Flux as Inspiration: An Interview with Oakley Hall
Pat Sullivan and Rachel Cox take us from Morrissey to Blake to the Clancy Brothers, while warning us not to eat the fish. The Brooklyn indie band discusses this and more with PopMatters.
In early November, Manhattan’s stately Beacon Theater played host to a night of Bob Dylan’s music as inspired by the Todd Haynes’ film I'm Not There. My Morning Jacket, The Roots, Yo La Tengo, Calexico, and other notable songwriters all took their turn waltzing with the enigmatic icon’s storied songbook. One person that could recite the film’s title literally was Oakley Hall’s own Pat Sullivan, singer, guitarist, and songwriter of local sextet Oakley Hall, who was left off the list of invitees despite some audacious last-minute no-shows by Cat Power and others. Time will reveal this was a grievous error, just as it will reveal that the songs Sullivan and his bandmates are writing are timeless roots classics, which, if given the chance, could resonate across generations not unlike Dylan’s himself.
But leave the highfalutin pomp of the Beacon for retrospectives and honorariums of icons past -- Oakley Hall’s music is better heard today on the ground, busked from outside a subway station, or at a club on the Lower East Side, or perhaps best on an open lawn. It won’t be long, though, before the nation’s premiere venues open their pearly load-in gates to these six because, as inspired as their songwriting and three records in three years have been, they almost pale next to the two-ton tusked wooly mammoth that is their live show.
When there they are right in front of you, moments of distilled sublime beauty alternate with flight-testing, tweezer-teasing, sky-crying outlaw anthems, thrusting them into the patheon of today’s best live acts, alongside My Morning Jacket. Lapsteel ace Fred Barnes trades mind-melding guitar licks with Sullivan. Fiddler Claudia Mogel sets the mood. Rachel Cox channels Emmylou Harris and Stevie Nicks but with a soulful swagger all her own. Bassist Jesse Barnes and drummer Pat Wood lock it all down as solid as a cement-filled steel drum. On steam-train runners like "Volume Rambler" and "Best of Luck", Barnes makes you wonder how Bad Brains’ bassist barnstormed his way into this hoedown, only to round out some skull-rattling four-part harmonies.
Like all supreme touring acts, Oakley Hall live can only be described as revelatory. If you’ve got some stuff on your mind – some issues you’re trying to work through or some shit you’ve been suppressing – well, these shows will force you out into the freezing cold wave-crashing ocean and make you shiver and confront your fears. But like the best reckless ocean dives, it cleanses you, refreshes you, and even begins to soothe as you realize the water’s much warmer than you initially thought. Seconds, please.
The music of the Brooklyn sextet feels instantly seasoned, timeless even, like it’s been around and inside you for decades. Songs range from Gothic Old West revivalist yarns, to dreamy calliope shuffles, to torch songs that burn blue. The common thread is sheer infectiousness, where songs resonate over long stretches and wake you from your sleep. These six New Yorkers, by way of 6 different somewhere-else’s spread above and below the Mason Dixon, don’t so much provide the soundtrack for a tour of their home states, as they usher you right up on to the back porch overlooking their own childhood backyards. Walk around your town, listen to an Oakley Hall album from start to finish, and by the time you return home, you’ll have returned "home". The listener is transported to a locale teeming with swimming holes, spiked lemonade, sprinklers, sunsets, and fireflies -- a scene that could have just as easily been painted at a lake house in rural New Hampshire as on a horse farm in backwoods Carolina, the respective childhood homes of principal singer/songwriters Sullivan and Cox.
Up until their recent release I’ll Follow You, the band’s third album in three years and first for Merge, Oakley Hall might have rested on its laurels as being possibly the only NYC band to somehow germinate an authentic Southern sound amidst the surrounding sirens and skyscrapers. On its latest effort, however, the band has ridden off into more experimental, uncharted frontiers, but by album’s end it still leads you back home.
I’m going to try to avoid fawning over you as much as possible. I don’t want this to become some Chris Farley-style interview where I say: "And how about that one song you guys do? That song’s awesome. And what about that other song? Also awesome".
Sullivan: If you do, can you wear a little coat?
Hell, I’ll even do his Swayze Chippendale’s dance if you get a couple of beers in me. But the truth is, for the last three months, I’ve been completely absorbed in your music. All three albums. I wake up in the middle of the night, hearing the choruses in my head.
Sullivan: That’s our goal.
That’s your goal?
Sullivan: To disturb your sleep patterns.
So Danvers, Mass. and Glenville, North Carolina are your respective hometowns. What was it like growing up there?
