The Charleston. Brooklyn, NY.
Interview: James Passarelli

Folk bands don’t get much more raucous than O’Death.  Check out their “Take Away Show” on Blogoteque, and you’ll have a good idea of what they’re all about.  The New York band punishes their assortment of instruments, breaking fiddle strings by the handful and banging on anything in sight.  They’re the perfect backdrop for Greg Jamie’s sharp, nasal voice.  The name comes from the famous mournful Ralph Stanley song “O Death”, and the fivesome contorts that old time folk sound for a rootsy folk melee.  Anger and frustration were often the driving forces in the recording of the band’s first two label releases, but for their next effort they plan to take things in a new direction, and IF is excited to hear just what that direction is.  We sat down with Jamie and drummer David Rogers-Berry (not pictured) a few days before the festival to talk about their new and old albums and how they’ve handled life’s most challenging obstacles.

Inflatable Ferret: You guys said you met at SUNY Purchase.  That was all five of you?

David Rogers-Berry: Yeah, we all went to school there.

IF: One of the first interviews we did was with Langhorne Slim. And I think he said he went to SUNY Purchase too?

Greg Jamie: Yeah, he went to school with all of us.  We saw him play a lot.

IF: So, he was a couple years older than you?

GJ: Yeah, I guess two or three.

IF: Your first album came out in 2005?

GJ: Our first album was just done while we were at college on CDRs.  And there aren’t too many copies of it.  That was in 2004.  And then in 2006 we had another kind of fuzzy release that we re-released in 2007.

IF: So, the second release of Head Home was in 2007.  And that was your label debut?

GJ: Yeah.

IF: How’d you get in touch with your label?  Was that through Langhorne at all?

GJ: Oh, Kemado?

IF: Yeah.

Courtesy of Newport Folk Festival

GJ: Um, not really.  We toured with him before we ended up with Kemado, so I think they might have known who we were through Langhorne.

DRB: Especially since they were taking part in his management, and I think helping out with his booking and stuff.  So, the people on our end had to deal with the people on their end.

IF: But it wasn’t like he got you in.

DRB: No, although, you know, Langhorne’s thrown us a couple bones here and there.  Like, we got that Bermuda show because of him.  Which is just one gig, but it’s Bermuda, and most rock bands don’t get to tour in Bermuda.  So, that was cool.

IF: Yeah, it sounds like he travels a lot, like Europe and what not.

GJ: Yeah, he’s been to Europe a lot.

IF: So, you guys had to go on hiatus last year because you [Rogers-Berry] were diagnosed with cancer.  Obviously that’s a bit of a life change.  I don’t know if you guys have written anything since then, but did it affect the way you played?

DRB: Well, kind of.  I mean, there were certain things that were changing about our sound already.  But it’s hard to comment on that, because none of that music has been released or recorded yet.  So, it’s hard to say exactly what that change is.  For me, it changed my perspective in terms of…on our last record I was really angry, and there was a lot of pain in my life.  And I was really angry through chemotherapy too, but now I don’t feel so angry.  I feel more like making some nice music, so I don’t know how much that has to do with all that stuff.  Some of that is just artistic growth too.  Yeah, I’ve had to stare death in the face a couple times, and each time I sort of come away with something different.

IF: And the last record was dedicated to your fiancée, right?

DRB: Yeah, that record was done within three months of her passing away.  Obviously it was traumatic for me, and I think it affected the band because we were on tour when it happened, and it was sort of a monkey wrench in our whole thing.  And they kind of had to deal with what I was going through.  And I know in the studio, especially mixing the album, I was kind of like, “Greg, we’re going to make this ballsy.  We’re going to make this rock.”  And I was filled with piss and vinegar, and then we made that kind of album.  I definitely pushed for it to go in that direction, to be really abrasive.  I don’t know, we’ll see what happens the next time around – it’s not going to be that vibe, that’s for sure.  It will probably still be rough around the edges, but I don’t think so angry.  One of the things about going through chemo is that I sort of realized why I was making music, why it was important, and why I wasn’t prepared not to do it.  I realized it wasn’t just about being crazy and making people be like, “Wow, look at all their energy.  Look at how wild they are.”

O'Death's 2007 album Head Home

IF: You guys haven’t played that many shows then since coming back.

DRB: I just wrapped up treatment in May, so I’m still in physical therapy, and I’ve got these scars.  We’re still getting into it – hell, we only starting rehearsing a couple weeks ago.  But it went a lot more smoothly than we expected, which is why we’ve picked up more gigs.

IF: When I saw you were on the Newport bill, I thought you guys sort of stick out.  But it’s also a really good fit, because as different as your music is from the other acts at the festival, it’s still really rootsy.

DRB: Yeah, this isn’t the first time we’ve played a folk festival.  And when we get on those bills it’s not unusual that we’re the most aggressive band on the bill.  And at first we sort of shied away from it, but after having done it a couple times we’ve realized that for the people coming out to these festivals, it’s not like rock music is some foreign thing to them.  They’re not really that taken aback – they’re totally willing to embrace it actually, so it ends up being a really good scene for us.  I think we totally end up sticking out in people’s minds because of how different we are.

IF: Are you guys excited about seeing anyone in particular at Newport?

GJ: I’ve wanted to see Calexico for years, and usually tickets are expensive for their shows.  They’re playing right after us, I think.  Are you going?

IF: Yeah.  And there are a lot of good bands, big and small.

GJ: It’s a nice village.

IF: Cool.  And for your next album, how many songs do you have written?

DRB: We’ve got about an album’s worth of material that’s in…

GJ: Various stages.  A lot of melodies and structures.  We haven’t really played all of the together yet.  But it’s not really going to be a live-sounding record.  It’s definitely going to be a different approach.  The songs on the last couple albums sort of had that kind of energy, because we knew how they sounded live.  For this one we’re going to intentionally not do it that way, just to see if the songs bring out a different kind of nuance.

DRB: It’s a whole different kind of challenge for us from a writing perspective.  We’ve always been so dirt poor that making records has been something that’s had to happen quick.  We’d write, tour, get it together, and everything was stage-tested, tried and true in a live situation.  And then we’d go and record it that way.  This time we’re going to record it in a totally different way.

Photo by Noah Dodson

IF: It’s a little more polished then?

DRB: I don’t know if I’d say “polished”, but it’s definitely refined in a different kind of way.  We’ve always been structuralists, and to a different degree, formalists.  But we’re definitely looking at a broader instrumentation and getting away from the limitations that come with the stage.  We don’t have roadies or anything – hell, we usually don’t even have a sound tech, so bringing a bunch of instruments on tour becomes a real distant nightmare that we don’t partake in.  But that’s something that we love, so the next record’s going to have really broad instrumentation.  And we’re using the recording process as the writing process, which is really fun, man.  We’ve never done it that way, and I’m really into it.  It’s very cool.

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