I recently featured a band from Aberdeen-Berlin called Milwalkie. As a result, I’m actually having a difficult time spelling Milwaukee again. You resided in San Francisco for some time. Creatively did that inspire or allow you to express yourself differently than in your home state in any way?
“The inspiration was almost instant… The first time I visited, in 2009, I felt it as soon as I got off the plane! I came to record my first album as Old Earth (Out the spheres of The Sorrowful Mysteries) because a group of my trusted friends/collaborators had just moved there from Madison, WI. Something about being in a distant place always changes my perspective and thinking, generates some new language, and it’s usually a lot easier to focus on the work.
San Francisco has always been a mythical place for me, and I wanted to be a part of the tradition of the artists and revolutionaries who transformed it. It’s still a city full of people making and doing things, and it motivated me a great deal. It got me started on a prolific method of writing that I never new I was capable of. Having to move back after just 2 years has definitely been a mixed experience.”
You recently had a digital release show for the new EP ‘Small Hours’. I was intrigued that it included a print. I’ve purchased a Jonnie Common print the same way for an album that was only available digitally. It is an intriguing and surprisingly satisfying adjunct to music in the potentially ‘sterile’ digital age. Do you have any other creative ideas in mind for the future?
“I think calling the digital age “sterile” is pretty accurate. Holding a piece of art or hanging it on the wall is a sensuous experience, vs. looking at an image on a screen. JPGs are pretty impersonal. The scale of the prints is approximate to an LP jacket, which I think is the perfect size. Any larger and they would be impractical, and sometimes smaller objects feel somewhat disposable.
As for the future, I’ll continue to make prints, but I’d like to do a small book (with a DL code), and eventually get a lot less traditional, like sculpture that includes a DL code.”
How was the show itself?
“The show was amazing. Honestly, it felt like the best Old Earth performance yet. I was joined by nearly everyone who performed on the record, and they did a phenomenal job. I felt very very blessed to have them there.”
When I saw the flyer from the Sugar Maple, I was surprised to see presented by Mini50 Records printed at the top? How did that relationship come about?
“I have Matthew from Song, by Toad to thank for the introduction. When low place came out, I sent it to literally hundreds of blogs, mostly in the US, but the first two responses I got were from him and Sounds Better with Reverb in Australia.”
While it is fairly representative of many small Scottish indie labels, it is apparent to me, even at this removed distance, how much of a personal commitment and effort Euan McMeeken expends on his artists. What has the relationship been like?
“I want very much to continue working with Euan. I don’t know how he finds the time for everything he does… He’s an artist himself, and because of that, we relate on levels that are much more meaningful than the business aspects. He comes from a loving place with everything he does.
It’s obvious that he respects the artists’ visions for packaging, and hooking me up with Jamie Mills was absolutely perfect.
He truly believes in my work, and that was a huge motivator for me. I tried to give him the best recording I’ve made to date, and I can confidently say that I did. I enlisted the best people I could find, and I worked on it to the exclusion of all else in my life. That may not be healthy, but I felt that if I gave him anything less, then I’d be cheating the both of us.”
Now that you are on a Scottish label has that lead to you exploring or discovering any other Scottish artists?
“When I was first contacted by Euan, I immediately checked out his roster and was impressed throughout. I wouldn’t work with a label if I only liked one or two of the other acts. With Mini50, I enjoyed it all. I was especially impressed with Conquering Animal Sound, Hiva Oa, and Caught in the Wake Forever. Of course, I love everything Euan’s musically involved with… I’m still digging around and learning about other artists outside of Mini50, which led me to Honeyblood and poet Jenny Lindsay. I know that American Josh Ritter cut his teeth in Scotland, and his record Animal Years has been a long-time favorite.”
The new EP ‘Small Hours’ consists of 3 tracks seemingly entitled 1, 2, and 3. What was the philosophy behind the naming ? Hypothetically speaking, if the ‘publisher’ demanded you name them would you?
The day a publisher tried to tell me how my art should be presented would be the last day I’d work with them! I put a lot of thought and consideration into what I do, and if they don’t trust me, then we can’t work together.
The track titles being numbers works on a few levels… First of all, it’s a practical concern. 2, for example, is a track made up of four songs. It would be too clumsy to have all those titles combined into one track title, and I also didn’t feel that each track warranted a separate title. Too much language being thrown around… Also, the numbers are a lot more vague and mysterious.
