NATHAN MONGOL WELLS
JOSHUA RAY WALKER
Sharp, clawing chords backed by artillery percussion. Wry lyrics sung loud, often with close harmony. Energy erupts from the stage, flowing like a palpable wave through the audience. Before long, you’re stomping along, an arm thrown over a friend’s shoulder, heads tilted back in chorus. An Ottoman Turks show is akin to a religious experience. If you didn’t believe in rock and roll before, you will by the show’s end. But unlike many bands, Ottoman Turks is no single thing, easily defined. You could simplify it - a four-piece band, born in Dallas, friends from high school who love to play music. You could see the cowboy hats and call it country. You could hear the guitars and call it rock. You could assume a single member drives the unique sound. But to simplify the band is to ignore its true nature - and its greatest aspect.
Ottoman Turks was born in 2009. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Nathan Mongol Wells sat in his bathroom (the most isolated room in the house), laptop resting on an open counter drawer, and began a solo project. He was fresh off a high school study-abroad trip that took him to the Middle East, where the bus trips and connecting flights between classes and museum visits offered ample and ideal hours of idle to delve deep into an iPod filled with new genres and artists - Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf, classic country greats. The idiosyncratic songs of these masters filtered in through the complex history and culture in which he’d been steeping for a month and sparked an idea.
The thought of writing music like that was exciting, but with standards so tied to the time in which they were written, what would they mean in a modern context? The idea was to reframe tradition, push and pull genre limitations, while retaining the simplicity, kinetic energy, the raw joy and sorrow of classic standards. It was exciting. Anything seemed possible. In searching for a name, his mind naturally drifted over the month of travel and learning in the Middle East, finally settling on Ottoman Turks. The name was evocative of another time and place, of a culture that transcended boundaries, unified nationalities, and became a melting pot of ideas. At the time, it was the perfect representation of the seed that had been planted for his musical plan. Later learning about the Armenian Genocide, the band chose to keep the name and use it as an opportunity for discussion and, hopefully, healing.
The first Ottoman Turks songs were written and recorded right in that bathroom. It quickly became clear that these grander ambitions led far beyond just a bathroom-based solo project. Other musicians were needed to flesh out the vision. A drummer, Paul Hinojo, was the obvious first choice, pulled in from their previous band together which had recently broken up. Bassist Billy Law was a friend from school with a background in classic country, jazz, and soul, bestowed by his mother, a jazz singer, and father, a former Austin bouncer. They were all figuring it out, either new to their instruments or to their roles in the band. But that didn’t matter - in a way, it only made it better, as the spirit of experimentation and excitement was emboldened. With a keyboardist and punk rock lead guitarist in tow, the original Ottoman Turks practiced every Friday in Wells’ parents’ garage - rain, shine, heat or cold, with a view that faced downtown Dallas. They played shows wherever they could, from coffeeshops to grocery store grand openings.
But when the group all went their separate ways for college, the band buckled down. Billy Law and Mongol Wells found themselves with months of no music to play, so instead they talked about it - brainstormed concept albums, raved about bands and dissected songs, and tried their best to keep everything together. School breaks always meant shows, even if there was little time to practice for them. This led to some Turks traditions that continue to this day, such as their annual Black Friday show. But it also forced a seriousness into the way they approached music, transforming from a simple hobby to a passion and focus. This eventually led, in 2012, to a personnel change. Their previous guitarist and keyboardist both left for school, and Billy Law’s childhood friend Joshua Ray Walker was called in as a stand-in for a single show. Long story short, he’s played every OT show since. His bold slide guitar riffs and command of the six-string melded perfectly with the band’s songs - the lineup was complete. Soon, most of the band moved in together, finding a home in Bryan, TX forever dubbed “Turks Mansion.” Arching towards a fresh, more dialed-in sound, Turks were off - more shows, more practice, more shows. Stages got bigger. Songs got tighter. And the fans leaned in with them.
It’s true - the Turks was born in the garage, where experimentation thrives, and it’s clear they never fully left it. There’s a lo-fi, DIY aspect to just about everything they do. Never content to just play a song straight, the band’s sound lunges, leaps, claws and crawls its way from open to close. The band prides itself on being loud and fun above all, making it a cornerstone of the OT alchemy. Crowd enjoyment and participation is key to every OT show. Even the slowest songs are meant to cross that invisible barrier between stage and pit and connect with the audience, like an arm over the shoulder of a barroom buddy, beers clinking in solidarity. The ten years they’ve spent onstage have honed their sound and presence to where they know exactly how to win over the crowd.
But in 2018, the Turks found themselves at a crossroads. The band was finally all in the same place again, the first time since leaving Turks Mansion. They’d spent time graduating, working, saving money. Each had pursued solo projects (Paul’s being a full-time job). While the shows had been more successful than ever, the band seemed to have reached a threshold they could not quite cross. The decision was made to only take gigs by request, no longer seeking booking themselves. Shortly after this decision was made, and shortly after a disastrous show, a request indeed came along - an offer to play a new venue where the band had not yet performed. The band agreed, after a long discussion and a lack of confidence - and ended up blasting through one of their best performances to date. This show led directly to direct support spot on the stage of the historic Granada Theater in Dallas during the summer of 2018.
Now, after ten years of shows, writing, performing, perfecting their songs, pouring themselves out for the crowd, and earning their dues on the pockmarked floors of Texas honky tonks and bars, the band is in peak position to finally raise the stakes. After witnessing that triumphant midsummer show at the Granada, State Fair Records brought the boys into the studio with producer John Pedigo (Old 97's, Vandoliers) to finally make their debut record. Its release in August drew record crowds for a local headliner at the Granada. American Songwriter premiered the album, and Rolling Stone highlighted its lead single. it is every bit as loud, raw, rowdy and rocking as the band’s live show, and fans across America and from Korea to Finland are streaming, spinning, and shouting along. It is definitive Ottoman Turks, the distillation of ten years of friendship and music - which means you better get ready to party.
PHOTO BY ALEX MAYES