Izaak Opatz navigates the overgrown paths of love and life with a skilled quirk on Extra Medium, the Montana songwriter’s third entry that blends left-of-the-dial tendencies with a penchant for pop country effectively termed Dirt Wave. Conceived between trips home from the backcountry where Opatz chainsawed trails for Glacier National Park, Extra Medium’s observational and confessional tales cross the Rocky Mountains for Los Angeles, occasionally arcing towards Music City, but always landing snugly in the passenger’s seat or rearview mirror. A sequel of sorts to his 2018 solo debut, Marichi Static, Izaak’s latest also follows the pandemic released Hot & Heavy-Handed, an ode to country music radio that covers tracks from Mark Chestnutt, Trace Adkins, Lucinda Williams, Tom T. Hall, and Dierks Bentley with surprising savvy. Extra Medium is deceptively fun, a melodic jaunt through heartbreak and maturity that charms when it could complain and laughs when it might just as easily cry.
AI- Other than “mariachi static”, what was on the radio when you were growin’ up?
IO- I listened to this really kind of, not trashy, but just AM oldies station that I loved called the Classic 600. That was a big one, like really cheesy pop songs from the ’60s and ’50s even. But my parents listened to Neil Young and Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan– the classic boomer folk music kind of playlist! Later in like high school or a little after high school, I, on my own, discovered country music. There was a radio station where I worked in Glacier [National Park] on the east side, so more of the mountains and the Subaru crowd kind of peters out. It becomes a little bit more like Middle America once you get east of the Rockies, and that’s where I picked up my first country station. Not that they didn’t exist on the other side, but that’s when it started to feel right, I guess. That’s what got me into country– it wasn’t my parents for sure!
What about music itself? When did it get a hold of you and you decided you wanted to start doin’ it?
Well, pretty early ’cause my parents– I don’t know if they saw— they signed up my sister and me for piano lessons really early. They valued it even though neither of them played music, really, at all. My dad played a little harmonica, I think when he was younger, but they always thought it was important to get us involved and just to see if we liked it. And I did like music a lot, but piano wasn’t really for me, so I quit that. In middle school, I signed up for band and I played trombone for three years and then I quit that ’cause I wasn’t very good at practicing and it wasn’t quite clicking. And then in high school, I picked up the guitar, and luckily I had a few friends who were learning at the same time, so that stuck!
What about writing?
That didn’t happen until college! I didn’t really think about… Well, I guess in high school a little bit, but not very seriously. I lived with my cousin in college and they had already started kind of writing their own songs, so they were the ones that sort of unlocked it for me. We lived together and they got me comfortable with writing and singing and that whole thing. We had a band in college and that…
That was the Best Westerns?
No, that was another band called Friedrich’s Teeth that was pre-Best Westerns.
But that was when you hit your stride as a writer and a performer– with the Best Westerns?
I think so– at least it’s when I got a lot more experience with it. Writing in the country-style felt really good for me and I put a band together, played more than I had before, and grew a little following in Missoula!
I got a link to Extra Medium, but I have had the best time diggin’ into your back catalog while gettin’ ready for this interview. I am also a big Warren Zevon fan, so Mariachi Static has, I think, become my favorite album title in the last couple of days! And I really got a kick outta Hot & Heavy-Handed, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about finding country music when you did. I guess that would’ve been right around the time period for some of these artists that you dig into for that record. I wanna talk just a little bit about both those albums. Mariachi Static, of course, pre-COVID-19 pandemic, and you were really pickin’ up some steam with that one. Tell me about branching out to be a solo artist and making that album.
In some ways, it came from my friendship with Jonny Fritz, who’s another artist. After I graduated college and I realized that the Best Westerns, the other members of the band weren’t looking to tour or push it any further than it was in college, that’s when I moved to Nashville and I met my friend, Jonny. He’s a solo artist, and he’s got a career– it’s not huge, but he’s been playing music for a long time, and so he connected me with a lot of people in Nashville, and that’s when I started thinking about doin’ my own thing. And then he moved to L.A. and a year or so later, I followed him there and that’s where I met my friend Malachi [DeLorenzo], who ended up producing and engineering and playing all the instruments that I wasn’t playing on Mariachi Static. We got together playing tennis! I met him through Jonny and we were tennis partners for a couple months, and then he got a new 4-track machine and he invited me over to just try to try something out. I went over there and we recorded one song, which ended up being, “Got To Me Since”, the first song on the album.
