by Kevin Hanlon
Izaak Opatz has spent the last decade growing a music career that began in Missoula, Montana, moved him down to Nashville, out over to Los Angeles, and back to Montana again. There, the singer-songwriter works on a trail crew at Glacier National Park, plays music, tools leather, and films online concerts.
Opatz’s music echoes off his memories like the great mountains of his surroundings. His is music for that long car ride from one past into the next. It suits Sunday afternoon sunlight pouring through trees when the golden hour insists that night won’t come this time and our pasts are soon to subside into perpetual, present bliss. Then, as evening takes the last of daylight and leaves us cold and troubled, we shake, ram about, and trust there is light to be found. Opatz describes his music as “Lullabies for single people.”
Back in February 2020, just before the proverbial rug was pulled out from under people everywhere, Izaak Opatz was travelling around the Southwest with his bandmates on what was to be an extensive and successful year of touring. On one day of said tour, the band hit a snag in Phoenix when they had a cancellation unrelated to the pandemic. They continued north to Flagstaff and picked up a late-night set at in exchange for food and drink. Oddly enough, that show would be one of the last times in a long time that folks would be able to see Opatz or anyone else play live. On the good news front: Izaak and his bandmates are now planning for a tour of mostly outdoor shows for August 2021 that will span from California to Montana—so keep a lookout for dates soon.
In 2018, Opatz released his first solo record, —37-minutes of heartbreak anecdotes, dirt wave musings, and pleas with the unknown future. The album plays in between the fresh and familiar. Opatz croons insightful lyrics over engaging chord progressions and catchy melodic riffs. “,” the album’s most popular song, is an up-beat anthem for anyone not ready or willing to gamble their life chips at desk-job roulette. The follows a classic three-act structure: Act I: here is the disillusioned protagonist, not ready for the so-called real world; Act II: here, our protagonist sacrifices amenities for an envisioned good life, only to find a continuance of his disillusionment in a new nostalgia for a past love; and Act III: here is said past love, not willing to take him back, leaving him to cope alone and continue along his path.
Opatz is a storyteller. Songs like “” and “” offer lyrics that strike to the heart of various episodic romances. On “Everything (But One Thing),” Opatz sings to a lover from the window of her home near I-40 in the desert, “I know you’ve been waiting for me to love you / I’ve been waiting to feel the flush myself / But our love must be a mirage, and now’s the time to turn around / If it were real, I swear, we’d be there by now.”
The end result is a tight album of country-jazz-(punk) tunes that Opatz and his friends call “dirt wave.” It at times reveals glimpses of Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Old 97’s, and others.
In April 2020, set against a rocky, wooded mountainside in Montana, sporting late-winter garb and doing everything he could to warm his hands, Opatz welcomed viewers to a live-streamed concert. The was hosted by of Seattle and aptly dubbed “Quarantunes.” With other artists streaming their sets from home, Opatz took viewers outside for a private concert and a bit of fresh air. The video included fan-only easter and for the appreciative ladies and gents. Opatz sang of half-missed loves, of hanging with friends, and of his disdain for billboards (see . “Wrong chord!” the campfire troubadour jests as he cuts to the next song.
A few weeks later, Opatz was under a bed sheet for Blanket Fort Fest, noodling around and waiting to start his set. He was the closing act—the grand finale at the late-spring, live-streamed festival—and then, without any audible fanfare from the crowd (who were likely clapping politely behind their screens in their own quiet rooms), Opatz began:
The was then given on the side of a dirt road in Montana and sung into a cellphone for a live stream hosted by the Laurel County Library in Kentucky. It was June, and Opatz was clean shaven. Old photographs reveal times with a mustache, stubble, and other stages of disheveled-ness, which marked this as a sober, clear-sighted, if not intent, period in the singer’s life. Opatz told stories and rambled on about life in between better- and lesser-known songs from his catalogue. With his freshman release behind him, Opatz now sits on a sizeable stash of both released and unreleased music (see “,” “,” and “”).
