Steve Hartlett’s close friends would likely recognize a song named “Land Of Steve-O” as a cry for help. “When I’m at my darkest, I feel I’m the most sarcastic, or funniest,” the Ovlov frontman concedes and the tracklist of Buds sure makes it seem like a funny album on first glance — references to Jackass and Spirited Away, a vaguely Strokes-y song called “Strokes,” another one titled “Moron Pt. 2,” and its closer, “Feel The Pain,” which for my money, is probably the funniest song title of 2021. Ovlov has recently been compared to an inside joke shared by an intensely vocal minority and they’ll know why “Feel The Pain” is really fucking funny — it’s the most popular song of the band Ovlov has been compared to more than any other. Imagine if Greta Van Fleet were self-aware enough to make an original song called “Stairway To Heaven.”
Hartlett was very intentional with “Feel The Pain,” though it’s not exactly a tribute to Dinosaur Jr. In fact, it’s partially about how much he came to hate J. Mascis without ever meeting him. Before Hartlett explains how that came to pass, he warns, “I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this story before,” and then for about 10 straight minutes, recalls how a combination of financial desperation, heavy drug usage, social isolation and the persuasion of a notorious con artist resulted in him collaborating with Dinosaur Jr. guitarist Murph on a bogus “Hare Krishna rock album.” We’ll get to that in a bit.
Ovlov’s cryptic lyricism belies Hartlett’s actual communication style — effusive, at times uncontrollable in its tangential nature. “I’ve made about a thousand friends trying to have a conversation with anyone who came up to me after a show,” he concedes. “But then it got to a point where I couldn’t do that with everyone and then I started ghosting people closest to me.” Betraying his roots as a kid that was only allowed to buy records at the Christian bookstore, Hartlett jokes, “I always tried as hard as I could to be like what I hoped Switchfoot would be if I walked up to them.”
We talk for nearly an hour and a half without getting much into the songs of Buds themselves, but rather everything occupying Hartlett’s mind while writing it — processing his disconnection from the world during the pandemic, the nature of addiction, the purpose of creativity, and the splintering of the indie rock community that sustained Ovlov and vice versa throughout the past decade. Even the album title itself is a double entendre, a reference to Harlett’s lyrical themes of friends loved and lost or just to marijuana, the one narcotic that he’s allowed since he quit drinking in January of 2020. Opener “Baby Shea” alludes to Shea Stadium, the Brooklyn DIY institution that shut down in 2017 despite a successful Kickstarter campaign to cover renovation costs. The end was nigh only a few months earlier, as the New York police and fire departments shut down an Ovlov/Sinai Vessel show at Shea without much explanation.
But for all of its baggage, Buds is a casual listen — eight tastefully tattered songs breezing by in less than a half-hour, largely shorn of the blown-out fuzziness that kept Ovlov’s pop sensibilities largely theoretical. In fact, Hartlett calls Buds their Green Album, with its predecessors am and Tru respectively representing the Blue Album and Pinkerton — their seminal debut and its rawer, darker successor. As with most of their peers in New England – most notably Pile, Krill, and Speedy Ortiz – Ovlov are known as much for their influence than their actual music itself. In the wake of am, producer and engineer Michael John Thomas III would get bombarded by local bands who wanted their album to sound like Ovlov, and both he and Hartlett would softly dissuade them from even trying. Not because Hartlett has an unreasonably high opinion of his work — rather, “when we were making am, we were smoking so much weed that neither of us remember a thing.”
This was mostly how Harlett operated for most of the past decade. An interview regarding one of his side projects was titled “The Myriad Myths Of Stove’s Steve Harlett: A Drunken Account” — “at no point are we sober,” the author states. And it begins to explain how “Feel the Pain” came to pass. “There was this Hare Krishna monk who’s a big fan of Speedy [Ortiz] and Ovlov and Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr., and for all I know, that’s all the rock music he listens to,” Hartlett guesses. He initially infiltrated this scene by offering Speedy Ortiz a place to stay while they were on tour with Grass Is Green — each member was allotted an empty bedroom in an unfurnished mansion. Matt Robidoux was playing guitar for Speedy Ortiz at the time and he was later recruited, along with Hartlett, Murph, and Grass Is Green’s Andy Chervenak to record a rock album written nearly in full by the con artist/monk. “He picked up the guitar for what I think was the first time to transmit the message of Krishna through slacker grunge,” according to Robidoux. “My friend who owned a record store put the LP on display with the review ‘a masterpiece in dogshit’.”
