Forged in the raw immediacy of the University of Oregon house show circuit, Eugene-based indie rock trio Novacane knows what it means to maintain their groove in an unusual environment.
“If you can remain rhythmically tight in 120-degree heat,” Novacane drummer Zach Clifton says, clearly exaggerating the heat of a house show — and with people bumping into you in every single direction, “you can remain tight in any situation.”
What’s it been like for a popular trio used to playing in this kind of environment two or three times a week around the UO campus to spend this past year without live music due to the COVID pandemic?
“It’s been absolute hell,” says Oliver Lester, who plays bass and sings in Novacane. “Nothing short of pure torture.”
With two previous EPs, Pretty Colors and Comfort Food, out in 2018 and 2019 respectively, Novacane, among the three biggest bands to emerge from DIY student shows in the campus area alongside Spiller and Laundry, are prepping the release of their self-titled debut full-length album, available digitally sometime in late spring or early summer.
It’s not just the rush of performance that Lester misses. The biggest thing, he says, is not being around a community of other musicians. “The inspiration comes from that kind of exposure,” Lester says.
Promoting Novacane’s new release is the lead-off single, “Bad Breath,” out now on streaming services like Spotify.
With bright and chiming guitar work from Dylan Latimer, arpeggiating lush chords on a Fender Jazzmaster — “I’ll die on the Fender hill,” Latimer tells me — the energetic single is underpinned by Dylan Latimer’s introspective lyrics.
“I’m self-destructive, I’m dying, I’m not excited, I’m just smiling,” Lester sings in a reclining tenor reminiscent of Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. Popular among Novacane’s college-aged generation, it’s an influence that’s also most likely behind the song’s mild tones of Ghanaian highlife music.
Despite that melancholy heart, the song structure of “Bad Breath” seems clearly developed in a party atmosphere, prioritizing crowd engagement in lengthy and rhythmic musical interludes and an extended drum break from Clifton before the song erupts again in a fuzzed-out garagey guitar outro from Latimer.
In the house show environment it’s that sort of things that “gets people moving,” Clifton explains, and it all lends Novacane an occasional jam band quality, though much less so than some other wildly popular bands in the UO house show scene prior to COVID, like Spiller.
Overall, Novacane remains much more rooted in classic, guitar-forward college rock like Laundry.
Lester and Latimer are childhood friends from Eugene; Clifton, from Bend, joined the band only recently.
The songs on the debut have been with the band for a while, with most of the recording done just prior to lockdown last spring and finishing touches put on the album in June.
With vaccines rolling out, the beginning of the end to the live music shutdown seems to be in sight. And with aspirations to take Novacane to the next level of the music business, playing more shows and possibly festivals outside the Eugene market, Lester feels Novacane may have aged out of the house show scene.
But with or without Novacane, Lester speculates that the UO house show scene won’t rebound overnight post-COVID, but, with a whole new crop of bands, “In the next couple years, it probably will,” he says,
“Every great music scene has a shelf life,” Lester continues. “There have been countless great music scenes in small towns. But these things get lost to history. With college music scenes it comes in generational waves. It will take younger classes of kids that may have seen what the music was like before COVID happened.”
“French Toast,” the second single from Novacane’s self-titled debut full-length album, is out April 26 on major music streaming services. The album is out digitally sometime late spring or early summer. For more information go to NovacaneForYou.bandcamp.com.