Introducing No.1…Old Earth

Old Earth Mr Todd

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for ages.   Rather than interviewing artists I decided to get involved in conversations with them.  Something more than a list of questions sent to them via e-mail.  No, this is basically a long e-mail chain idea where we get into discussing music and talking about the things that make us excited as musicians, people, whatever.

There is no better place to start then than with mini50’s latest signing Old Earth.  His new album ‘Small Hours’ will be coming out on mini50 in Spring this year and is simply amazing.  A trailer for the album is posted at the bottom of the conversation.  Anyways,  for those who don’t know Old Earth he is one Mr Todd Umhoefer from Milwaukee, USA.  His music is hard to describe but to me has it’s origins in punk as much as folk and is a fascinating blend of guiatar and voice.  His album ‘A Low Place at the Old Place’, released last year is fabulous – a reivew of which you can find over at Song By Toad – it also made Mr Toad’s top 20 records of 2012.

Anyways, the idea of this piece is to introduce you to the work of the wonderful Old Earth and is the first in a planned series of these conversation pieces.  The next conversation will be with an artist of Old Earth’s choosing and so on and so forth.  So, hopefully over the coming year I will expose you to some amazing artists who are all linked via this first piece.  Enjoy.

TSP: You are based in the United States, in Milwaukee.   I am a great believer that music is heavily influenced by place.  How much of your music is influenced by the world and sounds that surround you, both consciously and unconsciously and if your music is inspired by place what is it about Milwaukee/America that fascinates you the most?

OE: Growing up, there were constantly planes roaring overhead, train horns a block away, a freeway about 2km west, and a huge lake 4km to the east.  I always had a sense that there was a bigger world beyond… We’re a port town.  My dad grew up on a farm, and our house is on old farmland, so those ethos play a huge roll, too. Hard working, settled, tenacious.

Once I was 12/13 years old, though, I started bussing to downtown Milwaukee regularly, looking for activity (and trouble).  By the time I was 17/18, my friends and I had a sketchy house in a sketchy neighborhood.  In the 1990s, the local indie scene was gaining national attention, with powerful, honest music.  I still admire and am influenced by a lot of these artists, and many are still around, active.  Well before my lifetime, this place had a strong underground musical tradition, and I was lucky to witness and take part in some of it.

My part of town was built by Polish and German immigrants, built by manufacturing during the the last century.  We could’ve gone the way of many mid-western industrial cities, gutted and poor.  I won’t pretend to know why we were spared, but it’s a place that could’ve easily been passed over by the arts. And whether high or low brow, we have a unique voice.  People working on the fringes of culture are allowed to peacefully exist here.

Milwaukee is about an hour from Chicago, Madison, and Green Bay, which have all attracted national (and international) acts.  I followed a lot of punk music… My teen years were spent traveling to these places and learning to become a lifelong musician. Finding community.

The most shaping factor here, though, is the climate.  Half of the year is spent indoors, hiding from the cold or the heat.  As an artist, it’s necessary need to spend a lot of time alone, and the climate fosters that… You’re not blowing off a lot of nice days to stay in the studio!

When I think of Milwaukee, I think of a lot of caring people.  Polite, willing to help strangers, being thoughtful and making the extra effort.  Many many accommodating and selfless individuals.

TSP: I love the history/narrative of a place.   Like when you’re in an old house and you know that the house has stood for a long, long time and has been home to many people. The stories it could tell if it could speak fascinate me.  And weather too.  A place changes with weather, like you say.  Do you find your music influenced by the changing of the seasons? In Scotland for example, it does get colder in winter but the most common weather change is dry to wet.  I imagine living in a place where summer is hot and winter is freezing has a polarising impact on your work?

OE: I’m sure the weather has an impact on my lyrics.  Rain comes up a lot.  I have an older lyric about a place where the rain won’t stop… I think the common experience of rain isn’t a joyful one, so I usually use it to invoke a passing, not completely devastating pain.

The heat and the cold being polarizing, sure, as well as the in-between seasons. When spring is warming into summer, and fall cools us off, we get beautiful days- days when the morning, daytime, evening, and night are all wonderful. Late-summer/early-fall is amazing here.  Makes it very hard to be in a bad mood, and despite the darker places I explore with art, I make an effort to celebrate the beauty too.

What’s the best time of year in Scotland? How do you feel the weather affects Scottish artists?

TSP:  I can’t really speak for other Scottish artists but for me it has always played a massive role.  Especially the light.  The light in Scotland is just amazing.  Especially at this time of year.  Cold, cold days with bright blue skies, that is when this country is most alive, and when I am too.  Sadly it has rained a lot this winter.

