Meet The Olms: Pete Yorn And J.D. King's New Album Is The Perfect Summer Soundtrack
While the Olms may be a new band, Pete Yorn and J.D. King's vocal and songwriting styles mesh so well, it's as if they've been collaborating for decades. Each melody has the potential to stick in your head throughout the day, and the band's sound is a mix of their favorite influences—from Britpop to bluegrass—with a modern twist.
Their names may already ring a bell, as Yorn has received critical acclaim for each of his solo releases, starting with his 2001 debut, musicforthemorningafter, and in 2009, he collaborated with Scarlett Johansson on an album of duets. King, who grew up in Riverside County, released Here's J.D. King in 2008, and is also known for his photography, film work and affinity for motorcycles.
LAist: It's fitting that the first song you wrote together is called "Twice as Nice." The song refers to "walking down on Record Street at night." Is that a real place?
Pete Yorn: That name just came out from the ether, but we did later find a Record Street in Reno, Nevada. With that line, I pictured a couple friends sitting down and listening to records. I just liked how it sounded.
You produced the album in J.D.'s studio, which looks pretty incredible. Pete, what was your first impression when you saw that place?
Yorn: I don't totally remember the first time, but I'm sure I was blown away because it's such a vibey place. It feels like you've walked into some saloon from the Old West. It's all wood walls, taxidermy and little framed pictures of old country heroes. The room kind of takes you over, and it's constantly changing.
J.D. King: That place is pretty compact, so I'm constantly shifting into different modes. Right now it's in rehearsal mode, but when we were recording, it was full of mics from the '30s or '40s, plus instruments and tape machines all over the place. It's kind of a controlled chaos kind of thing.
"Wanna Feel It" - The Olms (download the song for free on the Olms' website)
Between the two of you, you played at least 25 instruments on the album. How did you know which instrument to use when since you had so many of them on hand?
King: Well, the music usually tells us what it wants. Pete's really good at calling out, "This would be good for that…"
What's one underappreciated or underutilized instrument you brought to this album?
Yorn: The bass clarinet. I'd never even seen one before and it looks like a saxophone.
King: In addition to that, I'd say the theremin and jaw harp.
Yorn: I loved the combination of those two on "A Bottle of Wine Etc." We'd laid down that track and it was pretty developed, but it didn't have that thing yet. So I went away for a couple weeks and J.D. said he meditated one night and got into a crazy zone, then sent the updated track to me.
What was your reaction?
Yorn: I was blown away. It had this weird spooky Western vibe to it, and the theremin almost sounded like a saw, which he'd also been messing around with.
King: I'd tried a singing saw, but it just didn't scream enough. So the eerie melancholy scream ended up being the theremin's job.
Speaking of that song, perhaps "A Bottle of Wine Etc." might give the Turtles' "Elenore" a run for its money for the best use of "etc." in a song title or lyrics…
King: (laughs) Oh gosh, I love that song. It's one of my favorites.
Did recording to tape dramatically change the way you approached the recording process?
King: Definitely. When you record straight to tape, you get this natural element—this depth—especially with a really good tape machine that's been well taken care of. It's like when you make a movie with film, where you get that deep grain along with deeper, richer colors. So I tracked everything to tape, put it on digital, and then mixed and cut it all.
Yorn: It's a great marriage of old and new technologies. And not only was J.D. recording to tape, but it was tape from the '60s. It was manufactured then and had never been used.
Why did you choose '60s-era tape?
King: It's much stronger, and sounded much better, than later tape. In the '80s, they stopped making this certain chemical in the tape because it was making people sick…
Yorn: The users or the makers?
King: The people who made it, so—understandably—later production was illegal. But you can definitely tell the difference in the sound. In my opinion, subtle things like that really make a difference.
Since you both share lead vocals and co-wrote the songs, how did this experience compare with prior collaborations?
Yorn: For me, this was really my first pure songwriting collaboration, because normally, even if I did a record with a partner, I still wrote all the songs myself. This was a real collision of our two heads. If I was tapped out one day, he could take over, and vice-versa.
How did you approach the songwriting process?
Yorn: I feel like both of us, without even communicating it, worked really hard at keeping ourselves open and not letting ourselves get too caught up in the process. The nice thing was, we weren't on anyone's clock. We weren't making it for anybody but ourselves at that point.
King: I think our main theme was to just be hyper-creative and give each song what it needed rather than trying to get it done in a day.
"On the Line" - The Olms
People have had a hard time fitting this album into one genre. Do you try to classify it?
King: I think it's a mixture of many things. For instance, "She Said No" could be a Medieval ballad mixed with an Appalachian song or something. And I used Renaissance-style chords in the intro, after which it switches into another mode, so yeah, it's hard to classify.
