When I think of Brooklyn’s O’Death — the borough’s (mostly) unplugged, punk and shirtless answer to Tom Waits at his most backwoods and rowdy — I don’t think of downtime, but that’s exactly where the quintet’s story begins this month after a year-long hiatus and day off in Portland. “It’s been good,” says Gabe Darling (banjo and ukelele) over the phone from the Pacific Northwest. “It’s been awhile since we’ve been out on the road, but it’s been great to see places that we love and people we haven’t seen in a while.” He paused before adding the obvious. “And play music.”
Darling, along with singer/guitarist Greg Jamie, drummer David Rogers-Berry, bassist Jesse Newman, and violinist Robert Pycior will release Outside on April 19 on Brooklyn’s Ernest Jenning Record Company after a tumultuous year that not only took the band off the road, but forced an entirely new outlook for recording its follow up to the critically acclaimed Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin (Kemado, 2009).
“We’d never taken the time to record,” Darling says. “Most of the other times it was just between tours, where we had all these live songs [and say] let’s fucking track ‘em live and be done with it. We’d make a record within two weeks and be off on the road again.”
Two years ago, however, Rogers-Berry was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma (a malignant bone tumor) in the midst of a tour and the hard-earned road dog cycle came to an abrupt end. Ten months of chemotherapy and a shoulder replacement later, the group returned to the studio with producer/engineer Billy Pavone — who also recorded the self-released debut Head Home in 2006 — and a healthy drummer in tow. “He’s doing great,” Darling reports. “It’s just remarkable; he had some of the best doctors do his surgery and he’s doing really great.”
The group also returned with a batch of demos, as Jamie and Darling wrote dutifully over the year while Rogers-Berry composed his own rhythm parts (both in song and kit) separately — a process Darling says his bandmate loved. “We’ve never worked this way on a record before,” he says of the extended piecemeal process. “We would sort of write songs live, and play them, and temper them to the live show.”
Admitting that medical reports definitely weighed on the sessions, the new way of working, at least for the member in treatment was a welcomed challenge on the third LP. “He’s sort of used to dancing with the drums,” Darling laughs. “He was sort of limited to one arm to make his parts [and] it gave it an interesting thing.” Rogers-Berry notes as much in early press material for the record. “I think we were interested in making something more personal,” he says, “and trying to write songs that are melodically engaging and not just the crazed ravings of mad men.”
Hearing Outside having not experienced the communal force of a typical O’Death show and the changes could go unnoticed. The record simply feels more patient and pastoral where cries of Southern goth or Appalachian folk-meets-campfire-punk was the easy shorthand a few years ago. It’s still there of course — only one song clocks longer than four minutes — but for a band this physical the move to incorporate any subtly or basic breathing room speaks more to a maturing artistic process than the spinning of wheels spent off the road. There’s a real transparency that runs through Outside and it’s even more engaging to assume it couldn’t have been made at any other point in the band’s career.
“I think it has more of a ‘crafted-to-the-recording’ sort of sound,” Darling says, adding that the process has its own drawbacks in mostly time spent. Still, he suspects the next one could be completely different and is quick to note that whatever time was lost in the two month recording process was made up for in objectively nailing the motion of each song like never before. “Live, we still bring the energy,” he laughs. “That’s probably not going to change. You get playing and get going and can’t help yourself.” Most important, he says, is trying to keep things interesting for a band that solidified its reputation as an unhinged hoedown from the outer boroughs. “Who knows what we’ll do with the next one.”
It’s a proven fact, but the best Brooklyn bands are the ones that leave Brooklyn. “You kind of forget how grueling it can be,” he says, explaining the first leg of a US tour, with stops in Austin for SXSW last month, and dates recently announced throughout European in May. O’Death might have crafted a self-described spacious, cinematic studio record in Outside, but that’s exactly where they needed to start.