Lyrically I think you are right about the impact of weather and place.  But I am fascinated by buildings and place and identity.  I’ve always wondered about the traditional and it’s impact on the contemporary.  How Scottish folk music seems to have little real impact on contemporary yet the opposite is true in the USA?

Also, you say you explore dark places without really being in dark places…do you think it’s necessary to be in a certain mind state to write a certain way or is it possible to tap in to dark emotions without being a dark person?  I certainly have found that I can write dark even though I am extremely happy.

OE: I think there’s a folk music trend here in the US, but we have such a strong consumer-based economy that the market will seek out novelty wherever it is. There’s characteristics of traditional folk music in contemporary indie folk rock, but gone are the murder ballads, the spirituals, and the idea that a folk musician should maintain a repertoire of folk standards.  It isn’t really the music of the people, songs that they grew up with and sung with family or friends.  It’s a cute and safe sound, familiar enough to most people that you can stick it in a commercial, but soon enough, something else will become hip and take its place.

In your neck of the world, I think there’s a greater sense of history and place. People here see a building from 100 years ago and call it “old” or “historic.” Culture here is more transient.  People aren’t very settled, and that’s certainly reflected with our attitudes towards the environment or family.  It’s all focused on the individual, which is the opposite of folk tradition.

Obviously I’m a bit cynical, haha… But that leads to your next thought, about having to be a dark person in order to make dark music… I don’t think it’s a requirement, and I know people who make dark music but still manage to seem well-adjusted, but it’s complicated.  Artists have private lives and thoughts just like everyone, but the difference is we publish it.  A public persona develops, like it or not, and it can become a place to express a part of your personality you normally don’t, or it might be a way to distance your actual self from who you are when you perform.  I think denying that, and wanting to be on stage dressed or behaving like a “normal person” is a missed opportunity… It’s like naming an art piece “untitled.”  First of all, it isn’t actually untitled because it’s called “untitled.”  Moreover, it was an opportunity to throw some more language at the piece.  There’ve been millions of art pieces called the exact same thing, which is not very creative.  Saying “untitled” doesn’t maintain any mystery, it just seems indecisive.  So if you want to be an inoffensive “regular” musician that just aims to please everyone, go ahead, but meaningful art comes out of making extraordinary choices.

Personally, I put a lot of effort into maintaining an outwardly positive attitude. I try to smile at people, ask them how they’re doing, and treat them with respect.  When performing, I want to put on inspiring shows… Inside, though, I hate myself.  Passionately.  And I don’t believe “misery loves company,” because I would feel worse if I made someone dwell on their problems because of my music.  I go to the dark places because that’s where my mind is always at, and music is a release.  I think it serves as a release for others, and I might be sparing them the process of unearthing those feelings, which can be lonely and painful.  I remind them that they’re not alone, just as other artists do for me.

Do you think music tends to be a medium that attracts more dark personalities?

TSP:  I don’t know.  I imagine in all walks of life involving the arts there are dark personalities and light personalities.  I do think there is this ‘mystique’ or image portrayed of the ‘tortured artist’ but I don’t think it necessarily holds true in the real world.  Do I think there are artists who suffer for various reasons?  Yes.  Do I think this is necessary to create amazing art?  No.  I think all people suffer in one way or another and this varies in degrees, but I do not think that artists suffer anymore than lawyers or bankers or midwives or students.  And I most certainly do not believe good art comes only from dark places.

It’s really interesting to hear your views on American folk music.  I have always been of the view that certain parts of America remain steeped in the tradition of the past and that history and place are hugely significant.  I am thinking perhaps mostly of the South where traditional murder ballads and folk tales are still the influence behind so much new music.  Do you feel that it is only in isolated pockets of the states that such a culture exists?

Personally, I feel we do have a strong sense of history and place in Scotland but I find it lacking in Scottish music.  Throwing on a Scottish accent is very vogue in our music these days but I don’t really hear the roots of our traditional music in much of what is produced.  There is still a very strong traditional folk scene of course but much of that is not ‘visibly’ popular.  However, in terms of folk tradition we are certainly not about the individual.  There are “scenes” all over Scotland but then I think perhaps things become a bit cliquey because Scotland is such a small place and everything is compacted in the Central Belt.   I don’t know, perhaps I’m a bit more punk than folk because I like the isolation of working alone.

