Mark Olson - We're refining something, whatever that is
There are five of them now, these albums credited to a California desert aggregate called the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers -- or, in the case of the two most recent releases, Mark Olson & the Creekdippers. Five records in six years is a remarkable output in the modern-day music industry, but then the Creekdippers' aim from the start was to work outside that industry, which is why their first three records were self-released. Things have changed somewhat with the last two; My Own Jo Ellen was picked up by HighTone, while the new disc, December's Child, was issued June 25 on Dualtone. Not that the music has changed in any particularly noticeable way. Certainly there's been no attempt to streamline or shoe-shine the wonderfully shambling odes of Olson, who followed a perpendicular tributary away from the old mainstream when he departed the Jayhawks in 1995. Interestingly, however, December's Child does bring to bear the first collaboration between Olson and his former Jayhawks songwriting partner Gary Louris. "Say You'll Be Mine" is a fairly simple song, just a couple of short verses set to a shuffling rhythm spiked by a twangy banjo riff -- but when their voices intertwine, it reminds immediately of the magic they made during their days as bandmates. Don't expect this welcome surprise to necessarily prompt expanded endeavors along the same lines, though. Not that either of them rule out the possibility of future collaborations; plus there's one item from their past, the Jayhawks' 1986 self-titled debut on Bunkhouse Records, that deserves to be rescued from oblivion someday. At the moment, however, Louris is making another album with the Jayhawks, and Olson is plenty busy making music with the Creekdippers and with his wife, Victoria Williams (who continues to put out her own records in addition to playing in her husband's band). When they're not on tour, they spend their days at home in Joshua Tree, California, which is where we caught up with Olson by phone on an afternoon in early May. I: DO IT REAL FAST, GET IT DONE, AND PUT IT OUT NO DEPRESSION: So you recorded this album in Mississippi, instead of at home? MARK OLSON: Yeah. Well, we toured for about sixteen months there, and every now and then, we'd have a little time off at home -- but that time, we had a week between gigs. We had a gig in Atlanta, and a week off between Iowa and there. So we just drove right down to Mississippi, we kind of figured it out on the way there, with the studio. It was pretty good, as far as just coming in off the road, because we'd been playing together so much. Just being able to go right in the studio and cut, it worked out really nice. ND: So was it just a spur of the moment decision? MO: Sort of, yeah; it was like a month in advance. We saw that spot [in the tour itinerary], and what were we gonna do, drive the gear back and just sit around? I checked into Memphis, because we had been through there and really liked it. But we ended up down in Mississippi, and that turned out really nice too. We'd go into town, there's only one place to eat in the middle of the day, and the rest of the time we were playing. We pretty much cut eight of the songs in one day. Then we did nine and ten, and then we redid one out here. And then Gary and I did that other one out here too. We redid "Alta's Song" out here with just Vic and Don Heffington and myself; it was kind of a power trio. And the woman who it's named after is from Joshua Tree, so that kinda worked out cool, that we did her song out here. ND: How different was the setup on the road, compared to the way you record at home? MO: I liked it a lot because we had all the gear we'd been playing; we just plugged in all the gear we'd been using on the road. We had an engineer, Jeffrey Reed, and we had another guy come down from Cincinnati, Tyler Brown. This is kind of the second time I've recorded without myself being the engineer, and I liked that, because I could just play the music. But I liked doing it on the run, just having a very short amount of time, and really pushing to get it done. ND: When you did the previous Creekdippers records at home, has it generally been that you did them a little bit at a time? MO: No, because I still had to get the people out here. There's Razz [Mike Russell, who lives in Minneapolis], or, we had a drummer on the last one, and Greg Leisz played on the last one -- it has to be right in that period of time. And once I get going on something, I like to see it through. I like to mix it and everything -- just boom, you know. That's kind of how I've done things out here, too. Once I start doing something, I do that, and see it through. And I kind of write songs in blocks, so I have all these songs that I've written over a period of time. But I've been doing it exactly the same, all the albums we've done out here. I like to do it real fast, get it done, and put it out. ND: The Creekdippers records seem to be part of a similar realm musically, as opposed to trying to do something real different each time: MO: Yeah. I think it's just been that we're developing our own sound, and when we play live, we play that way. There's not any great musical departures. [Laughs] Other than I think we're refining something, whatever it is. II. IT WAS A GOOD WAY TO SAY GOODBYE ND: This seems like a pretty personal record; not that the others weren't, but maybe more so this time: MO: Maybe the subject matters are more personal. But I've always kind of written that way. Some of it's real personal, but I just try to forget about it. If I dwell on it, I just dwelled on it during that couple hours where I wrote on the song. You know, I dwelled on it, I wrote it out, and the I just kind of went, "OK, that's done." I enjoy playing them live, though. You get into that feeling when you play them live. ND: The lyrics are printed in the booklet, over pictures in the background. Is this the first time you've included the lyrics on a Creekdippers CD? MO: Yeah, people in Europe really wanted that to happen. And then the people at Dualtone wanted that to happen. So, I thought I'd kind of make it like Hallmark cards. Because I didn't really ever sit around reading people's lyrics on records myself, as far as, like, just being on a blank page. For the most part, I pick them up listening to the music. But people said that they couldn't understand me [laughs]. So I made them like a Hallmark postcard. ND: You mentioned "Alta's Song" earlier. Can you tell me a little bit about the person it was written for? MO: Yeah -- I even mentioned her in that back-page thing I wrote about the people who come here to go find where Gram died up there [ND #22, Screen Door]. She was in that