Side-projects arise from passion when artists feel the itch to break away from the old and experiment with the new. In many ways, they become vessels to carry creative energy and ideas. But many side-projects don’t take flight.
Yet, every so often you get a part-time passion that becomes the full-time band.
Friends Max Goldstein, Max Loebman, and Stef Roti started writing soulful songs as Yoko and the Oh No’s when their band the New Originals waned. By the time the New Originals ended, Goldstein had already left the band to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston to study musical performance.
Goldstein returned home after a semester. “The timing worked out and it all just fell into place,” he said. And while he first felt torn about leaving Berklee, he reflected, “it went from ‘oh my god, I dropped out of school’ to confirming this was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Since the band’s inception, Chicago’s collaborative music scene has helped the Oh No’s blossom. They’ve been invited to play shows across the city’s venues and neighborhood festivals, like last summer’s Wicker Park Fest. The group has also built national acclaim as they’ve played at this year’s SXSW, they played on Daytrotter, and one of the Cubs announcers played their song “She Ain’t Mine” during a Cross Town rivalry game between the Cubs and Sox.
Drummer Stef Roti, a DePaul grad with a business degree, may boast a bright, wide smile — and habitually offers guests beer — and she’s the basically more-or-less the manager behind the band. You can tell when she talks about handling much of the bands operations, from answering press requests to securing cash from the venue manager at the end of a gig. “Everything’s a startup. Everything’s a business,” she said.
Yoko and the Oh No’s began as a recording project between the two Maxes who were craftsmen of using midi keyboards to mimic soulful horn sounds. But when they reeled in Stef to play drums for this project, they realized running keyboards through computer software would be impractical for a live set-up. Instead, they swapped Casiotones for guitar tones.
Soon after writing together, the three-piece recorded an album without a bass player. But they didn’t release the album until a few years later when they got label support. Autumn Tone Records (Twin Peaks and The Orwells) signed them in January of 2015.
The Oh No’s released a single this June titled “Yung James,” which features a beginning vocal melody similar to Bob Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues,” with pounding drums, and the bluesy residue of guitar fuzz.
Their self-titled debut album features plenty of Loebman’s masterful and crunchy guitar work contrasted against Goldstein’s clean, blue-eyed soul vocals. Judging from their sound, they’re likely a band that listens to Marquee Moon during the drive to a show and listens to Marvin Gaye on the drive back.
Their sound derives from their overlaps in musical taste. The band’s rock ’n’ roll sound come from Roti pummeling the drums and Loebman’s penchant for ‘60s songwriting, but Goldstein gives the band soul. “There are very few things I don’t listen to, but I like listening to music you can tap your foot to,” he said.
In fact, their music is like looking at doo-wop, soul, garage-rock, punk, and early 2000’s indie through a kaleidoscope.
Stef said when she grew up, her dad only had three tapes in his car: Kenny Loggins, Phantom of the Opera, and Cat Stevens. While those influences aren’t heard on their record, Max Loebman’s chord changes sound very reminiscent of his dads’s tapes, like the Stones and Beatles. Loebman also worked at Shuga Records, which further exposed him to R&B and funk.
All of them constantly write songs. When Goldstein first left for Berklee, Stef and Max Loebman played in The Irenes. Loebman also writes demos, releasing them on his Bandcamp page and plans to perform them alongside with Stef.
To Loebman, the band taking off felt natural. “It came to be the main project through the chemistry between the three of us,” he said. “The sounds of the other projects were more relevant to us at those times but not later on,” he continued, explaining that being in several previous bands taught them to “learn responsibility to and to establish leadership.”
During her last night in her Lincoln Park apartment, Stef shushed her friends during the Television song “Elevation,” and she air drummed along to Billy Ficca’s percussion solo. When she’s not talking about classic records, Stef is most excited talking about Yoko and the Oh No’s new material.
The band members grew up in Chicago, they’ve played in several bands in the city, and they’ve connected with plenty of music lovers in the city. But they left for Los Angeles this summer after taking the advice of their label and peers in regards to expansion.
One of Stef’s friends gathered everyone for a polaroid picture to document this place and time. It captured her final moments in her Chicago apartment before driving down to LA.
Since they have no manager or agent, they hope to find connections in LA. The Oh No’s have no expectations of staying there forever. And if living in LA doesn’t pan out for them in the long-run, Stef said the worst cast scenario is that they play a lot of shows, meet new people, and move back to Chicago to continue doing music.
“Life is a trip and I don’t know what is going to happen 5 minutes from now,” Goldstein said. “But I can’t see myself living in New York City or LA,” he shared with me after leaving for the Golden State, “and we love being a Chicago band.” They may be taking LA this summer, but they’ll come back home.
Credits: Kevin Allen and Dye Photography