Ostraca aren’t as well known around Richmond as they should be, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a force to be reckoned with.
Ostraca aren’t as well known around Richmond as they should be, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a force to be reckoned with. The loud, powerful trio–which consists of singer/bassist Gus Caldwell, guitarist Brian Russo, and drummer John Crogan–are more likely to be found in local basements than onstage at clubs, though they showed their faces above ground last summer for a ferocious headlining set at the inaugural Swamp Fest. Now, with the long-awaited vinyl release of their debut LP, Deathless, Ostraca are ready to take Richmond, and the entire country, by storm.
This article was featured in RVAMag #24: Spring 2016. You can read all of issue #24 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
Ostraca have existed in their current form for less than two years, but their history as a band begins nearly a decade ago, when all three members were still in high school in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Initially known as Kilgore Trout, they began as a quintet, which also featured guitarist Josh Niezgoda, along with a series of early singers. “I worked with the [original] vocalist, Tommy, at Baskin Robbins,” explains Russo. “He came up to me during a shift and was like ‘Hey, I’m gonna be in this band, do you want to play guitar? It’s gonna be loud and noisy.'” Russo was intrigued. “I was just playing in grunge bands,” he says now. “I wanted to do something crazier, more intense.”
The band’s beginnings were tied in with the nascent rumblings of a DIY scene in their suburban town. “Foundational in all of us meeting each other and starting to play music together was our friend Ted [Gordon], who now plays in Kaoru Nagisa,” says Caldwell. “[He] had started doing shows in a shed in his parents’ backyard.” The Red Shed, as this unassuming outbuilding came to be known, became an epicenter for underground music in the area. Unlike city kids who grow up with small clubs doing all-ages shows within driving distance, the members of Ostraca had no access to any other local music scene. “I started going to shows when I was 12 or 13, but that was going to the 9:30 Club, someplace where you have to buy a ticket on the internet,” Caldwell explains. “I don’t know if it would even be meaningful to say that I felt alienated [from the larger scene], because I didn’t really feel like there was enough [happening] to have a cohesive scene of any kind.”
Due to the lack of options, The Red Shed became an early stop for a lot of relatively popular touring bands that came through the area. “There was a pretty cool scene from Baltimore and a lot of those bands used to come down,” says Russo. Caldwell remembers seeing Swedish band Suis La Lune at the Red Shed, as well as early performances by Pianos Become The Teeth and Osceola. The word the members of Kilgore Trout used to describe this music was “screamo,” a term they’d learned from the internet. “The very first exposure I had to screamo was on a Streetlight Manifesto forum,” Caldwell relates, referencing the New Jersey ska-punk band. “Someone started a thread about screamo and they posted [albums by] Jerome’s Dream, Orchid, and Saetia. That was my starting point.”
Personally, I have always hated the term screamo, and I can’t continue the interview without a five-minute tirade in which I say things like “this word sounds like a fucking joke” and “when you hear the term ‘screamo’ attached to something, you think ‘that music cannot possibly be cool.'” The members of Ostraca have heard this rant from me before (usually between bands at a house show), and humor me with admirable patience. To an extent, they can relate. “I definitely feel that when my co-workers ask what kind of band I’m in,” says Caldwell.
Regardless of my misgivings, screamo was how Kilgore Trout saw themselves in their early days, and they quickly threw themselves into the scene the Red Shed had shown them. “We got thrown at the DIY world of the East Coast really early on,” says Russo. “We met some people from Baltimore who were doing similar things to us and that opened up a whole new world. You go up 95 and hit Philadelphia, and it’s like ‘Wow, it’s even bigger here than it is in Baltimore.’ It was like, ‘This is feasible. We’re doing this here, they’re doing it there–where else are people doing this?'”
Over the next several years, Kilgore Trout dove more deeply into the underground scene, releasing two full-length albums and several EPs and splits. They grew from sometimes-silly experimentation into a more fully-realized musical style. Their original vocalist left after their first EP, and was replaced by Megan Lee McGaughey, who stayed with the band for the next few years. Finally, after her departure in 2013, Caldwell took over on lead vocals himself, and the band began to resemble its current form.
