Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ned Oldham of Old Calf Discusses His New Band and Their Debut LP: "Borrow A Horse"

Ned Oldham, brother of Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy), is a multi-talented artist that is followed closely by longtime devoted fans and critics alike. Mr. Oldham has recorded and collaborated with his brother (both as Bonnie Prince Billy and Palace Music) on several albums, has released his own solo material, and has delivered a rewarding collection of longplayers with his previous band, Anomoanon.

Old Calf began with Ned Oldham pairing up with accordionist Matty Metcalfe in Charlottesville Virginia last summer. The duo quickly expanded with the inclusion of Michael Clem and Brian Caputo, and along with guest appearances by Alex Caton, Sarah White, and Dave Heumann, the band produced their excellent new album, Borrow A Horse.

Borrow A Horse, which has been released by No Quarter, is a rewarding listen that conjures both southern myth as well as genuine hospitable storytelling. It is an album that invites you to come inside, and one that you find yourself digging a little deeper into with each listen. I'd recommend this for fans of Ned and Will's previous work, as well as for listeners that may be new to Mr. Oldham's work. It's a collection filled with casually rural arrangements that welcome, sway, and ease you along throughout its carefully crafted song cycle.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Mr. Oldham, and as you will read below, he was very generous with his time to both describe his experiences with Old Calf, as well as retrace some of his musical history to share with devoted fans and newcomers alike.

How and when did you begin playing music?

Ned Oldham: I found my great grandfather's mandolin when I was probably 11 or 12. It only had a few of its strings and it wasn't the nicest instrument to begin with, though it was about a hundred years old. I learned how to tune it like a guitar and taught myself "Sunshine of Your Love" and the Chuck Berry 5th-6th rock and roll swing.

Then I found my deceased uncle's acoustic guitar, also with only three strings. I played it with three strings for a while and learned about thirds and other intervals. Meanwhile, I'd been taking piano lessons since 2nd or 3rd grade. Somewhat unenthusiastically.

Who were some of your early influences?

NO: On record: Kiss, Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Cream, Woodstock album, Kansas, Rush, Black Sabbath, Joe Walsh, The Who, The Rolling Stones; then punk rock: The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Pere Ubu, Devo, The Germs, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, SOA, and most of the early Dischord stuff and the early Touch & Go stuff.

Live: I'd say seeing Motorhead opening for Ozzy when I was 13 was a turning point for me, but not so much as seeing the local Louisville bands, especially the Babylon Dance Band, Your Food, and
Malignant Growth.

How and when did you begin writing your own music?

NO: With Languid and Flaccid, my first band. I was probably 14. I sang and occasionally played bass or guitar. Screaming art punk.

As a long-time fan of your work, as well as your collaborative work with your brother, Will (aka Bonnie Prince Billy), can you first describe your experiences working with Will, and how that led you to your own Anomoanon records?

NO: That's a complicated question. Will picked up the guitar and started playing when he was about 18 or so. For a while, before Palace Brothers, he fronted a group called Palace Flophouse, which did a few originals he'd recorded when we lived together for a year or so in Madison, Virginia, plus some covers--Gram Parsons, maybe Ramones... I can't remember a hundred percent, but I played bass with that group.

Then he made There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You and then he asked me to join him on "Come a Little Dog" from Days in the Wake; then he asked me to round up the fellows I'd been playing with over the years: Jack Carneal on drums, Aram Stith on guitar, Jason Stith on bass, and myself on guitar and vocals to back him for two weeks of Lollapalooza shows plus a couple club dates. Along the way, we recorded "West Palm Beach" b/w "Gulf Shores" with Kramer in New Jersey. That band became the basis of the Anomoanon.

We added Willy MacLean on bass and moved Jason Stith to keyboards and went and recorded with my other younger brother, Paul, at the studio at Indiana University, where he was pursuing a degree in studio engineering--some unreleased songs. I think we were on a club tour opening for and backing Will when we got a free session at the studio at Brown University and recorded several full-band tracks for Anomoanon's Mother Goose. I recorded the rest of it at my house in Birmingham, where we went on to record the full band for Summer Never Ends. After that, most of the Anomoanon stuff was recorded by Paul at Rove Studios in Shelbyville, KY, or using the Rove Mobile Unit.

Can you briefly describe the trajectory and discography of Anomoanon?

NO: A Dutchman has compiled this comprehensive discography:

Did last year’s Let’s Go Out Tonight lead to forming Old Calf?

NO: I recorded Let's Go Out Tonight in the attic of our Baltimore house, and it didn't have much to do with Old Calf, though we have practiced all of those songs together.

I read on the No Quarter website that you and Matty Metcalfe joined up together before bringing in the other members to form Old Calf. How and when did you and Matty connect and begin working together?

NO: My kids started taking piano lessons from Matty when he moved into our neighborhood. I gave him some Anomoanon records and he said, "And if you ever want a partner in crime..." We started meeting most Wednesdays to learn songs, and played a number of shows as a duo.

Did you and Matty begin writing and working on Old Calf material before bringing in Michael Clem and Brian Caputo?

NO: Yep... well, I wrote all the music, really; Matty is particularly good at arrangements, and in particular vocal arrangements.

How did the Old Calf lineup solidify?

