Having been born and raised in Pennsylvania, it is always nice when I come across a worthwhile band or singer/songwriter from my home state, whom I can interview, and about whom I can write an involved journalistic piece. In fact, the subject of this article, Lancaster-based folk artist Olds Sleeper, isn't located all that far from where I am right now at this very minute. That being a small, rustic and creaky house in northeastern Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, while snow falls steadily outside, and fierce winds howl through the trees and batter the vinyl siding. No more than two hours away, at any rate. And it's admittedly a good feeling to represent one's local independent music scene. But it is not only because he is local that I am covering him and his musical endeavor; it’s because his artistic efforts and well-crafted original songs are deserving of such coverage.
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Olds Sleeper has worked long and hard over the years to cultivate a most unusual soundscape of experimental and rustic folk, old soul Americana, and lo-fi minimalist roots. There are many layers to peel away in order to get to the center of Olds Sleeper’s sound. Some of those layers are organic, while others are mechanical. The former undoubtedly outweighs the latter, however, since the organic side is truly substantial and indispensable, and the mechanical side an afterthought lingering in the background. These contraries do not compete in the least for the listener's attention, and I suspect the mechanical side is in place simply to accentuate certain key points of each composition. It's quite clever, really...not to mention altogether efficacious.
Using banjo, dobro, cigar box guitar and percussion instruments, as well as toy guitar and ukulele, and so on, Olds Sleeper's songs, which he says are inspired by the hills and woods and streams of Pennsylvania, do have an undeniably rustic quality to them, indeed a quality which represents rural Pennsylvania’s natural beauty rather well. There are other influences present, too, from the music of long gone roots artists to Pennsylvania’s landscape and Native American history. One moment it’s twang and smoky vocals, and the next it’s shallow, dirty distortion and echo-laden singing…and at other times it is decidedly more experimental. In many ways Olds Sleeper’s songs are exercises in genre defiance, as well as merging old-timey styles with modern styles, the organic and the mechanical, noise and clarity, messy compositions and well-structured compositions, the light and the dark, the human and the spiritual, waking hours and dream worlds, and so on.
“A Hollow Drum from a Hallowed Place” is Olds Sleeper’s latest release, recorded towards the end of 2010, making for the fifth full-length album in his catalog. Also in 2010, Olds Sleeper released his fourth full-length album “June” and an EP of odds and ends titled “Gemini.” A very productive artist, to be sure. An artist whose future contributions will undoubtedly keep him firmly established in the independent roots music scene, writing and playing music for the sake of writing and playing music, with no ugly ambitions or ulterior motives, just song for the love of song.
Though he has played several shows since he and I started corresponding, I have yet to attend an Olds Sleeper show. Be that as it may, I would venture a guess that I will have that particular experience under my belt before too terribly long.
Recently I had both the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Olds Sleeper. The contents of that interview have been included here for you in their entirety.
It has become routine in my interviews to begin in an introductory fashion, so as to offer the readers a better understanding of the artist with whom I am working. Having said that, I would like to ask: Who is Olds Sleeper, not just as a singer/songwriter but an individual, a human being of this world in which we live?
I’m a happily married man, with three kids. I’m a dad who mows the lawn once in a while and cooks on the grill, and sits on the deck and watches the trees shake in the wind. I walk around the yard playing banjo while my kids ride their big wheels. I feel a strong connection to some larger mystery of life – some very positive spiritual energy that fills me with a love of the world and a desire to express my interpretation of it. I like to explore ideas that seem to occur to me out of nowhere, including my music; but in addition to that I pursue photography, visual arts, writing, and woodworking. I am a heavy reader and appreciator of philosophy, art, music, folklore, hiking and natural landscapes. I like solitude on occasion. When I don’t engage in these things I find that my spiritual energy just diminishes – I get restless, angry, and irritable. I feel useless. So I am often driven by a compulsive need to create, to let things come forth without a plan.
In regards to the sound you've been cultivating over the years -- lo-fi acoustic compositions into which you incorporate mechanical soundscapes and roots-related instrumentation like banjo, dobro and cigar box guitar, as well as some rather unconventional instruments like toy guitar and ukulele -- the most obvious question is, how did it all come about?