article, she's mentioned as the Queen of Joshua Tree. Because she had this incredible second-hand store, where everyone kind of gathered; it was a local meeting place. She died when we were on tour, and we came back, and we went to her funeral. And that song is just word-for-word, basically, what happened at the funeral that day. There was a mermaid that got brought up there; she had this huge mermaid, and people followed it up. It was a good way to say goodbye. I was writing the songs for the album right then, at the same time. And I got up the next morning and just wrote it out. ND: The second song on the record, "Still We Have A Friend In You", feels a lot like a gospel song. Is that sort of what you had in mind? MO: Well, I think, as far as the present touring band now, we have Dave Wolfenberger on drums, and he sings, he has a very beautiful voice. And Josh Grange, on electric guitar, sings great too. The record kind of opens up with those background vocals that we'd been doing live. We'd extend the songs, and get it going. And that one, after we recorded it, we started playing live a lot, and we get into that gospel ending kind of thing. And I've always had a philosophy of Christianity, that's important to me. And I've tried to put that in my music over the years. And musically, I like to listen to gospel music. So I guess that's where that's coming from. ND: When you were in the midst of writing that song, did it occur to you it was going to come out like that, or did you have that in mind initially? MO: I don't think that I set out writing a gospel song, but it kind of came out that way. I [Laughs] III. I HAVE A ROMANTIC VIEW OF MY PAST ND: The CD booklet has "December's Child" and "Nerstrand Woods" as the two songs in the center pages. Those songs seem like a center of gravity for the record, in terms of reflecting where you and Victoria each came from. MO: "December's Child" is pretty much, you know, a straight love song to Vic, in the sense that I bring up something that happened in her past. We went back to Louisiana and they had opened up all those casinos, and they had pretty much gotten the Red River and sold people on the idea that there was gonna be commerce there. And instead, they turned around to make it into casinos. And she was very upset about that. "Nerstrand Woods" is from -- I lived with my grandmother on my father's side right by there, near Faribault, Minnesota, for a little while. My whole father's side was from right by there, in Kenyon and Faribault [about an hour south of Minneapolis], and they had farms. And they still do. We stopped in there on our last tour. ND: So was Nerstrand Woods a place you went to a lot as a kid? MO: Yeah. Just like the song says, my grandmother would go there, and sometimes I'd go along with her. When it comes time to write a song, I usually reach back into those kinds of things. I think I have a romantic view of my past, a bit. But it's important, and I try to pass that on. ND: The second Jayhawks record was called Blue Earth, which is a small town in that same area. MO: Yeah. I've been always trying to get at this thing. And I'm not quite sure, but maybe I got at it better this time....You know, today, you've got people dropping bombs on themselves, you've got the threat of chemical and biological warfare. And you look back on people you know, and you go, the people I knew were not even thinking about things like this. It seems like we came from a place that wasn't involved with that. It's just crazy stuff that we, as working people of these countries, don't really want anything to do with, as far as I can tell, because who would? So I've always tried to romanticize a different set of values that isn't any different than the ones we knew already. ND: There is a certain romanticizing of childhood days; maybe it wasn't quite the way you remember it, but it's still important to remember. MO: Yeah, it's still important. And also, I picked that up from bluegrass, and early country music. They always had this sense of value in their music. And they could make it funny, they could make it sad, whatever -- but it has romantic views of things. The Carter Family, the way they talk about things -- it's uplifting, in a way, and it makes the things in your everyday life seem very important. And they are. IV: A SMALL CULT ITEM OF A SMALL CULT ARTIST ND: So how did you and Gary Louris decide to do a song for this record? MO: There was a movie, The Rookie, and they asked us to write a song, and we wrote two, and they declined to use them in the movie. But we had this full song done, and Josh [Grange] was out here, and Don [Heffington], and it was just the four of us. We did it in a couple hours, and we decided to put it on the record. I called up Gary and said, "Yeah, I wanna use this song on my record." "Great," he says, "all right." ND: Had you kept in touch with Gary much over the years? MO: Um, a couple e-mails here and there, and some phone calls when I was in Minnesota, things like that. But, basically, when I was in Minnesota, I just bopped in and saw Razz, and got caught up in Razz's stuff. So, it's probably my fault; I should've checked in more, but I was always hanging out with Razz. ND: You mentioned there were a couple songs you wrote together? MO: Yeah, the second one was put in the trash heap of history. What happened was, they wanted a tempo change, and, so, there was a 100 percent tempo change. And I think I focused a little too much on the tempo change. ND: Do you expect this to be just a one-off instance, or did you and Gary talk about doing anything else down the road? MO: We talked in terms of that a little bit. But I think in the near future, we're both kind of going down our own roads....That was the perfect way to do it, though, really. Just crank out some songs and record them, and whatever happens, it's a real positive thing. It's a good song, and we got it recorded right then and there, no fuss no muss. ND: I've often wondered whether the very first Jayhawks album will ever be reissued on CD. MO: As far as I know, that's something that Marc Perlman, Gary and I, I guess, someday will get together and talk about. I still feel like it's just some people finding the beginning of playing music, really. ND: Do you hear much about that from fans? MO: Not really. [Laughs] You know, it's kind of neat that there was only 2,000 of them put out, and that they're on vinyl. It's kind of a neat collector's thing. I ran into one in Italy recently. So it's kind of a fun thing. That's definitely a small cult item of a small cult artist. I don't have a big following. I don't think that that's really a hot item....But maybe after our runs on these next two records, we'll get together and maybe do something like that.