In December 2020, Opatz released Hot & Heavy-Handed, an album of nine dirt-waved country covers and two . The album was recorded in summer 2020 between Izaak’s home in Montana and DeLorenzo’s studio in Los Angeles. Izaak is a fan of pop-country, but he believes over-the-top production methods common to the genre scare many people away from good songs, so he made an album. “Unfortunately,” says Izaak “it’s this over-compensation by pop-country that repels a lot of listeners who value songwriting in other genres, and it was the urge to rescue some of my favorite pop-country songs from their own heavy-handed production that inspired Hot & Heavy-Handed, though I couldn’t help but throw in some tunes whose production and delivery I revere.”
The best news of all? Another new album is recorded and on its way—so keep your ears perked and eyes open for that official announcement soon.
I opened up a line of correspondence with Izaak Opatz in summer 2020. Here is what the dirt wave pioneer had to say:
Kevin Hanlon: Whatchya up to? What’s bringing you joy these days?
Izaak Opatz: I’m working 40 hours a week, which is unusual enough given my last three years to mention, and it’s part of what’s giving me joy (damn you for making me type that Krista Tippit phrase!) right now—the routine, the early mornings, the exhaustion by nine o’clock, the added value it gives to my time off, the way it makes me want to pick up a guitar and wring some pretty sounds out of it when I have a spare fifteen minutes. I’m working on a trail crew in Glacier National Park, which is half shutdown right now, and so I’m one of only three people in this huge watershed in the northern part of the park, drinking a gin and tonic, listening to my crew mates play cribbage.
KH: How’d you get started making music, singing songs and playing in bands?
IO: My parents encouraged my sister and I to pursue music early on, paying for piano lessons during years when they were just scraping by on waitress’s and carpenter’s salaries (and despite my reluctance to practice), and supporting my joining the school band (trombone) a couple years after quitting piano. After I quit playing the trombone, they bought me a guitar for Christmas, which held my attention insofar as it served as a social tool—I learned alongside two or three friends in high school, congregating at one of their houses to jam to three-chord songs for 45 nauseating minutes at a whack.
But writing and singing songs came in college, when my cousin Frankie, who already wrote and sang their own songs, stubbornly encouraged me to do the same, and then, when I started to, formed a band and encouraged us to perform them in public. If not for Frankie helping me to use music as an outlet for the romantic angst, etc. just starting to well up in me then, I likely would’ve let guitar go the way of the piano and trombone.
KH: What were you up to before Covid-life kicked in? How have your plans and life changed? Any silver linings?
IO: Earlier this year, I was going full blazes on music—just finishing up a new record, followed by my first tour (solo) in the U.K., followed by a southwest U.S. tour with my band. We were just ramping up to start a three-week West Coast tour in mid-March when Covid began shutting down venues. Soon after realizing the rest of the summer would be affected, I reached out to the Park and got my old trail crew job back for the summer, never guessing that I could make more money by not working in the coming months (just kidding).
Getting to come back to trails after three years away has been sweet—I was ready to move on when I left, but always pined nostalgically for my halcyon days in the woods, wondering if there would ever be a good time to return, and even, while living in Los Angeles the last couple of years, wondering if I was remembering right, if such a job in such an alternative reality could exist, did exist. So that’s been my silver lining, as well as just taking a break from having music be the constant priority, and putting so much time and worry into it, while getting less than a life out of it. I’ve been appreciating (retroactively) playing live, and I’m looking forward to coming back and doing it better, and really appreciating having an audience out there that is eager for new music, which I wish I could share this summer, but will probably be out in spring of 2021.
KH: What did you learn from playing in The Best Westerns?
IO: The Best Westerns were a fun band and got a lot of chances to play in fun circumstances, and as someone who doesn’t consider myself all that fun, I rode the band into parties and weddings and bars like a Trojan Horse, not to mention disguising breakup songs and self-sorry paeans to my injured feelings as dance numbers, and getting to enjoy actually fun people’s energy and excitement. The band had a couple different lineups, but one of the best parts of the whole deal was getting to play with my friend Dave Martens, who played in a dozen different bands when I was in college and took more visible pleasure in the endeavor than just about anyone I’ve ever seen, while looking cool and clunky and possessed and silly all at the same time. He reminded me and continues to remind me that playing music, especially in a band, is fun.
