Singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Snell approaches music and art with an open, collaborative spirit. Sometimes, it’s to his own creative detriment. In the late ’90s/early ’00s, Snell fronted Readymaid, an Indie Rock ensemble that featured six eager-to-contribute players and instrumentation that expanded to include trombone, French horn, various keyboards and seemingly whatever else the musicians could get their hands on.
After Readymaid, Snell started The Chocolate Horse, a warmer, more organic project, with Readymaid’s keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Higley. The group eventually turned into a band version of a Transformer — the open door membership policy meant that the Horse could play in different configurations depending on the venue and scenario. Snell’s communal approach to these projects resulted in collectives that ultimately ended up having too many moving parts and became increasingly more difficult to manage. At the end of both projects, Snell was determined to start something new and without so many cooks in the kitchen. Post-Readymaid, The Chocolate Horse started that way, but gradually grew into something different and less manageable. “(The Chocolate Horse initially) was all about getting away from having 10 people in the band, which makes it hard to get a song finished because there’s just so much going on,” Snell says. “Doing (Chocolate Horse) after eight years, it became the same thing.
We could never get a drummer to show up. Trying to bail people out of jail. We had different opportunities come up and someone wouldn’t want to do it or whatever. “But it’s fun for me to play with other people and see what happens,” he clarifies. Snell (who’s also a graphic artist) decided to try again and form a band with even more of a laser focus. To keep it unfussy, he was determined to keep membership numbers down, re-teaming with drummer Joe Suer (Readymaid’s drummer and part-time Chocolate Horse timekeeper) and Higley to form the volatile, efficient Ohio Knife. Higley records with the band — he’s currently a professional studio musician in Nashville, Tenn., working with artists like Brendan Benson and Ben Folds — but Ohio Knife is essentially just Snell and Suer, especially live.
So far, the duo configuration is working out well. “Working with Joe and getting (Ohio Knife) off the ground, it was just so easy,” Snell says. “It seems like we get together and write four songs in an hour, just because we’ve known each other for a long time.” With The Chocolate Horse fading into the background without much fanfare, Ohio Knife seemingly exploded out of nowhere. The group’s first real booking was a journey to last year’s South By Southwest in Austin, Tex. Though not booked to officially showcase at the event, Ohio Knife worked with Cincinnati brand consulting firm Landor on the collaborative “SXSW Unleashed” project, which involved documenting the entire journey on film and grabbing attention with gimmicks like handing out free acoustic guitars to festgoers. Ohio Knife’s warm-up show in Cincinnati right before the Austin trip was the group’s live debut. “It was a lot of fun and it gave us the drive to say, ‘You know, this Ohio Knife thing is pretty cool.’ You can just set up in the street and just do it and it’s lean and mean,” Snell says. After more than a decade of playing in larger ensembles, Snell says another welcomed side effect has been his own increased focus on his performance, playing and singing.
Where once he had a full arsenal of sounds to hide behind, with Ohio Knife, Snell’s driving guitar playing and raspy, strikingly soulful singing are front and center. “Stripping it down to two people, you have to be on,” Suer says, noting Snell’s noticeable improvement as a performer and musician. Ohio Knife’s recorded debut, a quick and dirty four-song EP titled Ohio Knife is OK!, was picked up by Detroit label Fountain Records. Where The Chocolate Horse was formed to explore the slower, fluid side of Snell’s songwriting, Ohio Knife is OK! shows that this duo was designed to rock. Snell says he looked to some of the seminal ’90s bands he grew up on for inspiration. “I grew up on Soundgarden and Nirvana and I thought, ‘What if that sound was done by a two piece?’ ” Snell says. “That stuff’s really melody focused, no matter how big it is. That element is stronger than ever (in Ohio Knife’s songs). I need that in my music.” The band is planning on recording again soon, most likely at the local Candyland facilities. Putting out a record is the big goal this year, as well as some regional touring. But when that touring starts, how much bigger will Ohio Knife be, member-wise? Despite his insistence that Ohio Knife’s two-piece set-up is ideal, Snell says the band will be larger as soon as this Friday’s New Music Showcase at Bogart’s. “We’re going to have some special guests for that.
Two might become doubled for that night,” he says, hinting at a couple of musicians joining the band onstage. As he’s talking about the show, Snell seems to catch himself backtracking on the duo dedication. “I don’t want to get things going!” Snell says with a huge laugh. “I’m trying to learn from past things!” CityBeat/Mike Breen photo by Jesse Fox