Oakley Hall : Interview
Weeds Popping Through The Cracks
ivy-covered campus, somewhere in the U.S., maybe Canada, there's an Oakley Hall.
I like to imagine it's a private, Quaker-owned college, a green oasis in some
drab East Coast city, with a strong heritage of social activism and a kick-ass
student station. Decrepit and imposing, with granite Ionic columns and musty,
narrow rooms, Oakley Hall is where that student station would be located, along
with a bunch of forgotten little departments like Ethnomusicology, Folklore, and
Okay, so Oakley Hall didn't name themselves after any old building, though the
origin of their name is no less interesting. They also have an awesome new CD,
Gypsum Strings, on Brah, and they're getting ready to go back out on tour
in September. While taking a breather back home in Brooklyn, singer-guitarists
Pat Sullivan and Rachel Cox took time out to answer a few questions.
You named yourself after Oakley Hall, the San Francisco historical fiction
writer known for his dark Westerns and Ambrose Bierce mysteries set in 1880s San
Francisco. What similarities can be drawn between your music and Hall's writing?
For those of us unfamiliar with Hall, which novel would you recommend?
PAT: Although we did name ourselves after him, it wasn't that we thought
that what we did was that similar really. I liked his gritty takes on the
traditional western templates - all the heroes are conflicted, all the women
whores, everyone corrupt - basically Deadwood and Cormac McCarthy a few decades
ahead of the curve. I guess we have a gritty, personalized take on trad music
ourselves - but I dunno, ultimately, we just really liked his name. We didn't
really over think it.
Warlock is definitely the place to start. It's killer.
Where are the various band members from, and how did you come together? I know
you've had a variety of folks in the band. How did you know when you'd found the
right combination of players?
PAT: I'm from New England. Rachel, North Carolina; Jesse is from Maryland; Fred,
Mississippi; Claudia, New York; and Greg is from Florida. We're all befriended
each other over the years from various musical circles interconnecting. I met
Rachel in North Carolina when I toured down there in another band. Jesse and
Claudia and I all played in a previous straight country outfit called Crazee &
Heaven. Jesse knew Fred, who had moved to NYC from Virginia. He was visiting
when his home burned to the ground with all his belongings. He decided to stay
and we're glad he did. Greg, we all knew from his being in the Broke Revue.
Plus, he runs Daddy's, the best bar in Brooklyn.
We're still an evolving thing. The players are definitely set in stone - all of
us know our roles and can pull them off, but we also will keep stepping in and
out of those roles so we keep evolving as a band. For instance, Fred used to
play banjo all the time, now he plays mostly lead electric guitar. It's what
sounds better. Everyone in Oakley Hall is together in terms of commitment, which
is always a major hurdle for upstart bands.
RACHEL: I just wanna clarify that Fred still plays the banjo - he strings his
electric guitar like one. 5 strings, one of them a drone string. He's basically
a ROARING banjo player whereas before he meowed.
The band gets lumped in with the new freak folk scene a lot, but I actually hear
more of a '70s California country influence. I also hear a whole lot of Neil
Young in Fred Wallace's guitar and a whole lot of John Doe-Exene Cervenka in Pat
and Rachel's harmonies. Is the freak folk label inaccurate? What do you consider
to be the band's primary influences?
PAT: Yeah, I guess it's as inaccurate or accurate as any label I guess. I don't
know any of those so-called freaks making folk and we're not really a part of
that scene, if there is one. We've played with Animal Collective, who are
fucking great, but not quite folk music - despite the Vashti Bunyan connection.
We love them though.
"Freak" as a word is like "psych" used to be. You're really just describing a
hipper take on sounds that have been around for years - a verbal spit shine.
But, I guess, I understand the need to give something a more exciting name, so
people know it's folk music but it's OK to like it. I don't know what name
really applies to us, any ideas? We just think of ourselves as electric string
and harmony rock.
We love all kinds of shit. And collectively as six people with different roots,
a lot of influences peak out. All the standard roots rock stuff like sixties LA
& SF like Moby Grape, CCR, the Byrds, Doug Sahm; the Band, Fairport etc are
certainly there. But we also love Roscoe Holcomb, Hawkwind, John Jacob Niles,
Bert Jansch, Hazel Dickens, Fleetwood Mac, Cajun music, dub and Mötley CrÃ¼e. The
band iPod is a many splendored thing.
In the song "Having Fun Again," you write that Sadie "expects me to be
governor." If you could be governor for one day, what would you do with your
PAT: Repeal the Rockefeller laws. Plant more trees in NYC. Oh, and definitely
end the Nets moving to Brooklyn with the new stadium nonsense.
