Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with eclectic rock singer/songwriter Brian Olive about his time with The Greenhornes and Soledad Brothers, the freedom he has as a solo artist and working with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
CP: Listening to “Two of Everything,” I definitely hear some R&B influence, but I also hear a tinge of British blues/rock. Who were some of your influences?
BO: I would say you're right on both accounts. I've spent years listening to a lot of how people listen to things growing up. You start with Led Zeppelin and then you hear the Small Faces, and you're finding things that people don't hear as often.
I was going in that direction as a kid, and after growing up and going down south to New Orleans and spending time in Detroit, I'm seeing people's record collection and seeing Sam Cooke and Lee Dorsey and a load of others, too.
CP: Eclecticism is a word used often in reference to your music. Would you consider any one group a primary influence? What about bands like The Zombies and The Kinks? Those obviously influenced The Greenhornes sound. Did that carry over into your solo stuff?
BO: (Laughs.) Well, when I was in that band, we all loved those bands, The Kinks and The Zombies. I was looking at it more as a jumping off point, and most of the other guys in the band were saying, “This is the sound. We want to sound like this.” Where the trouble with that came from is that I'm coming off the tour and listening to Lee Scratch Perry collections and things like that and everyone else was listening to the British Invasion stuff. That's great music, and I love it, but I had different tastes.
CP: You went from The Greenhornes into Soledad Brothers, right?
BO: Yeah, there was a time when I was in both bands for about six months. That's where the name (pseudonym) Oliver Henry came up. I thought, “Well, I'll use this name for this other little side band I'm playing in.” Little did I know I was going to end up being in the band for five years.
CP: Did Soledad Brothers sate your appetite for moving off in new directions or were they also leading you down a different path than the one you wanted to travel?
BO: No, in fact, the main reason I joined up with Ben (Swank) Johnny (Walker) in The Soledad Brothers was that I was renting a room from Johnny, and I was looking through his record collection, and it was Pharaoh Sanders and Thelonious Monk - all these great jazz albums. I was like, “Man, this guy may know where I'm coming from.” Talking to Ben, he has one of the most eclectic tastes of anybody I've ever met.
I think that's what drew me in. I thought, “Not only will these guys understand if I want to bring something different to the table,” but I also wanted to further my skills on the saxophone as well.
CP: How long were you with The Greenhornes before you split?
BO: I guess for about six years.
CP: And you've been playing solo for about four years.
BO: Well, yeah. I came out of the last tour with The Soledad Brothers going on five years ago. I would say I was a bit burned out. I was basically on tour for seven or eight years straight. There were stops here and there, but I never really stopped traveling.
I didn't have a house or anything, so it was a vagabond lifestyle, and I was tired of it. I came back to Cincinnati, where I'm from, and tried to just relax for a minute. I thought I'd do a regular job, which I did for a bout a year, but I got tired of that real fast. People were saying, “You should do your own thing if you're not going to be in the band anymore.” That's what I did. I've always worked on my own songs, but I sort of stepped it up a little bit and decided to make something happen with it.
CP: Do you feel like you're in the right place now, musically, having stepped out on your own? Are you happy? Are you where you want to be?
BO: I'm definitely getting there, yeah. I'm closer than I've ever been.
CP: What are you getting out of being solo that you didn't from those other projects? What can you do now you couldn't before?
BO: I can do anything I want. I can work with whomever I want, and I can bring anybody in the studio I feel like. I can do whatever I want without having to make any compromises without - not to sound callous - considering the thoughts of others.
To some extent, I like to collaborate on things, but there are certain times in the past when I felt like I had a gut feeling, and I knew the answer, and somebody else made the decision and there was trouble. That's what I'm glad to be capable of doing now, making decisions. If something goes wrong, I can't blame anyone else. It's all on me. I like that part of it.
CP: Has it been more freeing?
BO: (Laughs.) Well, yeah. Going through the whole thing, through the entire recoding, I wouldn't say I'm more meticulous about it, but there would be times in the past working in a band when I would say, “I've done what I can do. I can't control the situation. It's out of my hands” and step aside. That kind of thing isn't happening now. I wouldn't say I'm more cautious, but I'm taking more care.
CP: Because your guiding the process so completely, do you feel more connected to the music now?
BO: Yeah, I would definitely say I do, especially lyrically. I've never considered myself a lyricist, and I don't know that I do now, but I'm listening back and I'm hearing what I'm saying. It's coming straight from me, so I'm not having to filter it through any other situation. It's all me, and I can say what I need to say. Being able to say what I need to say makes the songs better.
CP: Is there a song on the new album that really epitomizes that for you?
BO: I would say, lyrically, the title track, “Two of Everything.” As far as getting in depth and releasing an emotion or a feeling or a thought - or all of the above - that song is the most representative of that side of it.
CP: Walk me through the experience working on “Two of Everything.” You had already laid the ground of your approach to music as a solo artist with your debut. How did that change your approach to the second album?
BO: The guy who helps me out a lot and plays guitar a lot on the album is Mike Weinel. He is an old friend of mine, and he helped me on the first album and helped me on this one. I said, “I signed on to do another album, do you want to get in on this?” He said, 'Yeah.”
We started talking before we even rolled the tape or got any instruments out. What we were saying is that we still stand by the first album and think it's fine, but we went through and said, “OK, this is something we did on the first album that should not be repeated” (laughs) or “I really like how this worked.”
