TWJ Interviews: Olentangy John
Olentangy John’s John Atzberger and I spent some of our early childhood years together, running around in the church rectory while our dads practiced and performed music together. Music and art were always a part of Atzberger’s life and, although he admits he didn’t expect it to become his profession, he turned out incredibly talented. Atzberger makes unique, inspiring music — music I would listen to even if I hadn’t grown up with its maker.
Atzberger has been on our radar since 2007 when he was part of a two-man group Indianola. His first full length album as Olentangy John, 2009’s LP O! Be Joyful, earned plenty of recognition, including this post by TWJ’s Sean. Atzberger continues to impress with this year’s Doggerel, his second full-length album released by Trailer Fire Records on June 19. The album has a distinctly bluegrass feel, but Atzberger makes it his own with lyrics and tunes that transport the listener to a night lit only by campfire, surrounded by friends, and listening to old folk tales. Lyrics like “I am haunting these highways/with the ghost of dead dogs,” from the albums “Dogs,” hint at the mournful tone that can be heard throughout the album. Atzberger’s voice, instrumentation, and stories will stay with you long after you’ve stopped listening. I was lucky enough to reconnect by way of Q&A recently, and it only renewed my lifelong respect for this old soul.
Can you describe the process of making this album. How was it different than the making of your previous album, O! Be Joyful?
This whole process was about finding a way to serve the songs. For O! Be Joyful I was borrowing time and a studio from a friend and didn’t even know what songs would be on the final thing. This record started with a 4-track cassette recorder and a Nashville tuned little Framus guitar. The songs that were coming were weird little structure games and the four track nailed them down so I could catch up to them. From there I had a friend build me a mic preamp with my strange sound in mind. The rest I did over days and days of playing with tunings and structures in my living room. From the start I knew it was going to be a sort of idiosyncratic record, which was really liberating.
Can you explain the album title, album art and connection (if any) to track #5, “Dogs”?
Nice! I’m glad you caught that. Dogs was originally going to be the album title as well. That song is a weird sort of sleep deprived vision I had in west Texas coming back from Sxsw in 2011. It’s a long explanation that I won’t get into now, but it was the first of the four track songs I recorded. So I wanted it to sort of represent the world of the whole piece. I changed the title to Doggerel because the record is sort of a patchwork of fidelities and the stories are all centered around these strange characters and places that people might consider “less than” or something. So Doggerel is about owning up to the limitations of the record and saying, yeah, it wasn’t recorded at a nice studio, it doesn’t sound like a radio record, so what? I hope the title helps people step past that and start to find out what it is.
How did growing up in Ohio influence your music?
I love Ohio. A lot. I miss it a lot too. I’m not sure why I left and I still consider it home after 6 years. I was lucky enough to have a guitar and a banjo around the house as a kid that were my Dad’s. My idea of American music starts with experiences in Ohio. The first time I heard clawhammer banjo was in Athens and it changed everything I thought about music. It sounds silly, but good clawhammer banjo is like watching a magic trick.
What instrument(s) do you play? What do we hear you playing on this album?
I played guitar, viola, fiddle, banjo, dobro, and lap steel on this record. My friend Patrick Bourland did some truly amazing electric guitar on Angry Little Town Pt I and my buddy Brian Hobart played drums on Pt. II
Were you influenced by old records/tapes growing up? Who are your favorite musicians now and how do they compare?
My brother and sister were very opinionated when it came to music so I was always really afraid to like anything that didn’t come from them for fear of getting made fun of. So I actually didn’t listen to a whole lot of music as a kid. I loved Leo Kottke, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Bach and Leadbelly (who I only knew about because of Nirvana). I was a weirdo. I learned my first Bob Dylan songs without actually having heard them. I was half reading, half making up the guitar parts from a book my mom brought home from the library. I’ve always been defensive about my music tastes because of my older siblings so when I like something it’s a slow slow process, but my tastes don’t tend to change very quickly.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Timber Timbre, Horse Feathers and a lot of Neko Case. I also spend a lot of time listening to Old Time and Bluegrass and 50’s and 60’s Nashville Country. Mostly I listen to my friends’ music though. I’m really lucky to have a great group of people to get to hang around and talk about songs with. It’s a long list of really great people that I’ll save for the end!
Your sister is a successful artist and your father has always been involved in music—what influence did these things have on you? Growing up in your household, did you always know you wanted to make music, or did it evolve over time? Are other members of your family musicians?
I had no idea that I would play music. I would fool around on my Dad’s guitar and start fake bands with friends but it wasn’t until i started playing banjo that I got really interested in seeing where I could take it. I think being around my Dad who still sings all the time took some of the fear about performing out of it. It seemed normal so I think making that jump was easier. My sister doesn’t mess around when it comes to making art (music, writing whatever) she’s been a big supporter and challenger too. My brother too. And my mom. And my Dad. I guess I never thought about it!
You’ve played music in Athens, New York and LA, right? I’m curious, what stands out about each of those places, as far as the music scene goes?
There are good people everywhere, you just have to spend time tracking them down. It seems like they congregate in little corners. The Echo Country Outpost is an amazing place here in LA where good people seem to congregate. It’s been a huge help to me in many many ways.
There’s a real folklorish element, and your lyrics are remarkably complex. We all wonder where that storytelling ability comes from.
I truly don’t know. I read a lot. My mom’s a librarian so books and stories are really important. Words were always really interesting at a syntax level, and I just love telling stories. I tend to write from images in my head and just try and distill the words down to ones that move me most. I tend to be a bit cryptic in my writing but I like to make a puzzle that can keep being interesting every time you hear it. There are very specific stories involved with each song and if you listen close enough you’ll probably catch them. But it’s more important to me that I know the stories and let the listener hear their own.
Doggerel is your second full-length album under the Trailer Fire Records label. Can you talk about your relationship with the label?
Trailer Fire is mostly James Cartwright and little of me. We started it three years ago as a way to collect and help out musicians that we really liked and that we felt that we could do something for. We just wanted to be a place where music that we really care bout could go. It’s been a really awesome process getting to know the bands and watching the label grow and gain steam.
You seem to have a really strong support system of friends and fellow musicians. Who, in particular, supports you? Who inspires you?
I’m lucky to have so many great musicians as friends so I’ll just list a few:
The Echo Country Outpost, Matt Taylor and His Laurels, Amanda Jo Williams, Triple Chicken Foot, Edward Gorch, Patrick Bourland, Drew Nix, Prairie Empire, Harlowe and the Great North Woods, Ghiant, Hi Ho Silver Oh, Leslie Stevens, Rt n the 44$, Tommy Santee Klaws and so so many more.