Steve Hartlett is going to Disney World. The singer-songwriter best known as the driving force behind Ovlov, Hartlett will not celebrate the release of the fuzz rock band’s third album Buds in a beer-stained basement with dedicated fans. Instead, he’ll be hanging out with Goofy, Elsa, and other beloved trademarks. We spoke over two days — once before he landed in Florida, once after — and on the second afternoon I could hear a decompression in his voice, as if he could taste the $20 hot dog in his near future.
It’s an unexpected itinerary, but Hartlett and Ovlov are nothing if not defiant. Ovlov has outlasted sonic trends to become one of indie rock’s most fervently adored groups with devotees far beyond the musicians entrenched in the Connecticut scene they sprung out of. The group formed in 2009, and their debut album Am, released in 2013, began their ascent to cult rock stardom. Hartlett tells me they were just trying to make an album that sounded like Blonder Tongue Audio Baton by Swirlies, but Ovlov’s post-shoegaze sound is warmer, its big blown-out guitars feeling like a warm embrace from a close friend even when Hartlett sings about gut-wrenching heartbreak and loss.
Despite the growing hype, Ovlov wasn’t easy to maintain. The band would play its last show before the pandemic in July 2019 in support of their second album Tru, with a planned extended hiatus to follow. However, lockdown and a series of personal struggles gave Hartlett new insight into what makes Ovlov special. “It forced me to think about, what am I doing with my life?” he says of the pandemic. “What is it I'm working towards and why? Even the years leading up to quarantine this was in the back of my mind, but [I was] never really forced to actually think about it.”
To create Buds, Hartlett brought in his brothers Jon and Theo on bass and drums, guitarist Morgan Luzzi, and the band’s longtime producer Michael John Thomas III. The new music is more consciously pop-oriented, less snaky than Tru and more polished than Am. This is a positive development: as a singer-songwriter, Hartlett has a knack for catchiness, and it’s edifying to hear him finally dive in. This new direction is something Hartlett has been eager to try for a long time, and so he dedicated himself to the writing and recording process like never before. “If we were going to [make another album],” Hartlett says, “we were going to go into it in many different ways from the previous two as far as our efforts in recording, our efforts in songwriting, the actual takes we get, just everything we wanted to try just a little bit harder.”
Hartlett is proud of the album, but it doesn’t stop the same feelings of anxiety he gets around every album release. “I don't know if people are going to like this, and then is it too different from the last stuff?” he says. Beyond his sheer talent, it’s this somewhat tragic quality that is key to the continued success of Ovlov and the strength of their new material. The guitar distortion is not simply buzzing static but the scream of raw nerves that hunger for connection and explode with ecstasy when it arrives. “With Ovlov,” Hartlett says from his hotel, “as hard as it's been to maintain over the years, it's been the most successful thing I've ever created in my life, and I don't even necessarily mean that by any financial means or Instagram followers. It just feels like this was the most real band I've ever been in, for so many reasons.”
Today, you can hear Ovlov’s album Buds in full, premiering a day before its official release. Listen to it below, followed by an interview with Steve covering the new album, his love of musicals, Switchfoot, and much more.
The FADER: There's a conciseness to Buds I feel that wasn't present in previous records. It's not that you're more focused, but it just feels more streamlined.
No, I would say that we were more focused, absolutely. For starters, this is the first time we recorded an album while I was entirely sober for a year. I started smoking weed again because I got my medical card here in Connecticut. But yeah, I've been sober otherwise without anything else. I think we were just trying harder in general. It would've been that way regardless of my substance use, because everyone else in the band was continuing to live their lives the way they always have.
”Cheer Up, Chichiro,” an older song you’ve performed live, gets a studio recording for this album. Why was now the right time to revisit it?
“Cheer Up” has definitely proven to be the longest it's taken me to officially release a song that I've written. I'm not sure why it was. I think I just genuinely really liked it so much that I wanted it to be released in its most perfect form and alongside songs that fit with it best and everything. I'm just constantly trying to write as many songs as I can all the time, and I would say that about 1% of them are the ones I actually truly love and want to finish the moment I start, from the day I started working on that. But that's rare. Usually, I'll just write a few riffs and melodies and that will just float around till I demo it. And usually, I won't write lyrics till I've demoed the instruments.
