JamBase Questionnaire: Over The Rhine

Welcome back to JamBase's baker's dozen to the bright lights of the music world. Last time we heard from Tom Hamilton.

Patient, expertly built music has been the bread and butter of Over the Rhine for over 20 years. Placing the band - wife-husband team Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler with various collaborators – is a tough task – a bit rock, a bit folk, a bit jazzy – but all of it possessed of rich imagery and a depth of feeling rare in modern music. And their simmering new release, The Long Surrender (released February 8 on the band’s own Great Speckled Dog label), isn’t likely to make pigeonholing any easier.

The high quality baker’s dozen, expertly produced by Joe Henry, has an especially timeless quality, flashes of smoky barrooms, wanderers with thousand yard stares, Billie Holiday and early Joni creeping into things as Bergquist’s intoxicating voice and a perfectly attuned instrumental mix weave a carefully considered web. Nothing seems offered by chance on the fan-funded The Long Surrender, the whole thing seducing slowly and surely, gospel touches and nursery rhymes mingling with quiet bombast and shivering liquid licks. It’s another heaping portion of the sort of music that’s made Over the Rhine welcome tour partners with the likes of the Cowboy Junkies and Lucinda Williams (who guest duets on the new album). Aided by a good portion of Ray LaMontagne’s current band, The Pariah Dogs - Greg Leisz, Patrick Warren and Jay Bellerose - and other similarly gifted folks, the latest chapter in OTR’s story continues to elude easy description, everyone moving with a deftness and lightness of touch that’s just fantastic. This is simply really good music for people who see music as more than a lifestyle accessory. At every turn, The Long Surrender rewards one’s attention, a listening experience rather than just another album. (Dennis Cook)

Here's what Over the Rhine had to say to our inquiries.

Over the Rhine
Instrument(s) of choice (Karin): Voice, acoustic guitar, piano, percussion, a little electric guitar – in that order.

Instrument(s) of choice (Linford): Piano, Hammond Organ, Acoustic Guitar, Bass, Harmonium, Accordion, Voice

Nicknames (Karin): Sissy. K-dawg. The Girl. Bluemeryl. Wren. Dogmama

Nicknames (Linford): Linford: Liffert. Saint Jerome.

1. Great music rarely happens without…
Karin: Risk. (I know my partner is a wordy mother, so I thought I’d keep it simple. You are welcome.)

Linford: People listening to each other. That’s the thing about music: you have to listen. There are two kinds of musicians: the kind that hear primarily what they themselves are doing, and the kind that hear what everyone on stage is doing and respond to the whole picture. There are no great bands that do not have at least a few people that are highly capable of hearing deeply what everyone else is doing. They say the pianist Glenn Gould could walk into a restaurant and sit at a table and hear every conversation simultaneously like a Bach fugue, which involves intertwining melodies in different registers.

That’s why music is still one of the rare gifts in America that has the power to break down barriers and obliterate these self-imposed camps we separate each other into. I still remember attending an Al Green concert. It was one of the most diverse cross-sections of America I’ve ever seen: black, white, wealthy, working-class, religious (for his gospel music), and the just plain horny and inebriated (the people that dropped the needle on all those soulful love songs and made all those babies). The point being, nobody cared. We were an audience. We were listening. Music can put diverse people into a graceful place where it’s not all about who’s right or wrong or who agrees with who.

I remember as a child back during the Cold War…my piano teacher was convinced that if she could have gotten Khrushchev and Kennedy together (or Reagan and Gorbachev, or whoever) and if she could have reminded them that if they blew up the world, they would destroy Bach’s music forever, and Rachmaninoff’s, and Chopin’s, and if she could actually have played the music for both of them in a room together, certainly they would have agreed that we must disarm so that this could never happen, this music could never be destroyed forever.

She also told me a story about two older neighbor women in her homeland of Armenia who walked to town during WWII with the little money they had saved to buy winter coats. They saw that a visiting orchestra was going to be performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that evening and they looked at each other as they approached the ticket booth and said, “We can be cold for one winter.”

2. The first album I bought was…
Linford: After Karin’s witty retort above, I’m tempted to not answer this one. Oh well. Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Karin: The first album I bought was Patti Smith Group’s Easter. It was the co-write with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night,” that drew me in. Not to mention the provocative photograph of Patti on the album cover.

3. The last song or album to really flip my wig was…
Karin: Honestly, in January of 2011, so far, I have rediscovered Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Both records really blow my mind, and I’m really quite happy to live there for a while.

Linford: I just adore the last record that Allen Toussaint released called The Bright Mississippi. It was produced by Joe Henry and is mostly instrumental. Soulful, deep, funky, subtle – I love Allen’s playing and consider this record to be a masterpiece. This is the record that convinced me we had to work with Joe Henry sooner or later on one of Over the Rhine’s records.

4. When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be…
Karin: Never a doubt - a singer. When I was a child I loved the way singing felt physically in my body -- like an exorcism of pain. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I found the audacity to add “writer” to that calling.

