Interview: Indie-Rockers Oak Palace Face the Future with Poise and Humor

Known for their eclectic creativity, Oak Palace discuss where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Success in the music industry can’t be boiled down to any single attribute. Every band goes through times in which the joy of creating music is threatened by the grinding search for exposure. The process of promoting, touring, recording and releasing music can take a toll on even veteran performers. Many young and talented musicians fall victim to wasted opportunity, mismanagement or just plain bad luck.

The members of San Diego-based Oak Palace know the risks. As an independent group, they’ve taken on roles often covered by record labels. They’ve booked and played shows, designed merchandise, and even self-released an EP and several singles. Singer and lead guitarist Jonathan explains, “You have to be a musician, you have to be a manager, you have to be a visual designer, you have to do a bunch of things to promote yourself.” He speaks gently and with a disarming smile, but his dedication to the group’s success is obvious. He’s hungry for what’s next, for the band’s future prospects. What makes Oak Palace unique is that the grueling promotional work doesn’t seem to wear on the members. They’re full of smiles and laughter, with a genuine enthusiasm for the process of building their reputation.

Jonathan and his brother David, who plays rhythm guitar, are originally from Mexico, but moved to San Diego for high school. The other band members, Nate (drums), Evelyn (keyboard and vocals) and Osmar (bass), all attended the same school. Each recalls their early experimentation with music; Evelyn fondly remembers learning to play in the school’s marching band. The marching band is no longer active, and she laments how music programs are disappearing from public education. “Keep music in the schools!” shouts Nate, and though he says it with a chuckle, it’s clear that he means it.

Of course, school programs aren’t the only motivation for learning music. David first learned guitar for the social aspect. He was hanging out with friends when, “A guy grabbed a guitar and strummed a few chords, and the girls were falling all over him… I was like, ‘I gotta learn to play guitar, this is ridiculous!’’’ As each member became more musically proficient, they formed a couple of different bands that eventually came together as Oak Palace. Nate comments, “We’re sort of like Voltron… we started as two bands and merged into one!”

Oak Palace considers the development of their sound to be an ongoing project. Playing pure folk early on, they’re now fully embracing rock and pop influences. Despite some desire to settle on a genre, the band recognizes that breadth and variety are major strengths of their music. Nate calls their sound “ADHD rock,” given their ability to make quick jumps in style. Jonathan says, “Even if it doesn’t make sense musically to go wherever we’re going, we’re just like ‘Fuck it, it’s too boring, let’s change it.’” Keeping the music quirky, intriguing and creative is a point of emphasis. Though several members of the band are familiar with music theory, they refuse to be overly constrained by rules or structure.

The group’s variety of musical tastes help them stay fresh, as they can look to artists of different styles for inspiration. The band counts classic names like Bob Dylan and the Beatles among their influences, as well as more niche groups like Bombay Bicycle Club and My Morning Jacket. Nate remarks that Oak Palace’s first song actually felt too derivative of Bombay Bicycle Club, and their subsequent wariness of sounding like anyone else inspires their originality.

Nate perfected his drumming at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He considers the experience valuable to his technique, but says he missed the eclecticism of Oak Palace. “These guys draw out some kind of creativity in my body!” he exclaims with a laugh. The other members agree that they feed off each other’s energy; they share a confidence that induces inspiration. The only conflict is over how to perfect each song before it’s released. Jonathan comments, “That’s what kind of brings more tension [to the group]… Some of us are like ‘Let’s release it!’ And some of us are like, ‘No wait, it’s not ready, it could be better!’”

Streamlining the production of their music is a major focus for the group as they look to expand their fan base. Although the band could enlist an experienced producer, they’re nervous about trusting anyone else with their music. They realize that division of labor can help them grow, but they feel it’s important to keep creative control. Jonathan says, “Working with people is difficult; that’s the most difficult thing about having a band. It’s not the music [itself], it’s working with people to do the music, whether it’s the band or a producer or anyone else involved.” However, the group says they’re starting to find producers they enjoy working with, and are hoping these partnerships will prove fruitful.

In addition to recording and releasing new music, Oak Palace is excited about spreading their sound through live performance. The group had a blast playing in Tijuana and Mexico City, attracting a youthful and enthusiastic crowd. Nate recounts their performance in Mexico City during a period of inclement weather: “It was literally hailing in Mexico City, and we were like… ‘Probably no one’s gonna be at the show, who the hell is gonna go out on a night like this? So we get there and it was just fucking packed, and [the crowd] was insane, dancing to every song, singing words they didn’t even know how to say, but just doing it!” The group found the San Diego music scene to be less immediately gratifying, due to the older audiences and larger venues. Yet they’re making a name for themselves, playing numerous successful shows in San Diego with other local bands like indie-pop outfit Minor Gems.

I took in Oak Palace’s recent performance at San Diego’s Tower Bar, where the band’s infectious humor and confidence won over the crowd. They radiated warmth and vigor, making the audience immediately comfortable with playful banter between songs. The skill and energy of the band members became apparent the moment they launched into their set. Yet their intensity never overwhelmed the incredible fun of the experience. Anyone who takes the opportunity to see Oak Palace perform is in for a treat.

The band knows that taking their show on the road is an essential step to greater success. They hope to gradually expand their touring schedule as they continue to put out new records. They’re confronting the same growing pains as any other band trying to gain prominence, and no one can tell what the future holds. Yet the group faces this future with an uncommon level of clear-eyed optimism. Oak Palace isn’t afraid of the next steps, and they’re approaching those steps with a formidable blend of talent, drive and creativity.

Check out the latest single from Oak Palace below, and see them at Che Café’s Escorted Trips festival September 1st in San Diego!

photo by: Jin-Guan-KOH/Flickr