Cox: Well I grew up in Glenville, which is a mountain town. It’s just a blip on the map. There’s a post office, a general store, a lake, and a little rinky-dink landing made of rotted wood. I grew up on a gravel road. My parents were caretaking the property we lived on which was owned by a very wealthy landlord. He owned the property along with all these championship barrel-racing horses, and we took care of the horses when they became old or sick. We had acres and acres of property at that time. I learned how to ride horses and my parents would let my brother and me just wander everywhere; go wading in the creek; walking and hiking around the mountains.
Was music a consistent presence?
Cox: My dad was a musician. Well, by trade, he was a carpenter, but he always wanted to be an artist. He started playing acoustic guitar and singing songs and I would sing with him as a little kid. He rounded up some locals and put together a nice outfit called the Stateline Band since some of the guys in the band were from across the state line in South Carolina, and we’d go back and forth across. My brother and I would sing and play with them.
How old were you?
Cox: I was 16. So the music I remember was really just homemade music. There were lots of people in our community that were making music, doing covers and songs they liked. There was this piano player, CW Stuart. He had a band with his sister, and they were like my parents, and we’d go sing with them too. Then my brother had a band, and I’d sing with his band. So really it was all homegrown.
Pat, did you have a musical upbringing as well?
Sullivan: My family is very into music. Danvers is a very old, colonial working-class town about a half-hour outside of Boston. Neither of my parents really play, but they were total record buyers. They weren’t like hippies in the slightest, but they were into Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and a whole lotta Creedence. I also spent a lot of time growing up at my grandfather’s place in Pelham, New Hampshire. He had this beautiful lake house there. My grandfather listened to music literally 18 hours a day, from the moment he woke until the moment he went to bed. He was sort of this Ken Kesey-type. He wired speakers on the porch, inside a tree, and all over his property; and he would just crank Irish folk music all day long. Morning to night. He had these French neighbors and Italian neighbors who complained and were cuckoo about it, but he could care less. He was always working outside and playing the Clancy Brothers and shit like that. And it got drummed into me. It’s weird -- now when I hear the Clancy Brothers, I know every single word and I have not listened to them in 25 or 30 years.
Starting with this last tour in support of I’ll Follow You, Pat Wood took over from Greg Anderson on drums. Was Greg with the band for a long time?
Sullivan: Three years.
Is it true he left to open a Jamaican vegan restaurant in Brooklyn?
Sullivan: Yeah. Well, he’s a bar owner too. He runs Daddy’s in Williamsburg. It’s a great bar.
So Greg just decided he just sort of wanted to focus on other things?
Sullivan: The road’s hard, man. It’s not easy.
Cox: He’s been doing it for so long, and it’s hard being apart for long stretches from his family and his home base. Greg’s a bit more of a homebody. We totally understood it and it was a completely amicable parting. But Greg really helped shape us. Great drummer, great ideas, very creative, extremely funny.
Did Pat Wood get more comfortable as the tour progressed?
Cox: Oh, yeah. He was a real quick study.
Sullivan: He’s very good. He’s a great DJ too in the van.
Cox: He should have his own radio show.
Sullivan: At this stage in of our life as a band, where we know all of each other’s favorites, it was nice to have brand new iPod thrown into the mix.
Cox: Pat Wood always makes these little mixes for the club music you hear while we’re setting up or waiting to go on.
Sullivan: He’s a '70s disco freak. It was a good way shake off the nerves before going on the stage.
Cox: But then I’m a huge Smiths fan and so are Jesse and Pat. And I was mad because Pat Wood can’t stand Morrissey and he can’t stand the Smiths.
Sullivan: It’s like flipping a switch, though. One day you just get it and know that Morrissey is a fucking genius.
Not me. I’m on the other side of the fence. I’ve never gotten it.
Yeah. In fact, I recently turned down free tickets to see him at [NYC’s] Hammerstein Ballroom.
Sullivan: Well, I wouldn’t care to see that. But the tandem of him and Johnny Marr is pretty intense. Those songs are just undeniable.
I guess I just have a blind spot for them.
Cox: Alright, here’s what you do. Fly to England…
Sullivan: … smoke a pack of cigarettes … clove cigarettes….
Cox: … wear a tight jacket and slacks …
Sullivan: … get a job scrubbing floors … flunk out of school … prostitute yourself to old men …
Cox: ... get an angular haircut ...
Sullivan: ... read Sylvia Plath and Wordsworth ...
Cox: ... and Monty Python ... cuz [Morrissey’s] very funny in this dry, darkly comedic sort of way. Some of his lines are hysterical. [Sings in mock Morrissey voice:] "Hair dresser! On fire!" Come on, he’s so unique. We’ve got you covered if you ever want to take the plunge.
