In some ways, Long Island, New York and New Brunswick, New Jersey are similar. Both lay in the towering shadow of New York City; if you grow up in either suburb, your youth inevitably might involve the dull routine of taking the commuter rail about an hour to visit “the city”. More specifically, at different points, both regions have also been home to vibrant (albeit aggressively dude-centered) pop punk scenes. On a warm summer evening a couple of blocks from where I work, I’m at New Brunswick’s best Mexican restaurant, Cinco de Mayo, considering the latter similarity with Jade Liltri, the frontman of one of Long Island’s best new pop punk bands.
“Where I grew up, on the south of Long Island, there were a lot of Descendants type pop punk bands and The Ergs! used to play there a lot,” says the Long Beach, NY-based guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. “My first band was actually an Ergs! rip-off band,” he laughs.
Oso Oso recently released its first full length, Real Stories of True People Who Kind of Look Like Monsters, back in June on Hoboken’s Soft Speak Records. It’s a sprawling pop record that channels 90’s alternative rock just as mach as it does the off-kilter songwriting of Hop Along. When we meet in Jersey, the band is on the second day of a two week tour in support of that record that will take them up and down the coast. Lilitri tells me in between glances at menus that it feels more like the third day of the tour, since they went to upstate New York to pick up bassist Kory Gregory and his van a couple of days ago. (When I walk outside later, I see that that the van has “Kickass Vacuums”, the name of Gregory’s dad’s company, spray-painted across it.)
After we place our orders (get the California burrito if you ever get the chance — you’ll eat leftovers for days), Lilitri, guitarist Johnny Wims, and drummer Aaron Masih, all former members of the band State Lines, recount the way that band ended and transitioned into Oso Oso.
“Once I found out about DIY and touring, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Lilitri recalls as the sound of Mexican-American music blasts over the jukebox. “Tom [Werring, the other member of State Lines] was quitting, and we went on one more tour, and afterwards, we all decided that it just wasn’t the same. And then a month after that, I started working on demos for Oso Oso.”
Although the first Oso Oso EP, released late last year under the much-harder-to-remember name osoosooso, was a solid first effort, it was hard to escape the idea that it was an extension of Lilitri’s work with State Lines. The new record, however, feels more like a new band, more complete, and most importantly, a big step forward.
From the opening lines of the first song, the cheekily-titled “Track One, Side A” — “Your hands were cold, sitting on a crowded back deck / but you never felt so alone, so out of touch, so far from home” — Lilitri’s songs, mostly sung in the second person, feels like a novel with melody and distortion, chronicling his own personal experiences as well as those of the people he’s encountered. “Josephine” in particular works with a trope common in pop punk: the scorned ex-boyfriend. But rather than pointing all of the blame on his ex, as bitter emo frontmen are wont to do, Lilitri flips criticism on himself just as much.
Once I found out about DIY and touring, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
“Being in a relationship with somebody from the time you’re seventeen until 22, you go through these different stages of [yourself], and I could see this side of me that finds fault in everyone else,” he explains. “Sometimes bands will talk about a relationship and it’ll be an attack on the other person, and I wanted to write something that was more introspective than that, that wasn’t like ‘fuck them,’ but looked a little more to, ‘what was my fault?’”
“The other part of that song,” he continues, “is about this kid that I knew who told me about how he felt emotionally seduced by his friend’s mom, and how they ended up sleeping together…so I was trying to explore this power dynamic and vulnerability, in both my old relationship and this story that he told me, where someone much older had a weird, fucked up power over him.”
Lilitri’s work with Oso Oso has also drawn some influence from friends and contemporaries: namely the Hotelier, a band that both State Lines and Oso Oso has toured with, and Philadelphia’s Hop Along.
“I’ve seen the Hotelier over a hundred times at this point, and they still make me cry,” admits Lilitri. “But they’re this kind of band that’s so tight and so dynamic…and with Frances Quinlan [of Hop Along], she’s able make you see these really beautiful and profound things in seemingly mundane actions.”
The record closes with a three-song arc — “This Must Be a Place,” “This Must Be An Entrance,” and “This Must Be An Exit” — that explores anxiety, sex, and hook-up culture over the course of a one night stand.
“Have you ever heard, ‘This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads?’” Lilitri asks. “That’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and the way I’ve deciphered the lyrics is this lonely, introverted person in a social setting finding comfort in that setting through someone else, so I kind of wrote a take on that, that talks about going to a party in the hopes of meeting someone. “This Must Be An Entrance” is about actually meeting that person, and the last song [This Must Be An Exit] is about realizing that this person you really like has hate in them and hatred for things just like everyone else.”
Lilitri continues, “There’s two narrators on this album…the female voice leaves after ‘Interlude’, and then the album concludes with these two strangers lying in bed after a one night stand, and they’re having the, ‘What is this?’ conversation.” “It’s based on a true story,” he adds.
It’s all based on a true story.
Real Stories of True People Who Kind of Look Like Monsters is out now on Soft Speak Records.