At a recent gig at London’s intimate Lexington venue, Ohtis singer-songwriter Sam Swinson made a gag that misfired: “I said something like, ‘This goes out for everyone that’s done heroin – don’t lie, I know you’re out there.’ I don’t know if it was really the crowd for it because nobody really responded.”
He admits: “Probably a lot of those people hadn’t done heroin.”
This is the kind of dark humour that runs throughout Ohtis’ near-perfect debut album ‘Curve Of Earth’, which could be billed as ‘Eight Sad Country Songs About Heroin’ and which has been 15 years in the making. The band, comprised of Swinson, co-founder Adam Pressley and multi-instrumentalist Nate Hahn, formed at high school but were derailed by Swinson’s lost decade as he succumbed to the substance. This included a stint living under a bridge.
“It was only for a couple of days and it wasn’t that bad,” he insists. “It was kinda like camping out.”
Swinson, who hails from the improbably named Normal, Illinois, grew up in a religious household. “As a kid, that was kinda all I knew,” he says today, speaking on the phone from his adopted home of Los Angeles, where he’s up early to work for his fiancée’s stepdad’s construction firm. “Then I started smoking pot, so my world opened up to that. I smoked pot before I went to church and someone told the Deacon, and it became a whole thing. That’s how I got out of going to church at 17. I had a lot of guilt and shame, which is definitely in the music.”
At his family’s behest, Swinson attended Teen Challenge, a Christian-run rehab centre in Georgia. “It was really kind of a terrible place,” he says. “I wasn’t getting any recovery. I was still pretty young; I probably didn’t really want to stop doing drugs. I don’t think any of us really understood addiction at the time. They were just trying to get me somewhere so that I didn’t die.”
Part of the treatment involved waking up “at the crack of dawn” to work manual labour in a cemetery. “I got in trouble and kinda grabbed my stuff and left”, he says of the sequence of events that led to his brief experience of homelessness. “I called my buddy from a payphone and he rescued me. He gave me a bus ticket so that I didn’t have to live under a bridge any more.”
That was almost a decade ago. In the immediate aftermath, Swinson moved in with his buddy in South Carolina, sleeping on his sofa. When he wasn’t “getting drunk”, he says, he wrote the record’s lead single ‘Rehab’. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful song, led by a tinkling, buoyant piano intro, at once happy and sad, as Swinson accepts but refuses to apologise for his transgressions: “What I’m singing is: some people need certain things to get by.”
There’s a gentle sense of humour, too, with Swinson poking fun at the idea of finding salvation in music, crooning: “Don’t lose faith in me, Lord / Lord, I’m not that bad / Can’t you hear me repent? / I’m sorry for making you sad.” Explaining this, he says: “At that religious rehab there was a pastor talking about how ‘God will lose faith in you’, which I thought was kinda silly.”
At the same time, the song is so jubilant that it does feel like a spiritual rebirth, a reclamation of pain. There’s a strong tradition of American indie musicians who have rejected fundamentalist religious backgrounds, turned to drugs in the wake of ensuing shame and then found redemption in song – think Girls frontman Christopher Owens and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock – and it’s this narrative that Ohtis at once satirises and embraces. “If I sing you this song,” Swinson implores, tongue in cheek, “will you right my wrongs?”
For the most part, ‘Curve Of Earth’ is quieter, more understated and – it must be said – darker than ‘Rehab’. ‘Pervert Blood’, a slow country weepie (replete with mournful slide guitar) recently released as a single, opens the album with the lyrics, “Grandpa threw a bag of… puppies in the burning can,” of which Swinson says: “That was a rumour that I heard, but I was completely out of my mind, so I don’t know if I made that up. It sounds too bad to be true.”
Elsewhere, on ‘Diggin’, he riffs on his father’s former career laying cables for a phone company. “Dad taught me how to dig a hole,” he sighs. “There’s this single thing I know / That is how to dig a hole”. Swinson tells NME: “It’s about digging a hole and hiding out from everybody – from my girlfriend at the time and my family – and not knowing how to do anything about it. Expecting to die at a young age and hoping not to go to hell.” He laughs bitterly.
Swinson’s been clean for seven years now, his newfound clarity having concluded Ohtis’ hiatus. On ‘Serenity Prayer’, the final track on ‘Curve of Earth’, he chants a lullaby melody over acoustic guitar: “Dopes is doing push-ups in the back of my mind / He is the reason I’ve been walking around blind / He won’t give up until the rest of me’s dead / For the rest of my life, he’ll live up in my head.”
Although Dopes is a character of his invention, he learned in the 12-step programme how to dissociate from addiction: “It’s kind of a recovery [technique]. People will refer to their addiction as working out, waiting for you to fuck up and relapse so that it can destroy your whole life.”
Having released their debut record 15 years since their journey began, Ohtis have enough material for a second, which could be in a more folk-pop mould than this one. This summer, the band will perform at End of the Road Festival in Dorset (“I’ve heard really good stuff about it,” Swinson says). He’s now “a different person” from the one who wrote ‘Curve of Earth’.
For this reason, it can be a challenge to play the songs live: “It’s difficult to rehash a lot of [the subject matter]. I mean, I’m getting used to it, because part of being a person in recovery is that you wanna remember some of the more difficult shit you’ve experienced in your addiction, to let out some of the shame and guilt and trauma that you’ve encountered.”
What would he like people to get from listening to his record, which confronts pain and shame?
“As a songwriter I just want people to have a personal experience, or be moved by the feeling and sound of it,” he says. “On a recovery level, I’m a little conflicted about doing this in such a public way – it’s not really easy to talk about some of the stuff that I sing about in these songs.
“There’s a lot of stigma and shame associated with being an addict. And I view it like any other mental illness. It’s a psychological disorder. There are a lot of us in society that don’t get talked about. With addiction, it’s one that needs to be talked about in order for people to get better.”
‘Curve Of Earth’ is that rare thing: a work of art so honest that it becomes universally resonant.
If you’ve not been affected by addiction, you can perhaps still see yourself in a record that, as much as anything else, is about facing your mistakes and vowing not to be defined by them. It’s breathtakingly honest, darkly beautiful and – ultimately – optimistic. Which is lucky for Sam Swinson – given that, as he proved at the Lexington, he hasn’t much future in stand-up.
– Ohtis’ ‘Curve Of Earth’ is released via Full Time Hobby on March 29