We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
“My younger brother found it in a pawnshop in Indiana….I thought that if anyone would know, that Albini would know, but he’d never seen one before, either. It’s hard to tell. It looks really old because of the wood paneling, because it’s so simple technologically…but I don’t know how old it is. I don’t know how old drum machines are in the first place.”
Will Oldham is puzzling over the origins of the Maya Tone beatbox that makes its debut as a prominent player on Arise Therefore, the latest release from his band, Palace (also called Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and Palace Songs). Equipped with 16 rhythms and sounding like the electronic organ presets that brought the cha-cha and the bossa nova into the living rooms of pre-Casio America, the mechanical drummer has even stumped noted gearhead producer Steve Albini.
Although it does somewhat rein in the ramble of Oldham’s rangy strum, the mystery box proves a worthy addition to the Palace family. On the album-opening Stablemate, augmented by a ponderous bass line, the inexorable beat suggests the imminence of fate, as Oldham nakedly, unpoetically sings, “How could one ever think anything’s permanent?” On the title track, a jaunty dance pattern urges a buoyant rhythm from the guitar, the instruments providing an oddly appealing counterpoint to lyrics that seem to obliquely address the reluctance of the apocalypse to show up.
When Oldham played solo at the 9:30 Club on May 20, the Maya Tone was strangely absent. Oldham says that while he has “appreciated being able to experiment with the rhythms and time of the songs” since he had no metronomic pulse to follow, he actually neglected to bring the beatbox along because “it didn’t occur to me that I could use it for some songs and not for others….I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of approaching finding beats for all the old songs that would be performed.”
Not that Oldham is any stranger to using his live shows to transform his recorded output. At the Black Cat last fall, Palace appeared as a virtually unrehearsed four-piece; the band stumbled through the songs, scarcely able to navigate even the simplest chord changes. As with Kim Deal’s recruitment of her sister Kelley, a six-string novice, to be the Breeders’ lead guitarist, however, this was a case of ineptitude by design. (Listeners craving a recorded taste of such premeditated clumsiness should check out “No More Rides,” which Oldham released as a 7-inch after he wrote the song for Mekon Sally Timms’ Land of Milk and Honey.)
Even solo, Oldham cultivates accident. On “The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each,” his guitar seems to falter, as if he has lost his way—only this happens at precisely the spot where, on the record, a dissonant piano-note cluster descends and a disorienting wah-wah guitar solo kicks in. Oldham’s voice plows through the mess, as it becomes apparent that the collision has been choreographed.
Oldham’s singing is similarly perverse. Customarily, his vocals are filled with cracks, squeaks, and missed notes, but when he bears down on a line, belting it out, the notes ring loud and clear—and dead on. He admits the style was also a matter of choice: “It was a way to get something out of the songs.” And he’s right; Oldham’s squawky crooning manages to convey the stakes his fated characters face, while the power of his straight singing is intensified greatly by its having been withheld.
Noted for his role as a coal-mining teenage preacher in John Sayles’ 1987 film Matewan, Oldham has since abandoned an acting career but continues to be inspired by film. Once a fan of Robert Bresson, the French director whose austere religious works were informed by his Jansenist beliefs, Oldham admits that the title of “All Is Grace” from 1994’s Days in the Wake was indeed derived from the last line of the director’s Diary of a Country Priest.
“Four or five years ago,” Oldham diligently sought out Bresson’s rarely screened works, absorbing all of the director’s mature output except The Trial of Joan of Arc, though he claims his interest in the films has waned since. “I think now they’re sufficiently part of me…,” he explains, “but it’s hard to understand their importance anymore….You know how sometimes an old experience will level out at some point?”
Although his current passion is for Harvey Keitel pictures (in London, Oldham saw Ulysses’ Gaze, a Greek film that, having failed to find U.S. distribution, is known here chiefly via its lushly romantic soundtrack), it’s not hard to see that Bresson’s Jansenist emphasis on predestination and original sin jibes with the decidedly un-indie-pop religious slant of some of Oldham’s lyrics. (“Pushkin” starts with the repeated chant, “God is the answer,” while another song warns, “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Playthings.”)
