Sometimes it’s good to interview a band that hasn’t been lauded as the next big thing. New York based o’death, who play a fusion of folk and punk, are such a group. Known mainly by word of mouth, the band has just released second album Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin which sports a macabre mélange of folk tropes, fiddles and banjos. I had the opportunity to sit down with drummer David Rogers-Berry and fiddle player Bob Pycior before a show here in Portland, Oregon at the Doug Fir Lounge.

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So how is the tour going so far?

D: We’re real happy to be on the West Coast, finally. We had excellent shows in Montreal, Toronto and Chicago. Some decent stuff in the middle of the country, but definitely glad to be out on the West Coast.

Is this tour with Hillstomp all the way through?

B: We played with them in Seattle last night, tonight in Portland and then some shows in California.

What is gothic folk?

B: Not much. (Laughs) It doesn’t mean ’80s British Goth folk for sure. It’s more in the literary sense, like American Gothic. It’s taking elements of the time.

Which elements do you take?

D: The dirt and the rust and the degradation. Realistically we definitely think of ourselves as a rock band.

B: Our subject matter carries those dark elements and imagery.

D: When we started out, I think we were trying to be a country band. That was cool for me, because I learned a lot more about country music.

B: I never really played any fiddle-style violin before. For all of us, it was a bit of a departure from what we are normally used to and comfortable with.

So if it was a departure, how did you arrive at the sound you have now?

B: It came back to what we love: playing loud. We all began to incorporate our personal tastes into the music. It kind of became slightly more eclectic and a hell of a lot more rock.

Do you feel there are still folk elements in there?

D: There are definitely folk elements to what we’re doing but even from the beginning, the connection we were making was between folk and punk rock. Whenever we talk about folk music, we use that term really broadly. We’re not talking about Nashville country or like the Carpenters. Folk music is a pretty broad thing. More specifically, we’re coming from old time music and how much old time music sounded like punk rock. Before the age of rocking out so loud and having electric instruments. We’re not traditionalists.

B: We do elements from that music. It’s like a reverend singing a song at the top of his lungs, really belting it out.

D: The timeless quality of the stuff that we enjoy from that era is the connection we’re drawing in our own music. Or trying to, anyway.

Do you have any specific influences?

D: In terms of the folk stuff and the old time stuff I would have to say Dock Boggs. He was a big one because he really had that raw sound. There’s others too. Charley Patton, Leadbelly. Those are more bluesy guys but all that stuff.

On the punk side?

D: On the punk side definitely the Ramones, The Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains. With bands like Bad Brains, it’s specifically that energy that is so over the top and off the wall and so crazy.

B: Yeah and doing interesting things you wouldn’t expect to be hearing from a punk band.

Let’s talk about your album.

D: Urban anxiety. That’s what I have to say about our new album. People get weirded out that we’re from New York but the connection we have with that New York punk scene is that urban anxiety. I think that stuff is a big part of the new record, in particular.

What do you define as urban anxiety?

D: There’s tons of people in New York. It’s a struggle just to get by, especially as musicians.

B: Simple tasks tend to be stressful.

D: In New York, if you want to be an artist or work in creative fields outside of the commercial realm then you have prepared to work two jobs. One that is going to pay your bills and then developing your career.

Don’t you think that’s the case for a lot of places in this country or just specific to New York?

D: It’s definitely specific to New York. I think that it probably applies to other cities as well, but there if you want to be an artist and you want to be serious about it in New York, it’s a must.

You guys live in the city?

D: Yes.

Where?

B: Well, we’ve been called a Brooklyn band many times but until recently none of us lived in Brooklyn. But I live in Brooklyn now. David’s more of a Manhattan guy. Greg lives in Manhattan and the other two live in Queens.

Back to the album, can you describe the steps between this one and your previous album?

B: Some of those songs were written shortly after the release of Head Home. Even after the unofficial release of that album. So, some of those songs are rather old. Then a couple of them we wrote right before we did the recording. So it’s kind of a mix of fresh and old.

D: I would say especially the first few songs we wrote for the record, some of us were paying a lot of attention to world music. Using that much, much broader concept of folk music and incorporating some Eastern European sounds and themes. Listening to Scandinavian folk music, which really does have a connection to Scandinavian metal. There is a connection there. A lot of the folk music from that part of the world is just very dark.

B: As are the days.

D: But then the rock side of things started coming out a lot more over the development. We spent over two years writing the songs for this album so that counts for what we think is a variety of sounds and songs.

From my listening, it does have a cohesive sound to it.