The transition from Kilgore Trout to Ostraca occurred upon the departure of Josh Niezgoda. Taking a new name, derived from the shards of pottery on which citizens of ancient Athens would cast votes to exile other residents (the root word for the modern English word “ostracize”), Caldwell, Russo, and Crogan chose to carry on as a trio. “Ostraca is a continuation of Kilgore Trout,” says Caldwell now. “It’s grown and continued in the trajectory it was on, without making an effort to write things that sounded different. That said, the songs that Brian and I write have been different, and progressing.”
By the time they’d embarked on their new incarnation as Ostraca, all of the members had moved from Northern Virginia to Richmond. Caldwell was the first to leave NoVA, spending several years in Harrisonburg earning a communications degree from JMU. By the time he graduated, Crogan and Russo had moved to Richmond, and a small but tightly-knit scene was developing around house-show spots like Smash Palace and Gangway Garden. The creative energy around this rather intimate scene gave rise to an implausibly high number of bands in a very short time–though the number seems less implausible when you realize that every band contains multiple members of at least two other bands.
The members of Ostraca quickly got into the spirit. Before long, Crogan was playing with Kaoru Nagisa and .gif From God, while Russo and Caldwell joined Caust and Swan Of Tuonela. Caldwell even began multiple solo noise projects–one under his own name, another under the name Unlit. Crogan sees the scene’s creative energy as an unstoppable force of nature. “If a bunch of people are left alone together, a band will start,” he says. “Different people are available to make the band at a certain time, and that’s [what determines the lineup].”
Russo, meanwhile, proposes that Ostraca’s own tendency to participate in multiple other projects only gives rise to even more. “When Gus, John, and I leave, we’re in so many bands [that] a lot of bands can’t play,” he says. “This Land Is Now Dead started because we were on tour. Those were the people [that were] there.” Crogan picks up the thread. “Kaoru Nagisa was started a while ago because our friend TJ [Whitehead] was moving away and we wanted to start a band with him in it, because it made us feel better about him moving.” Caldwell interjects, “He’s back now.” Crogan laughs and agrees. “He’s back now, but he was gone for a while. Then when he came back, [we] had songs, and it went from there.”
All of this extracurricular involvement doesn’t detract from the members’ ability to focus on Ostraca, though. “I do a lot of work for Ostraca, because we’re all really good friends and it comes more natural that way,” says Russo. Caldwell agrees. “I would say that I see [Ostraca] as my primary outlet,” he says. “I write my parts in Caust and Swan Of Tuonela, but I only write entire songs for Ostraca. [And] Ostraca definitely does the most touring of any of those bands.”
In fact, the band is spending March and April of this year on a full US tour in support of Deathless. Jointly released by Middle-Man and Skeletal Lightning Records, the vinyl version is if anything long overdue. “We recorded it in mid-January 2015, so it’s been done for a full year,” says Russo. Pressing plant delays caused over eight months to pass between Deathless’s digital release and the appearance of its finished physical form. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, though, it was worth the wait.
The six-song, 30-minute slab of vinyl creates a dark atmosphere for the listener, in which Ostraca prove that their music deserves much better than a goofy term like “screamo.” Caldwell’s blistering shrieks and deep roars simultaneously channel first-LP Liturgy’s emotional black metal ferocity and Tragedy’s apocalyptic punk-metal gloom. Meanwhile, the dynamic range of the songwriting, and Russo’s ingenious riffing, call to mind the post-rock soundscapes of Godspeed You Black Emperor at times, while at others the fiery rage of Norwegian black metallers Emperor is what springs to mind. And yes, all of you who know your screamo (ugh, that word still sucks) will definitely catch tinges of Orchid, Envy, and One Eyed God Prophecy in the mix.
The album’s epic-length closer, “All Watched Over,” is Deathless’s emotional centerpiece, and evokes strong feelings throughout. Beginning as a melancholy dirge, it eventually builds to an all-out explosion of furious noise–which, at its height, is suddenly disrupted by blasts of static, followed by a mournful coda in which a distant piano plays the song’s main melody line. Caldwell clearly puts a lot of thought into his lyrics in general. “All Watched Over,” he explains, “takes its title from a poem by Richard Brautigan, called ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’.” This is the first of quite a few literary references that occur during this interview (fitting for a band originally named after a Kurt Vonnegut character). “It’s basically just about wishing, to put it plainly, that the world was a machine that ran smoothly and neatly–rather than being organic and messy, like it is.”
