Interview: Over the Rhine to Celebrate Twenty Years of Music with Two Nights at Largo
Paste Magazine included Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist on its "100 Best Living Songwriters" list.
When couples celebrate a major anniversary, it's often said that they've been making beautiful music together for a long time. In the case of Over the Rhine, that description is literally as well as figuratively true. The core of the group, which was named after a neighborhood in Cincinnati, is comprised of songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler and his wife, songwriter/vocalist Karin Bergquist. This year marks the band's 20th anniversary. There's always something new to discover in Over the Rhine's music—it's like musical palimpsest, with each listen revealing a new layer. The band will perform at Largo at the Coronet this Saturday and Sunday. LAist caught up with Detweiler last week to talk about Over the Rhine's 20-year history, their new live album and how he comes up with his playful song titles.
LAist: The band has recorded everywhere from the studio to your living room. How does the space you record in influence the energy of the album?
Linford Detweiler: That's something we've played with a lot. I think Karin sings differently at home. Even if we're working in a great studio, a lot of times she'll take a run at the songs there, then re-cut the vocals at home if she's unhappy with how they turned out. I think it allows her to stand fully in her own shoes and she has more insight into what she's trying to do. Sometimes in the studio you sort of lose perspective on what's working and what's not working.
Over the Rhine - "Trouble"
You've talked about how the songwriting process often involves a leap of faith. How do you view the process?
Well, I'm not exactly sure what I was talking about when I said that, but I was probably referring to this idea that writers have to write to find out where an idea is taking them. The writer Anne Lamott has a great metaphor for that. She says writing is a lot like driving at night, where your headlights show only so much of the road, but you have to drive a little further to see what's next.
Other writers start with more of a complete outline in mind and know where they're going. It seems like most of the writers I'm interested in fall into the first category. Another example is Flannery O'Connor, who talked a lot about how she didn't know where the stories were taking her. There's an element of surprise built in.
Which song off of your last studio album, The Trumpet Child, required the biggest leap of faith for you?
One obvious instance of that would be the title track from the record, "The Trumpet Child." I'd had the idea about the sound of the trumpet from a lot of the old gospel songs I'd grown up with—the songs would talk about some sort of redemption going down to the sound of a trumpet being blown.
I was curious about this idea, this musical idea, and where it came from—do some people take that literally? Do they believe they're going to be surprised with someone blowing riffs in the sky, or is that a metaphor of some kind? I just started writing from there and suddenly references to Satchmo and Thelonious Monk showed up.
Over the Rhine - "Don't Wait for Tom"
"Don't Wait for Tom" is another captivating song from that album. What was the songwriting process like for that one? Did you start with the rhythm?
That song was literally a "morning after" song. We had seen Tom Waits perform in Louisville. Waits said somebody owed him some money in Kentucky, so he came through there on tour. (laughs) He's just a consummate performer and one of our personal favorites as far as American songwriters.
"Don't Wait for Tom" started with the lyrics. The morning after the concert, I scribbled those words down and they came kind of quickly: "He's got the hands of a blind piano player / He's got a feel for the dark like a soothsayer." I love how his hands are a little deformed when he's doing his thing on stage. He's actually a brilliant piano player but he works really hard to make sure that very few people know that, because he's rough in his approach.
You've seen some great concerts in the last few years. On your website you mention the fact that you just saw Leonard Cohen perform. Which is your favorite song of his?
I think it would be "Tower of Song." There are some great lines in there. He talks about getting a little older: "I ache in the places where I used to play" and "I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on." He also talks about songwriting being something that he works at every day.
Over the Rhine covering Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"
Speaking of songwriting, how do you deal with self-doubt when you're creating music?
It's this idea that whenever you're recording or writing or painting, you're shooting for something and oftentimes it's an exercise in falling short and learning to accept that. A chorus from another Cohen song comes to mind. In his song "Anthem," the refrain is "Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There's a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in." In being part of the creative journey, your own shortcomings become a part of it.
Over the Rhine has just released its fourth Live from Nowhere album and this live two-disc set covers the first 10 years of the band's history. Did you end up going in a new direction with any of the songs as a result of taking a new look at them?
For that concert we reunited with a couple of the co-founding members of the band whom we hadn't played with in over a decade. For most of it, we went back and tried to stay fairly true to the spirit of the record and the spirit of that original lineup. It wasn't so much about reinventing as giving fans of those early records a chance to re-experience the magic.
Have you been working on your next studio album?
Yeah we have. We've been writing a lot this year and it's been slow and steady. I wish I could just crank great stuff out, but it seems like it's taken a while for this next record and I'm OK with that.