B: Even for the songs that we’ve been playing for awhile, they didn’t even have set lyrics until we came into the studio. Then Greg got high and wrote a bunch of lyrics over a few days. Those tend to have themes carried over or similar subject matter.

D: And similar energies.

It seems like every song has a Pixies/Nirvana-esque structure. Quiet, loud, quiet.

B: We use dynamics a lot. I would say even more than most bands because their recording is pretty squashed and compressed. Our recording….

D: Let’s those dynamics breathe.

B: Yeah and that’s really important to us. We play pretty dynamic instruments, we play acoustic instruments for the most part.

D: The hard rock influence is what takes us away from folk music the most because American folk music is not generally known for its dynamics and sophisticated strong structures. This is not the case with European folk music. European folk music is very sophisticated in its arrangement. I’m really interested in Aaron Copeland and how he translated American folk music into his compositions.

He is considered the most American composer.

D: Yeah, there is something undeniably American sounding about his compositions. I’m really interested in what it is about his music that does that. In some ways in doing a similar thing, but with applying folk aesthetics and ideas and melodies to rock songs.

That is something Gogol Bordello has been doing.

D: Yeah, absolutely.

Are you guys fans of them?

B: I am.

D: Definitely.

It’s really hard to pin down that “old, weird America.” I was talking to Vic Chesnutt about this. My notion was that folk music is born from either sadness or happiness. He said that’s not necessarily true; there are always a lot of stupid songs about people getting drunk. What are the elements you guys try to capture?

B: Our shows are all about that latter thing. Getting drunk and dance around. We strongly encourage that kind of thing.

D: I would say a lot of that old time music that inspires us deals with a lot of heavy of issues like life and death and struggles with God and struggles with how to survive in a fucked up world. Dark elements.

I wouldn’t call your music fun. It has a beat to it, but it does have that dark element to it.

B: Well, it can be fun but it’s also confrontational.

D: We’re trying to have a fun outlook for this bad shit. Essentially, it’s become a spiritual outlet for me. We’re not religious at all, but I think a lot of that spiritual language speaks to how important music is in our lives. Transcendence, essentially, is the goal of a religious experience. It is also the goal of a drug experience. But, that’s a big part of where we’re trying to go. Lyrically, yeah, there’s a lot of dark shit. But really, it’s trying transcend all this pain and death and celebrate this moment, because we’re not dead yet.

How do we bust that myth of gothic America? Automatically it brings up Faulkner, cotton, Flannery O’Connor.

D: Yeah, I love that stuff.

But at the same time, it’s kind of a stereotype.

D: The only problem I have with the work of those authors or being labeled American Gothic is we don’t really enjoy being cornered like that because we feel there is a lot more to what we do. It means a lot more to us than just that.

B: It tends to overshadow the actual work. Plenty of reviews have just talked about the concept of us as band.

Like the Pitchfork review for an example?

B: Yeah.

D: That was Pitchfork taking the opportunity to criticize what they perceive of being our genre or our style. I don’t give a shit about genre. I’m much more interested in songs. Our folk background is something that was an anchor for us.

Your story is also kind of refreshing too. You’re not one of those bands that gets big overnight because some cool website pimps you out. From what I’ve read you’ve done a lot of shows, you’ve done a residency at a place in New York. You’ve passed out CD-Rs. You did the work to get to where you are.

D: We didn’t know anyone in the music industry except for musicians who were fledgling like us. It’s been a very organic step-by-step thing for us.

B: It’s very humbling because we kept getting reminders that it is a lot of hard work.

D: We still have a long road ahead of us if we’re going to be able to make a living off this project. Sometimes it gets frustrating because we put so much energy into it over the years.

B: Recently, it’s been picking up all over the place. The last few months, it’s been one thing or another whether it’s touring

D: Which is fine, it’s not a problem, but we can’t pay our bills. I’m fucking homeless. This is a sacrifice we make because it beats the hell out of working a job.

Back to the American Gothic thing, does the murder ballad tie into your music at all? Is there a place for that in today’s music?

D: Oh, sure. People are doing all kinds of stuff. This might be a weird comparison to make but we’re not inspired by people like M.I.A. or Dan Deacon but I think there actually a connection between what they do and what we do because both of them are pulling from traditional sources. M.I.A., in particular, is pulling from old school, traditional music but totally bringing something to it. That’s how I think about what we do.

B: Yeah, we’re a modern band.

D: We’re not trying to be old time or traditional. We get labeled that because people see the banjos and stuff and they make their own assumptions. But, we came to rock.