Learning from the prior experience made it, in some ways, easier to work on the second album. We looked at the first album and made notes off of it. I was doing that, personally, a lot more.
CP: What are some things you wanted to carry over? What things did you want to avoid?
BO: As far as the things that didn't work, it was mostly technical things. I think I had only half the amount of good microphones I had now. Things like that, production sorts of things.
Musically, I decided I was going to make something better than the first one and keep going like that - each record better than the last.
CP: About your musical eclecticism, is that something you could have done in your previous groups?
BO: The Soledad Brothers albums were fairly eclectic in the amount of different influences and different instrumentation. I don't want to take full credit for that, but I was urging that a little bit, saying, “We don't need to use electric slide guitar on every track. Let's use this xylophone or this kazoo or this percussion sound.” With Soledad Brothers, I was able to do that kind of thing with them, but not to this extent.
CP: You used analog equipment to record your debut album in 2009. Did you use the same approach on “Two of Everything?”
BO: Yeah. Dan Auerbach had offered to record the first album, but I wasn't sure, and I felt more comfortable doing it myself. I went actually last winter up to his studio in Akron, Ohio, and I walked in and it looked like the exact studio I would have, if I had a bigger, nicer studio. (Laughs.)
He was mixing a song of mine. We did the song “Lost in Dreams” and mixed it up there. Things really got crazy, so I said, “I want to do the next album at your place,” and he said, “Well, let's do it then.” Then, I called him up about it, and he said, “We're moving to Nashville, and all my stuff is packed up in storage.”
So I said, “I'll start out recording on my eight-track tape machine in Cincinnati and get everything I can get here and use all the good players here. When you get back in town and the studio is built, we'll show up there.” He said, “Great, do that.” That's what we ended up doing.
The construction crew was putting the finishing touches on the studio when we showed up in Nashville. We took the analog tapes and ran it into his system, which is digital. It's sort of a hybrid analog/digital, which suits me just fine. It's the best of both worlds.
CP: You said you wanted to move forward with “Two of Everything.” Do you think you did?
BO: In my mind, I'm sure it's better. I'm guessing people will feel the same way. I'm still happy that I wrote and recorded the songs on the first album, but I look at it like taking steps forward. That's what I did. I tried to perform it better, write it better, record it better - all these things.
CP: Have you road tested these songs? How have people responded to them live?
BO: Live has had great response. I just haven't had a chance to do as many shows as I would have liked to. We didn't get to tour on the first album as much as I would have hoped, but I'm about to make up for that this summer with seven weeks right off the bat.
CP: Are you looking forward to getting out on the road? Are you nervous that you won't be able to get the same people to go with you on the road as you used in the studio?
BO: In Cincinnati, there are plenty of really good musicians and singers but very few good professional musicians and singers who are willing to travel extensively. I don't know why. I guess it's the conservative nature coming out in everybody.
I've gone through quite a few, and the lineup has changed several times in the last few years. Now that I've accepted that that's how it's going to be, I'm actually excited about it because it means I get to travel and perform with different musicians all the time.
The band I have right now I'm particularly excited about. I have a couple of guys from a local Cincinnati band called The Guitars - the drummer and piano player from that band. I just got Magic Jake from Conspiracy of Owls on the bass. Hopefully, as soon as I get off the phone, I'll solidify the girl singing backup. It's looking good.
CP: Is it difficult to find people who can perform the music like your session players did in the studio? Are you pretty flexible when it comes to other musicians interpreting your material?
BO: I like when it's interpreted, when people put their own stamp on it. That frees people up. The players are freed up to feel it more than trying to remember, “Oh, I have to hit this exact note here.” There are some thing I want to keep as close to the album as possible, but I like it when they're good if they can put their own personality into it. It makes for a better live show. You hear some bands that sound just like the album, and it's good - it's amazing that they can do that - but it's like, “Why wouldn't you just turn your stereo up louder?”
CP: I saw some dates listed online with The Black Keys last year. What kind of a relationship do you have with them now?
BO: That was last spring and summer. I opened up for The Black Keys down south and out west. I remember going on tours when we had the same booking agent years ago when I was in the Soledad Brothers.
I'm sure our agent would say, “These are both garage blues bands. I'll just throw them together and see what happens.” I remember touring with those guys, but we never really talked much. They were both really quiet. I always liked them, but I never really got to know either one of them.
It's only been recently when Dan contacted me after he heard some of the material I was about to do on the first album. He contacted me and asked if I wanted to record in his studio, and I declined. But ever since then, we've been in touch.
Actually, I had no idea how much we had in common over the years. It was a nice surprise.
CP: What do you have in common?
BO: Sort of the manic obsession with sound and capturing sound and manipulating it in what I consider to be a natural way.
CP: That must have made him easier to collaborate with as a co-producer.
BO: That's what I'm saying. I thought, “Man, I'm never going to find anybody who understands what I'm talking about.” Then, it was like, “Sure enough, it's Dan Auerbach of all people.”
CP: Are you looking ahead to the next album yet or is it too soon?
BO: I have, yeah, which this is the first time I've ever done that. I've started putting some ideas together the week after it came back from Nashville. I can't say I'm too far along on it yet.
I realized that the thing to do is, if you have the inspiration built up, instead of laying back and relaxing - which I like to do - try to hold onto that and keep moving and write the next album in the van. That's what I'm feeling I'm going to do. I've got a few ideas that I like, too.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...