I spent eight hours over there and we tracked everything separate, and then he was just kind of mixing it on the run because we only had four tracks. We’d record three and then he’d bounce it down to one and then we’d record a couple more and then bounce that down, and by the end of the day, we had pretty much what you hear on the album and it was just so fun! I really liked that style of recording. It felt like you had some control, but also a lot of it was outta your hands in a fun way. You had fewer decisions to make. The whole thing was just a kick in the pants! Then we just did a few more and a few more after that, and then pretty soon, we had six or seven songs and we decided to make a full album– and that was Mariachi Static! It was really not accidental, but not planned for sure!
Tell me about Dirt Wave. Where did that term come from?
That came from my friend Dave Martins. He was in the Best Westerns with me and he’s just sort of a… A Ringo? He hears funny stuff and he’s got a really good ear, so who knows? Dirt Wave might have been something that he came up with or somebody else misspoke and that’s what came out and he grabbed onto it! But yeah, he started describing the Best Westerns as Dirt Wave, and I really liked that. I kind of struggled to find a genre for us and it feels like it’s somewhere in between country and folk and something that’s a little more poppy, something that has more hooks and kind of a swing or something. I’ve just hung onto it ever since!
After that, you did some rambling around, did some touring, and then of course, like everybody else COVID-19 came to town. When did you put Extra Medium together? This was on the shelf and marinatin’ before the pandemic, right?
Right before! I was kind of back and forth between Montana and L.A. for a while, and then I went back down in October of 2019 or maybe November. I worked for Jonny, who’s got a leather tooling company, and while I was down there, we recorded Extra Medium. It was November and December of 2019, and we did a little bit more in January of 2020, so pretty much right up until shit hit the fan was when we did all the tracking. And then Malachi finished mixing it that spring and it was theoretically ready the next summer, but yeah, it’s been on a shelf for a year and a half.
Was the plan like every plan– you know, release the album, try to tour as much of it as possible?
Yeah! At some point, we had planned on releasing it in August 2020, and then we reevaluated and thought maybe early last spring we could do it, and then hopefully it would be a springboard to doing festivals and bigger tours– just had to keep shelving it! Last spring, once it seemed that wasn’t gonna happen for at least another year, I applied for grad school. It was something I had been thinking about doing for a while and the release felt sort of paralyzed, so I felt like I needed to do something to take advantage of the time. Now, it’s comin’ and I’m hopin’ we’re gonna tour on it this summer as much as possible!
In between all of that, this past December, you released Hot & Heavy-Handed, which, uh… It’s extremely weird– but a lot of fun! You combine Tom T. Hall and classic Lucinda Williams with Dierks Bentley and Trace Atkins… I don’t even know how you came up with that song list! But tell me about it! What was behind puttin’ all that together? How did you come up with that song list? And who else is helping you realize all of that?
(Laughs) It wasn’t even like a conscious effort to make it that eclectic! For a long time, I’d wanted to cover some of these old ’80s and ’90s pop country songs that I feel like people sort of scoff at or roll their eyes at just because the sound is sort of cheesy. A lot of the hooks and the lyrical tricks are a little corny, but I think because I came to country late, I’ve always loved that part of it. But also, I had a realization that the songwriting is amazing, even if it’s built for pop radio, and that the hooks are really fun!
For me, that era is kind of what I’m shooting for, even if it’s not the sound I’m shooting for, but the great storytelling combined with fun pop hooks that make it really easy to listen to. So I just had always wanted to cover some of my favorite ’80s/’90s pop country songs that really highlighted clever songwriting, and maybe do it in a way that was less polished and was in the way that me and Malachi recorded, where things always go a little bit wrong and we just kind of roll with. That was the original idea, and then I don’t know, I just kept hearing… It was really unplanned!
