words + photo by lili marvin
Before streaming services, corporate agendas, and industry politics, there was music. Pure, communal, music in its most true art form. Despite frequently discouraging headlines, communities like Chicago are still banding together to produce celebratory refutations to the world’s overwhelming cocktail of ambiguity. Ohmme's Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart defy all restrictive genre to deliver compelling sonic experiments of improvised dichotomies and therapeutic expression. We sat down with the talented duo over tiki drinks and yacht rock radio at Lincoln Calling Festival last month to talk about Chicago’s dynamic community of creatives.
For those unfamiliar, how would you describe the Chicago music community?
Macie: Chicago is a really collaborative environment, and there are a lot of different people there who are making a lot of different kinds of music, it’s really great to be part of the scene because you can work with anybody. Everyone wants to support everyone else, so everyone is going to everyone’s shows, there’s always the same people at the bars. I feel like the music scene is really, really close in Chicago, it creates this environment that’s more creative in a way because everyone is just trying to make something with everybody else.
Sima: Yeah, I feel like a lot of people we know in Chicago have been playing since they were like teenagers. I wonder if some of that comes from Chicago being a very basement friendly city, like, there’s a lot of basements in Chicago and so I feel like it’s an easy city to start a rock band in you know? You have a basement, maybe some old gear lying around, I feel like a lot of us actually got to be playing in bands with other people that didn’t just like music but were actually pretty good from a really young age. That kinda set the tone for a lot of what’s happening now, now that we are all young adults and also getting to meet all the people that moved to Chicago for school or whatever and that whole new wave of people who have discovered Chicago. I feel like it’s a nice combination of the stream of people that were there and the stream of people that came in and it’s just swirling around and it’s a lot of fun.
That’s what I loved about Chicago when I worked at the Empty Bottle this summer, people were just going to shows to be around music and the community.
Sima: Yeah, you got to experience the Free Music Mondays, it’s like so great.
Macie: That’s one of the best show series ever because people just go to it, because there’s probably gonna be something good or be friends there that you can hang out and listen to music with.
That Monday series is a great way for newer bands to take that first big step into the scene. Besides the Bottle, are there any other places you guys frequent?
Sima: We grew up at the Hideout
Macie: We’ve both played there since we were like fifteen, sixteen years old in various rock bands.
Sima: Always with parental supervision
Macie: Constantly getting told you are NOT allowed to have any alcohol
Sima: But I think the Hideout is one of the best clubs in America, just like how it’s run and the programming they produce in there. We spend a lot of time at Constellation and the Hungry Brain, which are like these sister clubs on the corner of Belmont and Western that were opened up by Mike Greed—well, the Hungry Brain had been there for a long time but Mike reopened it and gave it a second life. That’s our home base, we came out of the scene that exists there. We know a lot of the musicians that hang out around there. Of course, there’s other clubs too. We’ve played at Thalia so many times this year which is very awesome and it was so great.
Macie: Chicago is so rich with clubs, there’s so many places to play and so many different sizes. You can play a club that fits like 75 people and still play a place that fits 1500 people. There’s something for every step of the way of your process of becoming a band and working band. I think that’s really special and helps feed the scene because there’s always a place for people to play.
I know you guys do a lot of collaborative work with other musicians, how do you find yourself balancing this project with shared ones? Do you prefer one or the other?
Macie: I think they work off of each other, I think you have to be able to extend your creativity past just one project. If you’re myopic and just have one thing you’re doing it can easily become stagnant, so it’s really fun for us to branch out and sing on someones thing or do string arrangements for someone else’s project because it’s exercising this creative muscle that needs to be worked out.
As far as your songwriting goes, these songs appear very reflective and narrative. How do you approach storytelling through your lyrics?
Sima: I think that we are often try to zone in on very minute emotions and ideas, it’s a lot easier to start with something very intimate and small and pull out from there rather than grasp at a very general emotion. It’s a lot easier to start a story from a specific interaction, you think about how people write a book. Like how people write a book. Some of my favorite books start with this really specific moment and then it goes on from there. After that moment, you get deeper into the ideas and philosophies that are being revealed through the story. But I think that a lot of them start with a critical moment or gesture, it’s similar with a lot of our music, trying to understand all the physical and mental and emotional and intellectual things swirling around that moment.
