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Thunderbody In Motion | An intimate look into Matt O'brian's new project

Photo by Lisa Barker

On a frigid afternoon in Rochester, NY, I head downtown to Java's, a popular café hangout for students and artists. At the bar, Matt O’Brien, 28, spoons soup to his mouth, his head bobbing, as it tends to do. For instance, the day before, a group of us were relaxing at his apartment and he said, “We don’t have a stereo down here, but if we did, we’d be listening to a fat groove; we can just play it in our brains.”

Matt’s skinny body and long blonde hair, usually tied in a bun on top of his head, gives him a roguish air, and when he wears his glasses, round like Lennon’s, he adds sophistication to his look, though his clothes are often frayed and earth-toned.

Four years ago, Matt and I first met at Sullivan Hall in New York City, where he was fronting Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. At the time, the seven-piece reggae band had only recently released Slow Down, and yet their live performance was a tight, energetic mix of roots and jam. Dual keys and guitars, percussion, drums, and bass, gave them a well-rounded sound, and Matt’s voice was captivatingly pure. His songs were organically composed. Songs like “Buffalo” and “Hiroshima” were already weighty in their titles, not to mention his rich lyrics, usually concise and to the point. Matt allows his vocal techniques to tell the story.

In 2009, when Panda split, original percussionist Buddy Honeycutt had long since left, and Matt and keyboardist Rachel Orke, also Matt’s longtime girlfriend, left Giant Panda to reform as a quartet. While the Panda name, as well as explosive talent, has led the quartet to continue touring and expanding their popularity, Matt and Rachel seemingly disappeared.

When I reunited with Matt and Rachel a year later, they had just formed Thunder Body. The group has been together almost a year, now, and plays Rochester often, touring sometimes throughout the northeast.

Photo by Lisa Barker

Knowing that Matt was not only a stellar musician, but also a creative philosopher, I was eager to learn what he had been up to, and how Thunder Body started.

When Matt and Rachel’s group formed, Buddy had been their original drummer, but he moved to Tennessee, and so everything had to be reconfigured.

“We were in a scramble to start something excellent and new,” he tells me, taking a break from his soup. “We tried a bunch of drummers and it didn’t pan out the way we wanted it to.”

While Matt had played guitar in Giant Panda, he had been playing drums since he was five, next to his brother, Chris, Giant Panda’s nasty-heavy riddim maker.

“I thought I wanted to move around the stage and do the front man thing,” Matt shrugs. “But I get to express myself a lot, playing drums and singing. You do something the whole time, you know; I have plenty to do. It’s very expressive. I feel super high when we’re done.”

It was March; no name for the band yet, but they had their line-up: Matt on drums, Rachel on keys, Dennis Mariano on guitar, Jeremiah Pacheco playing bass, and Brian Blatt, who Matt worked with, became their “science” man. Dennis was their landlord at the time, and Jeremiah had just returned from five years as a farmer.

“We played a second gig because my mom came to town and wanted to hear what the band sounded like out here, at Java’s, and then we committed to a name, not long after that; end of April.”

Matt’s mom is also a musician. “We’re playing a gig in Boston on Friday and she can’t come because she’s got her own concert,” Matt says. “Me, my brother, and my mom will all be playing in different spots.”

Matt has an older sister, too. She has two sons and “She busts ass,” as Matt puts it. “She makes sure people don’t shoplift. Employees- to make sure employees don’t hijack the place.”

Her badass-ness isn’t surprising, considering how forthright and strong willed Matt is. In the middle of our interview he turns to a homely looking man hounding a girl at the next table.

“You can’t ask people for money; I told you that,” Matt snarls.

“I’m not asking; I’m soliciting.”

“Cool,” Matt replies, heading behind the counter; “let’s find out what happens when you ask people for money…”

A few minutes later, the man is gone, and Matt returns to his chair.

“Where was I?”


+1 # Mary Ellen Cocuzzi 2011-03-15 15:34
That's my boy.


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