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

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