When pressed on his own beliefs, though, Oldham retreats, insisting, “It’s not important, the relationship I have with the lyrics. It’s only important what relationship you have to the lyrics.”
In concert, though, he has changed some of his less secular lyrics apparently because of perceived misapprehension on the part of some of his listeners. In “Riding,” an incest ballad from There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, Palace’s first LP, “Don’t you know that that’s sinful, boy?” is rendered “Don’t you know that that’s not right, boy?,” a change Oldham made because he recently “started to realize that some people were connecting songs to church institution that had no connection to church institution because [they] had religious references….‘Sin’ to most people, I guess, means you did something against the church not…against yourself or another person.”
“I think to some listeners the concept of sin or the word ‘sin’ just has specifically religious significance,” he explains. So for Oldham it doesn’t? “Right.”
In much the same way that he wants to deinstitutionalize sin, Oldham insists that religiosity has nothing to do with the way a person was raised. “[Asking if someone had a religious upbringing] almost seems like asking the question, ‘Did you have a biological upbringing?,’” he argues. “‘Well, I mean, did your cells divide as you were growing up, and did you digest things, and did you respirate?’ And you’d be, like, ‘Well, yeah, I did,’ and it’d be, like, ‘Well, I guess you had a pretty biological upbringing.’”
When I point out that one is inherently less avoidable than the other, Oldham almost gets angry: “I don’t understand how it’s avoidable…a religious upbringing. I don’t understand how it’s avoidable.”
Oldham claims that his musical inspirations have been similarly misconstrued. In a recent Rolling Stone interview he confessed that he is baffled by critics who insist on positing a link between his music and Appalachian folk song, despite the fact that a banjo is as central to There Is No-One’s sound as the Maya Tone is to Arise Therefore’s, and that Oldham at times displays a suspiciously clawhammerlike back-of-the-nail strum on his Gibson SG. But what at first seems a coy demurrer seems less disingenuous in light of Oldham’s long-standing interest in traditional songs from the British Isles, such as the Child ballads. Oldham may not be listening to early American folk songs but rather to their sources.
Oldham says that “a couple of songs on [There Is No-One] and a lot of the language on this record was specifically influenced by songs from Scotland, England, and Ireland, which eventually became American songs, but there was no attention on our part being paid to the American songs.”
Oldham emphasizes that “the songs and records…are much more important than the people who made them, because they wrote so much crap. Most musicians make so much stuff that’s unlistenable because they lose perspective or only by chance made a good record in the first place.” Still, he singles out “Anachie Gordon,” a traditional ballad performed by Mary Black, and Paul Brady’s “Arthur McBride,” as well as the music of groundbreaking folk-rockers Five Hand Reel and the band’s singer, Dick Gaughan, whose solo records garnered great critical and popular acclaim.
He also notes that “the ‘Ohio River Boat Song,’ which was the first Palace single, is an adaptation of a traditional Scottish song called ‘The Loch Tay Boat Song.’” To compare Oldham’s version with that of Scotland’s Silly Wizard (apparently the only “Loch Tay” in print) is to understand that Oldham’s spirit is American at its core; his disconsolation is more worldly, more palpable, and less history-bound than Wizard’s dead-already Celtic melancholy.
Oldham takes pains, however, to distance his melismatic vocals from Appalachian tradition. “That kind of singing is done in virtually every country in the world….It has nothing to do with Appalachian music as opposed to Egyptian music, Burundian music, Scottish music, Japanese music, Chinese music,” he explains. “People all over the world sing that way, and for some reason it’s made it less into popular music than the way people sing now in America.”
Perhaps most striking about my conversation with Oldham is that it is happening at all. When I point out that his last album received virtually no promotion, because Oldham refused to send out review copies, and that he has a reputation as an uncooperative interview subject, Oldham explains that, unlike Viva Last Blues, which was a Palace Records/Drag City joint release, Arise is Drag City all the way. The Chicago label has hired Gene Booth, who played guitar on Palace’s last tour, to organize publicity, and Oldham has told label boss Dan Koretzky “that they could have [the record]….They could do it the way they want to do it…just to see what happens and to compare the two experiences.”
So this tour is basically something he’s just trying out? “It’s an experiment,” he confirms, gesturing to the discs spread out on the table between us, “they’re all experiments.”CP