In 2011, O Ryne Warner left Portland for Tucson. The writing regarding his time there was on the wall. "My house burned down," Warner says from his new place outside of Gate's Pass in the Tucson Mountains. "I got hit by a car. I got married. Just like, all this bad shit."
The marriage didn't take, but Tucson did, and you hear the city's influence on Empty/Every MT, the new record from Warner's band Ohioan. There's dust on the record's breath, and its sonic qualities draw lines between the Sonoran and Saharan desert, merging cow punk twang to Tuareg guitar drones. Featuring contributions from Susan Alcorn, Arrington De Dionyso, and Tara Jane ONeil, it's Warner's finest recorded work yet, following up excellent records like 2009's High Country and 2011's Balls Deep in Babylon.
"I just had a gut feeling about Tucson," Warner says. His settling there followed a years of traveling, which included stints in Oregon, New Mexico and time in Prescott, Arizona, where he frequented the Catalyst Inshop, which was raided by federal agents in 2005 in relation to an FBI investigation of "eco-terrorist" cells. But Warner's roots—and his band name—are in Ohio, where he grew up in close to nature. So close it almost sounds like he cribbed his backstory from an issue of Boys' Life.
"Until I was eight years old, I lived out in the woods with my nuclear family: my mother, my biological father and my little brother," Warner says. "My dad was a self-taught carpenter and he built our house, dug our well. He didn't know how to do any of that stuff; he just figured it out. Once I came of age, I was given a bow and arrow and told, 'Go get some bullfrogs and rabbits if we're gonna eat.'"
His parents split, and for a spell he stayed with his mom and brother in a one-room studio, sharing a bed. She remarried, and the family moved closer to Columbus, Ohio, where he fell into skating, hip-hop, and the local hardcore scene. "I was just really lucky to be where I was at the time I was," Warner says. "In the late '90s, there were tons of bands coming through. Columbus had one of the best communities for hardcore."
Warner got involved with putting on a local festival, the More Than Music Festival. "It was so communal. You could go to a show and leave with 15 new friends from all over the country. You would make a point to go to Tampa, Florida and hang out with those guys."
Taking to the road came naturally to Warner. Like a DIY Deadhead, he followed local act To Dream of Autumn on tour in a station wagon, then spent time as a roadie for garage rock band The Sun, then began playing bass in bands like Ghost to Falco and Castanets. All the while, he was introduced to new sounds—country & western, psychedelic folk, African blues.
"When I came up in the hardcore scene, it wasn't really genre-specific," Warner says, whose own taste runs the gamut from Neurosis to Gang of Four to Suicide. "The way people talk about punk rock in '75, as an attitude and not a genre, it was more like that. Coming from that scene, where people were hungry...you were just taking risks on stuff because it might be interesting."
His own record is certainly interesting. Empty/Every MT is something of a concept album, drawing parallels between the strip mining of his native Midwest and the ecological plunder of the Southwest. He'd previously been environmentally "radicalized" by the writings of Derek Jensen (the "philosopher poet of the environmental movement") but upon his arrival in Tucson, he fell into the writing of Ed Abbey.
"That stuff's super cliché and Abbey is a questionable writer," he laughs. "But he's a great gateway once you get past all the bullshit masculinity and his ten dollar words everywhere. His concepts are sound—at least in the context of those times."
He read further, and deeper, reading Judy Pasternak's Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos, about uranium mining and its disastrous effects on the Diné people.
On the record, he ties these disparate threads together, ultimately crafting a protest record that rails not only against specific power structures, but against what Warner views as an encroaching loss of individual humanity, best exemplified by the stomping, hypnotic jam "Pissing at Will," with its maxim/mantra: "Stay human!"
"It's like Philip K. Dick asks: what does it mean to be a human?" Warner says. "What's really crazy is how we self-define in this day and age. It's not as humans; it's as consumers. Listen to talk radio or read articles, you hear people referring to people as consumers far more often than human beings. That's a self-definition. We call ourselves that without batting an eyelash and it's fucking creepy, but it's also unnervingly accurate. That's pretty much all we do now: consume shit. Resources, land masses, entire populations, data. It's just consumption."
Warner doesn't make any claims to be above the system or removed from it, and he's too quick to crack a cynical joke to be self-righteous. "It's not like I'm some tinfoil hat wearing guy calling people consumers," Warner says. "It's a definition we use without any awareness of it."
Ultimately, Empty/Every MT is about trying to untangle the complicated threads he sends his time thinking about. "I feel the things I feel, and I don't know how to reconcile it," Warner says. Exploring that grey area, picking those weird scabs, is part of his job as an artist.
"That's the only way I feel legitimate in doing it," Warner says. "Why am I using all these resources? Petroleum to press vinyl records, drive the van around and play shows. I guess that does sound a little naive and righteous...but it's what I do to allow myself to feel better about it. That's fucking real—but I don't know if there's any validity to art that doesn't at least acknowledge what the fuck is going on."
Editor's Note: O Ryne Warner is a current Tucson Weekly contributor.