"THIS IS my art hole—this is where I do everything," says Ozarks' Robbie Augspurger as we enter the basement of his home, located in deep Southeast Portland. It's full of the kind of clutter you would expect from a guy who writes songs steeped in nearly half a century of pop culture: film posters, vintage instruments, crates of records—and that's only the half of it.
Ozarks' self-titled debut owes its aesthetic as much to Ennio Morricone and Sergio Martino as it does Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson. To call Augspurger and producer/multi-instrumentalist Eric Lee mad scientists wouldn't be far off. At the very least they're connoisseurs and consumers of pop culture and pop music, exploring Italian cinema and dissecting Lee Hazlewood and Beatles records, among others.
"That guitar tone on 'Without You' by Badfinger," says Augspurger, reflecting on their mutual attention to detail, "we nerd out to that. We're like the Quentin Tarantino of baroque pop—it's just everything we love rolled into one."
The simple pop structures of Ozarks belie the inter-workings of Augspurger and Lee, who recorded the entire album in the basement we're standing in. Augspurger wrote the material and played most of the instruments, while Lee served as drummer, producer, and most importantly, as Augspurger's sounding board. "I can't take credit for the writing," Lee explains. "I just try to help Robbie finish his songs."
Ozarks' quirkiness might lead one to believe this is all the product of some good old-fashioned recreational drug use, bringing to mind the more painstaking work of the Beatles and Beach Boys. The record is brimming with warm, layered production, and lyrics that bounce between heartfelt and absurd. For the record, they don't get high. ("I like an occasional IPA," Augspurger tells me.)
Augspurger's penchant for penning weird songs goes back to his high school days in Greenville, Illinois, playing guitar through his mom's karaoke machine and writing lyrics solely for the amusement of his friends. The first song he wrote was called "Polish Sausage." He eventually began playing at local open-mic nights. Lee, who had returned to the States after years of doing missionary work in Europe, walked in during one of Augspurger's sets.
"I remember he was playing a song called 'Space Horse,'" Lee says. "The lyrics were silly—but they were good songs."
And every song has a story. The lyrics for the first single, "Pyramids of Love," came to Augspurger after hearing Lee's joking attempt at beat poetry while at a bachelor party. The video was inspired by their mutual love for Italian cinema, as Augspurger sports a ribbed turtleneck while a mysterious band plays behind him (the black gloves are a nod to the stylish giallo thrillers of the late '60s and early '70s).
It's a labor of love. Augspurger and Lee worked on the record for the better part of the last decade, a process halted by bouts of writer's block and their obsessive attention to detail. From a shelf, Augspurger pulls a reel of tape dated October 2005 that contains the song "Diamonds, Objects of Desire" to illustrate just how far back the sessions go.
"Ozarks is, as far as the world is concerned, brand-new music, even though I've been with these songs for a few years now," Augspurger says, noting that he has nearly an album's worth of demos ready. "Hopefully the next album won't take more than a few months to record."