By Sean Moeller
The great and secluded J.D. Salinger began writing the classic American novel about phoniness in 1945, just as the second World War was ending. He continued to deliberate on the subject of what's seen not really being what's at the core until he abruptly and without reason slunk off into a hermitic lifestyle at the age of 46. No question, the white-haired and wrinkled up genius still commiserates regularly, in his darkened study about the deficiencies he feels are firmly embedded into the human condition. There are certain times in everyone's life when they're someone they've no right being. They portray themselves as the confidante, the tease, the eccentric, the know-it-all, the comedian, the devil, the angel, the mover and shaker, a million of things they aren't. Music snobs are as alert for and irritated by poseurs as Holden Caulfield was. They pounce on the derivative and cry out for a band's beheading should they stray too close to another band's wings, dragging off of their fumes and drafting from a sidecar. Most often, there's no connection. There's no reason that a band should be driven out of town for giving off more than an average amount of a Talking Heads influence or getting lavish with odes to California even though they're just five blokes from Ireland. The Japanese love American pop - crazy nuts for The Beach Boys, Mr. T Experience and Presidents of the United States of America with no discretion. Shonen Knife worship The Monkees and they're nothing close to being mistaken for Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith.
Oakley Hall, a six-piece with a backwoods mentality and a bluegrassy clutch on male-female harmonies -- lacquered with psychedelia and campfire smoke, smothered in barbeque sauce and smelling like the freshness of the outdoors, calls one of the biggest urban centrals in the world home. Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y. , the band is a transplant, like most residents, come to the city for a myriad of reasons and bringing with them their roots. Their tales of countrified aloofness are as real as anything you'd get from an Okie or an Allman Brother. Creedance Clearwater Revival was from wine country in Northern California not tobacco fields. The Byrds were nearly their neighbors and The Band was from Canada , though they proudly boasted one native of Arkansas. Oakley Hall guitarist and lap steel player Fred Wallace, who moved to New York after his Virginia home burned to the ground, doesn't buy anyone suggesting that the themes of the songs on "Second Guessing" and "Gypsum Strings" - the band's two full-lengths, which were released within five months of each other this spring - are old-fashioned.
These songs do carry with them an olden-styled lyricism, developed by a quadrangle of singers - lead man Patrick Sullivan, guitarist/vocalist Rachel Cox, violinist/vocalist Claudia Mogel and bassist Jesse Barnes - but they also are of the now, reflecting on the woes of society and the current state of the world. When they're allowed to graze in your ears for a spell, they sound like a jar of glistening, golden brown iced tea, ripening out on the front stoop during a summer afternoon. What's old but a relative term, anyway?
"I'd say there's certainly a range of influence on the sound of our songs," Wallace said. "Keep in mind we live in New York, but five of us are from elsewhere. I'm from Mississippi and I guess you could say Virginia. There's plenty of influence there. But does it feel olden to me? I don't know. I may not the best guy to ask, I think of Roscoe Holcomb as 'modern' in some ways.
"We've been called out once or twice in the southern states, which is funny to me since half of us are about as southern as southern gets. I'm like, 'Dude, I grew up eight hours south of here.' It's a dumb slippery slope anyway, I mean, are you going to dismiss Zeppelin, Dylan, the Stones, basically all modern rock as 'derivative?' I grew up in a soup of Mississippi delta blues, southern rock and British psych. Greg used to be all garage and surf. Jesse's a Minutemen fanatic. Mixing influences is what makes music interesting, in my opinion."
Sullivan, who was born in Massachusetts and was in the band Oneida until recently, is one of the pivotal managers of the sound the band - named after one of Thomas Pynchon's favorite writers, a man who revolutionized the portrayal of the American West in novel and whose wife has recently attended an Oakley Hall show in San Francisco - along with Cox. He uses his maniacal hunger for music to his advantage and Cox brings a Smokey Mountain love to the pool.
"My parents raised me on Creedence, Ike & Tina, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger and AM pop country radio shit, like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Kenny Rogers. I had two older brothers so I got a steady diet of the standard FM fare too," Sullivan said. "One of my brothers had Neil Young records that I was obsessed with and another got into punk so I got all that shit at a very early age. Creedence was the queen bee though. My dad drilled them into my head. To this day, when I see him, Creedence's greatness is a topic of conversation. They inspire me endlessly. They pulled off the ruse of authenticity -- seeing about the Bayou and being from Oakland, Calif. -- just by being great at it. Being a New Englander and not from a traditional southern background, I get off on that. All you gotta be is great at whatever it is."