Numbers speak very literally to the concept of Small Hours- 1, 2, 3am (the small hours of the day) is when when my mind is most active, and when I do most of my writing. There’s a palpable stillness in the air, as well as a charged sense of potential. Elie Wiesel wrote “Night is purer than day; it is better for thinking and loving and dreaming. At night, everything is more intense, more true. The echo of words that have been spoken during takes on a new and deeper meaning.”
The EP artwork is geometrically striking. Who designed it and is there a deeper significance it conveys for the songs contained within?
“The art was handled by the great Jamie Mills… When the project began, I told him that I was interested in something that rang of preciousness and opulence. He said that he had drawings started of small details in a cathedral, and that couldn’t possibly have been planned better. I think it interacts with the the feel of the recording – cavernous rooms, exhaled voices, and abbreviated snippets of a bigger picture.”
You are coming back to California to write/prepare/record material for your next project. Can you tell us anything about that or the process you think you’ll be undertaking?
“I have to finish up the EP that will be given away with the deluxe package, and I want to start writing something resembling a full-length. I’ve never taken on a 35-45 minute piece, and I finally feel prepared for the challenge.
As of right now, I’m envisioning a lot more instrumental and melodic work, but who knows, the process of writing and recording could change that. I just want to make something honest and beautiful. I’ll be staying and writing with Chad Burnett, whom I’ve been friends with (though I feel more like a brother to) for over 10 years. He was a very influential guitarist for me, and I have not seen him since I left SF.”
You’ve got an impressive back catalog. The one item I was most intrigued by initially was the 12 inch version of ‘a low place at the Old Place’. I assume the decision for random colored recycled vinyl was deliberate? This was your first release on vinyl do you intend to do any others? I’d love to buy a Cloud Cult record on vinyl but I’m pretty sure that isn’t going to ever happen – is the recycled LP a viable alternative ‘environmentally’?
“The choice of vinyl was based on a coupon offered by United Record Pressing. I’ve been using them for various projects for 15 years, and I’ve always been satisfied. They’re very no-nonsense, easy to work with, and I’ve never had a problem with their product. The coupon just happened to be for the random recycled vinyl, and yes, I felt that the environmental aspect was wonderful. Also, no two copies look the same, and manufacturing usually removes the individuality and uniqueness of each object.
I hope to continue to put things out on vinyl, yes. I feel they hold a greater sense of legacy, as there are still playable records from some 80-odd years ago. Once we don’t have the fossil fuels needed to run the infrastructure for all these computers, we’ll still be able to play a record. You can play a record almost anywhere in the world.”
‘Americana’, for lack of a better word, is something I’ve willfully avoided because of my almost obsessive UK centric musical past. Now with my even narrower emphasis on Scotland, I’m strangely beginning to discover American artists. The blogging about Scottish music is set in stone, but I’m increasingly open to exploration when suggested or brought about by a Scottish connection.
Is there anybody local (Wisconsin) you’d care to recommend?
“Americana is a pretty fluid term, and means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I’ve avoided it as well, because it’s generally a cute and safe sound. I think it has more to do with country music, whereas I’ve always been rooted in darker blues-based influences. Melodic structures may be more European, but I’m generally coming from a rhythmic place, which was brought from Africa.
Wisconsin is booming right now. My buddies/collaborators in Field Report, my buddy Jeff Flashinski (as Kinth & Jay Flash), Jon Muller’s Death Blues, Phox, Blessed Feathers, Hello Death, Altos, Juniper Tar, a new Volcano Choir record soon… Too many to name!”
I’d love it if I could get your brief take on the following clip. It’s from a Star Wheel Press LP that just arrived today and is representative of the kind of music I probably would never have come across prior to the beginning of the blog due to my overtly ‘guitar based indie’ tastes and all the restrictions that genre can contain.
“I’m always a sucker for old movie footage, and I love the efficiency and resourcefulness that was demanded of early films… Through the Looking Glass is an incredible work, and it makes sense to pair it with the experience of playing and recording music. I think SWP made a good choice here.”
I read somewhere that said you taught English in San Francisco, where was that?
“I was mainly helping a friend of a friend out in her classroom, just trying to get my foot in the door. It was Robert Lewis Stevenson Elementary, out in the Sunset. Teaching is pretty cutthroat everywhere these days, and to compound it, I don’t have a license.”
