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O’Death Interview June 2011

Catherine May

Triangle

With their new album, Outside, released today, we caught up with Greg Jamie of O’Death to learn more about their experiences as a band.

MTTM: First things first, can you tell us where your name came from?

Greg Jamie: We decided to name our band this after just a couple practices.  The name came after the sound. As you know, O Death is a song, one that’s been done in so many changing forms and shapes by folks like Sam Amidon, Ralph Stanley, Charley Patton, Dock Boggs, Camper Van Beethoven, Vic Chesnutt and even us, at one point made a version of O Death and it sounded nothing like any of these other versions. I wouldn’t say we named our band after an endlessly changing song, but we were attracted to the idea that it’s something that so many people have wanted to discuss.

It’s a great way of talking to death “O Death, I saw you at the supermarket today in the frozen meat section and you were looking pretty good”.  O’Death is a way for people to confront death in song, or literature or whatever.  We see ourselves as a band that wants to discuss death in some capacity, but not in a way that is uptight or sad always.  It can be a way of celebrating life as well, or celebrating our time here.  Hopefully we don’t fear death.

MTTM: A lot must have changed for you as a band when David was diagnosed with cancer. How did it feel to return from hiatus and perform together for the first time?

GJ: It was amazing getting back to things. We were really fortunate to have our first show back from this extended hiatus to be the legendary Newport Folk Festival.  When we decided to take the offer, we weren’t even totally sure David would be fully recovered.  So it’s amazing and something that we can never really underestimate – the fact that David is playing better than he ever has, after such a long fight and so much surgery and treatment done to his shoulder.  I would say yeah, it changed the band somewhat.  Maybe it made us switch gears at first, and I think it turned us inward somewhat, which ended up being a really healthy strong evolution for this project.

MTTM: How’ve you found your recent European tour?

GJ: Oh I love touring Europe.  I don’t know how we’re seen over there. I don’t like being seen as these New York City whiskey soaked pseudo hillbillies and I think sometimes that’s maybe the easiest description, as convoluted as that idea may be.  So maybe people aren’t sure what to expect.  And I don’t always know what people are saying.  One time in Switzerland someone was shouting at me, during one of our quieter songs, and I know he didn’t hate us, because he was watching us play and getting into it, but I didn’t know what he was saying. And it turns out he wanted us to play louder and faster.  That kinda rubbed me the wrong way.  I think Europe isn’t sure who we are yet, even though we’ve been there a number of times.  I think they’re still figuring out our tone, and maybe how we’ve changed.

MTTM: You’ve toured extensively throughout the US and Europe. What’s the most outrageous tour story you can reveal?

GJ: I don’t know.  We try to not let things get too outrageous.  In the US we definitely stay with a lot of strangers we meet from the shows.  Which can be tough because you never know what kind of sleep situation – if any – you are walking into. It’s a great way to get to know people in their environments in different cities you’d never go to if not playing music. This place we stayed at in Arizona one time was a real crusty punk house where no one there really even knew who was sleeping there, or what if any rooms were available etc.  We woke up to a dog with rice on his butt.  I don’t think that’s too outrageous, and I don’t know if you can picture this scene with us as well as I can remember it.  I’m not painting a picture really, but I think a dog with rice on his butt in Arizona is somehow kind of outrageous. 

MTTM: Having just released Bugs in the UK, are you planning to release more singles from the album over here?

GJ: I don’t know. A single is kind of weird I guess.  I think we should probably. Are we a single kind of band?  Most of us are married or in serious relationships. I think if it’s effective to do so, we will maybe less officially release another song.  I think it’s an album that really kind of works well once you hear it, I think you can really get into it.  So it’d be good for folks to hear it and not just assume that “oh hey this band is soaked in whiskey and they’re burning my barn down! Why are they doing that?” That’s not really who we are, so yeah, you should hear they album.  You need another song to decide if you want to hear the album.

MTTM: You’ve been described as having a bluegrass sound, do you feel that bluegrass is an underrated genre?

GJ: I like bluegrass. I don’t think we really represent bluegrass in any sort of way.  Our violin player doesn’t really play “fiddle” style and our banjo player really isn’t a traditional banjo player, so it’s tough.  I think bluegrass fans could end up liking us, but not because we’re playing bluegrass.  I guess I’d say that it is not an underrated genre.  People are aware of it as a style of folk music that’s played, and they have festivals, and there are those who like it and those who don’t.  I think that it’s an exciting style of music that can be re-imagined in different ways, but genres are like stigmas, or traps. They are given too much respect.

MTTM: You manage to use your voices and instruments well collectively to really put across the emotion of the song to the listener. How do you go about writing a song initially?

GJ: Glad you feel that way. Ah songwriting. When you’re a band, and we’ve been a band with the same line-up for like 6 or 7 years, I think it is best if the way you write songs changes over time.  It has always depended on the song, but for our previous album, Broken Hymns, we wrote together as a group.  For this newer album, we really divided the process. Gabe and I would work out the song and lyrics and structure and then the band would separately write their own parts. That generally is how a lot of this album went. 

MTTM: What’s next for O’Death? 

GJ: I don’t know.  If you like us we’ll come back and play for you.  It is getting to the point where if you don’t like us, we won’t come back.  So our future as a touring group is up to you.  However, we will always make albums and music. That is what we do.  We like being a long term project, and we like the feeling of changing over time and writing songs in different ways and creating new sounds and working with different people.  So we’ll just keep on.  Touring here in the States for sure. And maybe elsewhere always too. Who knows.

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