From hearing your music on CD, you sound like one of those bands that plays even better live. Like Gogol Bordello once again, the CD doesn’t really capture the sound of a live performance.

D: I think the new record does capture the live energy better, much better than our older album. We might still need to make strides upon reaching that in the future. I’m interested in making studio records one day. I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. I’m really interested in that and how it is a different process.

Okay, now the tough one. I got my Masters degree in creative writing at a school in New York.

B: Which school?

Sarah Lawrence College. I wrote a story where the character was a homosexual and the gay kids in the class refused to read it because I’m not gay. They told me I have no right to write about that. You are a bunch of guys from New York but when we think about Gothic, we think about the South. What do you feel about that? Do you think that it makes your music less authentic because you’re not from there?

B: No.

D: Well, there are a lot of sides to that question and the issue in general. We’ve taken flak for being a folk band from New York and there are a lot of things I can say about that. First of all, New York was a real center for folk music in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Some of our favorite artists from the old time, like Dock Boggs recorded his music in studio in New York City. New York City has a very rich, deep history with folk music. Before the punk rock scene came along, that was about all you could find in the Village. It was a folk scene. Unless you were in the jazz realm or the classical realm.

It’s kind of like the same thing with Bob Dylan. All the real folkies got pissed when these rich, city kids took it upon themselves to co-opt that music.

B: I like this analogy. It’s the greatest compliment we’ve ever had.

D: I’m from South Carolina. The country music that was popular when I was a kid was Garth Brooks and that kind of music creates the mentality in young people like, “I’m into everything, except country.” That CMT music is garbage. It’s just watered down pop with a cowboy hat on. I think that perception of country music is part of the problem people have swallowing what we do and trying to be don’t know. I’m going down some road. As far as authenticity is concerned, we absolutely mean what we do. A lot of times whenever there are lyrics that refer to being in the mountains or being in the sea, that has to do with our urban anxiety and the struggle of living in New York City and how we maybe don’t always feel so at home there and have the desire to get away.

Plus, it’s your damn right to use your imagination anyway.

D: Exactly, that’s pretty much a given.

B: The last song on our new album is pretty much about burning down the city and going out and building a lean-to.

D: That’s totally what it’s about.

You want to live in a lean-to?

B: (Laughs) No, I probably wouldn’t. But I didn’t write the lyrics.

D: I think people get the wrong idea. When we write these songs, it’s our way of getting through this shit. All these songs about dying and stuff. We have been visited by tragedy of varying degrees and this is how we deal with it. We try to have a creative output for some of this shit that’s gone awry in our lives. I guess that doesn’t speak to the authenticity of our folk sound. There are so many garage bands in New York that sound like Joy Division or the Stooges. I love those bands but we don’t need to have another one.

B: Just because it wasn’t an original scene in New York City… if you have somebody doing electronic music out of the backwoods….

D: Yeah, is there something inherently wrong with that? When we started playing shows in the city we did end up at a lot of shows with a lot of inauthentic country bands.

Does authenticity even matter to you guys?

B: No, it doesn’t. We play with conviction and we’re very sincere in what we do.

D: It’s not a joke.

B: We’re not trying to something that people want to hear at a museum. We’re trying to do something people want to listen to.

D: We’re not trying to save folk music or any bullshit like that. I think authenticity lies in the heart of the individual that’s creating the work and I think we’re absolutely authentic in what we’re doing. Lyrically, a lot of the songs are fictional narratives. That’s a different way to approach songwriting than talk about your direct individual experience on this earth. We are using these characters to work through the things we are dealing with in our lives. The struggles of getting by.
Now, everyone feels pain in varying degrees. Even if the worst thing that’s happened to you is you had a cat die compared to someone’s family died in a fire, it’s still pain and it doesn’t mean it’s any less valid. Some of those songs are deeply personal but put through the frame of this narrative fiction that separates the individual from it a little bit. I have to believe the song “Home” is about when we had to come home from Sweden last year. That is fucking real. If anyone questions the authenticity of that, it pisses me off. That was some heavy shit that we dealt with. I think it’s a moot point.

Ok, how is the next year shaping up for you?

D: I want to write and record as much as possible. I want to make that the biggest priority for this band right now. It’s tough because we spend so much time on the road and we need time off too. We’re going to do a massive four week tour in Europe. We’re super excited about that.

How do European audiences react to your music?

D: European audiences appreciate obscure music. That is a double-edged sword because I don’t want to be obscure, we’re trying to crawl our way out of obscurity.

by David Harris

[Photos: Ezra Matteo]

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