Sam Swinson and Adam Pressley have been through everything together. Forming Ohtis while still at high school in their hometown of Normal, Illinois they were joined by Nate Hahn to craft darkly melodic, intensely personal pieces of stark Americana-driven indie. But then Sam’s addictions got out of hand, and it took them almost a decade to pull back from the brink.
Two spells in rehab followed, as Sam’s life-threatening addictions entwined with the religious demons lingering from his upbringing in a fundamentalist evangelical cult. Battling against this Sam Swinson’s life has changed utterly, and when he emerged from that self-made hell he found a support group waiting for him, which had always been there, in Ohtis.
Curve of Earth is a beautiful, shocking, deeply emotional experience, informed by Sam’s issues but finding hope in the bleakest moments. “It feels like a long time coming,” he says. “We’re ready.”
Extensive spells in rehab have changed Sam’s life, but they’ve also prompted an evolution within Ohtis, and the way they approach music. “It’s similar,” he muses. “My life isn’t as crazy. It’s not totally crazy, but it’s still pretty crazy. I’m still dealing with a lot of the same issues, with a similar feel.”
It’s something the songwriter is keenly aware of. “We’ve evolved in some ways, I think. The old songs were... I don’t know if guttural is the right word, but I got drunk and wrote those songs,” he muses. “And I’m sober now so I’m not doing that any more. It’s more of a thoughtful process now.”
Redemption eventually came in the form of sobriety for Swinson. After making 9th step amends to both of his re-joining bandmates, they brought Ohtis back to life; unfazed by the 2000 miles that now separate them geographically, with Pressley and Hahn in Detroit and Chicago and Swinson in Los Angeles. Sam would record voice demos on a hand-held recorder given to him by a friend who tragically passed away following an overdose. Songwriting happened with his bandmates in lengthy stretches, spurred by phone calls, emails, and revisions.
At times unbearably sparse, at others lush, Curve of Earth is a brutal yet alluring creative achievement. “The songs happen spontaneously,” he explains. “I like to do it that way. The songs kind of seemed to follow my life as it was happening. All those songs felt like they would fit with each other on an album. It kind of just happened that way.”
Curve of Earth is a taut, precise, but yet also aesthetically broad experience. ‘Pervert Blood’ is stark, as close to the original demo is possible, while ‘Serenity Prayer’ explicitly references Sam’s experiences in rehab, but plays with the title concept. As he puts it: “It was kind of light-hearted when I wrote it, it was almost in jest. It’s my own version of it in a ditty.”
Even the title itself has a sharp, closely autobiographical meaning. “It’s something my dad said when I was a kid on a family vacation in Hawaii,” Sam explains. “He thought you could see the curve of the Earth with the naked eye from high up looking out over the ocean. So it’s a false interpretation of something that happens to be true.”
This empathetic streak means that even at its darkest Curve of Earth remains a striking, inspiring experience. Lead single ‘Runnin’ emerged from a post-rehab wilderness, and it aims to forge links with others on the fringes of society. “I had a lot of feelings going through my mind then,” he recalls. “I wasn’t drunk, but I was coming out of the fog.”
“I was around all these dudes who I didn’t relate to at all – or I thought I didn’t – and I started to get to know them, and realised that I could. It was really helping me, allowing me to take off the mask, take down the boundaries, and actually try to have a connection with them, or identity with them.”
Indeed, it was this song, and its boundless humanity, which convinced Nate to rejoin Ohtis, and finish the album. The links that run through Ohtis’ songwriting reflect the bonds in the project itself; driven apart by addiction, they were pulled together by music.
This weight of experience is what gives Curve of Earth its incredible power. Beguiling, entrancing, yet unrelentingly honest, it maintains a powerful hold on the listener long after the final note fades. “I would hope it’s helpful for people,” Sam states. “The conversation about addiction, it’s like any other mental illness society tends to sweep under the rug. Talking openly about it allows people who haven’t been exposed to recovery at all, who are still afraid and in denial and worried about the stigma, to transcend the shame keeping us sick.”