PHOTO BY ALEX MAYES
Like the clash of Middle Eastern and Western cultures found in its namesake Turkey, Dallas rockers Ottoman Turks and their music occupy the space between a honky-tonk and punk club. The four-piece, which includes beloved Texas troubadour Joshua Ray Walker on lead guitar, sutures together a brand of outlaw-country-garage-rock that’s an effortless combination of unlikely influences, both blistering and smooth like the beer after a shot of whiskey or the lime after a tequila. As Rolling Stone said of the band when they dubbed them an “Artist You Need To Know” in January 2020, Ottoman Turks are “fire and noise, Texas-style.”
Produced by John Pedigo (Old 97’s, Vandoliers) the outfit’s second album Ottoman Turks II aims to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with blistering aplomb, thanks in part to the fact that a huge chunk of the material was recorded in the same, marathon, three-day session that produced the Turks’ 2019 debut. They sit alongside five newly recorded songs that not only match the party band’s distorted swagger of old, but show how far they’ve come since that initial session. “We always knew there'd be an Ottoman Turks II,” says frontman Nathan Mongol Wells. “We chose the 12 that were on the first record because it was our introduction -- nobody knew we existed, so we knew we'd have just one chance to make people care. We were trying to tell the complete story of Turks in the best way we could, and make it a punch-in-the-face kind of record. A handful of favorites were left off purely because they didn't fit the concise story we were trying to tell.”
Fortuitously enough, their home on Ottoman Turks II is even more suitable, and holding onto them has made some of them even more affecting than their initial forms. While they were composed in years past, songs like “American Male” – which dives deep into the mind of its “red-blooded” title character – and “Conspiracy Freak” – written from the Alex Jones, tinfoil-hat-wearer viewpoint that Wells found entertaining before it became all too prevalent – are hilariously poignant in the modern light.
“I've always loved strong characters in songs,” says Wells. “While you're being told a tale, transported to a different time or place or into the mind of someone you aren't, you can still understand what they're feeling and where they're at. That's where the magic happens. The core idea of my songs come from my own personal experiences or thoughts, and finding a character to embody that opens it up. I can be more honest that way, both with the listener and with myself. Satire and dark humor also offer ways I can approach difficult subjects.”
It’s an attribute Wells shares with his longtime collaborator and friend, singer-songwriter Joshua Ray Walker, with both finding a proclivity for character-driven story songs delivered with something of a wink. The subjects of these songs are well-aware of their flaws, lamenting then lauding them in turn, and it’s in this wild flip between self-deprecation and self-confidence that one reads the truth and finds humanity. All of this from a band that tosses back shots and smashes guitars between blistering slide solos.
“I think Josh is as good a songwriter as the press does,” says Wells. “We've been friends for so long, that sort of competition has always been present for me and Josh and our bassist Billy Law, who also writes and performs solo. I remember sitting around at a party way back and all of us were marveling over ‘Let Him Roll’ by Guy Clark. We've always been challenging each other to be better writers, performers, musicians overall, and I honestly still think of it that way -- it's genuinely friendly competition. I don't think any of us would be where we are as writers without it.”
On the band’s latest batch, Wells succeeds at upping his game to the level of his critically-acclaimed compadre, and the rest of the group follows suit, at once embracing Sabbath-era heavy metal on “35 to Life” and lighthearted, Roger Miller-style talking blues, complete with doo-wop backing vocals, on “Cigarettes & Alcohol.” Somehow, neither sound out of place, each performed with the same energy, all crackling distortion, whoops and hollers, and wry turns of phrase.
Lyrics tumble out of Wells’ mouth as if he can’t get them out fast enough, like on “Vaquero” where the rate reaches a fever pitch, and he and Walker match each other breath for breath. While the focus is always on having a frenetic good time, the Turks never let that dilute a song’s substance, even when discussing such well-traveled musical territory as drinking and breakups. Guitars, drums, and bass play off each other constantly, like the old friends that play them, each pushing and pulling at melodies and rhythms laid down by the others.
The same energy the Turks display via their frenetic live shows threatens to blow the speakers on listeners’ home systems with equal faculty. Done proving they belong – both in country and hard-rocking circles – Ottoman Turks is here to stay. And they may drink up all your booze and knock over the furniture if you turn your back on them for too long.
Ottoman Turks was formed in 2009 by lead singer/rhythm guitarist Nathan Mongol Wells, in his bathroom, fresh off a study-abroad trip to the Middle East. The band is rounded out by longtime best friends lead guitarist Joshua Ray Walker, bassist Billy Law and drummer Paul Hinojo. Their self-titled debut LP was released in 2019 on State Fair Records.