When Missoula rock band Oblio Joes played its last show in June 2007, it was a monumental breakup. Not just because the band had been together for 15 years—longer than any other in the music scene at the timebut because the local fans were losing a band whose songs had been the soundtrack to their young adult lives. There are always beloved Missoula bands at any one moment in time, but the Oblio Joes with its menagerie of tunes like "La La La (Don't Believe)," "Patty Melt" and "Desiree," was singular. Each show was basically a sing-along. With enough beer, fervent fans might even cry happily. Other musicians wanted to be them and since they couldn't be them, they wanted to be friends with them—which was easy because the Oblio Joes were the nicest guys you could find around.
They felt the same way about each other. In an October 2006 interview with the Indy, just before there was an inkling that the band was about to break up, John Brownell said, "I can imagine in this fantasy land in my head not playing with the Oblio Joes. But I can't imagine not playing music. But then I can't imagine playing music without the Oblio Joes."
On a recent Friday afternoon, Brownell, the Oblio Joes' drummer Dan Strachan and keyboardist Ian Smith arrive at Flipper's Casino to drink beers and talk about life after the Obes. As each one arrives, they hug each other as if they haven't seen one another for years, but the truth is they've always done that. The breakup was never really personal, it was logistical.
"There was also this expectation," Brownell says. "We would play 20 shows in a row where we would basically play the same set list. And so there was that pressure."
"And we were trying to tour at least once or twice a year," Smith adds. "Toward the end, it got difficult to even schedule a practice. And it's tough when you've got kids and relationships to take care of."
"And when you don't really like each other," Brownell says, deadpan, before everyone bursts out laughing.
In fact, they admit, the power of being together for so long made it hard to move on.
"I felt so close to you guys musically and to what we were doing," Smith says. And they all laugh again because suddenly it feels like a therapy session. "I was nervous about playing with other people," he continues. "It takes a while to feel connected with other musicians and we were playing together for 15 years, so it was so easy."
"It was like hanging out in a treehouse that you built with your bros," Strachan says.
With some time, the Oblio Joes have regrouped into other bands. Brownell and Strachan (along with former Obes bassist John Fleming) play in the pop group Secret Powers. This week, during one evening at the Badlander, the three of them will showcase their other current musical projects. Brownell will play solo as Johnny B, Strachan will play in his rock band Hammshandy and Smith will play in anti-folk band Spider + Octopus, an outfit that was originally started by frontman Chad Bishop in Florida before it migrated to Montana. Brownell, who was the main lyricist and songwriter behind the Oblio Joes, will play mostly new songs but a few Oblio Joes favorites. Hammshandy also covers a handful of Oblio Joes tracks including "Dead Cynics," "Bridge that Falls" and "Imaginary Conversation."
"How does that one start again?" Brownell asks. Smith and Strachan burst into song as Flipper's patrons look on, smiling: "Imaginary conversation! With you in mind!" they yell.
The nostalgia fans continue to have for the Oblio Joes is still a little strange for the former members.
"I've only really recently come to grips and accepted the fact that people see it that way," Brownell says. "For me the nostalgia is hanging out with these guys. But I realize that there was something a little bit bigger than I ever admitted to myself."
In light of that realization, Brownell started an Oblio Joes Facebook fan page and began building a library of Oblio Joes videos and music. He put all the band's albums and EPs on Bandcamp with free, high-quality downloading access. Originally he'd set it up to charge $1, but no one was buying. As popular as they were, enough time has passed. The 3,000 CDs in Brownell's garage probably won't see the light of day.
Still, die-hard fans don't really die.
"The act of creating a fan page is a little weird for a band that's defunct," Brownell says. "But it's all great. Within the the first three hours 60 people were fans of the page and I thought that was really cool."
When I leave Flipper's, the Oblio Joes are still reminiscing and a few hours later, Brownell messages me. They've decided that just playing in their separate bands on the same night isn't enough; they're also going to play five Oblio Joes songs together. It's not a reunion show, but it's as close as we might ever get.
Spider + Octopus, Johnny B and Hammshandy play the Badlander Tue., July 9, at 10 PM. Free.