At an Oswego show, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Nelson may throw candy at the audience. He may pass out pens imprinted with the message “Oswego. You hate us? Good.” He’s likely to call out song titles such as “Rubber Bands Sting Like a Sonofabitch.” And at center stage, there may be a woman painting her toenails amid Oswego’s explosive post-hardcore din. For no apparent reason.
Oswego’s tongue-in-cheek “performance art” has been in full dither at the handful of dates the band has played in D.C. since it emerged last fall, throwing the wrench of surprise into the self-serious gears of the city’s music scene. With a wry, warped sense of humor, the quintet turns its extensive and perverse knowledge of pop-culture flotsam into frenetic but calculated music.
Close followers of the D.C. music scene recognize singer-guitarist Erik Denno and drummer Darren Zentek from their previous outfit, Kerosene 454. Denno and Zentek found themselves bandless when Kerosene dissolved in 1998 after several years of touring, recording, and eating ramen noodles. The two tried to recover from the grind of playing in a traveling band, but it wasn’t long before Denno and Zentek (whom Denno describes as “the pimp of drumming”) had joined up with Nelson (who also plays drums for the decidedly less cheeky Most Secret Method), guitarist-vocalist Chris Turko, and bassist Mike Markarian to form Oswego.
“Basically, I have to play music ’cause I can’t not,” Denno explains. “After Kerosene broke up, I don’t think I played guitar for a couple months. But I realized that music was something I had to do and could never get away from. It’s just the way it goes. I need it to survive.”
Although Denno & Co. couldn’t resist the urge to be in a band, the endless touring that defined Kerosene 454 is not likely to rub off on Oswego. “I think [excessive touring would] be harder to do, and I think we all have jobs that would be hard to get away from,” Denno says. “So any outings we’d do wouldn’t be so crazy and so long. I love touring, but I can’t just quit my job.” He adds, however, “Playing for people will never cease to interest me.”
The band’s members wear matching outfits (generally all-black) to top off their other onstage shenanigans. Whether such stunts serve as any meaningful comment on music or society is unclear; the best guess is that they probably don’t. At any rate, as long as there is disdain among them toward the music-business-as-usual, there are bound to be more stunts to come. Because if there’s a plan at work for Oswego’s principals, it’s an escape plan.
“Everything that’s gone on [so far] isn’t even what we’ve wanted to go on. It’s been way more low-key than we’ve expected,” Denno says. “We just wanted to get out-of-hand and, as far as Darren and I go, do things that we never would have done in Kerosene. It’s all in an effort to make it fun and to have a good time.”
But is it a problem if music alone isn’t compelling enough to entertain an audience? Is throwing candy at the audience really the best way to stay awake professionally?
“Of course music can be enough,” Denno asserts. “The best shows I’ve been to were just music. It’s not like [the performers] were handing out pens,” he laughs. “I’m not saying that music can’t get everybody excited, but I was just desiring more interaction between band and audience.”
With characteristic brashness, Oswego recently headed into the studio with local uber-producer J. Robbins (“He is the king,” Denno declares) at Shirlington’s Inner Ear Studios. The band is also recording with Brian McTernan at Salad Days in Northwest. All this trackwork comes despite Oswego’s having played only a few shows.
“We recorded 14 songs, but I don’t know how it’s gonna come out,” Denno says, bemused by his own band’s audacity. “I don’t know who’s gonna put it out. I just don’t know,” he laughs. “Originally, things were like, ‘Let’s put out a demo tape, but have the whole first side be blank and have the songs at the end of the second side.’ Then, it was like, ‘Let’s make this record and start it with 15 minutes of white noise and then have the songs start,’ or something else that would be completely annoying.”—John Davis