Josh Hlookoff (guitar)
Matt Lebedoff (vocals)
Jason Milne (guitar)
Jonas Hlookoff (drums)
Jed Scharf (bass)
Family is more than genetics for Oakalla. Two brothers and a first cousin are at the band’s core. A pair of good friends make up the numbers in a democratic five-piece. Like all such nuclear units, they’re equally adept at kicking each other’s asses and watching each other’s backs. In private, they laugh and clown, battle and reconcile. Come showtime, they’re a united front. Unpretentious. Take-it-or-leave-it real. A rock band: Nothing more or less.
Oakalla is Josh Hlookoff (guitar), Matt Lebedoff (vocals), Jason Milne (guitar), Jonas Hlookoff (drums) and Jed Scharf (bass). Pigeonholing them is neither easy nor necessary. Their constantly evolving sound is rooted but not rootsy contemporary rock’n’roll that shifts from high-tempo drive to west-coast laidback, often within the same track. Their songs blend humour and plainspoken passion, gritty realism and spirited edge. Don’t ask them to describe their music or namecheck their myriad influences because they honestly haven’t given it a lot of thought. Listen to their 604 Records debut. Watch the live show. Decide for yourself.
Produced and mixed by Warne Livesey (Matthew Good, The The) and Dave Ogilvie (Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson) with single-song production contributions from Terry Murray (Shocore) and Dave Carswell/John Collins (New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara), the self-titled album has two distinct faces. The first half is packed with driving, melodic rock songs built around a heady mix of electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards and big choruses. Lead track “War” views conflict through the eyes of a soldier haunted by a friendly fire incident. “Big Stick” alludes to the gray areas of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. “Give It” is an ode to carnal lust, plain and simple.
The album’s second half “rides off into the sunset with the mellower stuff,” explains Josh, who writes solo with a guitar before everyone steps in to reshape his work for a band context. Echoes of country, folk and Americana filter through. “Cold Cold Wind” deals with an absentee father. “Mr. Smith” and “Darlene” raise bemused middle fingers to a boss and ex-girlfriend respectively. “Take Me Home” reconnects the family vibe and brings the disc to a warm acoustic close.
Flashback 20 years to a close-knit family atmosphere where multi-generational sing-alongs are the norm and music is as natural as breathing. Barely out of kindergarten, Josh and Jonas are given musical instruments for Christmas, then get hooked on their older brother’s LP collection. Along with cousin Matt, they decide they’ll one day form a band, jump into a beat-up van and tour ‘til they drop.
That day finally dawns in 2003 when the Hlookoffs recruit Matt as the lead singer for their new band The Solution. They quickly develop a dedicated following in Vancouver, win a battle-of-the-bands competition, open for acts like Billy Talent, The Offspring and Finger Eleven, and sign with 604 Records. As the prospect of stepping forward onto national and international stages beckons, they decide to drop their old name in favor of a new handle laden with intense personal meaning.
Matt, Josh and Jonas are third-generation Canadians of Russian Doukhobor descent. In 1895 in what is present-day Azerbaijan, their great-grandfather, Matvey Lebedev, was a key figure in an anti-war protest that eventually resulted in Siberian exile for seven thousand Doukhobors (dissident Russian peasants branded as “doukhobortsi” or “spirit wrestlers” by the Russian Orthodox Church).
The troubles continued in Grand Forks, B.C. for an off-shoot sect of doukh refugees known as the Sons of Freedom. They wanted to run their own schools and steer their children clear of a public educational system they believed promoted militarism. The government refused. At age 7, Josh and Jonas’ mother was taken from her family by the RCMP and placed in a boarding house for four years. In an unrelated incident, her father burned down a barn in protest against the continued assimilation of his own people into mainstream society. He was sentenced to two years less a day in the Oakalla Prison Farm on the shores of Burnaby’s Deer Lake.
“Oakalla means something profound to us if nobody else,” says Jonas. “It’s our way of honouring our gramps.” Adds Josh: “We’re proud of our heritage but we’re not religious guys. Like a lot of people, we’re anti-authoritarian to a certain degree and I consider myself a pacifist. I wrote ‘War’ because I know guys who’ve been to Afghanistan and Bosnia. But I’m writing as an observer. It’s no big deal really. We’re not trying to change the world.”
Wrestling with and embodying their own brand of rock’n’roll spirit is another matter entirely. “Playing music is the simplest and best way we know how to express ourselves from the heart and the gut,” says Josh. “We’ve been building towards this moment for a long time.” Or as Matt describes it, “We’re hungry and restless and ready to go. I can’t wait to tour behind the album and get up there on stage night after night after night.