There's a great juxtaposition between upbeat music and darker lyrics in some of the songs. Is that something that comes naturally for you?
Yorn: I think it's what we're drawn to.
King: I've always loved the Surrealist movement of the '20s and Dadaism. When I originally had the chorus down for "Twice as Nice," I was singing "Marcel Duchamp, da da da da da…"
Yorn: …which is a good way to jump-start the creative process. J.D. isn't afraid to speak gibberish. A lot of times you think it won't amount to anything, but it's all about getting the ball rolling. When you show the muse—whatever it is, wherever it's coming from—that you have faith in it, it'll start to give you stuff. And when that happens, it's really exciting.
Speaking of muses and inspiration, how did you find your band name?
King: In the Medieval age, the olm was thought to be a baby dragon, and Pete really loves that stuff.
Yorn: I've called my nieces "baby dragons" for years, so when we found out about the meaning of that word, I knew that had to be the band name.
So I'm guessing you're into Game of Thrones?
Yorn: Oh yeah, I love it. I'm all caught up.
It's impressive that you've already produced a few music videos before the album's even been released. Did J.D.'s background in film come in handy for that?
Yorn: Definitely. J.D. loves filming on the Super 8, and I love filming on the 8mm app on my phone. J.D.'s like a scientist—always learning new things—and one day we were were sitting in his garden, and I said, "You should learn Final Cut Pro so we can edit videos." And he said, "Oh, I already know Final Cut Pro…"
He's always holding out. You find out he has these tricks up his sleeve. So we just started cutting videos together. The first one was "On the Line," based on home movies we had collected over the past year.
The videos also feature some pretty great ensembles. J.D., where do you buy your clothes?
King: A friend of mine, Romulus, who has a company called South Paradiso Leather, basically makes almost all of my clothes. Or I buy vintage. And a guy named Glen Palmer—who worked for Granny Takes a Trip back in the day—sometimes makes suits for me as well.
Pete, are you getting in on any of this action?
Yorn: Yeah. While he's a lot taller than me, we're not too dissimilar in size, so sometimes I'll borrow one of his jackets…
King: He fits my jackets better than I do. It's funny.
Pete, I'd like to step back in time a bit and talk about your early career. You performed at Largo [now Largo at the Coronet] in its early days. How did that happen and what was it like?
Yorn: I had a little demo CD I'd made around '95 or '96, and a friend of mine, Adam Cohen [Leonard Cohen's son] gave a copy to Flanagan [Largo owner Mark Flanagan], and he invited me to perform. I remember being intimidated, because you'd have someone like Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Jude or Elliott Smith on stage, and you could hear a pin drop in there.
When I first started playing, it felt like it was so hard to get anyone to pay attention. So what I learned at Largo early on was how to really build dynamic. The quieter you get, the more people will stop what they're doing and get pulled in, and you can make a big moment out of that. So it was just a good place for me to be creative and figure out what the hell I wanted to do.
I'd like to turn now to some of your other passions. J.D., given your affinity for analog, do you shoot with film when you take photos?
King: Oh yeah, definitely. Throughout high school, I thought photography was going to be my main profession…until I picked up music again. I even built my own darkroom.
Yorn: He used to shoot for a skateboard magazine, too.
King: Yeah, I shot some stuff for Strength and ads for Toy Machine.
And what's something else you enjoy doing in your free time—perhaps a place where you like to hang out in Los Angeles?
King: I like to go to the Pasadena City College record swaps. And Pete likes to play tennis. He actually just won a tennis tournament.
Yorn: It was a charity tournament benefiting the Bogart Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. I hadn't played in weeks because I'd hurt my neck, but I just went for it and we pulled it off.
How many people did you have to play?
Yorn: We had to play four different doubles teams. My tennis partner is a friend I've known since second grade, and it was the first time we'd ever played in a tournament. There were A, B, C and D brackets, and the A was almost pro level. We were in the B bracket and our nickname was the Street Hawks.
It was pretty incredible, because right before the final set, this giant hawk flew over—it was like he was in slow motion—not even 50 feet above the court. He was chasing another bird, but it was like our mascot had shown up. I thought it was a good omen, and we played really well after that!
Congrats! Since our time is coming to an end, would you share one thing you're looking forward to with this tour?
Yorn: I'm most excited to bring this music to people. This record is something we did out of love for making music, so it's a total dream come true. I'm also looking forward to meeting people after the shows. And it all keeps going back to the music—we just love singing these songs!
The Olms will play the Troubadour tonight, and their recent performance at Apogee Studios will be featured on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic this Wednesday. The Olms' EP is out now, and tomorrow, their full self-titled album will be released under the newly-relaunched Harvest Records label.