Andy LeMaster, the leading force behind Now It's Overhead, said he met several people from Saddle Creek in a band at a show in Florida about nine years ago, when he was in another band.
"We just hit it off really well," he explained. "It was, from the start, a real collaborative thing, with a bunch of different people, and I got to be a part of that mix. And by the time I had the first record done, it was a pretty obvious choice to put it out on Saddle Creek."
LeMaster, who is one of the most consistent members of Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes, also produced many Saddle Creek releases from the studio he co-owns in Athens, Ga., Chase Park Transduction. It was to this studio that Conor Oberst went to record some sessions for his second Bright Eyes record. From then on, Athens and Omaha became sister music cities, with Athens musicians like Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor of Azure Ray (who are also members of Now It's Overhead) lending their voices and musicianship to Bright Eyes. Incidentally, Fink and Taylor both live in Omaha these days.
But the main distinction between Now It's Overhead and other Saddle Creek bands goes beyond geography; Now It's Overhead is polished where Cursive is rough, subtle where Bright Eyes is dramatic, and calm where The Faint is energized. In other words, Now It's Overhead sounds little like their sibling bands, despite the fact that LeMaster's musical influence is widespread across the Saddle Creek catalog.
"I like the idea of having as much variety as possible, but similar attitudes, just toward music in general, and I think that's there in a few different ways," said LeMaster of this phenomenon.
What truly contributes to Now It's Overhead's differing sound may in fact be that close proximity to the other bands. LeMaster began writing and recording the songs on Now It's Overhead's first record, released in 2002, during off hours and in his spare time between touring with Bright Eyes and recording other people's music.
"When I got into music, it was to play it, and I kind of got into recording because I played music, so recording is second-tier to playing music anyway, because my love for recording grew out of my love for playing music," explained LeMaster. "As a producer, when you're really working with bands hand-in-hand, you're pretty much a musician in the band; you're like an extra member anyway, so I've always done my own music even when I didn't have a band ... . I just started recording my own songs on the side. Before I knew it, I kind of had an album and decided to name it and get some people together and play out and everything. The songs created the band."
Now It's Overhead's first release, which is self-titled, is one of those records that creeps up on you unexpectedly; the dense instrumentation, dramatic emotions and haunting lyrics combine to make a record that is nearly impossible to pin down. The general feeling of the songs is something like early '80s goth rock but without the black eyeliner; the kind of music you'd imagine Robert Smith making if he'd been born in a small town in Georgia.
Since LeMaster wrote the songs on the first record and then formed the band, composed of Fink, Taylor and Clay Leverett, the band's sophomore release, Fall Back Open (Saddle Creek, 2004) saw things in reverse.
"It was definitely different," said LeMaster. "It was a bit more of a challenge because the first stuff; the songs just kind of presented themselves, and this one, it definitely involved a lot more energy to think."
Now It's Overhead was the story of the lifespan of a relationship: the beginning, middle, and end, explained LeMaster. Fall Back Open, however, is more all-encompassing, more mature, more ambiguous, and subsequently, a stronger record; the songs are full-bodied and breathe.
"(Fall Back Open) has a more vast theme about it; it's kind of inclusive of a lot of things," said LeMaster. "You have a unifying, longing kind of feeling about the record, a cycle of searching and finding and realizing that's not quite it, and looping that around, and looking for fulfillment, and each song is an avenue for that, a different attempt at putting an end to this cycle."
"Turn and Go" exemplifies this theme of searching: "There is not what I want in a mountain peak; there is not what I want in a valley deep; I don't know," sings LeMaster. The title track, which features guest vocals by Conor Oberst, is the cycle spinning out and regenerating itself: "With a pull on a thread and a split, fall back open, what a fool to believe for a minute that could hold it." On "The Decision Made Itself," an ode to the realization that some things are beyond control, a silvery acoustic guitar echoes the melody LeMaster sings. "Antidote" is the winter before the spring, so to speak: "Antidote, break open truth word for word," sing LeMaster and guest vocalist (and fellow Athens musician) Michael Stipe.
The guitar melody in "Antidote" is reminiscent of Disintegration-era Cure, but LeMaster pointed out that Now It's Overhead is more than the sum of its musical references.
"All bands are derived from what they like. I don't think it's pompous for me to say (Now It's Overhead) is kind of a unique combination of music that filters through me that I like. I think it has a distinct personality," said LeMaster. "But I don't think it's terribly derivative. Basically, I think it's something slightly other-sounding, and whether or not you like that other type of sound, that's a question. I feel like Now it's Overhead is kind of squirmy to be pinned down a little bit, and categorized. People are like, 'What kind of music do you play?' And I'm like, 'I don't know; it's kind a few different things put together.'"