The Daytrotter Oakley Hall interview
*Now, most of you aren't natives of New York so how'd you all wind up there? Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up? Was it influential to the kind of music you play now? Was this style of southern rock something your relatives liked to play?*
Pat Sullivan: I was born in Danvers, Massachusetts and bounced back and forth between there and southern New Hampshire -- where my grandparents lived -- all my youth. Like all the towns around there -- Danvers has a long history by American standards, settled in the mid-seventeenth century -- and it was the actual site of the witch trials, which are normally attributed to the town next door, Salem. So I grew up around colonial history as a real presence. All the houses were old. There were lots of woods and old museums and revolutionary war cemeteries. In retrospect, growing up around there probably made me kind of an American history fanatic. Pelham, N.H., was like my second home and I spent tons of time there. It was this really rustic lake community where my grandfather had a house. He was a fireman who had wired speakers all over the inside and outside of his house and would blast Irish music from morning to night, literally. Irishness was a big deal in my family and I was around those songs all the time. I grew up thinking that it's normal to constantly be listening to music -- like literally, every waking moment.
I got into punk in middle school and Dylan as a freshman in high school. That was pretty much it for me. I got in way deep. I got all the records - read books, got bootlegs. I was unhealthily obsessed. Through his music, I got into earlier shit like Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers etc -- the standard run-down of roots icons. They led to others too - but it wasn't really my family or upbringing's doing. I was seeking that music out on my own. The idea of playing music on my own and in bands brought me to New York in the mid-nineties. I played almost exclusively folk and country tunes that I would write in my apartment -- too shy to play out. I met up with my old friend Kid at a party and we started Oneida on the spot. So that took precedence for over my trad songwriter tendencies for the next few years.
Rachel Cox: I grew up in Glenville , N.C., a very rural mountain town in the Smokey Mountains right there in the western corner of the state which borders Virginia , Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. I don't consider myself a native though... My dad was sort of an outlaw -- he was hiding out from the government after having gone underground during the Vietnam War and we found ourselves in this very beautiful secluded country. Luckily, his military crime was very minor and he wasn't being pur sued too heavily so we lived there in relative peace. He's legal now since 1976 when Carter offered amnesty to hundreds of men in his position. Anyway, my dad had a pretty nice record collection and I grew up listening to the Stones, the Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Joe Tex, Sam & Dave, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Allman Brothers, etc... It actually wasn't till later that I got turned on to more old time stuff as a young woman, which I love.
*Why aren't you in Oneida anymore, Pat? Did you need something different?*
PS: There were lots of factors, but branching out was the primary one, I guess. Trad songwriting was always my biggest muse. I loved Oneida deeply and learned so much about playing rock music in all its forms from all three of those dudes. They are all great friends and it was in no way based on not loving them or the music we made together. I did a lot of mental calculus on what I really wanted and needed. I was learning how to really sing. I could feel my voice going from hollering over such a thunderous racket every night -- I was learning how to harmonize too. And I love singing with women. Man, there were tons of factors -- too many to really get into here. Suffice to say, that leaving was not easy and it was very difficult for a long time. Despite this, Oakley Hall feels like music I was destined to make and I couldn't be happier that things turned out the way they did. For Oneida too. Without me, they were able to streamline and get ferocious. The Wedding is a fucking masterpiece. I think they're the best band in NYC, if not the country actually.
*How long have you, Rachel and Claudia been singing together? When you first started, did it feel like a pretty perfect combination?*
PS: Well, first off, because he never gets his due -- Jesse sings with us too and is an integral part of the harmonies. I've been singing with Jesse for like five years - mostly in different versions of Oakley Hall. He's great. My voice goes all over and he can follow me anywhere. Our goal used to be to get as good as brother harmony singers - but genetics got in our way. Claudia and I have been playing with each other in different capacities for years. Singing is a new-ish development. The last few years she's been adding third and fourth parts. Rachel has really been the glue for us singing-wise. I met her in North Carolina years ago -- like 2000 - maybe when Jesse, Claudia and I were down there recording a record for our band Crazee & Heaven, which was like a trad Gram & Emmylou-type project. Rachel was in another band at the time, but I was pretty struck by her right off the bat. Our paths kept crossing over the years, and she moved to NYC a few years ago. Oakley Hall was actually playing some songs that she had co-written with one of our old songwriters, Steve Tesh. We started singing in the subway when I was unemployed and gelled instantly. She joined Oakley Hall properly in November 2004. It was an insanely stressful time for her and us. She learned an entire set in like a week and we hit the road right away with The Constantines. We got home and immediately made "Second Guessing." The combo of the four of our voices is definitely a developing thing. We want to exploit more variety. There's a buzz from harmonizing voices can rattle your skull is nearly a psychedelic experience for me. We get this when we're warming up together, just over a lone guitar. With the band and with mics, it's harder, but it's what we're striving for.
*All six of you seem like such different people. Are you an unlikely group of friends or is that how you think most bands are?*
PS: We're unlikely bedfellows, undoubtedly, but social frictions off-stage can make for good rock on-stage. I think the very nature of getting in and out of vans all day, brushing your teeth, snoring and eating eggs every morning next to the same people you collaborate with creatively each night is basically insane. So I think all bands go through some pretty heavy shit. It's a marriage really. With six people!