Hartlett began to realize he was being exploited when he was asked to participate in a photoshoot and subsequent marketing for the album, of which 1000 copies were supposedly pressed, with a “thick yoga book that warped the record sometimes,” according to Robidoux. While the whole operation should’ve appeared supremely sketchy from the start, “I was drinking a lot, doing any kind of drug…he paid me everything in advance and I really needed the money,” Hartlett sighs. “But Murph was doing it, so that alone made it feel worthwhile.”
During that time, Harlett says Murph would call him every day, mostly to vent about what it was like to be in Dinosaur Jr. This doesn’t really feel like an airing out of personal business — J. Mascis’ relationship with other members of Dinosaur Jr. is very much a matter of public record. And the first line, and only the first line — “you could not feel the pain” — is addressed to Mascis. “It’s me saying, ‘I don’t think you could handle what Murph has been through,’” Hartlett states, though he finds himself in a much more ambivalent space now. “One of my biggest fears is someone judging me based on one of my old friends telling them all about me, rather than me telling them myself,” Hartlett admits. “I was probably more of an asshole than he was at my age.”
As his communication with the much older Murph began to wane, Hartlett began to recognize that he wasn’t in the best position to reciprocate in a mature friendship. He cops to abusing heroin “off and on from 20 to 26,” only stopping after his best friend died in 2016 from a fentanyl overdose. “Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody that died from fentanyl from 2016-2017, and that’s also why so many of these people from that era are dead or sober.”
Compared to past Ovlov records, Buds operates from a much more abstemious perspective, though it’s all relative. “I still drink way too much coffee to the point where my friends have asked me, ‘are you doing adderall again?,’” Hartlett admits. “Because I used to abuse the fuck out of adderall.” From an objective remove, Hartlett’s life has been completely upended — “Baby Shea” is dually inspired by the ending of Shea Stadium and the beginning of a romantic relationship that recently ended after three years (“I moved back to my parents’ house and I think I did acid almost every day”). Prior to the pandemic, Hartlett was a seasonal worker at the local Costco; he enjoyed being outdoors and having little interaction with people. But in early 2020, he quit after being unable to tell the difference between a panic attack and COVID symptoms. Hartlett was considering relocating to Nashville until a room opened up for him back in Connecticut, and he hopped on a Greyhound back to New England — after growing up with five siblings and spending his 20s knocking around in Brooklyn’s indie rock scene, this is the first time he’s had a room to himself. And in this space, Hartlett has found himself questioning what he really wants out of Ovlov, and really, life itself.
The pandemic was unquestionably a net loss for indie rock, devastating bands reliant on touring as a primary source of income or even just a loss leader to keep their name in the conversation. But while plenty of younger bands wanted to use 2020 as an opportunity to completely rethink the economic model of touring, I often found it was the artists who were pushing past 30 that were quietly thankful that they didn’t have the option of leaving behind their jobs and relationships to barely break even on the road.
Both Hartlett’s father and grandfather were performers who suffered from anxiety, and “they had to have at least two drinks before they went on stage,” Harlett recalls. “And knowing that as a 14 year old, I’m like, ‘I guess that’s part of the show.’” But now that Hartlett has accessed a rare moment of stability, he has a greater sense of clarity in addressing what’s troubled him as the frontman for a beloved, if not lucrative, indie rock band – does it make sense to continue writing Ovlov songs when he feels most at ease as a hired gun or doing covers? Are the stresses of touring worth the fleeting adulation or human connection? Is it possible for Ovlov to go from one record to the next without breaking up?
“I need to make an actual decision [about our future] because it’s gonna be too late and people aren’t really gonna give a shit about us,” Harlett worries, regardless of how many Ovlov diehards have branded the band name on their skin. “I’m amazed people do, and I also want to remind myself that it’s not gonna be like this forever. It can be, but I need to be ready for it to not be this way.”
Buds is out today via Exploding In Sound. Get it here.