Photo by Kendall Rock

By Ian Bremner

The pandemic has affected everything and everyone. Loads of great music has been released this year, but the general uncertainly and inability to tour has thrown off record label schedules and forced artists to stay at home just as they’ve become conditioned to life on the road. Montana based songwriter Izaak Opatz has found a nice balance as part time touring musician and part time National Parks trails worker, but this was the year he was looking to take advantage of the momentum he had built with his unique brand of lo-fi country songwriting he calls “dirtwave.”

Opatz was gearing up to release his 2nd record of original tunes following up on the terrific Mariachi Static, when the entire world had to rethink its plans. He took the opportunity of a delayed new record and murky future to record a collection of covers demonstrating his affinity for 80s and 90s pop country titled Hot & Heavy-Handed. It certainly sounds like a left-field idea, but to Opatz’s credit, he can spot a well written song when he hears it. Country radio has long been critically unpopular, but chances are far more people have scream-sung along in their car to these sometimes-obnoxious, sometimes-brilliant songs than you’d think. Izaak Opatz is not afraid to admit he is a fan of some of it and after listening to Hot & Heavy-Handed it’s clear why.

Ian Bremner: My first thought when I heard of the concept of this record was, “well, this is a hilarious idea” but the more I listened to it, the more I was struck by the thought of, “oh, this is not a joke. This is good songwriting and well-crafted songs.” How big truly is the grain of salt with this record?

Izaak Opatz: It’s not that big. On the surface it sounded really fun because I’ve always liked those songs. Initially we were focusing on 80s and 90s pop country because I have a real soft spot for those songs and it’s not necessarily a guilty pleasure, but a real pleasure. Obviously, there are some real problems with it. There’s some real stereotypical gender stuff depending on the song and the production can be pretty hamfisted. That makes people not take that stuff seriously but it has nothing to do with how good the songs are. I’ve always taken that 80s/90s style as sort of my vision for the genre that I’ve been calling “dirtwave.” What I love about that era is it’s country music so it’s very specific and confessional, with a lot of great storytelling and fun wordplay, but at the same time it’s not afraid of using pop hooks and making it really fun and taking some chances with chord structure. That 80s/90s pop country is where the sweet spot is at for me. 

Today’s contemporary stuff is just an extension of that so I can’t really shit on that stuff. It’s just people taking the same form and stretching it out further and taking on new genres. These songs were mostly built for the radio, so they had a lot of money behind them and meant to be as shiny and generic sounding as possible, but they’re still really fun. So I thought it would be fun to take them on with the aesthetic that I’ve started to establish with Malachi [DeLorenzo] and Dylan [Rodriguez], the two guys I play with most. It’s definitely scrappier, a bit of a garage band thing, rough around the edges, so I just thought it would be a cool context. Hopefully by giving these songs our treatment, the actual bones and message and heart of the songs will be exposed more. 

Photo by Kendall Rock

I know “woman leaving me” and loneliness are fairly common country music tropes, but this particular selection of songs seems particularly thematic. Is there any underlying theme you’re accessing with these?

No, not at least consciously. But I do seem to find inspiration to write songs after I’m heartbroken or pining after somebody or having gone through a breakup, so the common thread to all of these songs is that they are all pathetic. The speaker is pathetic, but the songs are great and they span across all decades. The Roger Miller one, that is such an original cool take on sensing that things are not right and his early measurement in his mind of the vultures circling. Then the Dierks Bentley one, even though it sounds all “kiss my ass, I don’t care” the whole song is about how pathetic he is and drinking it away and how embarrassing it all is. So it’s nothing more than that. And these are all songs I’ve been listening to for a long time.

Perhaps ironically, my favorite song on the album happens to be an original of yours, Lubbock For Love. Was that a song you wrote for this project or has that been around awhile and seemed to fit the theme?

First of all, that’s really nice to hear. Yes, Lubbock for Love and You Made A Country Singer Out of Me were songs from my college band in Missoula called the Best Westerns. We had more of a country sound than my stuff since then. Those are just two songs that have stood up the best over the years and I thought it would be fun to put them next to these more classic country songs. Especially Lubbock for Love. It’s still personal and specific, but it has more of the form of a country song. 

Taking your love of 80s/90s country and whittling it down to 8 covers, I have to imagine there are some cutting room floor song ideas. How many songs did you have in mind for this?

Yeah. There’s a ton. I never had a setlist in mind. We just started doing it. This summer I was in Montana. Malachi and Dylan were in LA. We found out that because of COVID and the schedule at the label the album of original material we recorded last winter wasn’t able to come out until next year. We’ve had this idea for a while and we just started trying to do it remotely. We had all talked about the Goin’ Through the Big D being one we wanted to do so we did that. Then whenever I was back for a long weekend in Missoula I just started picking out a few more songs. It wasn’t predetermined. It was very off the cuff in terms of what songs I chose. There are a ton more and it was so fun that I had the thought that I should have maybe called this “Volume 1.” There’s more that I would love to do and these aren’t necessarily even the best ones. These are just the ones we happened to grab and Malachi and Dylan were able to make them sound awesome. 

You had mentioned earlier that it is not necessarily a guilty pleasure, but just a pleasure. I completely understand. I’ve had to defend my Garth Brooks fandom for many years. But ultimately that stuff does lead you into other directions and find other great artists. Do you listen to any of the modern “bro country” as they say? Who are some of your favorite stars of the 80s/90s?

Clint Black is top of the list. He’s such a stud. He is every inch the truck-driving, belt-buckle country singer guy. He’s also just a really committed songwriter and musician and seems like such a nice guy. Some of his stuff does stretch outside the genre. Some of it sounds like Jackson Browne or something. 

I love John Anderson. I love Tracy Lawrence. I love Alan Jackson. Garth Brooks is one I haven’t gotten into that far. I don’t know why. 

As far as the new stuff, I am not super up to date but I do scan the country radio. Some of it of course, turns my stomach but there’s some in the middle that I totally like. The aesthetic part of me is revolting and it makes me emotional in some weird way I can’t explain. They can contort vulnerability into something to embrace and make a strength, but in a totally different way than Sufjan Stevens does that. 

I thought of it in a way as proto beta-male. The whole incel thing, that weird corner of society. The fact that there are these macho guys feeling pathetic and don’t know how to process it so they find a way to celebrate it in a manner that’s really bombastic. It creates this super testosterone-soaked vulnerability in a way that’s hard to make sense of. Sometimes I can relate to the vulnerability but the music and production allows you to feel pumped up by it in this very confusing way. 

There’s a reason they are so massively successful. They are accessing something in the human emotional spectrum.

The other thing I really noticed is it has always been an identity music. People feel the same sense of belonging with that stuff. It’s tailor made. A lot of these small towns feel like they’re dying and they are losing their identity. It’s pretty tied in with Trumpism. Not all of it, of course. There’s a song on the radio right now called Last of a Dying Breed and it describes a farmer, good ol boy type of guy and the song is acknowledging losing its relevance but it’s made into an anthem. 

Any non music projects you have cooking?

Well my trails job is seasonal so that’s over with, so now I’m back in Missoula where I have a place. Now I am doing Leatherwork. A few years ago I picked up leather tooling from Jonny Fritz. He was my guru. I would go down to LA and he would use me for a lot of the holiday season where he gets a lot of custom orders. Basically October through December. I started doing that about 4 or 5 years in a row and this is the first year I haven’t gone down, but I started a shop of my own here in Montana.

Izaak Opatz’ Hot & Heavy Handed is out on December 11th on Mama Bird Recording Co.

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