I was working back in Glacier that summer and I would record a couple– just vocals and guitar– that I wanted to do and send them to Malachi and Dylan. Dylan Rodrigue, he plays bass or guitar with me and he’s another great producer. He and Mal were kind of co-producing and they were both in L.A. and I was in Montana. I would send the vocals and guitar and they would fill out everything else. So Malachi played drums, Dylan played bass and guitar, and they did background vocals and percussion together. I’d send ’em like two at a time, I’d go work, which was for me, working on a trail crew in the backcountry. I’d be gone for eight or ten days and then I’d come back out, and usually, those two songs would be in my inbox, all filled out and pretty much like you hear ’em on the record! On my weekends, I would find another couple songs to send over, and I did a few of those pop country ones. I was just listening to the radio and clickin’ around and remembering all these other great country songs that weren’t necessarily in the same mold, but I could start to hear what Malachi and Dylan would do with them. I just started grabbing and that’s how that went!
Well, you know, that late ’80s, ’90s country sound is comin’ back around in a lot of areas. American Aquarium just did their Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers Vol. 2, and Elijah Ocean just made an album called Born Blue where he really embraces that sound down to using some of the drum samples that they used to use– which I didn’t even know that that’s what they did back then! He even went and got Brent Mason, who plays for Alan Jackson, to come and lay some stuff down. So that sound is gettin’ back out, and I think it’s strange… It’s really true that everything old does become new again.
I think it’s all tied up in nostalgia. Even though I didn’t grow up in a family that listened to that kind of music, I think it was still there. So when I hear it now, it’s more than just the songs, it’s the whole texture and atmosphere reverberating and resonating in my memory, whether I know it or not.
You talk about workin’ at the park. Tell me what exactly is it that you do at the park? You cut trails– what does that entail?
I think the last year I did it was 2020, but it’s a lot of different things. It’s just maintaining hiking trails. Early in the season, you walk around with chainsaws and you’re cutting trees that have fallen over the trail to clear ’em that way. Sometimes you’re shoveling snow on trails that are really up high and there’s these big drifts that drift over the trail and stick around throughout the summer. If they’re popular trails, they want ’em dug out. Sometimes you’re building bridges. The footbridges, most of ’em are built out of just logs and materials that you find in the forest where you are, and so occasionally they get knocked out by floods or they just age out and you gotta rebuild those. You’re building steps and retaining walls, anything to keep the trail in good shape.
Do you write on the trail? Is that where you wrote the songs for Extra Medium?
No. I keep a journal and I write as much as I can, but it doesn’t usually happen quite like that. It’d be fun to imagine that’s what happens, but I’m usually too tired at the end of the day to get much out. So no, but it does help, like at certain times, I’ll go ten days without playing guitar and come back, and over the weekend, be a lot more motivated to fiddle around with stuff and write. I have started a few songs in the woods, but I don’t usually bring a guitar back there.
Extra Medium is really the successor to Mariachi Static. How much of that is about your time in L.A.?
A lot of it. Maybe half and half? It covers the years when I was bouncing back and forth a lot. A number of the songs reference that. I’d say more than half, actually, talk about L.A., and even stuff like relationships I had in LA or my love/hate relationship with the city itself. “Married with Kids” is about advertisements, and I think that’s about L.A., even though it never really talks about it.
I love the line in that song where you talk about some marketing team making a lot of money to get your eyes off the road. That was one of many lines you have across that album that’s struck me as just too hip! There is also a big breakup aspect to a lot of the songs on the album and it wasn’t until you talked about your love/hate relationship with L.A. that it occurred to me that some of that breakup was as much about a place as it was about potentially a person.
Yeah! And it was similar conflicted emotions too! As you have with a breakup from a person, I do feel like with L.A., I tried to make it work, you know? In the end it just, I had to realize that we weren’t super compatible (laughs)! So yeah, there is a little bit of that. “East of Barstow” has kinda got that, “In The Light Of A Love Affair”, I feel like that is obviously more about the city than the person, but it’s kind of about how I didn’t have a lot of luck dating in L.A., and then when I did briefly, it changed how I thought about the city. So, yeah, they are pretty intertwined.
