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Ohmme Is the Band at the Heart of Chicago's Music Community

Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham have collaborated with everyone from Chance the Rapper to Wilco. Now, watch their new video for “Fingerprints.”

Josh Terry

Photo by Sarah Hess, courtesy of Ohmme

Name a prominent act in Chicago's music community, and chances are you'll come across the work of Ohmme's Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham. Chance the Rapper? Both of them sang on Coloring Book and Surf and have performed with the 24-year-old on numerous occasions. Vic Mensa? In high school, Stewart played in the band Kids These Days which Mensa co-fronted along with Cunningham's brother, Liam Kazar. Wilco? Jeff Tweedy produced Kids These Days' debut album Traphouse Rock, while Cunningham tours with Tweedy, the solo project the Wilco frontman formed with his son Spencer. Whitney? Stewart provided the string arrangements on their acclaimed debut Light Upon The Lake. Twin Peaks? Cunningham and Stewart sang backup vocals and wrote the string section on their recent single "Tossin' Tears." The list goes on.

But while the two have worn many musical hats, collaborating with hip-hop stars to rock'n'roll mainstays, their band Ohmme (f.k.a. Homme), which formed in 2014, came out of Chicago's improvisational and experimental music scene. Their debut self-titled EP, which is reissued Friday, showcases this: an adventurous, loose, and mesmerizing six-song collection that was the product of guitar-heavy experiments and hocketed, delicate vocal harmonies. "We were really excited by the improvised music scene and improvised music, but neither of us were improvised musicians or knew a lot of other women that were into it as well. I think both of us thought we should just get together and try it out" explained Cunningham, adding that going to shows at Constellation, a hub for Chicago's avant-garde, experimental, and jazz community kickstarted their partnership.

Stewart, who often completes Cunningham's sentences, chimed in: "For me, this band was the opportunity to just create blindly almost. Because I grew up playing classical music, which is very strict, it was really exciting to be able to break out of that." She added, "I still wanted a way to improvise and I think when we started going to shows at Constellation, it was really inspiring to see people just channeling emotions through their instrument and being able to go insane with it." In 2014, as the two hashed out ideas in the studio and began playing gigs at Constellation and Postock, a small Wisconsin-based festival Cunningham has run for several years, their sound began to take shape. Cunningham offered, "Well the band started because we both really wanted to mess around on guitar."

The best example of this is EP closer "You, Your Face," which Cunningham and Stewart trace back as one of the first songs they worked on together. It's a woozy and sprawling, near-eight minute track that boasts wafting guitars and Stewart's piercing voice. It's the band at their most atmospheric and moody. Elsewhere on the EP, Ohmme put their find ways to experiment with their voices. Cunningham's smokier croon complements Stewart's higher-register coo near perfectly on the driving "Fingerprints."

"We couldn't figure out the chorus for that song, and our producer Dorian Gehring, asked us if we had tried hocketing," explained Stewart, referring to the the technique where vocalists or instruments share alternating parts of a melody (think Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian-era Dirty Projectors). "We hadn't, but when we tried, that part was born, and it's the most memorable part of the song. That was the song where we figured out a sound that was unique to us." Cunningham agreed, "This is where we got more creative with our vocals." It's perhaps the most straightforward rocker on the collection, but their vocal interplay makes for an exceptionally hypnotic hook.

Though Ohmme is a reflection of Cunningham and Stewart's creative partnership, last summer the band added drummer Matt Carroll (who plays in Chicago rock band Marrow with Stewart) to anchor their live set for a slot at Pitchfork Music Festival as well as a gig opening up for Tortoise. Carroll's presence added a muscular edge to these already potent songs and, according to Stewart, "it freed us up a lot, which seems kind of counter-intuitive, but with the drums being there holding down this undercurrent under our songs we were able to like stretch our parts a little bit more." Cunningham added, "And personality-wise, Matt's just the best. He wears crop tops with us, and we have massage parties if we don't feel like going out to a bar after we play. He's awesome." It's been such a good fit that Carroll's now a full-time member and will be featured on Ohmme's upcoming full-length debut, which they're currently working on with help from recording engineer Dorian Gehring and Tortoise's Doug McCombs.

While the vinyl reissue of the Ohmme EP is out Friday (pre-order it here and grab the vinyl because there are two vinyl-exclusive tracks), the band have shared a brand new video, below, for "Fingerprints" to commemorate the release. Directed by Hannah Welever, it's a whimsical clip featuring costumes sewed by the band themselves. Cunningham explained of the concept: "I wanted it to evoke that feeling when you were a kid and do so much communication with your friends that's nonverbal. Whether you're playing dress-up next to each other or reading comics together there's so much communication there that's not verbal."

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