I love this “meaningful art comes out of making extraordinary choices” could you expand on what you mean?I find it interesting to hear you talk about music as a release.  That is something I can really relate to.  I have always found that sitting down at a piano is a complete escape from everything.  A quiet room, a glass of wine, dim lights and my piano.  I tend to find that’s when the best things happen.  Although, it often has to be a real piano and not my digital for things to work.  I often wonder why that is but have concluded that it’s the need for authentic and real sounds.  I like these sounds to exist in my music – so when I record I don’t want perfect, quiet environments.  I want the sound of what is real – finger nails on piano, seagulls overhead, a baby crying, a clock ticking.  It is all important as it’s what happened.  How does the writing/recording process work for you?

OE: I’m sure that there are living pockets of folk tradition, but yes, I’d say they’re isolated… However, that might be the healthiest thing for them. Thankfully the market is only able to re-sell the most superficial aspects of things, which generally keeps the soul and pathos intact.  For now, people can get away with being cute and kitsch, dressing like a 19th century saloon act, throwing a mandolin on some boring pop song… It’s sad to think that popular music willfully destroyed people making music at home via the radio, and then got away with “reviving” folk like 3 or 4 times in the last 80 years.

I’m with you about being more rooted in punk.  To me, it’s more valuable as an approach rather than defining a certain sound.  It’s doing things your way, and embracing your idiosyncrasies.  Which brings me to that quote from last time- “meaningful art comes out of making extraordinary choices.”

It’s a lot easier to make music that is familiar and thoughtless.  It’s a fearful approach. Making something honest and sharing it with other people, “flaws” and all, cuts a little too close. It’s easier to be ironic or cocky, padding yourself against criticism.  When I was in school for fine art, they used to say in critique that “it isn’t YOU that’s being criticized, it’s YOUR WORK.”  Bullshit.  If you made something truthful, then a vital part of you is living inside that work… The best artists live THROUGH their work, and I say put out or get out.  There are plenty of ways to avoid challenges and risks in life, and nothing interesting, unpredictable, unique, or inspiring comes from cowards.  This is the most valuable lesson I learned from punk- celebrate yourself, whether everyone likes it or not.

At their best, punk and folk are just vehicles to serve something greater.  I think they come from the same place… Be it a field recording of some hillbilly warbling out a song his Aunt taught him, or a group of kids watching their friends make up their own songs, it’s about raising your consciousness beyond yourself and your lifetime.

I have a similar approach to you when recording.  It’s a means to capture a moment.  People drive themselves insane (and go broke) trying to get “perfect” and “clean” sounds, and I think that’s a waste of time.  It impedes the overall creative flow (esp. in terms of where you could otherwise be in a few years time, had you simply called something finished and moved on).  If a microphone pop or a washy guitar tone is enough to ruin everything, maybe you didn’t have much of a song there in the first place.  That’s what’s so inspiring to me about old field recordings- people with warped old guitars or out-of-tune pianos have something to fight against, trying to express the spirit of the song and play their best with the one or two takes they get.  Noises and distractions happen throughout life, and when it’s time to record, you either know the song or you don’t… Maybe in the bigger picture, the NEXT session, or the next batch of songs, turns out to be what you were after.  Fuck trying to make something “perfect.”  It’s not a fair expectation, and you’ll inevitably perceive some sort of failure.  Making art is hard enough, and it’s even worse with those kind of head trips.


With this in mind, what are some recordings you’d consider to be “perfect” in their own way (be it a recording you or someone else made)?  What kind of unexpected things have happened to you during a session that turned out to be happy accidents?

TSP: I remember talking to this producer who told me about how they used to deliberately remove the sound of fingers on guitar strings because they wanted a “clean” and “pure” sound.  Which just made me think “what the fuck” because pure sounds to me are real sounds and if you remove the sound of the fingers sliding then you remove the truth and beauty of the sound to create something artificial and false.  And I want music to be real.  Like I was recording the other night and when I started to listen back to one of the tracks – which is 11 minutes long – on two occasions you can hear police sirens in the background from the outside world.  And it made me smile a lot listening back because that is the truth of the music and I want to the truth in there – so if you want to talk about “perfect”, well to me, that is perfect.

You know, it’s brilliant that you talk about people with warped guitars or out-of-tune pianos.  The Dreamend album ‘and the tears washed me wave after cowardly wave’ was one of my favourites from last year and there is a great back story to that record.  The record was recorded shortly after Ryan Graveface moved from Chicago to Savannah in 2011.  In the process of this move all his precious instruments including a cello, banjo and organ were damaged, some beyond repair, by the removal “experts” but instead of delaying recording, he just used the instruments in the condition they were in and created something truly remarkable for it.  I think it’s that kind of bravery and creativity that is exactly what you talk about when you say art should be “interesting, unpredictable, unique, or inspiring”.  That has all of those elements wrapped up in it and is also a brilliant piece of music and story telling.  A real piece of pure art in my eyes.

