The only unused amp in Oh Manitou's already cramped rehearsal space offers an ideal vantage point for watching the Rochester rock band in its process: the quintet is arranged in a circle, with frequent lead vocalist Matt Battle, behind his drum kit, as the focal point. Battle is a kind of de facto bandleader, although the proceedings are as democratic as possible.
Oh Manitou launches into its original songs "From the Forest" and "The Ghost" with ease, but things slow down as work on a new song suddenly requires more deliberation; the band lingers on freshly created phrases and sections before moving on. The most frequent interjections come from Andrew Links, the band's energetic keyboardist, who consults with Battle about the ideal sound. Rhythm guitarist Sean Greif — whose performance mannerisms are the most "emo" in the band — hashes out some melodic counterpoint with hoodie-wearing lead guitarist Chris Potter. Throughout, bassist Kamara Robideau provides the steady thump-and-hum that gives it all cohesion.
An unnamed stuffed monkey all the while is dangling perpetually from the chandelier overhead, a silent witness to everything going on below.
Interplay is a crucial part of the process for Oh Manitou, whose members are preparing for upcoming gigs in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia during the first week of May as well as the May 19 album release show for its new EP, "From the Forest." A weekend East Coast mini-tour is nothing new for the band, but in conjunction with the recording, it's a pivotal time for Oh Manitou. The band's lineup is still fresh and still exploring its sonic identity yet Oh Manitou is already quietly making some of the best and most emotionally vulnerable music in Rochester.
It's only been a year since the current Oh Manitou lineup came together. Amid the musical remains of Aminal — Battle's former indie electro-pop band — Robideau and Potter joined up with the drummer to form what would become Oh Manitou's core trio. Greif and Links would come on board later. The band has released several singles so far, and the forthcoming EP will be its most definitive and complete statement to date. "It's like a foundation record," Battle equivocates. "It is what it is. To me, it's not the statement that we're capable of making. Maybe I'm shitting on it too much. I'm overly critical."
Greif's perspective is more objective. "As somebody that came to the table a little bit later," he says, "it sounds to me that it's a band in that liminal phase of having what they used to do cross over, be buttressed by one or two ideas that are sort of seminal for how the band is going to be after this."
The band may be in a transitional stage, but the music is far from middling. There's something distinctly exciting about a scintillating rock band that isn't beholden to any one set of sounds.
"It's like a good push and pull between everyone when we write," Battle says, speaking of the band's various heartfelt influences. "But we have to kind of come together at the same time. We're all like coming from a different place, so it creates this, I think, healthy tension in the writing process."
Prior to Oh Manitou, Battle had always brought parts in for other band members to play essentially verbatim, as opposed to bringing in only chords and melodies for the musicians to flesh out, which he does now.
"Chris and I come from a jazz sideman standpoint, which is like, you show up, there's the gig," Links says. "So I think it's dangerous for the direction of the band to rely on one person, for example. And even that person might have a great vision or whatever, but I think having a healthy dynamic of contrast and some kind of common ground forged from healthy argument creates something that's way more dynamic than something that's just 'I like this, and we're doing this, you play that.' "
The members of Oh Manitou can explain how they make music much better than they can label it. "You can talk in simpler terms," Potter says. "'Let's get bigger, louder, a little bit more aggressive' or 'really mellow and light.' And you can say, 'Oh, that's that genre,' or 'That is reminiscent of this band.' But for us, it just makes it easier and quicker to communicate ideas when you're not thinking about that kind of stuff."
When Robideau is asked what genre of music Oh Manitou plays, the response is a curious one, but it makes sense. "You're like expecting something specific, and if I don't give it to you, you're not gonna listen to it," she says of prospective fans of the band. "So just go listen to it."
When the term "post-emo" is posited as a potential descriptor, Greif is quick to respond. "'Post' ... I have trouble with 'post,'" he says. "What the hell is 'post'? Postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-yada yada yada. Post-feminism. Post-masculine. I just feel like it's — if I may, I feel like it's a journalistic shorthand."
"Post-emo" may be shorthand, but the longer version comes more to the point. The signifiers of emo are certainly present: the loud, distorted guitars, the emotive tenor vocals that often harmonize in thirds, and the agitated if slightly melodramatic atmosphere Battle might refer to as "mood."
The difference is that Oh Manitou's music reflects a sophistication and attention to craft that seems to be lacking in some emo songs. This kind of emo-adjacent positioning is also apparent in Oh Manitou's lyrics. "From the Forest" begins with a wistful, passive-aggressive plea, followed by a defiant question: "I was just hoping you'd take me away from this place that I've come to call home / What's home, anyway?"
Perhaps the song that showcases the band's versatility best on the EP is "People I'd Like to Be." Beginning with a nine-note motive that recalls Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," any evocation of the 1980's quickly gives way to highly danceable indie rock that defies the listener to keep her feet still. Vocal harmonies take the fore before the song ends with a deliciously proggy keyboard solo.
What the artists My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses have done by taking emo-esque vocals and transplanting them in an electrified Americana landscape, Oh Manitou may accomplish in taking those same vocal tendencies and giving them a reverberating, shoegazey, arena-rock environment in which to shine. If there's a Rochester band poised to break out, Oh Manitou is it.