. And we put it all on a stage, and at that point, we had written – it was maybe like a week and a half after our first project, was this show. We had half the album written. Like five of these songs written. And after the show, we had probably a hundred people in there, and it was packed. Everyone gave us so much positive reinforcement. Some of the songs were really good. So we kinda get to talkin’ and we spent the next five days writing the rest of the album, more or less. At the same time, serendipitously we won a free recording contest on Facebook with a local recording studio. At the end of those two weeks, we decided as a souvenir to remember all of this by – because I’m heading back out West – we might never play again for another six months, so let’s just get it on paper. We decided to record it at the studio for free. He said we could have one song. We asked him if we could just play our live routine, basically. We played the ten songs. We might have had a couple retakes; it wasn’t just like we played them straight through. But we probably did it in like two to three hours… recorded the whole album in live format. And then after we recorded it… everyone went back to work. (Laughter.) We sent it to each other, the guy who recorded it sent it to us, and we all listened to it. And we all thought it was actually really good. And we believed in it, and we decided to start sending it to people. We sent it to a friend who sent it to a friend and it ended up in a label in LA… and next thing you know, we had a write-up from The Fader about how much they liked our album.
RT: That’s incredible. I’ve only spoken with one other group where all of the members have a full time dayjob. How is balancing that?
MB: That’s actually a question for Griff and Devin, because I actually quit my job. So I’m on the other end where I’m sitting at home orchestrating things. But Griffin and Devin – they’re both working nine to fives right now.
Devin East: Well after the album was written there was a lot of sit and wait, because Mike did go back for, what, like a year?
MB: Yeah, a year.
DE: So it was like the album was written in late 2016, and then we didn’t release a song officially until November of ‘17, so almost eleven months had passed. It was kind of this weird limbo where Mike lived away, but we were still kind of a band.
MB: We were more branding – just getting enough content and video stuff. Trying to play a couple shows here and there. I think I flew back four times that year. We played four shows. Yeah. It was like a week increment where I’d get back, we’d rehearse for five days straight, and then the last day of the trip, we’d play a show.
RT: You said you weren’t an on stage musician before. Now you’re touring with Mt. Joy and playing all over the place. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned?
MB: Well in the beginning, Griffin and Dev used to have to plug in all my shit for me. (Laughter.) I was like, “I don’t know how this chord works.” Ah, but a lot of it has been technical stuff. Just how electricity comes out of guitars… into amplifiers and microphones. (More laughter.) All of that stage amplification stuff. Devin’s kind of the master of the group of the technical stuff, so he’s been teaching us a lot.
DE: I know enough – that’s really about it.
MB: And then Griffin has the stage confidence.
GM: I wear boas and capes and glasses.
RT: Do you handle everything on your own, touring-wise?
MB: Oh yeah. We don’t handle all of the booking – we book shows that we want to book locally. But we’ve recently hired a booking agent to take care of bigger things and get us gigs that are, you know.
DE: But as far as the ground level, when we’re touring, I mean it’s just all us. We’re touring in Mike’s SUV.
MB: It’s got 365,000 miles on it. (Group laughter.) We drive everywhere, we book our own hotels, sell our own merch.
GM: And our souls.
RT: You guys are from a small town. You have a very folk-rich trio. What kind of music did you grow up listening to? And what did you start out playing before this?
GM: Growing up, I was born in ‘89, so as far as contemporary stuff growing up, obviously that Seattle grunge took over. But my parents always – I was always listening to The Beatles; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Steely Dan a lot; Stevie Wonder. My mom really liked the soul stuff, so I got heavy into old 70s soul for a little while. But yeah. Just like that late ‘60s stuff, and then obviously growing up, everybody listened to Weezer.
DE: I was born a lot later than Griffin – in ‘91. So like… I’m pretty much a decade younger than he is. (Group laughs.) When you’re too young to pick your own music, it’s just whatever’s on the radio, regular rock stations. Which was a lot of Bush… and that whole thing. But then I started listening to more of my own stuff, which was more of the harmonic stuff. On the folk end of things, I would say that Jim Croce’s probably my bigger influence. Just how he enunciates and portrays whatever it is lyrically. But anything really – me and Griffin are more old souls, you could say. I get caught up in whatever it is, whether it’s Stones or Beatles, still. Mike’s more of the modern guy. Me and Griffin had been in the same band… or whatever it is, since we started playing. I think I was 19. We played – at first it was like blues-soul-garage rock – and then it was like a typical indie experimental with vocals. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was having fun and playing. But yeah, we were in a couple other groups but it was pretty much all the same kind of music. And then Mike came along, and we all progressed to songwriters.
MB: I don’t know if we meant to become a folk group.
DE: It’s just what came out. We had a couple songs written, and Griffin helped finish them. You know, we all kind of collaborated.
MB: I think we started this to make it as stripped down as possible. Because it was easier that way. We just really appreciated the authenticity of it all. So we kind of kept that. Our next album that’s coming up will have a little more instrumentation. It won’t be a step away from our sound; I think it’ll be more like a growth of our sound.
RT: You guys sound like you’re about to have a busy day in the studio. Do you have any hints for us on what’s next?
MB: Yeah we’ve got an upcoming single – probably the end of summer, early fall. We want to keep the fire stoked. We just came out with our first album and we’re done with our second one. But yeah, the record will be kind of enriched from the older sound into a newer one. A lot of it has an instrumental feel, and some of it has a step forward and expansion of sound, I’d say.
RT: I think Griffin mentioned Seattle grunge. My last question is: Pearl Jam, or Alice In Chains?
DE: Pearl Jam.
GM: I think Pearl Jam has a better catalogue. But I do like “Rooster.” That’s Alice In Chains, correct?
GM: I love that song. If I could say what was my favorite song produced by any of them, I would say Alice In Chains’ “Rooster.” But as a catalogue, definitely Pearl Jam. I love Eddie Vedder.
MB: I never actually listened to either of them consistently – like I know each of their songs, but the only thing I consistently listened to was Eddie Vedder’s ukulele album. So I’d pick Pearl Jam, too.