We’re going to be recording a new record next month composed of old songs recorded poorly, and old songs never recorded, tentatively titled Westerday and Today.
KH: What was the writing and recording process like for Mariachi Static?
IO: The songs were written over the course of years—I wrote ‘Arm’s Length Away’ in college (but never managed to record it with The Best Westerns) and finished some of the others the day they were recorded, on Malachi’s couch. Malachi DeLorenzo recorded and produced the record, plus played all of the instruments I didn’t, like bass, drums, and many of the harmony and background vocals. We recorded the entire record on a 4-track, and I knew so little about recording and especially analog recording at the time that I never really appreciated how challenging and stressful it was for Malachi to record the kind of arrangements we were playing, mixing levels on the go and making allowances for future parts before we even knew what those parts were going to be.
While Mal recorded drum or bass on a song, or bounced tracks to make room for the next thing, I sat on his couch and finished lyrics and came up with simple guitar lines (like the repeated descending thing in ‘Got To Me Since’) that we’d later play on the Wurlitzer to give them some more heft and character than my paltry guitar playing could muster. It was organic and unprepossessing and a lot of fun, the kind of fun music should be—Mal was re-teaching me the same thing Dave had taught me years before.
KH: Are you recording now or planning to?
IO: Right now Malachi, Dylan, and I are recording a record of country covers (and two of my old BW songs) from a distance. On my weekends, I’m recording guitar and vocals in my bedroom in Missoula, then sending that to Malachi, who’s putting it on his 8-track, and then he and Dylan (The Sweet Nothing Specials, as they’ve agreed to let me call them) dress it all up with drums and bass, background vocals, guitar and keys, and whatever else they need. We’re trying to do it kind of slapdash and fun, and shooting to release that through before the end of this year. It features covers of country tunes by Clint Black, Roger Miller, Dierks Bentley, and more. Beyond that, I’m writing the next album but don’t have set plans to record yet.
KH: How much of your songwriting is autobiographical?
IO: Every goddamn word, just about. You think I’d try and make myself sound this pathetic?
KH: What can you tell us about “Dirt Wave” / “Dirt Wave Dreamer(s)” and what that is and means?
IO: Dave Martens came up with the term dirt wave, and it’s always just felt right. Dirt because of American folk music and the concrete, confessional storytelling that connotes, and wave because just singing about hard times over three chords doesn’t quite cut it. Hook me! We dirt wavers think there should be music that runs on hooks and keeps a groove without having to be packaged in the lifeless shellac of commercial pop, and enjoys narrative lyrics and brainy wordplay.
KH: What is the job of a country singer these days?
IO: It’s the same as ever, which is to tell our own stories in concrete terms, and to make our experiences as relatable as possible, whether through captivating wordplay, slanted metaphor, or hardcore unblinking realism. If it’s done right, the unabashedly self-involved nature of country music (and its offshoots) will honestly reflect our times through a diversity of perspectives, whether songwriters choose to sing to political and social subjects head-on or to whine about their broken hearts (ahem) in ways that are recognizable and consoling, letting the details of their own times and politics seep through more obliquely.
KH: What can listeners expect from the new album?
IO: The new album is not a huge departure from the last one, because it was recorded at the same place (Mal’s living room), in the same way, but we got a lot of help from Dylan Rodrigue (a great songwriter in his own right), who plays guitar, keys, and bass on the album, plus helped with arrangements and background vocals. So it has a lot going on—we kind of filled every moment we could with something fun or thematic, and Mal managed to mix it all down into cohesive songs. A lot of them are upbeat (but still sad!), a couple are manic, one’s kind of cute, and two are even wistfully romantic without being depressing.
