Interview – Ohmme

Ohmme – © Ash Dye

Macie Stewart on Chicago, Kate Bush and being a woman in the scene.

By Isobel Mcleod

Ohmme are a cornerstone of the Chicago scene, made up of Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham with drummer Matt Carroll.  After gaining an international name, playing with people like Chance the Rapper, SZA and Twin Peaks, they now have a new album coming called ‘Fantasize Your Ghost’ out June 5th on Joyful Noise Recordings.

As a product of their surroundings, the diversity of Chicago music scene has contributed to Ohmme’s sound, pulling influence from indie rock to free form jazz. They manage to combine gritty guitars with luscious vocals to produce great depth of sound. This is ever present on their newest singles, teasing an exciting and innovative second album.

Hey Macie, how are you coping with the shift into virtual performances or online content creation?

  • I mean it is a little strange because it’s not something we’re used to, but I think it has been a fun challenge at the same time, to try and figure out how to make it work. We’re trying different versions of performances for Ohmme. We did one for Dr Martens the other day which was fun. I pre-recorded a part and videoed myself, then we sent it to our drummer who lives in Copenhagen, then he did the same thing. Sima then played live over our recordings, and it was a really cool thing to do. I was watching it and it felt like I was almost there. It was fun, and I guess we’re going to try and do a few more things like that and hopefully merge pods soon. Hopefully we’re going to a really secluded small farm than Sima’s family friend is letting us go and hang out at. I think that will be nice and is something to look forward to.

With Ohmme, you’re often cited as being pretty central to the Chicago music scene, how do you find the scene?  Is it inclusive and a safe space?

  • I think that the Chicago music scene is a really, really special thing. I don’t think there’s another city that has a scene quite like it. It has very diverse music styles and people, and I think that it’s a very supportive scene too. It is a very big city but at times it feels like a small village. It’s very closely intertwined, and I think a lot of people are interested in different kinds of music too. We also have a really great collection of independently run venues, that make it possible for all of these kinds of music to exist. When you have venues that are owned by giant companies, often they’re looking for not what is the most culturally healthy and important, but something that is guaranteed to make money. I think that a mixture of all of those things kind of adds up to the Chicago music scene being really supportive, interesting and rich to be a part of. I feel like I have never really left Chicago, and I am yet to feel like I’m bored or that there is a lack of new music or new ways of thinking about things. It’s really stimulating and supportive. Such a special scene to be a part of and grow up around. That’s been really lucky.  

Is there any new music going on at the moment in Chicago, or further afield, that you’re excited about?

  • Definitely! Our friend Nnamdi Ogbonnaya released a new record called ‘BRAT’ which is really amazing. Our other friend V.V Lightbody released an album called ‘Make a Shrine or Burn It’ that is also super interesting. We’re gonna be touring with her in January which we’re also really excited about. There’s a tonne of good stuff! There’s a new Post Animal record, a Deeper record. I think 2020 is a gonna be a good year for the indie rock scene. There’s loads! That’s not even to mention the improvised music scene which we’re also a part of. There’s always stuff that I’m just floored by.

When you began the Ohmme project, you said it was about limiting yourself to just guitars, what do you find so interesting and special about guitars?

  • Well I think coming from a place where we were both playing keyboards mainly in bands, the guitar seemed like something that was just an open field. There’s pedals, and you can use pedals on keyboards too, but there’s something about guitar, which is a different kind of energy that you can put forth. We also were not entirely familiar with how the electric guitar worked or all we could do with it. It felt like there were these limitless opportunities to what we could do with it. We were excited to use that. But, also, we had been going to this venue called Constellation which Sima actually helped open it. It’s an incredible venue, that does a lot of improvised and experimental music and things around that genre, also a lot of jazz. We went there and I specifically remember seeing a concert of Marc Ribot, who’s a really amazing guitar player. I remember being like woah, I didn’t realise a guitar could be played like that and seeing it in that setting made things click for me. We wanted to play the guitar because it was something very new to us. We were nervous about it, but also knew we had enough knowledge of music where we could approach something so foreign to us and at least have a gauge of whether it was really really bad or decent. It was cool and it kept going from there. We wanted to play guitar and then have our harmonies over the top of it.