I was kind of disappointed to find out you guys live in Brooklyn. Just by
listening to you, I had these visions of you guys living together in some Big
Pink-like compound, growing organic food and writing songs together. How do you
maintain that rural element while living in the city?
RACHEL: Not to sound critical, but that rosy communal vision you've described
above is just what you might expect when you hear buzzwords like "psych" or
"freak folk" (hippies, anyone?).... Which leads us to the key of why we don't
really fit into a box. The rural element comes from all of us sharing a love of
folk, old-time, bluegrass, etc… You don't actually have to be rural or Southern
to appreciate it and draw inspiration from it. Funny thing is, I actually grew
up in the boondocks of the Smokey Mountains in the middle of nowhere, but I
didn't really develop an appreciation for the old country tunes until I became
an adult. In fact I hated country music! When I was a kid, I listened to a lot
of pop, rock and soul. And we definitely don't all live together... we each have
our separate lives going on. Going on tour in the van for 7 weeks is about as
communal as it gets.
But back to the rural element in our music - It's firmly mixed in with urban
tastes, lifestyle, etc… It's my opinion that the two are irrevocably joined in
this day and age. You can't really experience one without needing to draw from
the other or having to deal with the other whether you want to or not. New York
has the "country" creeping in through the crevices... walk down any Brooklyn
sidewalk and you'll see weeds popping through the cracks. The decrepit state of
some NYC roads rivals those of any poor Southern town. In North Carolina, you
are required by law to treat your water source, even if you live in a remote
country location. So our sound is truly a melting pot of our musical influences
ranging far and wide, our own urban/rural histories, and the current environment
that we live in; all this gets filtered through our own creative vision. We
write and play about what's happening in our lives now, and the influences are
puzzled over later.
How long did you spend busking in New York's subway stations, and what's the
strangest thing that ever happened to you while doing so?
RACHEL: Pat and I hung out together playing music for about 5 or 6 months before
I joined the band, and once we had some songs worked up we visited the parks and
subway platforms several times. Pat was unemployed at the time from a work
injury and I was working at a low-paying job, so we were bored and broke (still
am!!). After doing it a while, we discovered that even though the noise level in
the subway was louder, you only had to play 2 or 3 songs cuz the turn around of
people was faster. The park playing was a little exhausting cuz people would
actually stop and listen for a while and we wanted to keep them interested and
entertained. We'd run through a full set of songs and then be pulling less
rehearsed ones out of our hats hoping they'd sound OK. I'm glad we finally moved
it down to the trains. People are more in a hurry and the faces constantly
change which keeps it fresh and you make more money!
Nothing terribly strange ever happened that I recall except once there was a man
that wanted to make sure we weren't dope fiends. I was wearing these long blue
dress gloves with the fingers cut out so I could play guitar and the man assumed
I was shooting up, but really they were just for fun. He finally gave us his tip
after we convinced him that we were just sweet harmony singers!
What is your current affiliation with Oneida?
PAT: Oneida and Oakley Hall are a mutual admiration society. We run in the
same circles here and have done shows together, fed off each other, etc. They
run the label that put out Gypsum Strings (Brah) so I guess they're the suits as
well. Though they haven't tried to wrest creative control from us... yet.
If you were to add another person to your line-up, what instruments would you
want that person to play?
PAT: No new members. Six is enough! We used to be 8, so we're definitely into
keeping it "simple". One of us is going to learn pedal steel though, one of
these days. And we're waiting for the majors to line up, so I can buy a frigging
harpsichord, once and for all.
Tell us about Maya Hayuk, the artist who created all the artwork for "Gypsum
Strings." Is that coffee stains in the background of her drawings?
PAT: Maya is an artist friend in our circle who has an enormously inventive
gift, a great hand - and a burgeoning national profile. Her work on previous
album covers (Jackie-O Motherfucker and somebody else) was actually honored two
years in a row in your pages for best album art! So you clearly have a thing for
her. So do we! She takes a lot of simple, rootsy ideas and makes them dizzingly
beautiful. check out the website:
http://www.mayahayuk.com for more. And yes, those are coffee stains on the
Rachel sings a very haunting song "House
Carpenter," with which I'm unfamiliar. What exactly is it, and what drew you to
PAT: It's an old British Isles ballad. The most famous version is probably
Clarence Ashley's off the Harry Smith anthology. Dylan did it too in the early
years. It's basically a great ghost story about this woman's former love who
returns to her as a phantom and she doesn't know it. She agrees to leave her
simple husband and children to go with this guy and then he takes her to hell!
Sweet! I've sung it ever since I've been playing guitar and have always loved
it - ghosts, hell, adultery - all the heavy shit. Works well with our dronier