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Asked to summarize his career in music, it takes Patrick O’Donnell only a minute or two to get to the moral: “If I had any advice for anybody, it would be, ‘Don’t start your own indie label.’”
That’s what the 36-year-old singer, guitarist, and songwriter did in 1994, shortly after returning from a six-month stay in Prague. “I had a teaching position that didn’t pay anything,” he recalls. “Mostly what I did was, during the day I would walk around and look at buildings; during the night I would go to pubs and bars. I did that for half a year. I realized I was halfway through the money I’d saved, and I needed to do something.”
He dismissed teaching English or opening a bar, he says, as “things that it seemed like anybody could do or actually was doing. But I heard a lot of music I thought was really good, and I thought for sure no one else [would] try to sell this music in the United States. Which was true then, and it’s true now. So I came back and I got a job to get some money together, and I started up the record company.”
That company is called Skoda, and its most recent release is Then I Woke Up, the second album by one Patrick O’Donnell. But the label is best-known for releasing the music of Uÿz Jsme Doma, an eclectic Czech avant-punk outfit that has doggedly toured the United States, building a small but faithful following.
Skoda issued a compilation of Czech and Slovak bands in 1996, and O’Donnell originally intended to follow that with full albums by some of the participants. “But I didn’t have the money, and wasn’t making the money, to be able to pull it off,” he explains. By the time Uzÿ Jsme Doma’s first Skoda album came out later that year, “I’d spent pretty much all the money I’d saved.”
Partially by selling CDs at gigs, the band managed to make a small profit on the road. “And while I wasn’t breaking even, I wasn’t losing that much on them,” O’Donnell says. “So that kept it going for a long time.”
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Among local musicians and indie-label minimoguls, O’Donnell has one of the more lucrative day jobs: He’s a lawyer. But the musician, a native of Wilmington, Del., has chosen to work on a temp basis so he’ll have the flexibility to travel when he wants. In April, he did a seven-date U.S. tour, accompanied only by an ex-Uÿz Jsme Doma bassist, and last summer he spent two months in Europe. European references abound on his albums, Limbo, recorded piecemeal between 1994 and 1999 and released in 2000, and Then I Woke Up, which arrived late last year.
Yet O’Donnell is not just passing through. He’s lived in Washington for “13 years, off and on,” attending Georgetown University Law School after St. John’s College, the “great books” school, in Annapolis. “I went to law school as a way to avoid making decisions about my life,” he acknowledges. “Someone a little braver would have said, ‘Well, I’m just going to do music. And I’m going to do whatever shitty jobs it takes just to make it.’ The idea was, I’ll go for three years, and during that time I’ll put a band together. When I get out, I’ll never have to work as a lawyer. Which was utter, errant, deluded nonsense.”
It was at law school that O’Donnell became interested in the newly free Czech Republic, taking a course about the former Soviet bloc’s political transition, reading the work of Václav Havel and other Czech dissidents, and learning the language from his Capitol Hill next-door neighbors, who were Czech. He went to Prague to escape a law firm where, he says, “the partners were at each other’s throats,” but a half-year later he was back.
In 1998, he put a band together, but it didn’t last. Since then, he’s been a solo act. “I’ve got friends here who are musicians, but I don’t feel like part of any scene,” he says. “I wasn’t one of those people who hung out at Dante’s or d.c. space. Also, I’m a lawyer. I didn’t work at Second Story Books. So my contacts with musicians here have been kind of random.”
Still, he’s not entirely without local connections. One Skoda album, Cry Baby Cry’s 2001 Jesus Loves Stacy, also bears the Dischord logo. And when O’Donnell steers an interviewer to Bella Roma, a bar in his Mount Pleasant neighborhood, he discovers that the artwork on display there is by Gregory Ferrand, whose illustrations grace Then I Woke Up.
Although the latter album includes a song by a Czech group, most of O’Donnell’s music seems rooted in ’80s Anglo-American post-punk and indie rock. Limbo includes a cover of Joy Division’s “Isolation,” and an original that drops the names of the Smiths’ Morrissey and the Cure’s Robert Smith. On Then I Woke Up, the singer follows “Every Grey Day Is the Same,” which sounds like the early Go-Betweens, with “As If It Really Mattered,” which invokes Paul Westerberg, the Minutemen, and others.
“There’s a lot of that,” O’Donnell assents. “I went to high school and college in the ’80s, and that’s probably when I bought most of my records. Of course, they were all five or six bucks then, so it was lot easier.”
O’Donnell says his first inspirations, however, were “mostly ’60s groups. The Kinks, the Stones, the Beach Boys. I don’t hear a lot of that in my music, but that’s my musical foundation. These days more folk stuff comes in. I started getting into Richard Thompson in the early ’90s. It’s an aspiration to be able to play like that. I’m listening to more gypsy music and French chanson.”
The Czech influence on his music has also been growing, O’Donnell notes. “There’s a fair amount of minor-key stuff that I’ve worked on recently, which is pretty characteristic of Slavic and gypsy music. You don’t usually hear that much in rock music, unless it’s surf music.
“But it’s hard for me to judge,” he adds. “For each song, I can tell you what I was aiming for, but whether anybody else would hear that, I have no idea.”
O’Donnell plans to record another album this summer. “Some of the stuff I’m working on now is more folky. Modal stuff, different open tunings. But what I would like to do is make a noisier record, more amplified, more electronicbut not like electronica. My guess is that it’s going to be both more folky and more electric, if that makes any sense.”
The album may appear on Skoda, and it’s possible that the label will also release new CDs by Uÿz Jsme Doma and Cry Baby Cry, both of which plan to complete new sets by this fall. Yet O’Donnell talks about his label in the past tense, and he says he’d like to get other, bigger companies to handle the albums.
Skoda is “pretty much dormant,” he notes. “I didn’t really have enough money to put into it right now. A lot of my enthusiasm has gone out of it. It’s always been more of a hobby than a business enterprise. One thing I learned for sure is that I’m not a salesman.”
Accordingly, O’Donnell hasn’t aggressively hawked his own albums, which he describes as “essentially pop music, but hopefully not so straightforward. It’s mostly catchy tunes. There’s nothing avant-garde about it.”
Catchy or not, some listeners might be bewildered by the lyrics to such anti-romance ditties as “The Best of All Impossible Girls,” a song that plays on German philosopher G.W. Leibniz’s contention that ours is “the best of all possible worlds.” O’Donnell says he’d like people to appreciate such great-books references. “But my experience is that most people never pay attention to lyrics.”
He’s similarly unconcerned about the small turnouts for his spring tour, which drew “let’s say in the tens. To exaggerate.” That was true even in his hometown, where 12 people attended the tour’s final gig at the Velvet Lounge on a Monday night. “My audience is essentially my friends,” he says. “I’ve got no reputation in D.C.or anywhere, for that matter. I suppose that’s a reflection of my lack of initiative. To really make a name anywhere, you just have to get out and play as much as possible. What I really need to do is get a band together and do that.”
O’Donnell plans to tour again in August, with that band if possible. Beyond that, he shrugs: His goal is simply to “keep it going to the extent I can. I have no expectations of commercial success. If it could pay for itself, that would be great.” Mark Jenkins