By Gary Eiferman
Oracle Room is a 7 piece band based in the New York area whose members are spread out in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. It is led by singer-songwriter Alex Nelson. Although considered more or less a “rock” band, their music reflects various influences and genres. First, I had the opportunity to talk with the front-woman herself about her musical journey and the origin of the Oracle Room name. Later, I was lucky enough to be joined by some more members of the band.
Play Too Much: The band has a very eclectic sound which blends so well. But I would rather you describe it.
Alex Nelson: I was watching an interview with a musician who was asked this question and he said, ‘“I just make it, you decide what it is.’” I liked that response because you know, it really is a dreaded question for any musician who combines any musical influences. I think you went the right direction when you told your daughter we’re a rock band. I’m still experimenting with genre descriptors for us. I think some of the best/most fun ones are celestial pop, astral gospel, avant rock, experimental pop.
PTM: What was your initial concept for Oracle Room? How did it come together?
AN: Oracle Room started with a bunch of songs I wrote in my twenties after a band I was in called it quits. I made a bunch of demos that I hoped would live a life outside of my laptop one day. They sat on that laptop for years collecting dust as I became increasingly frustrated. One fateful day I ran into a good friend of mine from a recording studio we both used to work at. He happens to be a very accomplished audio engineer and he offered to help me put together my EP. Working on those recordings really brought a lot of clarity, inspiration, and new found confidence I needed to put together the live band. Once I put out the call for musicians, I was astounded at the response. We’ve now been playing shows as a 7 piece for over a year.
PTM: How has it been evolving?
AN: I feel really blessed by our evolution thus far. Things feel as though they are moving just as they should. We’ve played nearly 40 shows in a little over a year, released a single and EP, finished our first music video which we hope to release in a few weeks, and we’re mixing another release. To be honest, I was pretty frantic for a while trying to figure out how to get us “ahead” faster. Six months in I was like “‘Why doesn’t everyone know who we are yet???”’ I felt like I was ready to be touring with a full orchestra, with record label support and all this and that. After a near meltdown sparked by too much screen time in the name of ‘band business’, I had a realization that this has to move at the pace it is. We can’t start out being at the level of our idols, they had to work their way to get there, and I have to as well. Experience takes time. We all know the band who gets big based on one single, and when they get up there to perform they can’t cut it. They weren’t ready. I’m happy to be focusing on crafting the music, writing better songs, and creating the live shows and albums of my dreams. Right now I’m learning so much about composing for my voice. I’ve written a lot of songs that weren’t showcasing my voice the way I want. I’ve started focusing on writing for my vocal sweet spot. I’ve cut back on my stage banter. I want the set to breathe and grow as its own organism which will envelop the audience so when it’s over they feel they just had a complete and cohesive sonic experience. Our new keys player is also bringing a lot to the table working with sampling and Ableton live which is so exciting for me. I’m a huge fan of electronic music and always knew electronics needed to be a part of this project.
PTM: The name [Oracle Room] is so interesting, conjuring up thoughts of communicating with a deity, usually female in Greece, as well as prophecy. How did you come up with name?
AN: The Oracle Room is a small room is the oldest known subterranean structure called the Hypogeum on the island of Malta. It’s a real place! There are many rooms and corridors inside the Hypogeum, but The Oracle Room has a particularly powerful and unique acoustic resonance from any vocalization made inside it which feels otherworldly to those who have experienced it. Some say the sound produced in the room can heal or even altar matter. I stumbled across this information while I was in search for a name for my project and it stuck with me. I liked the idea of a space used for deep healing, connection, and transcendence. These are themes in my music and definitely the atmosphere I’m trying to create with my shows.
PTM: Any “prophecies” for the future?
AN: Good things ahead for us all! Personally, I intend on touring Europe with the band and never returning.
PTM: Who are your key musical influences?
AN: Bjork, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Nina Simone, David Bowie, Arcade Fire, Kate Bush, Erykah Badu are some big ones. My father is a huge influence – he’s a jazz fusion guitarist.
PTM: How much collaboration with the members of the band comes into play during the composing process?
AN: I used to do all of the writing and arranging for the band and now that we’re gelled as a unit I’ve started bringing in bare bones demos and the band just eats it up and spits out the most beautiful arrangements. It’s such a relief that I don’t have to singularly obsess over creating the sound I want. My band mates understand the aesthetic I’m drawn to and they are crucial to the development of our overall sound. We’re starting to work more in long form songwriting. We’re at a very exciting place in our evolution as a band. I’m so excited to go to rehearsals and bring new songs in to see what these guys will do with it.
PTM: Are you a native New Yorker? If so, what were you listening growing up? If not, where?
AN: I’m approaching my 10 year anniversary as a New Yorker, but I grew up in Harrisburg. My parents are from Pittsburgh. My dad is a jazz guitarist, so jazz was always played around the house. A lot of newer stuff, progressive or fusion. My grandfather was also a jazz guitarist, leaning towards more of the Jim Hall, Django era. All of my family really has a sweet spot for it. My mom was always a big David Byrne fan, I have fond memories of dancing around the living room with my little sister to his album Rei Momo.
Play Too Much: How did you get involved with Oracle Room?
Ian Milliken (guitar, cello, backing vocals): I went to college with Alex in Syracuse and we chatted when she had just put the band together and was looking to fill some more roles. I was moving to New York and looking to join a band, and she happened to be looking at the same time. We initially talked about me doing keyboard duty, but then she decided she had other options at keys and thought I could add in other ways with more guitar and some cello.
Ryan Hopper (keyboard/synth, samples): Alex found me through Ian, at the point when Joe was leaving the band.
Justin Gonzales (guitar): I joined the fray around April of last year, when she was looking for a guitar player and a mutual friend of ours recommended me. I was in quite a few projects at the time (still am), so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take on another thing. I was sold though after listening to the demos. Definitely wanted to be a part of it after that. I didn’t really know what I was doing during the “audition”, but they seemed to like me and here I am a year and a half later! I’d say we really found our stride around the time Ian Milliken joined late last year. His ear for structure and composition, along with the extra colors he added on cello, guitar, and voice, I think helped Alex more fully realize her vision for the band. We’ve really been gelling as one unit ever since.
PTM: How do you see your role in the band and your goal in its development?
Ryan Hopper: I just want to do everything I can to realize the vision of Oracle Room. I’m playing keys (and manipulating some audio) currently but I also produce a lot of music outside of Oracle Room, so I’m hoping to lend my strengths in that area to the band and the crafting of our sound.
Justin Gonzales: I really don’t play traditional guitar for OR. I see myself more as a sound provider, lending to the mood and atmosphere of the music. I pretty much dart in and out of the songs. The more minimal, the better. There are points in some of our songs where you can’t tell who’s playing what…I like those moments.
Ian Milliken: I see my role as adding to the group dynamic/helping to discover and refine the sound of the band and also showcasing Alex’s voice and her songs. I’ve become very involved in arrangements and big picture overall sound stuff since that is my background (music composition and sound design) and that is something that I can bring to the table. Alex and I are currently producing/mixing 2 songs for the band now.
PTM: Any cool stories that come to your mind?
Ryan Hopper: I (with the help of a few others) convinced Alex and Zach Fisher (drums, percussion, samples) to adopt a street kitty after a show one night. The street kitty was pregnant, but we didn’t know it at the time.
Justin Gonzales: Hmm…cool band stories. We played a show with Sean Lennon in attendance once! He was supporting his buddies in Invisible Familiars (great band – check em out). Anytime we have the full choir singing with us, those are special shows. And I played my first 2am show with these guys. Not that cool – just really late.