You aren’t superstitious are you? ( note: this was a question that was tongue and cheek because it happened to be the 13th, but since it got such a sincere response, I would be remiss to not include it)
“To a degree, I am! I take heed when I get in touch with someone I was just thinking about, or when events seem to line up and move me in a certain direction. I guess that makes me a fatalist, but I feel closer to something like a Taoist.
Other than that, I don’t know how much of the world is ours to change by sheer will or belief, or that we’re being manipulated by supernatural causation. All I know is that shit happens, and life’s not fair.”
End of Side A
An afternoon spent waiting to confirm a position on an open mic schedule was spent in the Phoenix tavern on Valencia; perhaps not the wisest choice for a chat considering a USA-Mexico world cup qualifying game had just started. During his two year stay in San Francisco Todd Umhoefer had, in fact, lived a few blocks away and was pleased about being able to spend some time in the Mission. The 2 hours of recorded ‘interview’ quickly lapsed into a conversation about life, music, musical karma at a pub. Fortunately, I had the foresight to anticipate how bad a live interviewer I’d make and sent the written questions in advance. For the most part the following is paraphrased.
A 5th grade musical presentation of different instruments introduced Todd to the magic of the electric guitar. It wasn’t until his first job, at the age of 15, at a Greenhouse that he was able to save up and buy a red epiphone SG ‘copy’. He still prefers used relatively inexpensive guitars; his favourite being a telecaster deluxe. Todd did bring along a “13 year old girl’s nail polish pink” strat copy for tonight’s open mic performance.
Professionally, Todd started out on the drums for Conrad Plymouth, precursors to the band Field Report. The impracticality of the drums eventually lead to piano and guitar as a solo artist – a creative endeavor, as evidenced from our discussion, Todd very much takes to heart.
We talked about the difficult landscape for selling music and how the pre-orders for this project are vitally important for allowing the release. This EP is only going to be available physically through Mini50 records. Recently a friend was just telling Todd how Grizzly Bear is struggling to make themselves self – supporting prompting his observation – “What do you have to become? Is it really going to be the case that either everyone knows you or you are nobody?”
When asked why he did it the answer was simple “I have too” then going on to elaborate – Can I live off it? – I don’t know it will be a struggle, a daily struggle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way as I’m compelled to make music. Tenacity still has a value; a lot of the stuff out there will be gone in a year or two. People paying attention from outside of your inner group come and and go, but it those closest to you that prop you up and keep you going. A few buddies have achieved notoriety, but the ones that seem to do better are those that remember who was there before.”
Experiment, revision, rethinking of old songs with guitar parts sitting around for years waiting to be put into songs partially characterize Todd’s approach to songwriting. “I keep playing them and maybe I’ll be able to drop them into a song. Who knows, maybe I never will and that’s just how it is meant to be”.
When asked about early influences the response was that “Punk and metal with its tight rhythmic playing has fed into what I’m doing now” but in high school a growing interest in folk field recordings partially derived from borrowing Alan Lomax recordings from the library helps to explain his more current musical direction.
New EP ‘Small Hours’ was recorded at home in the basement, with friends bringing the microphones in what was a purposeful and decidedly low tech approach. As Todd noted, each of his recordings have been wildly different but “I’ll try to see the best I can do with what we have at the time.”
Longtime friend Nick Berg and Field Report keyboardist recently started a new creative outlet with photography. (the opening photograph is from one of his photo sessions). Old Earth’s last release is still available directly, highly recommended and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a green one. In addition to finishing the mostly instrumental extra EP for the deluxe version of the ‘Small Hours’, work for a future full length was underway up in Sonoma during Todd’s brief visit.
I’m pretty sure my career as a live interviewer ended as quickly as it began. I quickly let it devolve, or evolve as I would prefer to think of it, into spending the rest of the day in the pub and the bar next door talking about everything and anything while waiting to hear if that night’s performance was still on. The venue had transformed from a more traditional open mic to a standup practice night. The sometimes excruciating, but occasionally funny, 2 ½ hour wait until the last comic was no longer standing cumulated in this short performance that I captured on the iphone. The audio is fairly quiet but more than passable. The first song is part of #2 from the new EP and the second is a portion of the last recording.
If anything, I had to stay just to see the contrast. Having the rare opportunity to literally spend the day with an artist, and two of his close friends, with which we would have usually only ‘communicated’ with via email was a wonderful experience. Seeing his dedication, good humor and general love for his craft first hand was a treat.
I’d jokingly mention how much more unused gear I had sitting around in my apartment. The day might just be the inspiration needed to try and put it to some use.
One thought on “Old Earth”