elephant micah’s joseph o’Connell on funky hardware and reinventing “the old”
how would you describe Genericana to someone who hasn’t heard it?
“I knew I wanted it to be loose and something that took some artistic risks” joSEPh o’CoNNELL
It’s a producer-songwriter album, as opposed to a singer-songwriter album. Words and melodies are the key elements, but those elements are scattered over a series of soundscapes. The songs come in and out of focus as the soundscapes unfold. What was the starting point for the album? I knew the sort of record I wanted to create – in the sense that I knew I wanted it to be loose and something that took some artistic risks. But I didn’t know what that would mean exactly until I started gathering material and identifying ways that I could fit it together. I only knew that I wanted to tinker with some tools I’d never used before. That included some funky hardware and some software features I probably never would have considered using if I hadn’t expressly created the occasion to do so. how has your work as a folklorist influenced your music? That’s difficult to trace, because I think to find the direct connection I have to look back at my interest in music in general. The time and the place where I grew up – in Louisville and rural Indiana in the ’90s – was a pretty interesting laboratory for a kid who wanted to understand and get into music. Learning about music felt like putting together a puzzle. Maybe that had something to do with being a bit culturally sheltered… I became a kind of armchair sociologist of any music I caught wind of. So for me making music and studying music have common roots. They are both come from wanting to understand music through personal experience. It was never enough to listen to the music. I wanted to know the people. And I wanted to be one of them.
Can you elaborate on the idea of Genericana? it seems more than an album title.
I think it’s a concept album I’m still trying to find a concept for. At first I thought Genericana was just a good term for satire. It could refer to music that had the surface of folk and country, but nothing below the surface. The more I thought about it, the more I sensed other possible meanings. I wondered if it might have a political meaning. Could “Genericana” be the cultural stuff that holds together a nation of people? That’s one of the sociopolitical functions of folk and country music – to evoke a sense of common roots.
There are tracks that follow the same speculative construct as earlier songs like “if i Wore Wigs” and “if i Were a Surfer” that suggest a fascination with identity, is that fair?
Yes, I think that’s a cool reading. You probably noticed that parts of the album are a rewrite of “If I Were A Surfer”. I guess I wanted to return to that structure – “If I were” – because it lends itself to new iterations. Like a formulaic stanza in a folk song. And in this case, you can recycle that stanza to talk about any form of identity you want to talk about.
you invented a new instrument for the album, The Mutant…
I would say that Matt O’Connell invented it. I just helped generate the idea. The Mutant is a homemade digital synthesiser. Instead of a keyboard or something like that for inputting notes, it has four faders. On the album, the Mutant playing [by Matt] is typically a kind of fluid drone sound, a sustained chord that bends and blends into different voicings.
What’s the appeal of the discarded old instruments and cheap synths you use on the album? Why not invest in a brand-new synthesiser? it’s not like you’re using lutes and zithers instead of electric guitars, so why not?
They fit with a budget approaching zero dollars. That’s the main factor. But of course it’s more than that. I think my hope is that by assembling some nonstandard pieces of equipment I can arrive at a texture that has its own identity. Whether that is the case or not I’ll leave up to the listener. Oh, and if I had found an electric lute in my price range, I would definitely have purchased that.
“We can’t afford to go forward
any more,” you sang on “Slow Time Vultures” on your last album. does the future scare you into wanting a return to a simpler past?
That’s an interesting question. I get the impression that the whole history of human culture is riddled with nostalgic art. Confusingly, looking backward is itself timeless. I am totally in favour of a critique of modernity and progress. But I think a good one also involves an equal critique of nostalgia. In other words, what was so simple or virtuous about the past? I’d like to be able to examine the past in an unsentimental way before I sign up to relive it. I guess the thing we often wonder about is whether it might be smart to somehow, strategically, reclaim and reinvent ‘the old’. I think we can, if we do it with self-awareness.
you sound uncannily like Townes Van Zandt on “Life a”. Were you aware of that?
Really? Track three, with the heavy guitar? That’s so surprising! I’ll have to listen for that.
joseph o’Connell (right) and brother Matthew, who plays drums, keys and ‘The Mutant’ (below) on