Building upon those moments, would your music lend itself more towards being a celebration of life and these instances, or rather a form of escape?
Macie: I don’t know if it’s different for the both of us, but I know that a lot of the lyrics I write are trying to understand what’s happening in my life and brain, a lot of it is my own personal “therapy” but it’s not really therapy…it’s just analyzing what’s going on in my brain and how that works. It’s not really an escape but more of an analytical thing, they’re not very straightforward. It helps me connect with myself and by nature of that whoever audiences is listening.
Sima: I feel a lot of joy when singing, even the ones that, even particularly on this new record Parts, performing most of the songs—the upbeat ones and the slow ones—all make me pretty emotional. Not like I’m going to cry, but they really fill me up. I feel like when we perform them on stage it’s an outpouring of whatever that particular song is. Every song live and on the record makes me feel like expending a lot of energy. I don’t really know if it’s joyful or celebratory. Some people pick up a lot of darkness, but it’s a happy darkness. I don’t think there’s a clear answer. Which I think is what a lot of people feel these days, I feel like there is a lot of darkness and things that make me very emotional and upset but also outpourings of love. It’s a reflection of the weird dichotomy that we are living in.
Macie: Yeah, we really like dichotomies, as evidenced by our band.
In exploring these emotions and dichotomies, do the lyrics or the instrumentation help you in expression more? Or rather is it the pairing of the two?
Sima: We enjoy flexing all the reaches of our voices, really being able to bellow and yell, and then also like kinda be soft and sweet is very very satisfying. If you’ve never sung at the top of your lungs, which I think everyone has, you know how that feels. To do it, and it’s your own music, your own lyrics, your own story you’re trying to convey it’s very very powerful. Obviously we have developed an intense love affair with the guitar and all of the power we are able to wield through it. The amount of noise from the smallest little ticks to loud roars you can achieve on it, both of us thrive in this intense dynamic moment during our show. We copied that intensity on the record.
I discovered Ken Vandermark this summer at the Bottle going through hundreds of posters of his, spent way too many hours going through them all, but noted that you did some collaboration with him. What role do these “classical” instruments serve in the production of your sound?
Macie: It was really great to have Ken on the record because we came from this scene at Constellation, inspired by the improvisation there. Ken Vandermark is an incredible reeds player, one of the best improvisation artists playing today. Having him on the record helped us connect our music to that scene more than it already was. Even though he is playing a more traditional instrument, bass clarinet, the way that he plays it is so not traditional and opposite to that approach. That’s something we really admire, being able to look at things that are frequently used in music or people see all the time and turn it on its head. Maybe playing it as a textural instrument instead of playing melodies. That was really great, it pushed us in that song to explore the bed of sound that’s underneath it. He played on Sentient and Walk Me.
Tonight will be my first time seeing your performance live, do you ever bring those instruments out into the live performance?
Macie: It’s only our three piece, but sometimes I bring the violin if we are doing Sentient Beings.
Do you find the song changes at all moving from the multi-layered approach of recording to the three-piece live performance?
Sima: The only time besides recording that we got to perform with a cello was our record release show at Thalia. It’s really special, it gave a whole different side. We performed it in an improvised manner because we didn’t have time to rehearse.
Macie: It opened it up a lot more.
Sima: Macie and Matt (drummer) are pretty involved improvisers now. They spend a lot of time doing improvised music and Matt, our drummer, came out of the jazz scene. That’s one of my favorite moments of our set. Our set has become very high energy and driving, but that always feels like a break in the storm—not a bad storm, a good summer storm. I take a super back seat I improvise a little bit but I leave it to Macie and Matt and give them a moment to have a really beautiful duet. I think the audience gets totally swept away in it, because I’m not really performing I often watch them and it’s awesome. I’m glad that we get to pull a little piece of our musical upbringing into our new audiences we are discovering. Improvised music is pretty prevalent in Chicago, you can throw a rock into a bar and you’re probably going to hit an improviser. Not in Nebraska!