It has been an ever-evolving process. It’s still evolving. My grandfather, Clyde, was a bluegrass musician, and he gave me my first guitar when I was probably about five. It became something that I would utilize to escape boredom. In my teen years, I was in a few straightedge punk bands –power chords and distortion.
Later, after school, my wife and I were living in Colorado and this homeless cowboy-type was hanging outside this shop where I worked. My boss would buy him coffee once in a while, and one day the guy rolls in and hands my boss a tape. It was a Folkways recording, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe’s live recordings. My boss didn’t want it, gave it to me, and it changed my life…brought me full circle back to my grandfather’s influence. It evoked memories of parties at my grandparent’s house where my grandfather would play this music with his friends and my brother and I would run around. There was this feeling to it that was familiar. It was potent, powerful and alluring.
After that, I started moving toward a more acoustic sound in my playing. Trying to write songs that had that mountain-influenced raw sound. It took ten years, and messing around with a few banjos, dobro, and mandolin to get it to a point where I was comfortable saying, “ I need to record these things.”
I also love alternative, punk, folk, and psychedelic music – so there are definitely elements of them in my music, too. My lo-fi sound evolved out of my appreciation for old blues and country records. There is something very moody about the crackle of LP's and the sound of people recording music in one shot. It also evolves out of trying to capture a mood quickly, before it dissipates. I have written and recorded songs all in a half-hour’s time. I want them to be honest, gritty, and heartfelt. It just makes sense to me. I am tired of the production chic that dominates popular music.
I’ve also made a few instruments – cigar box guitars – and I am totally addicted to the different sounds they produce. I’ve had a few cigar box guitars made for me, too, and it’s a real treat to just play different instruments and see what kind of songs come out. I also have a few toy instruments lying around, and I will pick them up and just see if something happens. It’s all about the mood.
As a solo singer/songwriter, what prompted you to go it alone as opposed to embracing the full band means of making music?
I'm hard to work with. I tend to be neurotic. I go through periods where I write thirty songs in a month, and then nothing for a year. I also find that I record some of my best material in the morning, like four or five a.m., before I've even spoken a word, while I have dreams still bouncing around my head. I make a big pot of coffee, pour a cup, hit record and just go with whatever happens. It's hard to collaborate with people that early in the morning in a spontaneous way. Also, I am somewhat of a control freak in the studio because I have this sound that I'm chasing; many times it's fully defined, sometimes just a glimmer, and it's in my head. A lot of time it's just static random noise with a slight melody. Who the hell would want to help me play that? (ha)
It's not all that often that I get to cover bands and singer/songwriters from my home state of Pennsylvania, so this is a real treat for me to be interviewing you right now. As a rural Pennsylvania artist, I would like to inquire as to how your environment inspires your songs, if at all?
I love Pennsylvania. My wife and I have moved across the country and back – Arizona, Colorado, and Maryland – and this is the place that feels like home. I like to think that my songs contain some of this landscape and feeling in them. I consider myself a folk artist, a common man who derives a vision or inspiration from an area he inhabits. I love knowing a place; there is a comfort that familiarity provides, and I think the longer one stays in a place, the more one will discover the depths of it. The seasons are very defined here, and my creative process is definitely interwoven with those changes and the types of songs I'm working on. I’ve written songs about the Susquehanna River and woods and places that affected me growing up here. It's hard to shake those strong impressions of childhood. It’s a rich source of material.
So why the moniker Olds Sleeper?
I came across it while watching hotrod videos on YouTube. A "sleeper" is a car that appears unassuming but has a lot of horsepower under the hood. Olds just kind of flowed. I kind of identified with that idea. I mean, if you saw me on the street, you would never really picture me to be the one who is recording these songs. I don’t look the part; it's under the hood.
There aren't a whole lot of bands or singer/songwriters doing what you're doing these days, save for perhaps Los Angeles's Tears of the Moosechaser and the United Kingdom's Tim Holehouse, but in a way that is unquestionably all your own. As a multi-instrumentalist who does everything himself, how do you perform the songs live?
