by: Thomas D. Mooney
When going to see Shakey Graves tonight, you’d be a fool to overlook Old Man Markley and Whiskey Shivers and show up late or post yourself up at the bar.
The seven-piece part bluegrass, part punk band released their stellar sophomore album Down Side Up this past year. Typically, when throwing “clashing” genre labels on a band is a campaign to brand a band as a product that’s different from the rest. All too often, it’s just simply not the case. OMM does seem to break that mold though. Vocalist-guitarist Johnny Carey and company really do show that the two factions have more in common than you’d think.
Throughout their two albums (Their first being Guts n’Teeth) they’ve shown just how far you can take fiddles, banjos, autoharps, and washboards and give them a punk attitude without losing the warmth of those acoustic, intimate instruments. There’s an edge to the songs that feel both gritty and refined. Carey’s vocals are naturally smooth and soothing singing these modern Tom Joad tales and American protest anthems.
On songs such as “Blood on My Hands” and “So Much More,” the band goes full throttle and the pace without losing a sense of story or overpowering Carey’s vocals. Songs like “Rehearsal” may be a less paced, but even there, the band provides a solid punch.
In more ways than one, Old Man Markley fits within the same ballpark as bands such as Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, and The Pogues (They’re not those bands differing in plenty of ways that I won’t take the time to list). They all have that same state of mind if you will. OMM just happens to be playing progressive bluegrass and not Irish folk. Make no mistakes, OMM is an American band at their roots.
We caught up with Old Man Markley fiddler Katie Weed last week to talk about the band’s Down Side Up, the band’s progression, and collaborating with so many band members. They’re playing The Blue Light tonight with Shakey Graves and Whiskey Shivers.
New Slang: Y’all released Down Side Up this past year. It felt, when compared to the first record, that you guys went in and refined the sound of the band. It sounded a little smoother. Did you guys intentionally want this record to sound less punk than the first album?
Katie Weed: You know, it wasn’t necessarily intentionally trying to sound more like a bluegrass band or evolve from being a punk band. I think mainly it was that we were all better musicians. We had toured on Guts n’Teeth for so many years. I think we had just gotten tighter as a band and as musicians. If it does sound more refined, it’s probably more a result of a lot of hard work. I think the songwriting helped with that as well. Instead of it being songs that we had been playing over a few years, these songs were mainly written for this album. It may have been a more cohesive sound because of that.
NS: There’s also a sense of grit to the album. They all kind of have this working class, middle class feel to them. There’s no real sense of entitlement with them. I’m guessing that kind of became a theme for the album. You were saying they were mainly all written for this album. Were they written all pretty close in time to one another?
KW: Most of them were. We also spent a lot of time arranging them to be the versions they are on the album. It’s funny you say working class. Johnny [Carey] and Joey [Garibaldi] were in this band called Blue Collar Special. I think that goes hand in hand with living as musicians for a number of years. It’s not exactly a lifestyle that sets you up for spending. I think we’re still living that. We’re still a big band and touring a lot. We don’t have these huge budget tours. We still feel like a working band. That probably comes out. It’s still a fun time, but one you probably shouldn’t enter for money.
NS: The band, there are about seven, eight in the band. Does that make the writing process easier or can it make it more difficult?
KW: Sometimes having too many cooks in the kitchen makes it more difficult, but ultimately, it’s better. More ideas get tossed around. We try a lot of things that we may have not tried otherwise. For the record, I remember a lot of really, really late nights. We had a home studio for that. There was a lot of late nights where we’d end up sleeping over and getting up in the morning and starting back up. We worked really hard on it and a lot at once. As a result, it was a lot of collaboration rather than just one person saying what everyone was going to play.
NS: I had read that you guys had built up this recording studio at Johnny’s house for this album. What goes into getting something like that set up?
KW: We have been demoing at Annie and Johnny’s house for as long as the band has been. Johnny is really a total gear head so he had a real sense of what we what we already had and what we would need to go from recording demos to producing a record ourselves. There was a lot of DIY. Getting soundproofing. There was a lot of hard work involved. But also having made a lot of friends through touring and being based in the San Fernando Valley, I’m not sure how Johnny knew him before, but we worked with Joby Ford of The Bronx. And Johnny and Joey worked at Voice Over Studios for many years so they really have a good sense of what you really need.
NS: I was going to bring up Joby from The Bronx producing the first record. He’s in a band that really does have two versions. The Bronx and Mariachi El Bronx. Do you think him coming from that helped with the vision of the first album since you guys do have this mix of bluegrass and punk?
KW: Oh definitely. I think that he was open to these different instruments and how they sound naturally. He was very much not concerned with trying to mold us into sounding punk. I think he knew he didn’t have to push us in one direction or the other. It really was so easy working with him. We’d go and record something and he’d listen back and say “That’s good. We’ll use this.” I’d want to record it 10 more times. He just has a natural sense of what’s a good take.
NS: Going back to Down Side Up, what would you consider as your favorite part when you were recording? Was there anything specifically that you guys did that you felt was different from anything you had done before?
KW: A couple of things come to mind. They were little things that we added at the end that kind of ended up being my favorite parts. They stood out to me because they were really fun to do. Like one evening Johnny went out and recorded crickets in his yard and used that at the end of a track. One day, we were done recording everything and we did gang vocals on some parts. It was us, some of our friends, a bunch of our parents were there. We were all clustered around this microphone. You get that many people in a group, some people aren’t natural singers, so you get this real human side. I remember this one guitar riff for this one song, Johnny was going to rerecord it as a joke on flute. On this old spirit flute thing. It was just to be silly, but it ended up sounding really cool and setting the tone for the sound so we wound up using a bunch of it. Little stuff like that.