The Rise And Revival Of Ozma, A 'Secretly Huge' Indie Rock Band
It's a typical Saturday night in 2001. You're crammed into Chain Reaction, a windowless, all-ages club in a failing shopping center in northwest Anaheim. You push through the sea of sweaty, writhing bodies, many of them wearing their favorite Texas Is The Reason and Reggie and the Full Effect t-shirts. You avoid thrown elbows and studded belts as you make your way to the stage, finally emerging in the front row as the opening keyboard notes of Battlescars hit your eardrums. Bodies jump. The crowd lets out a collective roar. Leading the charge is Ozma, a Pasadena quintet that produces a particularly triumphant and baroque strain of power pop. You're in luck. Tonight, you're catching the band on the cusp of its rise, when the promise of stardom and mainstream success is still before them.
Three years after this concert, Ozma will disband. Their talent and steadfastness will take them to the height of local success but they'll never quite make the leap from local heroes to indie rock gods.
Every scene in every city in every era has at least one band like Ozma. A group that springs up organically, grows quickly and pushes at the constraints of its local music scene. It's the kind of band everyone roots for, one they expect to go big. You'll never hear about most of these bands. Outside a cadre of devoted fans, no one will.
In 1995, Ryen Slegr and Patrick Edwards were Pasadena high schoolers with a fairly typical passion for rocking out. They spent their afternoons at each other's houses, noodling around and playing their original compositions, Slegr on guitar and Edwards on drums. During their sophomore year, they teamed up with fellow La Salle College Prep student Jose Galvez who wanted so badly to be in a band, he had lied about his guitar skills and spent the week before his first practice trying to teach himself how to play.
About a year and a half later, through an AOL profile search, they found Daniel Brummel, a student at the Los Angeles County School for the Arts. Standing 6'2" and with shoulder-length pink hair, Brummel impressed the trio with his prowess on bass. The foursome began practicing every Friday afternoon and on weekends in a loft space above Edwards' parents' garage. Later that year, they added keyboardist Katherine Kieckhefer, who was replaced by Star Wick in 1998. Wick had stumbled on the band at the Crystal Ballroom in Whittier, at the first rock show she attended.
In those early years, the group mostly covered their favorite bands — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Weezer. Performing at backyard parties and talent shows, they built a small army of homegrown fans. Wick, who has classical music training in both piano and flute, says, "It's a different skill to read music versus learning to improvise."
"Three years in a row, we won the talent show at [La Salle]," Galvez says. "Everyone knew each other. Everyone was going to No Future [a Pasadena coffee shop] to see us play cuz there was nothing else to do."
Using a 4-track cassette recorder, they turned their practice space into a recording studio and laid down eight tracks. Before they could release their masterpiece (as a cassette, no less), they needed a name. They found it on a bookshelf in the Oz book series — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being the most famous — written by L. Frank Baum in the early 1900s.
"It was just a word that seemed interesting, mystical, kind of mysterious, feminine and all-encompassing," Brummel says.
In 1996 and 1997, Ozma released two self-produced cassette demos, Cuatro and Ocho. They later compiled a few songs from both cassettes along with and some live material into the demo Songs of Inaudible Trucks and Cars.
By 1999, they had all graduated high school. Slegr and Brummel began attending UCLA, Galvez at Cal State Northridge and Wick at Pepperdine. Classes were fine but their real focus was music.
"Some of our friends that we played with were like 'We aren't really going to do this in the future. We're going to get jobs.' I remember Jose and I looked at each other and went, 'Erhhh, that's not the mentality that we want,''' Slegr says.
In 2000, Ozma released their first studio album. Recorded with Bruce Witken at Pop Squad Studios in Hollywood, the 11 tracks on Rock and Roll Part Three feature many of the songs the band had written as teenagers. The songs showcase Ozma's power-pop chops while highlighting their eclectic influences — the classical music of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, the video game compositions of Koji Kondo, the alt-rock of Weezer.