In an ideal world this question wouldn’t exist or need to, but as women playing guitars do you think you are treated different or have to prove yourselves more than your male counterparts?

  • We were just having this conversation the other day! I have been touring for 10 years now, and I feel like it’s drastically different now. Things have changed in a way, where I feel like I’m seeing so many more women and non-binary people playing the guitar which is an incredible thing to see around. I think 10 years ago, when I started touring and playing in bands, I was the only women-identifying person around. Being an 18-year-old and doing that kinda sucked! I think there are definitely times where you would go to gigs and they’d think I was doing merch or wouldn’t let me in the venue. That doesn’t happen as much anymore, which is good! And I think we need to be encouraging everyone to play these instruments and go for it, and get up on stage because when you see representation of someone that looks like you that’s the most important thing.

For me being around the Birmingham music scene for 5 or 6 years now, going from being one of the only girls at gigs, to having a group of us, then seeing my female peers on stage, was always a wonderful feeling. It stopped feeling like a boys club.

  • We were talking with our friend V.V Lightbody about the first time we saw each other play. I remember being like 20 or 21, so I’d been in the scene for about 4 years, I remember seeing her on stage and being like oh my god, who is this woman, I wanna be her friend so bad because she’s so good. Seeing that is really important and I’m glad that it is happening more, and it should keep happening more and more. There’s no reason for it to be a boys club.

The new album’s coming out soon which is exciting! How do you feel like your background in music has influenced this album?

  • We both grew up playing a lot of different kinds of music, so I think that that definitely shines through because we have a lot of different influences that run pretty deeply and maybe even subconsciously. But I think we’ve been listening to a lot of Kate Bush and Brian Eno, also Cate Le Bon and Feist and I think a lot of those things shine through with this record. There are more in depth string arrangements and a few more arranged vocal parts. We were trying not to limit ourselves so much to the amount of overdubs we did. We did on the last record, we wanted to approach this one a little differently. I think that it feels cohesive, and well I hope it does, it feels cohesive to us! But also drawing on a lot of different kinds of music. I think it’s a little bit more direct than the last record, which is probably a result of us playing together for a few years now, and also formalising some of our interests. But they are always all over the place!

The video for the single ‘3234’ is out now, it kinda reminds me of the Blair Witch Project, was it fun to film?

  • It was really fun but extremely exhausting! We got asked to open for Wilco in Mexico City in January, like a week and a half before the show. We were like ‘ahh omg okay!!!’ and we knew that we had to start getting some things ready for the release of the record, so we were trying to figure out what to do for the video. We both discussed doing something in Mexico City. So Sima reached out to a friend of a friend’s band from Mexico City who had a video, just to ask who directed the video. The band, El Shirota, put us in touch with the video production company, Somos/Simios, so we emailed them, like ‘I know its really quick and tight and this seems crazy’, but they emailed back ‘nope, we’re in!’ They were absolutely incredible and so fun to work with. We woke up at 5am one day and worked all the way till 11pm just driving around Mexico City and filming all over the place with them. They’re really incredible people and artists so it was really fun. I think that’s some of the joy in it, is being able to collaborate with other artists.

You’ve played with some really cool musicians and collaborated with artists, producers, who’s your dream collaborator if you could work with anyone?

  • Dream collaborator! There are so many people, it’s so hard to answer that question to just one. I think off the top of my head…. I would like to work with, Kate Bush. Obviously, her musical ability, but her knack for performance and theatre is pretty incredible.

Yes, she’s so breath-taking. She’s one of the main female musicians I can think of, who combined visual art with music to create concept albums.

  • Every single one of her albums is like a completed idea, which is something that I definitely try to strive for. It’s really cool.

Look out for ‘Fantasize Your Ghost’ out June 5th and available to preorder here.