Smile Politely

Inspired by lost member, Neoga Blacksmith crafts new music

Loss of longtime friend and piano-playing bandmate Kyle Usher inspires tuneful compositions that are often reflective.

The new nine-song album by Neoga Blacksmith, Chronontonius, is a musical triumph. Every cohesively ordered composition is tuneful and crafted in a natural-sounding way, with lyrics that are often reflective. Sublime keyboard work and twangy guitar solos infiltrate the tunes, and primary lead singer and main songwriter Matt Wade sounds at times like an angry Steve Earle or a mumbling nobody.

Chronontonius has a somber aura as well, which is perhaps fitting. On October 13th, 2016, the band’s longtime friend and piano-playing bandmate Kyle Usher died at the age of 35 of a heroin overdose.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a person whom Wade, Brad Olson, Tony Ewald, and Theo Long had spent countless hours with for several years — playing music, sharing parts of themselves, laughing with, and having a few drinks — was gone. Usher’s death was a surprising tragedy, even to those close to him.

“We knew he had issues with his substance abuse in the past,” said Olson, a guitarist in the band who also sings on occasion. “We know he had gone into rehab. To all of our understandings we thought he was in a much better place. So to receive that news was shocking. It was upsetting. Part of me felt like I’d been deceived, but it was also grieving and missing my friend a great deal.”

The musicianship of Usher lives on through the new album, where his playing is heard on roughly half the songs, according to Olson. When Olson hears the low-key, folksy tune “Drank Like a Fish,” which contains Usher’s keyboard work and lyrics that are about his deceased bandmate, he can’t help but be moved.

The album’s title was inspired by Usher, who as a child told his family he was an alien named Chronontonius from the planet Zadar. Olson said it’s a fitting remembrance of an “otherworldly talent” who had a love of science fiction and all things science. In hindsight, Usher’s made-up story from a young age may have been an indicator of his personal feelings to come.

“I’ve heard other people describe it in ways, people who have struggled with depression or with substance abuse in whatever way often feel like they don’t fit in, like they don’t belong, and some have very explicitly said they felt like they were an alien from another planet,” Olson said.

The nucleus of Neoga Blacksmith since its inception in 2007 has included Wade on guitar, Olson, and Ewald on bass. (Long plays the drums.) Usher joined Neoga by the time the band released its second album, Some Pig, in 2012, and his contributions became integral. The spunky piano work on ditties such as “Chain it to the Truck” and on the Rolling Stones-like rocker “Hire the Pipers” has a good-time, honky-tonk air. 

The pianist’s playing on the slower-burning Piasa from 2015 has subtler overtones that also enhance the music. Usher’s timing and talent made it seem as if he could sit down in the middle of any musical session with gifted artists and right away make his spontaneous presence felt, a viewpoint Olson verified.

“I’ve had friends who have said he’s got a Ray Manzerek kind of vibe to him, but I think he was a little bit looser than Manzerek. There was a little bit more improvisation involved, which I definitely think was something he was really strong at, just being able to riff,” Olson said.

Since Usher’s passing, the band’s good friends Tim McGee and Dave Pride have stepped in to assist on guitar and piano, respectively. McGee played on Chronontonius.  

The band has self-produced its last few albums and aims for a Neil Young & Crazy Horse tone. As for influences, Wade is into Beck. They all dig Radiohead and some of the popular Seattle bands of the 1990s such as Nirvana and Soundgarden. And Olson likes stripped-down acoustic stuff from artists such as Elliott Smith. His sludgy, fuzzed-out tune “Turpenteen” on the new album sounds like a killer Foo Fighters track from the mid-‘90s.

In terms of sound, a smattering of alt-country in the vain of Wilco and Son Volt, as well as traces of guitar-laden grunge and moments of etherealness, are heard at different points on the four albums of the hard-to-pigeonhole band, whose core members hail from Monticello. Olson described Neoga’s established songwriting process as a familiar “musical shorthand” in which members are on the same page and supportive in fleshing out ideas.    

Olson feels that Neoga has evolved from its perceived country sound in recent years, though interestingly, the group recently demoed country material. He said the songs might be an attempt to see if he and his fellow musicians have an interest in churning out country music anymore or if the genre has run its course within their sphere.

Neoga’s most conspicuous figure is Wade, whose lyrics, according to Olson, cut into the heart of the seedier side of Middle America. Olson said Wade is an eclectic individual whose words cleverly sum up certain societal deteriorations of the 21st-century.

As an example, “Scrapper’s Delight” offers the perspective of a guy stealing copper wire out of foreclosed homes to make some cash. More innocently, when Wade warbles about a long-lost car on the song “Grandpa’s a Dodge Man” from the band’s self-titled debut, listeners are practically right there on the front porch watching cars and life rust away. Many of these tunes are humorous.  

“There’s kind of like this working-class, blue-collar kind of desperation — I hate to characterize it in that way — but I guess that’s where you might make the connection and call us an Americana band. He provides a lot of commentary, I think, on this era of American experience or what it’s like for people,” Olson said.

The band has an upcoming show on September 29th at the Iron Post and may go on a brief regional tour. Beyond that, Olson is unsure of what’s ahead for Neoga Blacksmith. Usher contributed to songs that didn’t make the cut on Chronontonius, tunes that could be released in the future.

“That’s another silver lining, I guess, if you have to look at it that way, is that we have a pretty large body of things that we did with [Usher] that we just haven’t put out yet. We haven’t taken the time to develop them wholly, so we’ll continue to get to play with him in a sense for the foreseeable future, for a little while at least,” Olson said.

And that’s good news for fans of Neoga Blacksmith.

A portion of the proceeds from the sales of Chronontonius will go toward the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization.

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