Monday, February 6, 2012

Elephant Micah's Joseph O'Connell Gets "Louder Than Thou"

Louder Than Thou is the latest album from Elephant Micah, which is a rotating group of friends and locally-based musicians, directed by songwriter Joseph O’Connell. The new record was released on Mr. O'Connell's own Product of Palmyra label last month.

According to the Elephant Micah press release, Louder Than Thou is described as "where past releases have been a matter of stylistic tinkering, Louder settles into a meditative, avant-Americana that O’Connell and friends make fully their own. Soaring harmonies and ringing lap dulcimers nod to ‘70s songwriter-ism while simultaneously recasting the genre through textural play and ensemble improvisation. With Louder Than Thou, Elephant Micah secures its place alongside other masters of post-roots mood music such as Califone and Sun Kil Moon." 

Louder Than Thou is the latest work by Mr. O'Connell, and is among an impressive and lengthy catalogue of limited, home-produced, and hard-to-find recordings, which have circulated far and wide among a small, dedicated online community of fans. The band's music is well regarded among such peer musicians as Magnolia Electric Co., Dark Dark Dark, and Breathe Owl Breathe, who have toured with, accompanied, or covered the songs of Elephant Micah.

Louder Than Thou
is a work reflective to the musical life of Bloomington, Indiana and the greater region of the country. The musicians that have contributed to the album are part of this well-regarded, and cherished underground music community.

Mr. O’Connell, who is originally from the adjacent area of “Kentuckiana,” now resides in Bloomington and works as a folklorist with grassroots music communities around the state. In addition to his own songwriting and recording projects, he is the recipient of a grant from the state of Indiana in the field of folk and traditional music for 2012.

Louder Than Thou is now available as a limited edition deluxe LP (distributed by Time-Lag Records) and as a download from major digital outlets. In the spirit of the free culture movement, the album is also available for download on a pay-what-you-want basis from Elephant Micah’s website.

When and how did you get drawn to learning and playing music? 

Joseph O'Connell: Mostly it’s seemed like something pretty “normal” to do. I never thought it required any extra special effort to learn an instrument or make recordings. There were always other people around doing the same. I had lots of examples to follow.

My dad is into country-rock guitar and mandolin, and I’ve learned a lot playing with him. People like Jason Henn and Justin Vollmar, who are each masters of the cassette in their own way, have been a huge influence on my recording. So, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to participate in music going on in the places I’ve lived, and I continue to pick up ideas as I go. 

When did you begin writing your own material? How and when did you begin recording and distributing your work?


Joe: That’s been really gradual, and I’m still working on it. I started putting together collections of recordings around the same time CDR technology was becoming available. My friend David Badger and I bought an early CDR burner with some money we’d made playing shows.

When I released Echoer’s Intent a couple years ago, I was still doing basically the same thing that David and I did twelve or thirteen years ago… burning CDRs to sell at shows. Does that even count as distributing one’s work? Anyway, my model hasn’t developed much, but getting the music out now is a little more effective, just on account of being better integrated into networks of people who are interested in this kind of music. 

Can you discuss your discography up to Louder Than Thou?

Joe: I’ve made tons of recordings. They’ve served the role of documenting the songs I write and adding to my experience as a “recordist.” However, I don’t know that many of them are very compelling as recordings. I’m slowly learning how to make a good Elephant Micah recording, but it’s still a matter of trial and error.

I will eventually reissue some of the older work I like best, and probably put the rest up on Bandcamp for the curious. My current plans include working on a vinyl edition of Embarrassment of Riches and a collection of one-off tracks called Globe Rush Progressions. 

Can you talk about how making your last album may have provided you with a direction for Louder Than Thou? 

Joe: Sure. The last recording I made, Echoer’s Intent, was an effort to get at this folk-song, solo performance style I’d been developing. I wanted to highlight the writing, and get the songs across without relying on a lot of overdubbing. My goal was to make something that came close to passing as a “folk” record, and complemented all the solo touring I did around that time.