NO: I met Clem at a neighborhood party and invited him to come over and sit in on our weekly sessions. Matty knew Caputo, who took a shine to the music and started coming along. One of our early shows was opening for Alex Caton, who Matty had played with live and in the studio; then an editor I know asked me to write a story about Alex, so I visited her at her studio and got to know her; she filled in for Matty when Matty couldn't be on gig, and played on a couple of the album tracks. She and Aram Stith have joined us on our most recent live shows, to the great benefit of the songs. All the musicians are playing to the benefit of these songs, all have great ideas and the skill to realize them. It's a good situation.

I read in the brief press release for the record on the No Quarter website, and it quotes you as stating "I'm sure I've never had a clearer plan of how a record should go before.” Can you describe your initial plan for the record, and take us through the writing process?

NO: The writing came first, with the uniting principle being that it all come from either the Oxford Mother Goose or the Annotated Mother Goose. I just need an empty house, preferably some morning time, and to leaf through the books until a strong rhyme appears; then I start messing with it. I love the writing part; drafting, revising, practicing.

I weeded through the songs and kept only the ones that were most comfortable to play. Then of course the bandmembers shape the arrangements dramatically. A sequence suggested by common threads in different lyrics became clear, and we practiced it and recorded stereo demos live in Matty's studio and sent them to a couple of labels. Mike Quinn at No Quarter wanted to put it out and financed the session and production of the actual records.

Was there a song or songs that came together and set the direction and or feel of the record?

NO: For some reason, "Bonny Cuckoo," which is the only one with a traditional melody (at least in the second half of the song)--the version I learned came from a record of Shirley and Dolly Collins, Anthems in Eden--is the one that seems to glue the album together. For me, that is.

Although you have said that you had a clear plan on making this record, was there a surprising and/ or unexpected aspect to it?

NO: I thought there might be more complications to it; like I initially planned on overdubbing lead vocals and acoustic but ended up keeping all the live ones. I expected Rob Evans, the engineer and co-producer with us, to be highly competent, but the degree of his ability to capture the band's live sound and focus the raw tracks using a huge palette of skills and equipment is most masterful.

What was most challenging? Most rewarding?

NO: Catering the session. Shopping and cooking--with help from Jennie--for the band; lunches only, but still. I'm not a caterer. But I like to cook.

What is most memorable for you from the experience of making Borrow A Horse?

NO: Developing the songs live. They've really intensified in the live setting, and we'll be playing shows for this album all year.

How do you see Borrow A Horse in the trajectory of your own discography?

NO: The first of at least a few Old Calf records.

What were you listening to while working on the album? Any strong connections/ influences during this period for you?

NO: Kinks Muswell Hillbillies and Kinks in general, William Byrd, Carlos Gesualdo, John Fahey, AC/DC, Doug Sahm, Henry Purcell, Shirley Collins, Iron Maiden (Paul Di'anno), La Dusseldorf, Folke Rabe, tons of stuff...WTJU.

You seem to draw from bluegrass, country, and folk throughout your discography, and the sound of Borrow A Horse has a stripped-down warmth and openness and directness to it. Can you discuss your recording process and your intentions behind the sound of the record?

NO: We've avoided working a specific genre; but I think the confluence of all the genres we enjoy listening to, including but not limited to 70s arena rock, old-time music, country rock, british traditional, krautrock, psychedelic, roots, baroque; but it is not a mash-up, it's its own sound, though made up of familiar idioms. I like to have strong vocal harmonies, and everybody can sing so we can have four- and five-voice harmonies and do it live.

I like that we can play unamplified and Brian can play the kit quietly enough without sacrificing anything in regard to his particular animated, creative style of drumming; and ditto for Aram on electric guitar. That said, if the room and system can handle it, we love to crank up a bit. Everybody enjoys to rock.

Along those lines, can you describe some of your own favorite “sounding” albums that you enjoy listening to?

NO: I love Jimmy Page's work on Led Zeppelin IV (and Houses of the Holy, and everything really), kind of a holy grail of production to me. The Mellow Candle album Swaddling Songs has some great production of great players.

I also really like the sound of the records Steve Albini produced for Will: Viva Last Blues, Arise Therefore, and some tracks for an album that never got released with Jim White on drums and Mick Turner on drums, David Grubbs on keyboards and me on bass. I believe Warren Ellis was supposed to be there but had passport or visa issues; it might've even been suspected that he was double-booked with Nick Cave. At any rate, Steve Albini's work on those records sets the benchmark for capturing a band of humans on record.

What have you been listening to lately?

NO: No Quarter stuff, for sure: Doug Paisley Constant Companion, Psychic Paramount, Endless Boogie. Praetorius, more Byrd and Gesualdo. Ali Roberts' Too Long in this Condition. Ian and Sylvia; Richard and Mimi Farina. Dr. Feelgood with Wilko Johnson, Glen Campbell and Jerry Reed, Mother Maybelle Carter, Sister Odetta Tharpe, Chavez (Men of Chavez) on YouTube. Steve Marriot in Small Faces and, especially, Humble Pie.

Locally, live, we share a couple or a few bills with Sarah White each year and I always love watching her set--she sings on a couple tracks on Borrow a Horse. Also watching Alex Caton fiddle, Charlie Pastorfield playing electric guitar, John D'earth on trumpet.

How does living and working in Charlottesville influence your music?

NO: We can get out in the woods in our backyard, and we go out to the bigger mountains when we can. A lot of musicians gravitate to Charlottesville, perhaps because of or even in spite of the heavy presence of the Industry. All kinds of players, all kinds of shows; and even though most musicians still live fairly hand-to-mouth, there are a lot of ways to work as a musician in this town.

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