In terms of perfect recordings I cannot think of anything more perfect in many ways.  But I guess it comes down to a discussion as to what “perfect” actually is.   John Ruskin said “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality” and I completely agree with that.  A bit like Dali saying “Do not fear perfection as you will never achieve it”.  Perhaps that is because there is no such thing as a perfect piece of art?  I don’t know.But surely what makes us all beautiful is comfort in our imperfections.  Nothing so beautiful as somebody who knows they are imperfect and I think that applies to art as well.  True perfection lies in the imperfections.  So to me, when music is clean and crisp and polished it lacks life and beauty.

What records do you find  – I won’t say perfect – imperfectly beautiful?!Also,i read this the other day: “I write to challenge my brain; I make music to challenge my heart.”

Why do you make music and do you feel there is a difference in the reasons behind why you create art or create music?

OE: This is a great question… I think there might be ways I can differentiate the two (music and visual art/writing), and what I might get out of one or the other, but I think they both serve a greater need to create. They’re both spiritual exercises for me… The act of creation is THE THING, not necessarily the product or the chosen medium. This wasn’t always so, and I had to break down and challenge my own thinking on process vs. product, but I’ve found that my experience is much more meaningful now. Music has become the way that I interpret and express being alive, and the visual art might be closer to a challenge for my brain, because it doesn’t come quite as easily to me (or at least, the results don’t affect people as much).But WHY do I make music? I truly can’t imagine my life separate from it. I’ve been playing guitar for the past 18 years, never going more than 2 or 3 days without at least picking it up and strumming around for a few minutes. It’s vital. And if I didn’t have a guitar, I’d just sing. I used to do a lot of open mics a’cappella, partially for the challenge, and partially to say “Well, if I get stuck without my instrument, I should be able to do SOMETHING.”

I think of the world as my studio. Wherever I can bring (or find/borrow) a pen and a piece of paper, I’m drawing and writing. When I didn’t have studio space, I’d work in the library. If I didn’t have a pen, I’d be folding the paper in interesting ways, or making a sculpture out of whatever’s around.

So we were talking about “perfectly imperfect” records… I loved the Ruskin and Dali quotes! My first pick isn’t really an official album, rather a Misfits mixtape that someone made for me when I was 15. It sounds like hell, not only because the songs were recorded and performed that way, but it’s a 3rd generation tape made from original records. But fighting through all that noise are these gorgeous oldies-inspired melodies, never intended for a mass audience. It somehow arrives at actual moments of brilliance! Somehow your brain can turn off the noise and focus on the intent…

The single most import record to me, however, was a 7″ put out by a grind band from Chicago called Hinckley (named for the guy who tried to assassinate Pres. Reagan, haha). One of my friends in high school played bass for the band, and he brought records to school for my friend and I. I’d be surprised if more than 100 were pressed… By many definitions of musicianship, this thing is a fucking mess, but, like Ruskin was saying, this thing is definitely filled with expression, exertion, and vitality. It had all the ethos of punk coded in the music and the packaging. Self-recorded, self-manufactured, the cover was an envelope with the top cut off and screen printed (and not very well, either), and there was a hand-written/typed photocopy insert, in which all the members and some friends did writings. It’s the single most inspiring thing I’ve experienced. It says that ANYONE can do this, and I took it to heart and it changed my life.

TSP: One last question before we finish the conversation piece – what are your dreams/ambitions as an artist?

OE: My dreams and ambitions? I’m living them! My dreams are just to stay healthy and continue to make music. I want to keep traveling, and being a musician made it possible for me to see most of the continental US, which is incredible. Some people have never seen anything outside of their hometown!

I want to work on more film scores. I want to see where my music can start fitting into my sculptural work. I want to keep drawing and sculpting the figure, eventually doing some fashion illustration. I want to teach more- writing and fine art, eventually teaching at the college level (that’s a goal for about 10 years from now). Probably leave the US by then.

How about yourself?

TSP:  In terms of my dreams an ambitions.  Well, I’d love to see my music become my life.  I’ve always said I’d settle for a life where I could make music and create and not have to worry about where money would come from.  I don’t need to tour or be on the road because I have my family and I love where I’m at in life right now.  But I’d love glacis or graveyard tapes or the kays to be able to sustain me.  Or indeed the label.  My ambition for 2013 is to develop the label to become something that doesn’t have to think about where the money is coming from and can offer all our artists physical releases.  That would be sweet.  I have simple dreams really.  I think I stopped longing though a long time ago and just focused on enjoying things as and when they happen.  Last year was by far my best and most successful as a musician and I am excited about what 2013 holds to be honest.