To understand the band's full range, look no further than the first moments of the first track, "Domino Effect." The cascading keyboard intro paired with a barrage of guitar and bass notes paints a sonic portrait of an 8-bit galaxy. The lyrics are Ozma's teenage symphony to God:
Chances last a finite time
In the warm July night time
Every care that keeps you from your feet
Is care that carries your defeat.
"There was a kind of musical sophistication they wore lightly but you could tell there was this depth of knowledge and harmonic invention," says Matthew Caws, lead vocalist and guitarist of Nada Surf.
Brummel and Galvez had met Caws and his bandmates a few years before, after sending their demo cassette to the band.
For Ozma, the timing couldn't have been better. The internet was becoming A Thing and peer-to-peer music sharing websites (remember Napster?) were all the rage. Early Ozma tracks "Gameover" and "Korobeiniki (Traditional Russian Folk Song)" showed up online, incorrectly labeled as Weezer songs. Weezer fans looking for new music might download Ozma's music and discover a new band.
"It was this sorta strange time when [the band wasn't] really active," says former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp. After the critical and commercial flop of their 1996 album, Pinkerton, Weezer had gone on hiatus and Sharp left the band. "I think that moment left a void for people searching for a similar emotional resonance. [Ozma] benefited from that hunger."
Ozma, for their part, idolized Weezer. "I wouldn't say it was like a cult but it was myopic," Slegr says. "I just remember not listening to other kinds of music for a while, narrowing it down to Weezer and The Rentals for like a year."
Before the second and third wave of emo took shape in the late '90s and early '00s, Ozma occupied a musical niche halfway between post-grunge and geek rock, not that the band cared. "We never once thought about, 'What label or genre do we belong in?" We just wanted to make glorious music," Brummel says.
In an era before social media, Ozma earned its stripes by playing killer live shows and using the word-of-mouth they generated to book more shows and win more converts. They never received a review in Pitchfork or got much press but their success snowballed. By 2000, they started playing with higher profile acts like Nerf Herder and Ridel High at bars like Moguls in Hollywood and Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica.
"There was a scene and there were fans and a lot of crossover," Galvez says, referring to bands such as Phantom Planet and Kara's Flowers, which later became Maroon 5. "Now, we're in a scene that's flourishing and that likes to play this kind of music."
The Big Break
In 2001, Weezer gave Ozma its big break. Galvez still remembers where he was — at home in his kitchen — when he got the call from Rivers Cuomo, asking if they wanted to join the Yahoo! Outloud Tour. Taking the national stage for the first time, Ozma was met by eager audiences and they began adjusting to their life as budding rock stars.
"The fans were pretty into it. We didn't really get heckled. We had just turned 20, 21. None of us really drank. We weren't really a party band. It was our first tour, we didn't want to make any mistakes," Galvez says.
"I think experiencing that earlier in my life it shaped who I am now, being on the road with a bunch of guys. I consider myself to be tough," Wick says.
That same year, Ozma signed to Kung Fu Records, a Seal Beach-based label started by a couple members of the Vandals. In short order, Ozma re-released Rock and Roll Part Three along with their second LP, The Doubble Donkey Disc. The albums went on to sell upwards of 50,000 units each.
The band continued touring through the early 2000s, joining Weezer on a tour of the east coast and parts of Canada. They followed that with a North American club tour with Nada Surf and another popular L.A. act, Rilo Kiley.
"It was that tour, being introduced to Weezer's full audience, being lumped in with the other openers and really accessing their audience... Being well-liked by those crowds I think just kinda put us on the level of indie rock," Brummel says.
Over the next three years, Ozma would tour the United States some 20 times, playing to crowds as large as 18,000 people. Although the band had finally reached the national stage, they couldn't shake the feeling that they were out of place.
"I felt antiquated already and to feel antiquated before you're 23 or 24 is really strange," Slegr says.
Ozma's style was steeped in the progressive rock meets heavy metal ethos of the early '90s but by 2000, guitar rock was moving toward a more lo-fi, post-punk sound. Instead of "introspective diary writing, it was more literary, personal and romantic in a different type of way. There was a pushback against the anthemic melodies," Slegr says.
