By Rob van Alstyne
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By Jack Spencer
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By Emily Weiss
If you think the music that Minneapolis band Oaks makes is all about death, you'd be only half right. The husband-and-wife duo play music that's stripped down to the sparest, simplest parts possible. No doubt there's something a little ominous about the drone of their songs. But through the shadows there are flashes of light in Oaks' music, too — warm, bright moments that are anything but morbid.
"A lot of it is celebratory to me," says Oaks' bassist, Jim Kolles. "People tell us we sound really dark, but when we're writing it feels really cathartic and positive." He makes a clenching motion with his hands, and pushes his long hair behind his ears. "It's about death," he adds, "but in a getting-through-it kind of way."
Kolles's wife, Erica Krumm, sits nearby on a futon in their south Minneapolis apartment. She has red hair and jewelry slung around her neck and wrists, and she sings and plays guitar in Oaks. The apartment's walls, too, are painted in bright shades of orange, green, and yellow, with an assortment of plants and vintage furniture around the room. One of the couple's favorite records, the Stooges' Fun House, plays on the turntable. "We listen to it every week," Kolles says with a laugh.
Oaks play an EP-release show on Saturday, February 16, at Kitty Cat Klub;
It's no coincidence that the name these two chose for their band evokes images of the outdoors — something strong and permanent. "It's not super intentional, but we both really love nature," says Krumm. She glances over at her husband, and cracks a slight grin as she thinks back. "Maybe some of it is subconscious; when we were first dating we were really young, and we've always carried this whimsical, romantic feeling." Kolles agrees. "We grew up in the suburbs, so we were always at a park because there was nothing to do except go to a park," he says.
The couple have been together for nearly 15 years, and played in different bands for almost that whole time — Krumm most recently in punk band Sharp Teeth, and Kolles in metal band Children of Euler. Yet Oaks is the first project that they've ever worked on together. "We always thought it was really good to do things separately. We're pretty independent as a couple, and we've tried to maintain a lot of separate stuff as well as stuff that we do together, which has been really good," admits Krumm. "But this was just like, 'Oh shit, this is really fun and really clicking for both of us. Let's just run with it.'"
"All the writing's been really easy," adds Kolles. "Too easy, almost," he says, almost superstitiously.
When Krumm and Kolles first started writing material as Oaks three years ago, they used a drum machine, with the intent being to eventually recruit a third member. But as time wore on, they grew to like the effect of the drum machine well enough that they decided to stick with it. "I think if we had a drummer we'd still have fun with it, but it would definitely be a different thing," Krumm shrugs. "Now we've been in it this way for so long that it wouldn't be Oaks anymore."
That low-pressure environment has perhaps prevented the band from being more aggressive about recording — to date, they've released only some demos and a cassette tape — but on their new EP, Field Beat, Oaks' relaxed attitude pays off with a set of songs that never feel forced or rushed. The title track, for instance, builds slowly out of a hazy guitar riff, while "Falls" first ratchets up the pace before dropping into a back-and-forth between Krumm and Kolles. It's only after a few listens that the lyrics' impressionistic qualities begin coming into focus.
Krumm admits, a little bit sheepishly, that she enjoys writing poetry, and that her lyrics are often inspired by visits to art galleries. "I often turn this stream-of-conscious-slash-poetry into what becomes lyrics for songs," she says. "It's pretty non-literal writing. I write a lot about dreams."
Part of the tension that holds Oaks' songs together lies in how Krumm's lyrics interact with the mechanical snaps of the drum machine. But it's an extension, in many ways, of the music the couple has always enjoyed playing and listening to. "I come from a metal background, and there's a lot of that in metal of, like, returning to these primal elements of the wilderness, but with this totally unnatural music," Kolles explains. "If you get that music, it feels really primal and early human. [But] it doesn't feel like a counterpoint to me. It's just how we would express that natural power stuff."
And yet, in spite of all the synchronicity that's carried Oaks to where they are today, the music on Field Beat is also colored by upheaval; in the past year, Krumm and Kolles have been rocked by illness and death in their family — events that they worked through in part by writing these songs. "Both of us have brains that work a lot as far as what we're thinking about and worrying about — obsessing, even," says Krumm. Once again, she glances at her husband, and he nods in agreement. "We've been working on being more present as individuals, and together. Sometimes life's crazy and it just comes at you."