The shorter, faster songs that make up side one of the album also have quite a bit of thought behind their lyrics. “‘Without Articulation’ is about the idea of thinking without words,” Caldwell says. “I was reading some study about children who are found in the wild and have never learned any kind of human language. [The song explores] the idea of whether that’s somehow more real than learning words and confining your experiences to our defining language. The question [is] whether people can experience these things more deeply if they’re not refined to having a single word to define an experience.”
The evocatively-titled “When Is It Ever Different” also has a complex, thoughtful story behind its lyrics. “The title comes from a fable I read–I do not at present recall where–in which there’s a boat out at sea in a storm,” Caldwell explains. “Everyone on the boat is freaking out, bailing out water and trying to ready themselves for a crash–except for one old man who appears calm. A young sailor asks him ‘Old man, how is it you’re so calm when we could be a second away from death?’ to which the old man responds, ‘When is it ever different?’ The song is basically about trying to live without worrying about death constantly, and making peace with the fact that, hey, maybe you’re going to get hit by a car today or something.” He laughs and adds, “To put it briefly.”
While waiting for Deathless to come out, Ostraca has continued to create. They’ve had three songs, slated for a split LP with Texas band Flesh Born, completed since sometime last summer. Of the three songs slated for the upcoming split, “All I Was, In Ashes” is the most immediately arresting. Nearly six minutes in length, this song features a memorable section in which Flesh Born’s Parker Lawson sings a duet with Caldwell, adding a beautiful melodic vocal line that contrasts perfectly with Caldwell’s harsh screams. When asked if this could be a new direction for Ostraca’s sound, Caldwell is not opposed to the idea. “I don’t think I’m going to make a point of doing it, but I am happy with the way it turned out,” he says. “[Clean vocals are] an effect that, when done right, ends up sounding really cool.”
Meanwhile, the lyrics to this song indicate a similar depth of thought and feeling to what went into Deathless. The title comes from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem entitled “Tithonus.” “The poem is about this figure from Greek mythology who was a god, and fell in love with a mortal,” Caldwell explains. “He wanted the mortal to be immortal, so they could be in love forever. So he asked Zeus to grant his lover immortality, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus became this tragic character who is unable to die, but is also in this decrepit body and wants nothing more than to die. The [song is] generally about the idea of outliving your usefulness, or going past a desirable life, for the sake of continuing to be alive.”
The song that follows “All I Was In Ashes” on the split also draws its title from “Tithonus.” “Decay And Fall” is noteworthy as a spotlight for Russo’s continued musical explorations. “I’m focusing on the insanity aspects of musical writing,” he tells me at one point in the interview. As he continues, saying, “I’m trying to, like, push the boundary of insanity,” Caldwell and Crogan both begin to laugh. Russo can’t help but join in; nonetheless, he is making a serious point. “The last song on the split is more in a metallic hardcore direction,” Caldwell says, coming to his rescue. “But without the corny [aspect of] what metallic hardcore became,” Russo chimes in. “More like the pioneers of the genre.” He cites Curl Up And Die, Ed Gein, and As The Sun Sets as inspirations, and indeed, “Decay And Fall” reflects these inspirations, shifting back and forth between high-intensity blast beats and slow, brutal breakdowns.
Caldwell is exploring some musical directions of his own in the band’s newest material (which is intended for a second full-length, to be recorded sometime this year). “I like having a mixture of tempos and a mixture of dynamics,” he says. “My songs are definitely leaning more towards post-metal influences–like really early Isis, when they didn’t have a ton of clean guitar and big atmospheric sections. It was sludgy, but there were some melodic elements to it.”
While Deathless actually contained one song, “Pyrrhic,” which was originally released on a Kilgore Trout EP, Ostraca are feeling much more like a band unto themselves these days. “A lot of the first songs we wrote could have been Kilgore songs,” Russo says. “Now it’s a little different, because we feel more like we identify as Ostraca, not as the band formerly known as Kilgore Trout.”
With a split LP on the way featuring their best material yet, and plans to finish a second full-length as soon as they return from their current tour, it appears that after nearly a decade playing music together, Ostraca is still just getting started. Their name is perhaps not as well-known around Richmond as any of half a dozen different doom or thrash bands–but that’s starting to change, and for good reason. Anyone in this city who’s been sleeping on Ostraca needs to wake up and stop missing out on one of the best bands this city has to offer.