Well, there are some songs that I will never be able to reproduce live: I feel like some of the songs I've created are as good as it's gonna get from me; if I tried to play it again or repeat it, something would be lost. You know, music is one of the few art forms where people expect you to repeat yourself again and again; I guess poets and stage actors have to do that as well. But no one expects a painter or sculptor to reproduce a piece again and again. I feel like some of the songs I have recorded are one-shot deals, like a painting of a moment in time, or a mood that was passing and may never return. Like “Put Down Your Bad” from the June album, which was an entirely spontaneous thing that happened to me at, like, five in the morning, half asleep/half awake. It came out, and I was unaware of where it had come from. Can I re-create that again? Probably not. So I have to be satisfied saying, “It happened once. That’s it.”
On the other hand, when I do play live, I try to break the song down into its most primitive state. Just a banjo, guitar, or uke with the primary emphasis on vocal delivery and mood. So most of the time it sounds far different from the recorded piece. I think it comes across as more of a folk feel. I have been experimenting with the one-man band setup – kick drum, cymbal, guitar, harmonica (your articles in the One-Man Band Series have helped fuel that, James), so maybe in the near future I will be incorporating those elements into my live shows.
Your two latest sibling albums "June" and Gemini" are very different in composition, with "June" being more on the purist side of roots music and "Gemini" being on the more experimental, mechanical and modern side of music. That presumably explains why you separated the two. Which type of songwriting can we expect from your upcoming album "A Hollow Drum from a Hallowed Place"?
I actually think they both contain disparate elements – “Dwarf Meat” is on “June” and it’s a total freaking noisy mess, and “Wanderer’s Farewell” is on “Gemini,” and it’s just me and a ukulele. But I think I understand your impression. The new album is definitely a blend of the two, with some of the most raw and emotionally honest acoustic pieces I have ever recorded, set between experimental tracks which utilize effects, found objects, distorted sounds. I recorded over fifty tracks for this album, narrowed it down to twenty, and then will probably only release twelve on “A Hollow Drum from a Hallowed Place.”
Do you strictly self-release your albums in your own DIY fashion? Or have you gone with a label for "A Hallow Drum from a Hallowed Place"?
I would love to have a label help with distribution, but that’s just not a reality in my world right now. I will release the new one on Bandcamp (www.oldssleeper.bandcamp.com), and its all me – the artwork, liner notes, recording, production, playing. It’s most important to me to get the music out there, and find people who appreciate it, and that can be tough to do on your own with limited resources. So, by doing it myself, I can sell it very cheaply, and maybe earn some money to help fortify my studio space and keep my instruments in tune.
In your videos there seems to be recurring imagery of vintage things and nature in general, like animal bones, Native Americans, burlesque girls, rural Americana, rustic bits n' pieces, and so on. In my opinion, these things represent your sound rather well. How do you go about choosing the images for your videos?
I appreciate the idea that you find the images compliment the music. Thank you. It’s very fun for me to try and create videos for the songs. I am a film junkie. I love movies, I love vintage film, and I love the way images and sound interact to create something entirely new. A lot of times I will come across an idea in a video or a piece and think, “Man, parts of this would fit with this song I have,” and then make a video, stealing clips from various places. It’s mostly quick clips of old footage so the copyright isn’t an issue. I mentioned my striving to create a gritty sound like old LP’s, and I think old film tends to compliment that. I find that I get ideas about how to make a film for a song…and if I don’t go do it right then, it fades. So a lot of my ideas are spontaneous, like the music. I am very interested in pursuing more film ideas and using my music as the soundtrack.
Lastly, if there's anything I failed to cover, or if there's anything you would like to discuss or express, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours.
I would just like to mention that I recently recorded an album with Heidi Harris, a musician out of Brooklyn. We have never met in person, and we recorded the whole album via the Internet. I think the product is very unique, kind of a weird Americana feel – “strange meets beautiful.” Our band is called Hawk Horses and the album can be found at www.hawkhorses.bandcamp.com. I would also encourage anybody interested in cigar box instruments, or just building something to make noise on, to check out www.cigarboxnation.com, as it changed the way I think about making sound and it’s a great supportive site for people interesting in crafting their own instrument. There are over 4,000 members there, trading tips and building ideas; it’s awesome.
Thank you so much for the interview. It was fun.