The idea of American traditional music seems kind of boring, like Little House on the Prairie without the respite of commercial breaks. O’Death begs to differ. Drawing their inspiration from the dark places that inspired Bill Monroe and Nick Cave, O’Death marries a bluegrass aesthetic and instrumentation with decidedly modern influences as diverse as the Misfits and Neil Young. The resulting music is raw and powerful, underscored by O’Death’s transcendent — and sometimes transcendently strange — live show. Here, Greg Jamie, O’Death songwriter and guitarist, talks about the band’s new album, Broken Hymns, Limbs, and Skin, the variability of German concertgoers, and some decidedly non-traditional music tastes.
How has O’Death evolved on this recording?
I guess the most obvious thing is that the songs are a lot more complicated this time around. I wrote down lyrics for every song on the album, so there’s a lyric sheet. I also think we’re taking a lot more forms of folk music other than traditional American. I don’t want it to sound like the album’s an extreme departure, though; there are a lot of aspects that carried over from Head Home [the band’s 2007 album]. I think this album is thematically darker, but in a lot of ways it’s the same style of music, maybe more focused.
You dedicate the album to drummer David Rogers-Berry’s fiancée, Eliza Sudol, who died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. How did going through this affect the album?
The later songs on the album were definitely inspired by her, and it made the project a little more important for the band. The recording process was so cathartic for David. It was such a hard thing to find out. We were driving in Norway, and it was snowing and so bleak. There were a lot of breaking points, but the album gave him a reason to continue. The need to finish has been healthy for all of us.
Has the instrumentation changed, or is anything still pretty much fair game?
We’re committed to our instruments and the sound of the band. I’ve thought about getting an electric guitar, but there’s so much baggage associated with making the switch. Guitar’s not really a focus in the band musically, and we’ve also got a couple of electric instruments in the band already. The fiddle is electric, and the way we have the banjo wired it’s always on the verge of distorting. Does that count as reverb?
With so many instruments, what’s the song-writing process?
Each one of our songs has started differently. Sometimes there’s a fully formed sketch that Gabe and I flesh out and bring to the band. Other times we all work it out together. Bob, our fiddle player, brought some material for the new album. The initial stage is fair game. Gabe will hammer things out on the banjo, and then things seem to fall into place.
Where do you get the initial idea for a song like “Fire on Peshtigo”?
We were talking about doing a historical song, and I was listening to this compilation of disaster songs from the ’20s and ’30s. Peshtigo was this little town in Wisconsin that was totally decimated by a fire. It’s a forgotten part of history, but there was such a great story there. We chose to tell the story from the point of view of a preacher, because he would have a unique view of what must have seemed like the Apocalypse.
Where does the title of the album come from?
That was labored over for a while, because you want to make the right choice when you’re naming an album. In the end, it didn’t really come from anywhere in particular. Broken Hymns, Limbs, and Skin fit together and gave a good impression of what was going on this album.
How did you choose the cover art? Those kids are pretty creepy.
We have a friend in Baltimore named Jimmy Joe Roche. He produces these wild visuals and works with a lot of artists. He did the art for the first album, and we knew that we wanted to go back to him. Basically he sent a portfolio of art that he thought would work. As soon as we saw the picture that’s on the cover, we knew it was the one.
Describe the O’Death live experience.
We’re possessed. You can tell by the sounds. It’s a real band, five people making music. The energy comes across. It’s celebratory and exciting. In order to understand what O’Death is really about, it’s imperative to see the band play live. There’s only so much that can be put on a CD. I think we did a better job of that this time, but there’s really no substitute.
What does the audience for one of your shows look like?
It varies. We’re not a genre specific band, so we don’t see one kind of person. There are of course people who like folk music and a certain segment that are into discovering something different. We’re not overrun with hipsters at this point, which is nice. Our concerts are mostly real people who care about good music instead of making a scene.
Have you ever had an experience where the audience just didn’t know what the hell to make of you?
If you’re a musician, there are always going to be nights when you have a hard time connecting with the audience. We recently played a show in Berlin for some industry types and had a lot of people just sort of staring at us. It was kind of disappointing, because we had somehow heard that we were pretty big in Berlin. To find out Berlin was not that into us was not cool. We’re much more consistent as a band now, though, so those type shows are few and far between.
What artists working today do you feel a kinship with?
I’ve been having a harder time listening to music since we’ve been recording and playing. I think that we’re harder than folk bands, so we have to look outside the genre. I would say somebody like Cave Singers, but they’re not on the same page with folky sound. It’s actually pretty hard to find bands to play with. We’ve played a lot of shows with Langhorne Slim, and those have always been good.
If you were going to your ultimate concert, who would be playing?
Definitely Nick Cave. He’s just so astounding. We’re trying to work something out right now so we can open for him. You don’t really need anything else, but I have been listening to Silver Jews lately, and I would love to see them play a live show.
Do you have a dream project?
I’ve been working on some music with more of a gospel sound, which I’ll record under the name Blood Warrior. It’s not gospel music per se, but it has those group vocals and weird organ. O’Death is the primary focus, though. After this album comes out, I’d like to do a mythic creature album. Do a song about the Loch Ness Monster, Wendigo, Sasquatch, maybe even a little something for the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The idea of researching and then doing a song is just so appealing.
You seem like a pretty serious guy in a serious band. Do you have a secret pop-culture fix?
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I’m usually a very fun-loving guy. It’s probably the sickness. [Ed.: Around the time of the interview, Jamie was fighting a stomach bug.] And we do have quite a few guilty pleasures in the band. First there’s Alice in Chains Dirt. I somehow missed hearing it before, and I can’t get enough of it. Of course there are the Misfits and a particular Judas Priest tune, “Pain Killer.” I think I’ve let enough of my secrets out now.
Can you give me a genuine exclusive?
Our bass player, Jesse Newman is a very picky eater. His diet consists almost entirely of hamburgers. I’m a vegetarian. That’s a scoop.
Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Shel Silverstein?
Not once. Was he the guy that wrote the book of poetry about the tree? My dad used to read that to me. That’s pretty strange, but there are definitely worse people to resemble.
Photo Credit: Chris La Putt/Prefixmag.com