Did Pat or Greg do the drums on I’ll Follow You?
Cox: Greg did. Worked real hard on it too.
That drum shuffle on "Alive Among Thieves" sure gets the asses moving in a bossa nova shake at your shows.
Sullivan: We had a lot of arguments over that one.
Cox: We wanted to do something different on this record. We talked about wanting to expand our sound, and I think that song in particular served as a starting point. With this whole record [I’ll Follow You], I’m just starting to get perspective because it’s been so close to home for so long. I now see the record in its entirety as another jumping off point for us. There are all kinds of new directions we take in terms of vocalizing, joining forces on the songwriting...
Sullivan: One thing about this band is we never say no to an idea. Which is why our records are all over the map all the time.
Cox: Pat’s all about putting the weird in it. But he’s such a great musician -- he’s got such a great ear and a great feel and we trust him like he trusts us. I think the world of his music.
Sullivan: Rachel always blows smoke up my ass in interviews.
Cox: I can’t help it though. When I start talking, I just think, "Goddamn, I’m really lucky."
Sullivan: Well, I am too. I remember seeing Rachel in Winston-Salem. I guess it was 1999 or 2000. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was earth-rattling.
What else is different about I’ll Follow You as compared to your prior albums?
Sullivan: We’re starting to learn how to let the song dictate what it needs. I’m proud of [second album] Second Guessing but I also think instrumentation-wise it got very "same-y". The colors are very similar and on that record, we let the instrumentation dictate what we did with the song. But on I’ll Follow You, it’s the other way around.
Cox: It’s sort of analogous to writing a book. When you love the book you’re writing, the characters you’ve created start speaking for themselves and the book ends up writing itself in a way, and you, the author, are just the conduit. On this record, we tried letting the songs speak for themselves and we tried to be sensitive to what they were saying.
Sullivan: "Angela" is a really good example. "Angela" is a song we’ve been playing for about two years in many different ways. We’ve done a version that was very bar-bandy, like honky-tonk rock with the fiddle solo. But none of those versions really spoke to me, and on this record we wanted to figure out how to present the song in a different way. We altered the tempo, added a harpsichord and some 12-string guitar and some other elements that made the song come to life as something completely new but natural for the song itself. Flux is definitely an idea that inspires me. A song can be a million things, and that is this band’s strength. I mean, it’s a large band to expect to keep together for decades -- we all have a lot of things going on in our lives -- but with our songs and our willingness to fiddle with them, it lets us bend whichever way the wind blows.
We’ve talked about your record some. Now I’d like to talk a bit about your songwriting. As a ravenous music consumer, I hear so many new bands and new songs, but by and large, even if they’re pleasing to the ear, they don’t resonate over the long-haul like many of yours do.
Sullivan: Thanks, bro. Tell that to the record-buying public.
When you write, do you strive for universality, or do you just write based on your own personal experience?
Sullivan: I like to take personal things and try to find what would be interesting about them for somebody else. But each song has a different approach, really. I write some songs, Rachel writes some songs, and we have some songs that we’ve written as a group. In terms of the songs that I write, I really want the song to be something unto itself -- something independent that I can play on acoustic guitar on my own, but also something that can be turned into something different altogether in the hands of the band. With the band, we might change it around, cut a verse, throw a bridge in, or change chords. Everything is up for grabs and we really wrangle with the arrangement to make it good for Oakley Hall -- good for this specific group of people. We’re also constantly thinking about the live show and how this song will sound played live. When we arrange, we want to capture it well for a record, but we don’t feel like it has to be the same on the record as it is live. When we do it live, we want to let the energy of the moment take over and put the song wherever it has to be.
Your live shows can be surprisingly psychedelic. I’ve even heard them described as "religious experiences" – people really lose themselves in those moments when the songs cease being songs and turn into these swirling whirlwinds of sound.
Sullivan: Haha! Take that! [mimics Criss Angel Mindfreak electrified fingertips pose] [laughter] No, well I’ve been inspired for a long time by New York bands like the guys in [Sullivan’s former band] Oneida or Sightings, who lay down these incredible sheets of noise. Just layered depths of noise.
Cox: It’s almost a free jazz background...
Sullivan: Hardcore punk, too. Jesse [Barnes] was born and bred on the Minutemen and the DC post-punk hardcore stuff.
Sullivan: Oh yeah, sure. Growing up a bass player in Baltimore he got deep into Bad Brains and that sorta stuff, too. Just being around bands where intensity in the main thing is really inspiring, and I think we’ve always wanted to make our show that way, but we’ve tried to get there with a different vehicle.