Have you always had this drive to just write as many songs as you can?
Yeah. I would say the day I started playing guitar, I was trying to write songs because I didn't really actually know how to play right away. Even before I started playing guitar, that was always what I wanted to do because I knew that my dad was a big songwriter.
He played and wrote Christian music, right?
Yeah. That was, not by choice, a huge part of my upbringing.
Is there any of that music from that world that still resonates with you?
Yeah, absolutely. I have this playlist on my Spotify of 600 songs that I consider to be songs I would never skip if they came on from my entire life. A lot of them are songs from middle school or even before that that I liked, which were pretty much only Christian rock bands. There are a couple Switchfoot songs in there.
”Dare You To Move?”
No, even earlier than that. My dad was really into them. They were his favorite post-’80s band. But yeah, there are tons of things I'll go back to every now and then. I mean, there's this one band that was I guess considered a Christian rock band because of the label they were on. But it never really showed in their lyrics too much that I noticed at least. Noggin Toboggan was their name. And that is something I could definitely put on right now and still enjoy just as much as I did in middle school. Just very MxPx pop-punk with Broadway melodies, in my opinion. It's probably not accurate, but that's why I like it.
It feels like, man, this is as successful as I could ever dream of being, just given people care enough about my music to make some fucking troll of a meme page.
Do you ever listen back to some of your music and hear that genre’s influence?
Oh yeah, totally. A lot of how I learned how to play guitar was learning how to play church songs and play in the church with my dad and brothers. And a lot of those songs' structures are mostly just very similar in that they're verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, end. And this probably isn't accurate, but maybe 75% of all the pop songs in the world follow something close to that song structure. A lot of the first songs I learned from my guitar teacher that weren't Christian rock songs or Creedence Clearwater songs were the same chords and the same kind of structures. And Rancid then became my favorite band in high school and they also, most of their songs, follow that structure.
At what point did you decide that Buds was going to be more poppy than your other Ovlov albums?
I think it was pretty much the moment that we decided we wanted to do another album. I've always loved pop music. That's what I hope to be doing. I hope to one day in my life actually be writing like purely pop music, but I feel like I really need to work my way up to that.
I had a band in high school that was much more poppy. It was somewhere closer to Buds than anything else Ovlov did, but I miss it a lot and it feels like all the music I listen to is like that. I wanted people to think I was punk in my early twenties.
Maybe I was a little too self conscious to show just how much I loved Broadway and musicals through my writing. Growing up at most of my family parties that my dad's father was at, he would bring his accordion and play Broadway show tunes from his era. I guess that's like ‘50s, ‘60s, Broadway show tunes. So I'm more familiar with not even so much specific songs as I am just that style of writing as far as how the melodies go and just the theatrics of Broadway music. Have you seen [John Cameron Mitchell's 2011 musical film] Hedwig and The Angry Inch?
Maybe one of my favorite visual stories ever. I think it does a really good job of going from the Broadway musical to rock music, in a way, but it still very much appeals to the Broadway crowd. I've always been a huge South Park fan and I think Trey Parker is a brilliant songwriter.
Ovlov have a very rare place in independent music: a rock band with a fervent cult following. Based on your experience with the band, have you noticed anything unique compared to the experiences of other musicians?
Yes, absolutely. There's this dude I met years ago from Chicago named Peter Real. He made a Facebook page called "The Well by the Band Ovlov Gets Me Stoked Every Time.” It's just become this little community where people don't even necessarily talk about Ovlov. I've gone on there just to put my Nintendo Switch friend code to try and find people to play Mario Kart with.
I would consider Ovlov one of those bands, where it's like, the people that know them absolutely love them. They're not hugely known, but the amount that they're loved outweighs the numbers they are known by. It feels like, man, this is as successful as I could ever dream of being, just given people care enough about my music to make some fucking troll of a meme page. You know what I mean? It's a special kind of representation that you wouldn't get unless someone was truly a fan of your music.