The trumpet was such an influence for your last studio album. What's inspiring the next one?
I think we're just writing with no particular theme in mind, but I have noticed that one group of songs has really grown out of the last 4-5 years. Karin and I bought a ramshackle farm in Southern Ohio that we've been fixing up little by little. The house was built in the 1830s, and it was one of the first houses in that area. It looks like an old English brick house sitting in a field with tall ancient trees around it.
I think this particular song group centers around the idea of moving out of the city. At the beginning of our songwriting career, it was very much about moving to the city from these small towns we'd grown up in. That was sort of the first era. Then it became more about getting out of the city, back into a more open space. We learned the importance of having a balance in our touring life, and having a place to come home to where it's quiet.
"The Trumpet Child"
It's so great that you continue to produce albums on vinyl. When you're working on sequencing, do you keep the vinyl version in mind so you have an Act 1 and Act 2? Yes, very much so. There's a lot of talk these days about the death of the album, and people are getting a little bit more single-oriented with digital downloads. I guess we're blessed with listeners who really want a complete work from Over the Rhine. They're willing to spend quality time with the music and let each record unfold as part of a continuing story.
It's great that you're coming to Largo for two nights. What's your favorite thing about playing there?
You can kind of feel a listening room immediately when you walk in the door. It just feels different than venues that aren't really about the music. We're obviously drawn to spaces where people are very focused on what's going on musically, and I think you can feel that in spades at Largo.
Can you give us a preview of the show?
We're touring with a pretty special five-piece band—exceptional players. There are a lot of instruments on stage, such as pedal steel, dobro, mandolin, electric guitar, upright bass, organ, acoustic guitar and piano. We have a few instruments that get passed around and it's a pretty good revolving cast of players. We also have a great support act, Katie Herzig, who is touring with us.
We released our first Over the Rhine songbook this year, which has all the songs from The Trumpet Child in it. We're still pretty focused on that record and we'll play a handful of songs from that. We also have two Christmas records that are fairly atypical, so we'll draw a couple things from those.
You seem to come out with a Christmas album every 10 years. Are you really going to wait until 2016 for the next one?
You know, we might beat that this time around. For some reason, I don't know why, but we're Christmas song magnets. They just tend to show up.
You've also released some instrumental piano albums. When you're writing a song, how do you know if you want to use it for Over the Rhine or save it for a solo album?
That's a good question. I've released three instrumental records and my only agenda for them was that I wanted them to be unimpressive. (laughs) I wanted them to feel like someone was just sitting at an upright piano a couple rooms over, and just thinking out loud at the piano and trying little ideas. As far as the process, it was kind of easy because I decided it was something I wanted to do, so I took some time to focus on that.
The song names on your solo records are so playful. How did you come up with those?
Over the Rhine
On the first record, those were almost all phrases that I overheard at a friend's house one evening when we were over there for dinner. This photographer I know has three very interesting children—Henry, Polly and Sunny—and they all have very different personalities. So one night at dinner, Henry turned to Polly and said, "I'm going to deal with you someday." They just continued saying stuff like that, and the next thing was more interesting than the last. I had a little notebook with me, so I scribbled down most of the titles for that record in one evening. [Other sample titles: "OK as Long as You Don't Squeak or Bark or Make Other Animal Noises," "Weak in the Knees Across the Sky," and "I Said Something Yesterday That I Liked."]
That's brilliant! Do you have any plans to release another solo record anytime soon?
Thanks for asking. I'm kind of overdue. Pianist Keith Jarrett often sits down at a piano with no agenda and just starts playing and improvising. I've been doing that recently—just turning on a microphone and going for it. If I can come up with 10 or 12 improvisations I think are interesting, I might collect those onto a little record.
Since you'll be in town soon, what are some of your favorite places to visit in LA?
You know, I'm kind of a lightweight in terms of LA's best-kept secrets. We haven't recorded in LA yet, which we probably should someday, just to experience that. For some reason, I never have a car when I'm out there, so people are driving me around. If I spend an evening in Manhattan Beach or wherever, it's all kind of blurry with regard to how I got there and where it is in relation to something else.
So I've had a lot of fun but I don't have a good idea for how the city is put together. But what really surprises me is if we go to a friend's house tucked up in the hills somewhere, sometimes I can almost trick myself into believing that I'm in Italy. These little hideaway neighborhoods have the most beautiful gardens and it almost feels like Tuscany!
Thank you for speaking with LAist, Linford!
Over the Rhine will perform at Largo Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7 and 8. Tickets are available via the band's website or by calling Largoat (310) 855-0350. To learn (and hear) more of Over the Rhine, visit www.overtherhine.com