*You mentioned your dark little secret of playing weddings. Would you care to elaborate any further? I think it's pretty damn interesting. Is there a ton more money for wedding bands than there is for indie rock bands? How often can you do weddings and what's the playlist like -- Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, I believe you said. You'd refuse to play the chicken dance, right?*
PS: We don't actively pursue them, but take them when they're there. We've done a few and they pay very well. They can help with the copious amount of debt a touring band builds up in this day and age -- especially one of our stature (and with gas prices being what they are). Our goal is to not do them and we haven't had to in a while. But yes, we can double as a pretty rough-around-the-edges honky tonk band if the situation allows. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, outlaw, 70s FM country-rock, what have you. It can be fun and anybody hiring us to play their wedding are gonna be mellow people. But it's definitely something we'd prefer not to have to do.
*How is it that both of your full-lengths were released so closely together this year? Were there label troubles?*
PS: Yes, but nothing earth shattering. Bulb was slated to put out "Second Guessing" in the summer of '05 but couldn't due to some infrastructure is sues and some stand-offs with distributors. That fell through and we were just gonna toss it as we had already recorded "Gypsum Strings." Brah agreed to release "Gypsum Strings" this past June and it was already settled. Matt Harmon of Amish Records loved "Second Guessing" and found out in Nov. '05 that Bulb had folded and it didn't have a home. He rushed a release out by Feb. of this year. We wanted it out earlier than "Gypsum Strings" cause it was recorded over a year ago and he obliged. It's been confusing at times, but ultimately we're pleased to have both out there.
*Tell me again about your relationship with Conor Oberst. Apparently he's been saying very nice things about Oakley Hall to the press.*
PS: Conor is great and we're fans of his. I played at this anti-war benefit in NYC in his band at the drop of a hat and we hit it off. He's been very supportive of us. I've become very familiar with his music of late too and I'm pretty blown over. I know it's been said a million times, but dude can write songs. Yeesh.
*How many Oakley Hall books have you read? What is it about that novelist that you found interesting enough to name your band after him?*
I liked the cadences in his name a lot. It seemed to suggest something regal, American, and mysterious, simultaneously. I've read a handful of his novels and was attracted by the realism and grit of his vision of the west. With Deadwood and Cormac McCarthy, the idea that the west was brutal, is pretty much a cultural given now -- but he was a few decades ahead of the curve. "Warlock" is killer. He may have been one of
the first guys to de-mythify the frontier. He's also a cool guy too. We've struck up a correspondence. His wife even recently came to a show of ours in San
*Have you ever been mistaken for hippies?*
PS: Um...yeah. Every day by my bandmates. I actually eat lentils and own a couple Dead bootlegs, so I guess, guilty as charged. It should be stated though that we own no rainsticks, nor hacky sacks. We welcome all to our shows though. Hippies and haters alike. You can even tape.
RC: Yeah, Pat's sort of a hippie I suppose, but not really. He's a bad-assss one if you're gonna call him one. I think any guy with long hair gets that rep. He has an amazing store of music knowledge and a huge record collection, so in my opinion, liking the Dead is more of him having a discerning ear for music and sound than him being a hippie. I personally don't care for the Dead, unless it's "Working Man's Dead" which is songier and rootsier sounding than the rest of their stuff. I grew up surrounded by "dead heads" and they pissed me off. I would be willing to try to like their jammier stuff in the right situation. I think the dead heads narrowed my mind a little.
*When you're writing songs, are there any specific images you're imaging or thinking about? What gets you to the place to pen these things? I ask because they sound so abnormally modern, as if they belong to this time, but don't.*
RC: Writing songs for me is pretty intuitive and definitely reflects my state of mind at the time. Sometimes, they pop out practically finished and other times it takes me months to fine-tune something. I write songs on my own or as a collaboration. "Old and Gone" for example just popped out in a rehearsal session with the whole band, and the lyrics started out as free-form association with me singing random things out as the melody which got fine-tuned in the days that followed. It came together really quick with all of us adding our instrumental and arrangement ideas. When I came into rehearsal that night, I was in a foul mood and had some anger to get off my chest. Originally the song was a little faster and angrier. Now we play it little groovier.
PS: Rachel and I are the chord and lyric writers, so I can't speak on her behalf, but I don't really have a specific method. Different songs require different things. I just really try to focus on what the song's needs are and call bullshit on things that aren't true to the muse or original intent. Sometimes songs come out right away fully-formed and are based on a confluence of events or emotions. "Living in Sin in the USA" is like that. I was reflecting on a pretty turbulent year -- we'd lost friends both figuratively and literally -- and I was feeling time slipping away, getting older and trying to suss out my relationships with friends and family, all with this backdrop of a country going nuts with hysterical right-wing propaganda and terrorism. The lyrics kinda just came out of that. Other songs require more fine tuning and crafting. There are like 14 verses each to "Volume Rambler" and "Having Fun Again." I kept the best ones and scrapped all the rest after much deliberation. I wish I had a focused method -- it's pretty scattered. What's been working the best lately for us is the band composing the music together and lyrics will just come out of the musical ideas, to Rachel or myself. And even though we write the words -- all the songs are arranged by the band as a whole. It's definitely a group endeavor. Trying at times for all of us, but the best ideas usually prevail.