Ozma had always been imbued in nostalgia, even as teenagers who didn't seem old enough to be wistful for times past. But the songs on Rock and Roll Part Three, written when the band members were only 15 and 16, are tinged with children-of-the-'80s melancholy, especially the album's penultimate track, "Search of 1988."
"1988, take me back to 1987
I'm in search of days
When times were good and earth a place in heaven"
"It's a very teenage record so it spoke to teenagers," Brummel says.
That sensibility is all the more amusing since Ozma is now entrenched in the nostalgia industrial complex and benefitting from its insatiable appetite to monetize the past.
Playing the songs from Rock and Roll Part Three these days, the band members are in a strange position. Now in their late 30s and early 40s, they get up on stage to perform as more angsty, less wrinkled, more hopeful versions of themselves.
"Do we remember who we were? How do we feel about it now? Do we still want to be that band? What band are we going to be this time?" Brummel says.
After their second album, Ozma chugged along. In 2003, they released their third record, Spending Time On The Borderline. It gave them the chance to expand their sonic palette and add more instruments, like on the track Utsukushii Shibuya, which features Wick on flute.
Ozma continued performing and touring but the relentless travel was taking its toll. "I think when you put that much time in a van with the same four or five people, your personalities kind of wear on each other," Brummel says. Exhausted and road-weary from nearly back-to-back tours, the band broke up in 2004.
Brummel moved to New York and self-released a solo record of his folk material. Slegr and Galvez stuck around Southern California and formed Yes Dear with members of Arlo and Teen Heroes. They self-released a demo and toured around California. Wick took at job working at a Marc Jacobs store on Melrose. "I really didn't miss it that much,'' she says.
In 2007, Ozma reunited with new drummer Kenn Shane and released their fourth full-length, Pasadena. It featured a bunch of guest musicians including Caws and Rachel Haden of That Dog. Despite its critical acclaim, the album sold poorly, nowhere near the numbers of their previous records.
For the next seven years, the band played the occasional gig — both Weezer Cruises, the Make Music Festival in Pasadena, the Glass House in Pomona — while its members settled into adulthood. Galvez started working for an experiential marketing company. Brummel earned a master's degree in music composition from Cal State L.A. and began scoring for film and TV. Slegr built a career in the hospitality industry and produced a record for L.A. band Walk.
In 2014, Ozma returned to the studio to record Boomtown, an album crowd-funded with $20,000 from their fans. The 11 tracks represent the band at its most mature with lyrics that wade into dark territory (suicide, drug use) and a lush sonic landscape. This record would also be the first time Wick would contribute lead vocals to a track ("Nervous"). "I did it because of the encouragement [from the other band members]," Wick says.
Boomtown didn't achieve the sales of Ozma's earlier records but, Brummel says, "I think in terms of the artistry, we were happy with the level of work."
These days, Brummel, is the Chief Academic Officer at the Point Blank Music School, based in Silver Lake, and heads the band Sanglorians. Galvez has released two solo albums in the past decade and put out an EP earlier this year. Slegr continues to write and record his own music as well as creating visual art. Wick works as a dietitian at the V.A. hospital in West L.A.
This week, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Rock and Roll Part Three, Ozma will reunite for a pair of shows at the Troubadour, on December 19 and 20. When the first show was announced back in September, it sold out in 48 hours. The band added a second night, which also sold out.
Ozma never achieved the name recognition or globe-trotting success of some of their contemporaries but "They're better known than you think," Caws says. "[They're] a secretly huge band."
"People love that record we made when we were teenagers for 800 bucks," Galvez says. It is, as the kids these days say, very on brand for a band that was always looking in the rearview mirror, contemplating a lost era that may or may not have existed.
Reflecting on Ozma's ups and downs, Slegr sees the band's two-decade career as less of an explosion and more of a slow burn. "It's weaker and weaker," he says, "but it gets stronger, in a weird way, too."