Andy LeMaster may be small, but he’s mighty. The frontman/founder of indie rock gem Now It’s Overhead had the right approach to the music business: he built a career for himself. After attending college in Athens, Georgia, LeMaster and two friends—David Barbe and Andy Baker—formed Chase Park Transduction Recording Studio. There, LeMaster toiled as a sound engineer, working with such respected names as REM, Amy Ray, and Azure Ray.
LeMaster’s early band played with Conor Oberst pre–Bright Eyes, and the two became friends. LeMaster couldn’t have then known how he was guiding his fate, laying the foundation for his Omaha connection.
“My connection with Saddle Creek began pretty randomly,” LeMaster admits. “My band at the time, about eight years ago, played with a band that Conor and several other people in Saddle Creek were in, and we just really hit it off and liked each other’s bands. We started playing more shows together and I would come up there. That was about the time Conor was just starting Bright Eyes, and I started recording on that stuff, and started playing on tours with him. I became great friends with everyone and liked all the music.”
When the time was right, he began writing his own material. Word is that LeMaster spent two years of nights—following long days working on other people’s recordings—in the studio, crafting his own songs. When it came time to lay the tracks, LeMaster recruited Azure Ray’s Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, as well as Athens drummer Clay Leverett. Now It’s Overhead’s self-titled debut was released in September 2001 on Saddle Creek. Despite the band members’ demanding schedules, the four managed to tour in support of their album.
When it came time to write and record a follow up, LeMaster says, he was a little more selfish. “I always felt a little guilty taking up [studio] time, but this time I just went ahead and took it for myself. But I did always record in the middle of the night, which is a way to step out of taking business away from the studio, and that definitely influenced the way the music sounds. There’s kind of a nighttime feeling to it.”
What emerged from the second round of nighttime sessions was Fall Back Open, NIO’s critically acclaimed sophomore effort. The new disc is far-reaching in scope, musically rich and lyrically probing. Guest vocalists Michael Stipe and Oberst add a voice to both musicial communities of which LeMaster is a part.
“It’s like a similar petrie dish or something,” LeMaster says with a laugh of the two cities’ cultures. “They’re very, very different cities, but there is a similar vibe within the music communities. There aren’t as many distractions as there would be in a large city. Athens is just so small, and Omaha is…there’s not anything else to do as far as cultural enrichment goes other than try to make your own music. In order to have any music that they like, they have to make it themselves. It just happened that this group of similarly aged people were all talented enough and happened to be there.”
With all of his musical entanglements, LeMaster ends up dividing his time between the two cities—when he’s not on the road, that is. Though his home base is Athens, he’s frequently found in Omaha. “I’m here now, actually,” he says. “Orenda and Maria moved here after our first album, and I’ve come here a lot to either record their band or to have rehearsals for our band, which that’s what we’re doing now. I’m an engineer-producer, also. I end up coming here to the studio to record some of the bands on Saddle Creek, as well as [back in] Athens.” Bands he’s produced include Azure Ray, Bright Eyes, Beep Beep, and the Good Life.
LeMaster grew up in a Georgia town smaller than Athens. Asked about the myth of the city as depicted in Athens, GA Inside Out, he admits there’s something special about the town. “It’s definitely small enough where everyone is aware of everyone else, and everyone’s friendly. It’s affordable living, and the South in general is kind of slow. It’s liberal enough because it’s a college town, not a close-minded place or anything.”
Currently, Now It’s Overhead is on tour across the U.S. Five of those dates will be with REM. How on earth did this little indie band snag an opening slot on one of the hottest tours of the year? “By the grace of REM,” LeMaster says. “They asked us to do it, and we said yes. It will be the biggest tour we’ve been on.” But his awe goes even deeper.
“When I was growing up and really falling in love with music, they were one of my favorite bands. They were the first band that I ever saw in concert, also. It’s just great to be involved with good people.”
Now It’s Overhead opens for REM at the Fox Theatre October 19.