Just before Oso Oso frontman Jade Lilitri picked up the phone last week to speak with City Paper, he was doing something that one year earlier he never could have imagined: preparing for his band’s tour. And not just any tour, but a more than month-long run opening for popular emo act Tiny Moving Parts, in small- to mid-size clubs across the country. In the year since Lilitri decided to surprise what little fanbase he thought he had with a “pay-what-you-want” Bandcamp upload of his second full-length, the yunahon mixtape, his perceived ceiling for what Oso Oso could accomplish has been shattered multiple times over.
“I felt like it was kind of like the end of Oso,” he tells CP, referring to his feelings around the release of yunahon in January 2017. “I thought we weren’t gonna be touring as much, and I thought I’d be constantly recording and releasing music as like a hobby thing.”
The exact opposite occurred.
When yunahon was released, it received near-universal applause from the emo/punk scene Lilitri had come up in. Then Pitchfork got wind of album and granted it a fairly generous score of 7.8. Now Oso is taken seriously by “serious indie-rock fans” and critics (for better or worse). Then the group nabbed a booking agent, and by the end of the year, the members had inked a deal with Triple Crown Records, essentially the ultimate destination for emo bands with the skill set to make it out of the basement circuit.
For Lilitri, all of these achievements were actualizations of “lofty ambitions” and “hypotheticals” that he and his producer Billy Mannino had merely fantasized about leading up to yunahon’s release.
“We literally said, ‘Wow, what if Triple Crown put it out?’ and that happened,” Lilitri says, still in awe of being able to call his musical heroes — bands like Weatherbox and Northstar — his labelmates.
“I’ve met so many people over the last year who’ve been involved in music who I couldn’t believe would’ve taken such an interest,” he says.
He mentioned Kenny Vasoli — frontman of the prominent, mid-2000s pop-punk band The Starting Line. Vasioli, who recently pegged Oso’s buds in Prince Daddy & the Hyena to open for his band in New York City, sent Lilitri a direct message on Twitter to compliment the record. Even crazier was the notorious Brit-rock band Los Campesinos! tweeting that its album of the year was yunahon.
“Stuff like that is just so weird and wild to me,” Lilitri says. “It’s so cool to see people who actually do it and have done it, to get that affirmation that these people who make really quality stuff — I consider their stuff so far beyond mine — at least see what I’m going for.”
Although the way yunahon seemed to take off organically via the power of the internet is itself interesting, it’s not entirely uncommon. However, for a smaller band like Oso Oso, its ascent to the realm of self-serious critics and hipsters (who, again, for better or worse have a sizeable amount of influence on building the narrative for what’s considered “cool” music) is actually pretty significant. Oso had previously seen only regional success in the almost intentionally isolationist emo and pop-punk scene, which is relatively unfashionable (by music-snob standards).
Despite feeling that Oso doesn’t fit snugly into any particular genre, Lilitri says that he wasn’t surprised that the indie-rock crossover ensued.
“You kind of feel like you fit into all these different worlds, but not enough into one completely,” he said. “There’s pop-punk elements, and emo elements, and indie. Three different crowds, three different worlds.”
“It’s really hard to explain that stuff,” he says. “Because to me, you take all these bands of those three worlds, and if you simplify it down to the lead singer playing on an acoustic guitar, all their songs come from the same world. I think the things that put them in those worlds are just like, a certain lyric here or there, or a guitar tone or drum tone.
“I don’t think we said, ‘Yo, I want this album to sound indie’ … but I definitely knew I wanted the guitars and the drums to sound a certain way. Definitely different than our previous albums.”
In many ways, yunahon feels like a genuine intersection of those worlds, which is perhaps why it’s been so well received in each of them. Songs like “reindeer games” and “out of the blue” feature anthemic, pop-punky refrains, while tracks like “the cool” and “the bearer of the truths” work with sturdy riffs and more classically indie-rock swells. The record’s narration of a romantic rise and fall is standard, though exceedingly well done, emo fare.
It’s a curiously cohesive meld of the three styles, which flow together with the precision of a carefully sequenced mixtape — the kind you spend hours into the night curating for a deep crush, the kind that needs to sound perfect.
The difference between yunahon — an album he made for whoever might listen, not whoever will listen — and whatever Lilitri makes going forward will attempt to navigate the space between self-defined perfection and the consensus of his listeners. It’s something every artist who achieves some level of popularity is forced to confront.
“I could make a record that I might think is the best thing I’ve ever done, and everybody might hate it,” he says. “To be truthful, I don’t think I’d be happy with that.”
Conversely, Lilitri says he’d be far more disappointed if he put out a record that he’s “not stoked on fully,” but that his fans end up loving.
“If I don’t feel good about it, then it doesn’t matter what people think of it.”