I also feel like the holidays, or maybe just winter itself, is a backdrop or at least a reference point across the album. You’ve got “Chinook Wind”, “Wild-Eyed George Bailey Heebie Jeebies”, “Blue Pilot”… Is that a period where you find yourself writing a lot? Or is it just those are the moments that come to you when you sit down to write?
I think I probably do write more during the winter, but also all three of those songs deal with the same relationship that bloomed and exploded in the middle of the winter a few years ago. Also, when I was in L.A. it was predominantly over the winter. Those songs are all about this one very quick, up and down relationship that just exploded!
You’re back in school, which you’ve mentioned, and I read your piece about going back. I really liked what you said, where you’ll need to get things “factually right as a journalist” in the same way that you get them “emotionally right as a songwriter.” I thought that was very poignant. Tell me what it is you’re trying to accomplish goin’ back to school and what kind of writing do you want to do? I know helping people tell their stories is important to you, but what kind of stories are those gonna be?
I don’t think I totally know that yet. One semester in, and I’m still a little bit unsure about where I wanna fit in. The stuff I love to read is like profiles and longer narrative pieces– but I don’t know! I’m gettin’ a little bit of a primer on how to do hard news stuff, but I don’t know if daily news is really for me. I’m hopin’ to take a few audio broadcast or radio and podcast courses next year. I’m interested in that, but I don’t really have any experience, despite my musical audio background. The program I’m in is Environmental Journalism, and I think that science communication and all that is pretty important, but I do skew towards the people stories, the personal, as you can tell.
Also, in that piece, I love the High Fidelity reference– revisiting your past, realizing that yes, at certain points in time, maybe you were the one at fault. When you go back and revisit your past and see that– I mean, I’ve done that myself– has that changed the way you hear some of your songs now? With Hot & Heavy-Handed, not only do you jam in some of these classic country songs along with newer pop country songs, but you also revisit some of your songs from the Best Westerns. What was it like– going through that again?
Well, I think it still holds true. For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of embarrassment about the choices I’d made lyrically because I think even back with the Best Westerns, I’m embarrassed of trying to sound too cool (laughs) or of trying not to obscure my own failings! Luckily, going back and listening to some of that stuff, I feel they could obviously have been written better and the music could have been more interesting and whatever else, but I felt that they held up decently– or they didn’t embarrass me because they were written pretty honestly. There are probably a few exceptions to that, but for the most part, yeah, I was glad to find out that I can still stand to listen to ’em because of that.
What about now? You’ve had this album sittin’ on the shelf for a little bit– have you been writing and preparing for what’s gonna come later?
Probably not as much as I should have, but I’ve been writing and chipping away. We talked about me goin’ down to L.A. for the winter break and starting to record a few more things, but that ended up not happening with the surge. I’ll be in school for the next semester, and I guess we might make some plans early in the summer to do some more recording.
You brought up the leatherwork earlier, with Jonny Fritz, and that’s something that you’ve continued to do. You’ve got Heavy Handed Leather, which I love that kind of thing. I don’t do it myself but I appreciate it. I don’t know where you have the time to write songs because between going to school, doing leatherwork, you are obviously a huge outdoorsman and stay busy doing that– is songwriting for you a getaway?
Yeah, I think so. I have a hard time when I have too much time. The last couple years have been that way where I’ve given myself a lot of free time, sometimes with the intention of just writing constantly, and I struggle with that a lot. I like having limited time to scratch things out in the margins as far as writing– it seems to just take some of the pressure off it– and yeah, it was starting to feel like it wasn’t an escape when I was making it the priority. Recently, I’ve gotten back into it being this thing that I sneak off to do when I have free time and it seems to work better that way for whatever reason. With the Best Westerns I was a student and most of my songs, like I said, were written in between notes and just squeezed into parts of the page that weren’t being used for schoolwork. I have a theory that it’s more productive for me somehow. So yeah, at its best, it’s been an escape, and I’m hoping it continues to be.