Band To Watch: Cumbie
Cumbie frontman Aaron O’Neill laughs when I ask if he was surprised when this website posted the lead single from his band’s debut EP last month. “I was like, what the fuck, man? I was looking at the Bandcamp and someone bought it and it shows you the link of where they found the Bandcamp at and I saw it was on Stereogum and I was like, what the fuck? I thought it was a joke.”
It wasn’t a joke. “Pretty,” the song in question, has an eccentric, chaotic chorus that has stuck with me for weeks: “If I wanted to/ I could be pretty/ If I wanted to/ I could be silly.” The line could work as a thesis statement for Cumbie’s EP, which is streaming below ahead of its official release tomorrow. The project’s five oft-morphing songs can be punishingly heavy and intensely catchy, sometimes all at once, and even at their most pensive they never seem to take themselves too seriously. In fact, O’Neill invokes children’s music when explaining Cumbie’s goal of creating songs with melodies or harmonies that linger in a listener’s head after the song’s finished: “That’s why the Beatles are good, that’s why Alex G is good. That’s why all of those people are good — they write songs like they’re nursery rhymes.”
Cumbie’s lineup includes O’Neill on vocals, guitar, and keyboards, Reid Maynard on bass and vocals, and Zach Simmons on drums. You’ll have to wait to find out what they look like; per O’Neill, “There’s a certain level of vagueness and fantasy I want to keep intact for this music that I think band pics might ruin, at least for now.” That said, he and Maynard have been playing in bands forever. When I inquire about his various projects, he replies, “I can’t even name them all; it would just be redundant.” He got into music because of Sum 41 when he was just a kid, but started making it himself when he was introduced to the DIY scene in Germany.
That’s part of how Cumbie came together. O’Neill and Maynard, both military brats, met online when they’d found out they’d gone to the same Air Force base school in Germany at different times. Maynard showed O’Neill what hardcore and screamo were like in that country: “It was like everyone was your best friend even if you just met them,” O’Neill recalls. “It was a really non-judgmental and loose vibe.” People of all ages would come to shows, feed musicians, and express gratitude that they came to play, he explains.
Years later in St. Louis, a gig playing drums in a band called Shady Bug connected O’Neill with Seth Engel, the Chicago producer who worked on Cumbie’s EP. Currently, O’Neill is also juggling a more self-focused project called Ronnie Rogers, a group called the Deals with members of Moontype, and a death metal combo called Gored Embrace. “But I don’t think any of them have ever randomly gotten up on something like Stereogum,” he says with a laugh.
O’Neill just recently moved to Chicago during the pandemic. The rest of the members of Cumbie are still in St. Louis, where he was based for five years before the move. “It’s technically, I would say, more of a St. Louis band than it is a Chicago band,” he says, but when he made the Cumbie Bandcamp page, he listed them as a Chicago band. “There’s way more clout up here.”
It doesn’t really matter where Cumbie are from; their sound transcends state lines as well as genre boundaries. O’Neill and Maynard have moved around and experienced enough scenes to understand the limitations and break through them. “You see where different people’s values lay. From my experience in playing in a ‘indie rock’ circuit, there’s so many amazing people, don’t get me wrong, but also just a lot of clout chasers with rich parents. You don’t really get that in jazz or metal. It’s kind of ridiculous, which is why I wanted to distance the project from indie rock type of vibes.”
The metal album art of the Cumbie EP is intended to throw you off. The barely-legible font prepares someone for songs full of caustic riffs and growls — and there’s some of that here, but also a lot of other sounds. The aforementioned “Pretty” is a mixture of grunge, shoegaze, post-hardcore, and more — you could put a bunch of labels on it, none of them entirely accurate. At the end of the day, O’Neill attributes this to “wanting to just fuck with people a little bit,” and it makes for a rewarding listen. “I never want to be in those types of bands where it’s coming from A. a serious or B. an egotistical place,” he says. “The reason I don’t listen to a lot of indie rock anymore is because it’s always personal. It gets a little old after a while. I just want to hear crazy rock; it doesn’t have to be so serious.”
When I ask if he’s worried about becoming one of those pretentious, clout-chasing bands after spending so much time around them, he says, “Well, I won’t because I don’t have rich parents.” It does make him bitter and jaded at times, though. O’Neill works as a mover with weird, crazy hours during the day (scheduling this interview was difficult and frustrating for the both of us). Outside of Bloomington, Illinois, Simmons works on a farm where Cumbie were able to practice a few times. When O’Neill was a kid he dreamed of doing music as a career and being able to make money through his art, but over time he came to terms with his circumstances. “You realize that that’s not possible,” he says. “So you kind of just say fuck it and do it because you love it.”
Cumbie’s debut EP is out 5/7. Buy it here.