- File: Luke Awtry
- Ezra Oklan performing with Matthew Mercury at Waking Windows
Drummers often find themselves hidden from view at the back of the stage. Such placement is crucial because of the way sound travels. Placing drummers behind a group's other players ensures that they'll hear the beat and stay in time. It's a shame to hide timekeepers, though, since drum work can be especially dazzling to watch.
Burlington music fans have likely seen drummer Ezra Oklan perform many times. Or rather, they've perhaps seen the local projects in which he plays: Kat Wright's soul ensemble and pop-blues duo Dwight & Nicole. Whether or not folks have actually laid eyes on him depends on a person's height and vantage point from the crowd. Them's the breaks for a drummer.
Audiences will have no problem getting a view of the 41-year-old Vermont native in his new band, Matthew Mercury. That's because, for the first time in his lifelong music career, Oklan is stepping fully into the spotlight as front person and vocalist. The pop-rock outfit celebrates the release of its self-titled debut album with a free show on Friday, June 14, at ArtsRiot in Burlington.
Matthew Mercury is a searing selection of acidic pop tunes. Ranging from sparkling, almost new-wave inclinations to ragged, dirty rock, the tracks fizz with a sharp, metropolitan edge. They stem from the partnership of Oklan and longtime friend and collaborator Matthew Dublin — though Dublin, a Brooklynite, only writes for the band. He's not part of its live lineup and only briefly appears on the album. While preparing to introduce the project to the world, they decided that Oklan would be its front person, which by Oklan's own admission seems an odd choice at first glance.
"I am the worst singer in the band," he says without a hint of irony.
In conversation, the salt-and-pepper-haired musician smiles and cracks jokes frequently. He exudes a friendly, disarming energy — the exact opposite of what's conveyed in his grave expression on the cover of Dwight & Nicole's Electric Lights EP.
"We have so much fun together," Dwight & Nicole's Nicole Nelson writes to Seven Days, confirming that the band's EP cover doesn't do Oklan's personality justice. "We could all be in a van together for six weeks and be laughing and having just as much fun at the end as we did at the start."
Though he's a native Vermonter — born and raised in Enosburg Falls — Oklan spent most of his adult life in New York City.
"I just couldn't get out of northern Vermont fast enough," explains Oklan. A high school dropout, he obtained his GED at 17 — without studying, he says — and headed to New York City to study jazz at the New School. That institution provided many connections, through which he was able to quickly transition into playing music full time. Throughout his NYC years, Oklan played with bands and artists such as Inouk, Oakley Hall, Nicole Atkins, and Rachel Platten of "Fight Song" fame, and he opened for mega-stars such as the Killers and Dave Matthews Band.
In addition to playing music, Oklan influenced the production and sale of several music apps from developer Bitcount ltd. Notably, he was instrumental in the development of the company's metronome app, Clockwork, and a music-augmenting program called StagePass.
While touring major venues such as Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheatre or NYC's Madison Square Garden, Oklan and his cohorts would record short input signals while the auditoriums were completely empty. This would capture the natural reverb and room tone of a given venue. In the StagePass app, users can then listen to recorded music from their iTunes libraries filtered through the digital essence of many famed rock-and-roll hot spots.
Oklan returned to his home state in 2015 with his wife, Leah, also a native Vermonter. Burnt out on city living, the two sought a more laid-back lifestyle. They now have two children, a daughter and a son.*
The first thing Oklan did upon returning was join up with Kat Wright and, later, Dwight & Nicole. Meanwhile, the wheels of Matthew Mercury were slowly turning, as they had been for years.
Oklan and Dublin have been pals since a brief stint at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass., in the mid-1990s. Later, in the 2000s, the two played together in bands Ambulance LTD and the Red Romance.
They've been tinkering with Matthew Mercury tunes for years. Though both lived in Brooklyn — Dublin is still there — they collaborated mostly via the internet. After drafting a skeletal demo, Dublin would send work along to Oklan, who would layer in drums. The two composed approximately 60 songs total, all without working physically in the same room.
"Dublin and I, we're partners," says Oklan. "We know how each other writes. We're really good together."
The self-titled LP is full of scorching pop-rock tunes. Power chords mingle with bright torrents of synths and spirited drumming. Energy rises and falls throughout in dynamic waves. "London" pulses with a hint of goth spirit, while "Dark City" is a spritely synth-rock banger. "Burn Right Down," with its boisterous chord progression and irresistible hook, is primed for alternative radio airplay.
Oklan attributes the album's sonic panache to his coproducer, Burlington native Jeremy Mendicino.
"He's a genius," says Oklan of Mendicino. "He's one of the best musicians and producers I've ever met."
Oklan says that Mendicino urged him and Dublin to completely rerecord selections from the Matthew Mercury archive.
"He was like, 'These sounds are offensive,'" recalls Oklan.
Matthew Mercury was recorded over a five-month period in 2018. The group — keys player Chris Hawthorne, bassist Dan Bishop, drummer Steve Hadeka, and Mendicino on guitar — sat down to 51 recording sessions to achieve the polished power-pop heard on the nine-track collection. The songs were primarily tracked at Lane Gibson Recording and Mastering studio in Charlotte.
Thematically, Dublin says, the record is a "survey of disintegrating relationships filtered through a mordant sense of humor." He's likely not talking about a ha-ha sense of humor, per se. The tunes, often appointed with poetically ambiguous lyrics, tread on some intense themes: loneliness, impatience, frustration and passion, to name a few.
"The standard shit people write about," says Oklan, chuckling.
But the punchy, bright productions diffuse the tension of heartache and loss, resulting in lighter fare that smacks of self-reflection and personal growth rather than wallowing in pain.
Despite having fronted projects in the past, Dublin fully backs Oklan as the voice of Matthew Mercury.
"Ultimately, I don't think it matters who knows who wrote what, at least as far as the listener goes," Dublin writes in an email. "As far as feeling like I'm getting my propers or whatever, it's enough just to know that people appreciate the music or are at least hearing it."
Despite some trepidation and reticence, Oklan fills the role of front person exceedingly well. In a string of promotional videos from local director Kayhl Cooper, Oklan commands the viewer's attention with fervor and grit — as though he's been fronting rock bands for years.
"Beyond anything else, the prerequisite for leading a band is believing in what you're doing," says Dublin. "Whether you do or not, the audience can pick up on it almost immediately."
* Correction, June 12, 2019: An earlier version of this story contained an error. Oklan has two children, a daughter and a son.