The difference I think is that you balance that intensity with songs like "Angela" or "First Frost" which have a more reserved, sublime quality to them.
Sullivan: Well that’s why I’m in Oakley Hall and not in one of those other bands. I like "pretty".
Cox: We try to have that ugly or raw sound mixed in with the beautiful -- it’s a very clear dynamic we work at. If you don’t have any dynamics, you’re going to lose people -- they’ll just get bored. Buh-bye! We worked on that dynamic a lot on "All The Way Down". In that song there’s a lot to draw from each individual person’s performance -- you get to know each person in the band.
Sullivan: In terms of songwriting, "All The Way Down" is a real genesis between the two of us, and it happened in a very organic way. I was doing a riff that I’d written and Rachel started singing over it, and over the course of the year we developed different ideas and wrote the lyrics together. And Fred and I had started playing around with a lot of Feelies-type double guitar parts which found their way in, too.
Cox: Yeah, it’s got this whole weird middle section where [Fred and Pat] get to explore, exploratory, whatever that word is…
Cox: The delicacy and heaviness. The hardcore rock 'n' roll guitar next to the gentle vocals and...
Sullivan: And those are really honest vocals.
Cox: It’s that balance thing again.
Sullivan: I’d say that song captures a lot of what I’d want the pure Oakley Hall to be. That’s us at our best without any reference to anything or anyone else. If there’s a vintage "Oakley Hall" song, I think "All The Way Down" is one of them. I have no illusions about the fact that we play fairly conventionally-structured chordal music. On paper it’s very A-B-C. But Fred and Claudia -- they push conventional songs in alternate directions and turn them into things that we, collectively, love to hear.
There’s a reckless youthfulness to the songs too. "Best of Luck", for instance, has a real Bob Seger/"Hollywood Nights" essence to it.
Sullivan: Haha! Fuck yeah! I love The Seeg!"
On this last tour in support of I’ll Follow You, you played an event in Grass Valley, California dubbed "Oakley Hall: The Man; Oakley Hall: The Band." So you finally got to meet the man after whom the band is named?
Sullivan: Yeah, it was awesome. Super amazing guy.
Does he like your music?
Sullivan: He likes it. We’ve been in touch over the years; I’ve sent him every album.
Cox: That Grass Valley show was really special. The audience was rapt. Everybody was paying attention. Such a good listening audience. Great vibe.
Sullivan: It was so moving that they invited us. It was a life’s achievement honorary dinner for him. He’s 89 and has been writing novels since he was 18 years old. He’s written a bazillion books. I mean, he is an accomplished artist. We’re not. So to include us in such an event was truly an honor.
How else was this latest tour different from past tours?
Cox: Well, it was our first tour headlining. For the most part, we’ve been the supporting act of other bands. Through that, we’ve been able to play some really beautiful venues. This headlining tour was a lot of dive clubs. It was long and grueling at times, but also very exciting because we got to take stock and get a feel for where we’re at in terms of our fans and our draw. It was pretty heartening because we have a lot of music heads coming out. Everywhere we went, there were some die-hard fans, even if just one of two of them. Even if we didn’t fill the place -- that’s where it starts.
Are there any funny idiosyncrasies of different band members with which you need to contend when you’re out on the road?
Sullivan: Oh my God, man. Being in a band is the only art form where you live with the people that you’re creating with all the time.
Cox: It’s like you’re married.
Sullivan: When you’re writing songs, you’re at home; you can get out of each other’s hair. But when you’re touring, you’ve got an hour of time per day where you’re actually creating together, and then 23 hours where you’re dealing with each other, and that’s exactly what it is.
Cox: It’s not even like a real marriage. In a real, honest, working, healthy marriage, you have lots of space.
Sullivan: And there are ways of working off some steam in a marriage! [laughter] There isn’t in a band!
Cox: You get good at creating your own little bubble even though you’re sitting next to a person.
Sullivan: But as heavy as it gets, I’ve often found that our best shows happen right after a fight.
Like make-up sex?
Sullivan: Pretty much. We’ve had great shows where I walk on the stage after having a big fight with somebody, and it’s like, "Oh, now I’ve got a real angle on this song!"
Cox: And everyone’s got this spunky attitude. Pat’s rarin’ to go, and he just lays into his guitar, and into the audience.
You just came off tour and already you’re about to head back out on the Unlimited Sunshine Tour with Cake.
Sullivan: We’ve been dizzyingly around the country in the last couple of years.
Is it a grind or is this "living the dream"?