I approached Louder differently. I don’t see the songs or the writing as the focus of this recording. What I had in mind, and I think this worked fairly well, was to set a mood with the way we performed the basic tracks (with Justin Vollmar on bass and Nathan Vollmar on drums). There’s an ensemble sound to the recording that I really like.

I wanted the tracks to spread out enough and feature enough variety of arrangement that it wouldn’t sound simply like a folk rock or singer songwriter recording. If Echoer was obviously a “guy singing songs” recording, this is maybe more like a “people playing instruments together” recording. I was at least as interested in presenting textures as presenting texts this time. 

What would you say connects Louder Than Thou most to your previous work, and what would you say sets it most apart?

Joe: I spent about ten times as long making this record as anything that came before it.  Mixing and mastering were especially painstaking stages. After digitizing the cassettes, I spent several days moving around waveforms and piecing together sections of songs from entirely different tapes, just preparing and organizing tracks for the mixing process.

I mixed and mastered with Mike Bridavsky at Russian Recording. We did a lot of critical listening during this phase, and scrapped a few mixes and masters that we didn’t like. So, this is the first Elephant Micah recording that reflects any kind of intensive post-production work. Mike and I found it both surprising and exciting to get such a great sound out of a cassette recording. 

I'd like to ask you a few questions about your philosophy as an independent artist. Let's start with your ideas on getting your music out there to listeners. Some of your recordings have been offered in limited editions (CD-Rs in some cases), and are now getting reissued online as digital downloads.

Joe: I am always getting help from other people and that has never ruled out labels or other biz entities. So I don’t subscribe to any anti-commercial dogma, even though what I do in practice does tend to veer away from the established… commercial pathways.

I want to give people the best access I can to the recordings I’ve made. Keeping a Bandcamp site has been a good way to get some of the existing releases back in circulation. I never mean for anything to be scarce or unavailable. It is just an effect of having a small audience, and avoiding producing a bigger edition than I can actually sell. 

Can you talk a little bit about your limited editions?

Joe: Just by default I’ve wound up taking responsibility for a lot of design and packaging decisions. So, I’ve been in the position of trying to develop a visual or material style as well as a sound one. Just like with the recordings, I’ve favored working in these “analog” or “physical” formats when I’m making a design. That’s of course an aesthetic choice with lots of precedent in underground music, and it’s partly a matter of taste. It’s also a matter of avoiding digital-born audio or visual work, which I have no clue how to command. 

You are now offering a lot of your previous releases on a "pay as you wish basis". Can you talk a little bit about your decision to operate this way? Both artistically and philosophically? What are the advantages? 

Joe: Yes, I’m offering this current release by donation as well most of the older recordings I’ve posted on Bandcamp.

I am interested in increasing access to the music, not controlling it. Just at the level of social etiquette, attaching a per-unit price for mp3s is awkward. Paying for a download is less like buying some "thing", and more like paying someone for the anti-service of "not keeping you out" of somewhere.

I’m not interested in policing access, and I am looking for alternatives to an industry model that, even at the indie level, is burdened by some pretty conservative and outmoded attitudes about intellectual property.
Here’s another practical reason for offering the download by donation: I want people who order the record to have the option of downloading it for free. Posting it for download by donation allows these people to go online and grab it without fishing around in the sleeve for a “coupon” or “code.” This is music for people without codes. “Don’t go throwing no coupons on my gravestone,” as Beck sings.

Will you be touring for Louder Than Thou? Any plans to visit NYC/ Brooklyn?

Joe: I have one show booked in 2012, but I can’t announce it yet.

What have you been listening to lately?

Joe: The Wah-Wah Cowboys, Vol. II mixtape by Hiss Golden Messenger’s Mike Taylor, two new tracks by Vollmar, and Link Wray’s self-titled album.

And, in person, I’ve been hearing a lot of bluegrass from Pike County, Indiana. I am currently working on documenting music in that area for Traditional Arts Indiana. The musicians I’ve met include members of White Knuckles, Fields of Home, the Clabber Boys, and Jimmy Hammers and the Two Tacks.

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