Like the first album, we mostly tracked everything separately. In some ways it doesn’t feel like it would be as collaborative as three people playing live in a room, but the pace of building a song up that way forced all of us to really listen to each other’s parts and participate in shaping them, so that by the end we all felt like we’d collaborated on every part, and had three times as many ideas to choose from. When you hear the maelstrom of these songs, this will make a little more sense. We’re shooting for a release in spring of 2021 right now, but don’t have a more specific date than that right now.
KH: Will you give Phoenix, AZ another shot? How’d that day go? How was the rebound gig in Flagstaff?
IO: Of course! I have some aunts and uncles and cousins who live in Phoenix, and Arizona is one of my favorite states in the country. The show falling through last spring had more to do with just booking the wrong kind of show (ticketed, headlining) for our first time playing the city than it had to do with Phoenix being a bad match or any sort of problem with the venue. I’d love to come back when we get to tour again and am open to suggestions of a better fit for us, venue-wise. The Flagstaff show got slapped together quickly and was aiming for catastrophe, but turned out to be a lot of fun. We played for dinner and beer, had a place to stay, and I met a Colorado River guide who said she could get me on a Grand Canyon trip for free the next time I’m in Flagstaff, which is worth more to me than a $1000 guarantee.
KH: What’s life like as a forester? Does it influence your music?
IO: Work on a trail crew (we’re occasionally called trail dogs, not foresters, and never rangers) is hard, engaging, fun, varied, and occasionally miserable work. We work in all weather conditions, from the kind of blue-bird perfection we’ve had this week, to ten hours of cold sleet, doing a range of work, from digging drains to building trail bridges. You usually work with three or four other people, all summer long, camping in the backcountry for eight or ten days at a time. We get packed in to camp by a string of mules that carry our food, camp supplies, and tools. My favorite part of the job is just spending at least 40 hours a week in the woods, listening to the birds, noticing bugs, guessing at the history of the mountains, and not having my attention wrenched away every eight seconds by my ego. And going to bed exhausted almost every night.
It influences my music in concrete ways—I’ve sung about some of my experiences over the years (this is my tenth summer on a trail crew), and certainly wrestled with the anxieties/frustrations/pleasures of the seasonal lifestyle it engenders. Time on the trail gives me time to process things and think about them differently, and very occasionally I’ll actually stop and jot down a line, or come up with a melody, but generally I’m too exhausted at the end of the day to get much writing done when I’m working.
KH: This space is reserved for a free write from the artist, for anything he thinks must be, could be, or should be said—also, just for fun.
There once was a pirate named Gates,
Who went ‘round on roller skates,
Till he fell on his cutlass,
Rendering himself nutless,
And practically useless on dates.
KH: The artistic and musical influences question:
IO: Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), and Jonny Fritz have been big ones. The first for how seriously he takes songwriting and the practice of making music (and how eloquently he plays with tension and release, how deftly he contrasts great melodies and catchy hooks with challenging disharmony and viscera), and the second for how seriously he doesn’t take it, and I don’t mean that dismissively, but how much he breaks down some of the ego baloney intrinsic in making music that’s all about you, how he connects through humor without it all collapsing into a gag.
KH: Did you rent a room from Jonny Fritz in Nashville? Is it just coincidence that you are both leather workers?
IO: Yes, I did, and not at all – Jonny taught me everything I know about leather tooling, and I’ve worked with him as part of Dad Country Leather in LA for the last four or so winters.
KH: Anything else coming up?
IO: On the immediate horizon is finishing the country covers album, recording the Best Westerns record, then making some music videos for the announce and release of the record that’s already recorded, and writing/finishing enough songs to be able to record again sometime this winter. There’s been some talk about a Coop-To-Coop stream (a event where two of their artists talk and alternate playing songs from lockdown) with Taylor Kingman this fall, and probably more announcements/live streams/video releases, as we get closer to next year. As far as IRL gigging, that depends on when we as a country can get our collective shit together and stamp this thing out.
KH: Just a comment: so much Nora Ephron love in your RS write up. Right on.
IO: Amen – going to make a Tom Hanks-themed guitar strap for myself this fall when I have the time.