Sullivan: I love to tour but I would not call it a dream. Definitely not in the sense of it, like, generating dreamy income. [laughter] But I try to keep perspective on different currencies in which you get paid. When we played Ireland, for instance. We played at a small fishing community called Myrtleville in Cork, and it was just this bed-and-breakfast where we played to a packed house by a fireplace, and everyone had Guinness Stout, and we had all these old fishermen just enraptured.
Cox: And snooker tables.
Sullivan: And snooker tables ... and halfway through the set I thought to myself -- it is music that has brought me here to this spot, to this moment. So when I think of it as a dream, I think of it as a dream in that sense. The strange characters and the strange places and the really beautiful experiences and friends you make ... I see friends in Seattle more than I see some friends I have in New York City.
Cox: As many hardships as you can have on the road -- when I’m freaked out or having a moment where I’m in a pit of darkness -- and those certainly happen on tour -- I always try to rise above it. I’ve always been a traveler. Even before I joined the band and started touring, I loved to take cross-country treks by myself of with friends.
Sullivan: There are variables at every turn, in every minute. I’ve had a very estranged relationship with the world of traditional employment. In terms of job skills, I find that all my skills as an adult human being come forward in a touring situation. In terms of organizing, driving, playing, meeting people. I feel I’m most fulfilled, in terms of being a worker, when I’m on the road.
Cox: When I’m at home and I don’t have anything going on and I’m just doing a daily grind, I get bored so easily. It’s always been a problem. I am somebody that needs to be moving; to be in a situation where I need to keep my head on straight and keep the ship together. Otherwise I unravel.
Sullivan: It’s a double-edged sword to use the road as your centering device because, by nature, touring is incredibly un-centering, especially after it’s over and you get home off of a tour. We’ve been gone so much now that I sometimes feel very removed when I get home to New York. We just played the Bowery Ballroom and we needed bands to play with us and I didn’t know anybody to ask, whereas, two years ago, we would have known a lot of bands. We’ve just been away so long that we kind of miss out on who’s around. New York -- Brooklyn in particular -- is such an underground type of place. People like being able to walk around the corner to a loft party where they can see you play. But as the shows get bigger and bigger, and you get the opportunity to tour outside the city, you need to be careful because when you do finally come home, people don’t care as much. So that’s part of the balance, too.
Okay, so you’re on a desert island. You need to pick one of each of the following to take with you: one album; one film; one book; and one delivery menu for one restaurant that will feed you for the rest of your days.
Sullivan: All right, I’m not sure this technically constitutes "one" album given that it’s six discs, but I’d choose The Complete Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band. Not the released ones, but the bootleg ones. I could listen to that for the rest of my life and still discover it. The movie would probably be McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman. It’s this amazing anti-Western film shot in the snow in Vancouver in the early '70s. Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, with a Leonard Cohen soundtrack. So I’d get a little Leonard Cohen in here and there, too.
Hey that’s cheating.
Sullivan: That’s not cheating. The book ... I don’t know. I like a lot of different shit. Maybe a [William] Blake book. Something less narrative and more poetic so I could constantly get different things from the same text. And ... what was the other thing?
Sullivan: My knee-jerk reaction would be some kick-ass sushi restaurant, but I guess raw fish would already be available to me. So probably some badass barbecue place like the Salt Lick in Austin. I would die in a week too if that’s all I ate, which would be good.
Rachel? Let’s start with the album.
Cox: I’m torn between Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon or something by Neil Young.
Sullivan: Yeah, life without Neil would be pretty rough.
Cox: Or maybe a soul record by Irma Thomas. For the film, it would need to be a black-and-white French new wave film. Maybe The Regular Lovers.
Cox: Can we choose delivery person instead? That I can answer. But I don’t even know his last name.
Cox: His name is Noah. He’s got lots of tattoos and he’s really nice.
Sullivan: Okay, you don’t get to build a fantasy out of this...
Hey, it could get lonely out there.
Sullivan: Then I get to bring my wife. I was about to say Bailey Quarters from WKRP In Cincinnati, but my wife. Definitely my wife.
Cox: And for the book, I would have to say something by e.e. cummings.
Sullivan: How about you, man?
Sullivan: You mister man!
Alright, well, the movie would be Goodfellas.
Sullivan: Nothing from the Chris Farley canon? Perhaps something French new wave, like Beverly Hills Ninja?
For the album, I’d say Sign O’ The Times by Prince. For a book, it’s tough since I don’t read a lot due to my attention span.
Sullivan: Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?
Probably The Road by Cormac McCarthy or The Secret History by Donna Tartt. And as for delivery menu, I’d say Long John Silver's.
I couldn’t live without those chicken planks.
Cox: Oh my God. You’re not gonna last long, sorry.