Image: Oh Reach at The Newsagency.
Author: Melody Menu
Oh Reach are a choir of three. A choir of distinctive – if unusual – voices, of warm-hearted personalities and individual creative projects that are filtered back into this one, forming something whole and new.
With each member drawing on the efforts of their primary bands, Marcus Gordon of Spookyland, Simon Relf of The Tambourine Girls and Terry Serio of Terry Serio’s Ministry of Truth each pour their residual energy into Oh Reach in a way that replenishes each project with fresh creativity and verve. Seated in a café in Sydney’s inner-west, the three are cordial yet focused. They discuss the origins of the band in good humour, and don’t dwell on what they cannot understand nor answer, placing emphasis on serendipitous encounters and shared patience. Plenty of answers lead to a great deal of affirmations and agreement, at times descending into laughter and humble self-deprecation. And, naturally for a band with such a strong emphasis on vocal harmonies, much of our conversation centres on singing.
As Marcus explains: “I think at the best of times, we’re all always singing. We’re all always playing. I think three acoustic guitars playing the same chords at once is quite an unprecedented thing, but there’s something about it.
“It’s as if it’s everyone’s song. Everyone’s got their own personality and they’re singing and they’re playing as if it were theirs. And somehow that can happen simultaneously.”
Simon remarks on the importance of patience and time, and the significance that Oh Reach is a side-project for each of them. “Maybe because it’s no-one’s real thing; no-one is putting any pressure on it. Just taking our time with it, which I’m not good at doing normally. I tend to want to release things as soon as they hit a certain feeling; I’m done and I want to move on with them. But for some reason with this, we’ve all been very patient.” For Terry, this is down to a like-mindedness. “We’re similar in our worldview.”
This similarity and ease with each other is reflected in the inception of the band, with Simon pointing out that there was no grand intention of beginning a band together. “It really just happened. I heard Marcus’s voice and thought he could record one of my songs better than me. We didn’t think too much about it. And then I met Terry, and again, it was just like ‘I’m doing this thing with this guy I don’t really know; would you like to be involved?” At this, as at many points throughout our conversation, there is plenty of understanding laughter. Terry and Simon reflect on this together, on the providence and lack of pretence, with Terry saying “I still don’t know why you even asked. It was so funny.” Neither of the three had felt moved to collaborate previously, even when opportunities presented themselves, but somehow, as Simon repeats, “I think it just happened, and that’s what’s nice about it.”
Almost immediately, this chance band formation spawned a fully recorded album, along with a number of shows, but the band remained not quite fully-formed. As Marcus says, “It started in 2014 – we made a full-length album, shelved it, and kinda worked out after the album what the thing was about, which wasn’t on the album. So we thought we’d better serve that. We did some demoing and stuff, and we finally worked out the three-voice thing.” This was explored through a number of rehearsing and recording sessions, one in Paris, several at Marcus’s house, and at Kangaroo Valley, where their debut self-titled album as we know it now was recorded.
For a group to be quietly working away on a shared project in the background of three full bands is something readily understandable as a creative outlet; a safe and non-judgemental space to lean into and explore musically. But for this kind of band to be held together for more than five years creating, singing and learning together is a true commitment. For Terry, what has kept him coming back to Oh Reach over the years has always been the sound of their voices together in a room. “I’ve gotta say, every time we rehearse or play, the sound of our voices together is quite special. That’s always the thing you get drawn back to – the way something works together. I suppose when you think about five years, that’s quite a long time, and a lot of bands don’t last the distance.” Simon agrees: “It’s a nice thing to do, to get together and sing. And sometimes it’s every week, sometimes it’s every month, depending on what we’ve got going on.
“Singing is a wonderful thing to do – and to do with people, is a real gift to be able to do it. I reckon everyone should join a choir.”
The significance of this sustained singing goes beyond the idea of a hobby or pastime, but enters into a realm of something healing, purging, and grounding; ultimately visceral and cathartic. As Simon explains, “When you do the Oh Reach thing, it kind of gives you more energy for your other projects. And then when you do your other project, you look forward to going back to Oh Reach. They both feed off of each other.” This resonates with the group, with Marcus drawing comparisons of Oh Reach as a kind of respite. “Like Simon said, I’ve never been interested in collaboration, so I only know one thing, which is tough and cerebral, and this is not that all, it’s more like meditation. If we sing long enough, you’re breathing into each other, and it almost doesn’t resemble what I understand as the process of making music at all, in a really beautiful way.”
That isn’t to say that these stunning, striking harmonies such as that found in new single ‘Fourteen Superpowers,’ or the spiralling vocal rounds of ‘Wicked Poet’ simply fell into place or crept into existence on their own. For three such folk singers, it took some time to feel out the boundaries of their voices, the baritone, mid-range and high-range, layering them together in experiential ways that both diverge and coalesce. For Oh Reach, this was a concerted effort, with Terry placing emphasis on the importance of listening. “One of the different aspects of Oh Reach, I think, is that we’re good listeners. I’ve been in situations before where I’m not playing with good listeners. So, as someone does something, there’s no response to that. And that can be so damaging, because without listening to one-another, you’ve just got three individuals ego-tripping.”
Terry also extends this ability to listen and respond to their collaborator Kathryn Brownhill who plays violin across several songs on the album, which he describes as “a little colour that comes in and again. She’s a great listener. She only ever enhances what we do, she doesn’t put her stamp on it, and that’s a nice thing.”
In terms of the harmonies, Terry explains that the band approach singing with the attitude of “We just do it ‘til we get it right. And there’s incredible freedom in that, I think that’s one of the other things I really do love about playing with Oh Reach is that, there’s no sense that anyone is making any errors; we’re just finding our way. And we allow each other to find our way.” Marcus also outlines the tremendous hard work and sheer time involved in forming the band’s distinctive harmonies. “I definitely think there was a lot of work behind it. I think we sensed pretty early on that there was a magic, and we have sung a lot. For instance, the process of recording most of the album was we would sit in the studio around a live mic and we might play a song thirty times top-to-bottom, and often it was the last take that was right. So there’s not this naive slip into it.”
The beauty of Oh Reach is that each song belongs to each member, despite the songs being written individually and not collaboratively. As Marcus says, “We don’t write together, it’s always someone’s song, and we work on it; just keep singing it. We just sing and sing and sing and sing, and eventually something happens.” For Marcus, this is the advantage of the band, and the source of much of its indefinable nature. “Terry and I, at least, aren’t trained, so we are reaching in the dark, and quite often, there are a lot of bad harmonies at first, but you might find something. Nothing is thought-out, I think that is the main thing.” Simon goes further, returning us to the idea of the band not being each person’s primary outlet, with no pressure or judgement. “Because you’re not looking for it, in a way. If you knew what you were looking for, it wouldn’t happen. Like, Marcus called it ‘Oh Reach’ and that name grows on it more and more, because it really is just a stretch out into the darkness.”