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Oh He Dead Says They’re Not Dead Yet

By Eric Althoff

This reading of Alchemical Records content provides a multimedia experience for our audience while increasing the accessibility of our content to persons with hearing loss, low vision, dyslexia, physical or motor disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum.

The D.C. band Oh He Dead has a rather unique story behind its name. We’ll get to that, but first, it’s important to take note of the various musical genres that infuse the group’s rather unique sound. Their compositions bear many stamps, most notably jazz, folk, and funk.

“A lot of people ask us what’s our genre, and we can’t really give you an answer because we bring in all of these influences that are kind of all over the place,” said the band’s vocalist, C.J. Johnson, who adds that she has spent a lot of time listening to Kings of Leon and Sade.

Andy Valenti, the group’s guitarist, who also trades off vocal duties with Johnson, adds he was drawn to certain rock bands like Fleetwood Mac, but the musical DNA the band members all seemed to share was jazz—especially as many members have a background in that most American of musical experiments. 

Oh He Dead - Performance

“A lot of times C.J. and I will write a folk- or rock-inspired tune, and naturally when we bring it to the band, it gets ‘grooved up’ a bit,” Valenti said.

And as to that rather unique name: Valenti and Johnson started jamming and writing together in 2015 after being introduced by Claire Newbegin, who is now the band’s manager. Johnson brought to Valenti a composition called “Better Than You,” about a past relationship of hers that went sour. 

Valenti says that the song’s narrator “was in love with this boy, [but] she comes home and finds him in bed with another woman. In the song, when she finds her lover cheating, she pulls out a gun and shoots the guy. I just thought that was hilarious and great,” Valenti said wryly.

Although “Better Than You” hasn’t yet been recorded by the band, Valenti soon learned from Johnson that the story behind it was in fact based on a real-life incident—though hopefully one involving Johnson’s alter ego rather than the songwriter herself. 

Oh He Dead - Full Band

“I asked her when we were practicing again, ‘Hey, C.J., what happened in real life to the guy you caught cheating?’ She just very dryly looked me in the eye and said, ‘Oh, he dead.’”

“Any time after that she wanted to make me laugh, she would bust that phrase out,” Valenti said, adding that when he and Johnson had their first show booked, they decided to use the phrase as their band name.   

Newbegin, the band’s manager was present during this interview, and was quite fond of weighing in on the band’s hard work leading up to the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic effectively put all live music in the region—to say nothing of around the country and world—on ice.

“We worked our asses off for four years to get to where we were when the pandemic hit,” Newbegin, who graduated from George Washington University’s law school in 2021, said. “Right before COVID, we got this opportunity to open for The Dip through High Road Touring, and I was like this is it, we are on the path. Andy quit his job, and we were all [focusing on] music full-time.”

That plan hit the pandemic roadblock, at which point the group shifted direction to share music with their fans via “Jammy Jams,” in which the band would all play “together” from their respective homes in matching pajamas and livestream the action.

“What warms my heart so much is that to this day they still have fans who come to the shows because they would tune in weekly to watch Jammy Jams,” said Newbegin. “It was a really beautiful, intimate, kind of sad—because everyone was a little sad, especially during the beginning of COVID—but very heartwarming experience.”

Before COVID-19, Oh He Dead had played around town at Union Stage, DC9, and of course, the 9:30 Club, considered by many to be the brass ring of the D.C. music scene. 

Oh He Dead - 9:30 Club
Oh He Dead – 9:30 Club

“To be a D.C. band and play 9:30 Club was absolutely surreal,” Valenti said of tackling the vaunted capital venue. “That was a month ago, and it still feels like it wasn’t real. I feel like my feet haven’t touched the ground.” “Every time they’re in front of a new audience, the reaction is absolutely insane,” added Newbegin. “So we’ve just got to get them in front of more people.”

The band members are now able to meet and rehearse for upcoming gigs. Guitarist Alex Salser explained that in the “before times,” he and his bandmates would meet every Tuesday evening to run through their songs prior to gigs and discuss new material. 

“Everyone’s calendars [reserved] a sacred Tuesday,” Salser said. “Since we have been able to kind of meet up [again], we’ve been practicing every week. But I would say it still took about a month or a month and a half to feel like the band was back in full swing more than ever before.” 

That reunification has also allowed Oh He Dead to work on two albums of all-new material, which they aim to release in the spring—tentatively called “Pretty” and “Ugly.” “The ‘Pretty’ one will be polished, produced pop, and the ‘Ugly’ is going to be grittier, homemade, more bluesy [with] sad lyrics, realness, rawness, that kind of vibe,” Valenti said of the forthcoming twin records. 

Valenti added that he and his bandmates could have tucked their tail between their legs and done little as the world shut down and music venues went dark. However, despite the trying circumstances, they found the will to continue making new art despite being apart prior to vaccination. 

Oh He Dead - Derek Baker
Oh He Dead – Derek Baker

“We definitely had a moment [of] ‘Hey, this is the worst thing that could happen to us; how can we make it the best thing that happened to us?’” Valenti said.

“As far as the newest albums, I can’t really say what my influence was, but I was definitely thinking about the interactions between C.J. and Andy’s voice,” added Salser. “I think they play really well together in like a pop-soul format. I give them a bunch of tunes and then hope they like it enough to write lyrics. That’s been the process.” 

His bandmate Valenti added that the band hopes to soon resume their road touring with The Dip. He said Oh He Dead is soldiering on, as everyone collectively navigates a new definition of what is ordinary life.

“It’s hard to keep a band together without playing shows—the best part of being in a band,” Valenti said. “I’m very proud of how much [music] we made, and I feel like we are trying to line up the most success possible when things start resuming a more normal ‘normal’ than it currently is.” Meanwhile, manager Newbegin is looking to book the group into festival gigs in the spring and beyond. 

“I want those two [new] albums to be nationally recognized, and by the end of 12 months, I think it’s reasonable for them to be opening nationally at venues the size of 9:30 Club,” she said. “I really want them to get on the circuit where they are playing for rooms of a thousand people with bigger acts.”

“We’ve lost some really great venues in the last year,” said Valenti of the pandemic’s toll on the entire industry. “But it helps kind of ease the pain knowing that there are some new venues being created by people who really care about artists and D.C. music.”

For information on upcoming shows, check out the band’s Instagram page, @ohhedead.

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Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his fiancee, Victoria.

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