Linford: I think I wanted to either be a poet, a priest, or a pianist. I decided by being a songwriter I could be all three at once. When I got serious about songwriting, it was the first time in my life that I had to try my hardest. I loved that feeling. All of a sudden there were no shortcuts. Songwriting involved everything I could muster, every part of me. Songwriting also requires you to confront the idea of grace: you work really hard, but then you also sometimes receive gifts that feel like they have nothing to do with you. You have to learn how to receive.

5. My favorite sort of gig is…
Karin: Sold out with serious music listeners and a couple dozen screamers and hollerers. Love that. Pretty much describes our audience…I am grateful.

Linford: I like the old, haunted theaters with red velvet seats, a huge Wurlitzer organ in the orchestra pit that rises up slowly on command (wow, I didn’t realize that would sound like that). The blue velvet ceilings with blinking stars in the Palace Theaters of Ohio are wonderful. A big wooden stage with ropes and levers and heavy curtains…A marquee, where men with ladders climb up and change the letters by hand to spell out the talent.

6. One thing I wish people knew about me is…
Karin: I’d like people to know that I have a story in me. Actually several stories…the one I’m trying to write with my own life, and the three that were never told properly and truthfully about my mother, Grandmother Stella and Great-Grandmother Edna. Maybe, someday, I will write those books, but I would have to work very hard to do them all justice.

Linford: I’m a nightwalker.

7. I love the sound of…
Karin: Hummingbird wings thrumming in my ear. It sends a jolt of electricity from my head to the soles of my feet. I have a tattoo of a female hummingbird on my shoulder with the words “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The hummingbirds that I court every summer are a returning family and I like to think it’s part of my legacy. They sit on the hooks and wait for me to refill their feeders in the morning. I have coffee and they have nectar and we are very happy together. I’m trying to write a song about it on a 1932 four-string tenor guitar. 1932 is the year my mother was born.

Linford: The piano. My wife’s voice. The ocean. And the silence of our farm – silence not as the absence of anything, but as the presence of everything, as someone once said. The owls in the trees at night.

8. One day I hope to make an album as fantastic as…
Karin: Oh God. That could be Rumours or Blue. Or After the Gold Rush or Swordfishtrombones. So much pressure. But I haven’t made that record yet. Referencing Jackson Pollock, I haven’t yet splattered my paint.

Linford: Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen can write a song that sounds good 30 years later. I want to write songs like that.

9. The best meal I ever had on tour was at…
Karin: Italy. Definitely Lucca, Italy. My better half will extrapolate…

Linford: We played a wedding in Italy once and went out into the country after the rehearsal to a little restaurant with a courtyard with strings of lights and candles and vine-covered Roman walls. We sat down at the table with about 30 people and realized that each plate setting had seven glasses. There were literally 200+ glasses on the table sparkling in the candlelight. The meal unfolded over the course of several hours, and each portion served had its own accompanying wine or liqueur, and somehow we never got too full. I don’t know how the Italians do that – the pacing – where you can sit and enjoy a meal with friends old or new for literally hours. The stars overhead in the sky like an upside down cobalt blue bowl of spilled milk…The Italians conquered the world and now they close the shops in the afternoons and take naps and then eat and drink all evening. And they certainly keep their best wines to themselves. You have to twist my arm to buy a bottle of Italian wine in North America, but if you’re in Italy and someone says, “Hey, I have a bottle here of something special from my hometown that I’d like to share,” you know you’re in for a good evening.

10. I always find the coolest audiences in…
Karin: Cincinnati. New York City. Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago, etc, etc. I’d be a FOOL to try and answer this. I’m spoiled and eternally grateful.

11. The worst habit I've picked up being on the road all the time is…
I have a particular brand of humor, some might say “inappropriate.” Any internal filter I may have been born with has been completely wiped out from being on the road.

12. Led Zeppelin or Radiohead, which flips your switch the most and why?
Karin: Beside the fact that our friend, Wade, saved our souls every night on a particular tour by playing Radiohead’s OK Computer in the back lounge of the bus...for me personally it was Led Zeppelin IV. I was sixteen when I discovered this record and typical of any teenager, I was mad at the world, had a broken home and a broken heart. I lived and loved in a very small Midwestern town. “Black Dog” was the shit, but somewhere between “Misty Mountain Hop” and “When the Levee Breaks” is where I found my teenage angst salvation.

13. The craziest thing I ever saw was…
Linford: I grew up around working farms in the hills of Ohio. One summer afternoon it was incredibly still - hot, lazy sunshine, the occasional buzz of a fly. All of a sudden something unseen spooked a chicken and it let out a squawk and went tearing across the barnyard, the dog woke up from his nap and panicked and tore off after the chicken, who swerved and headed for a board fence and got stuck trying to squeeze through, and a pig ran over and bit the chicken’s head off - all in the space of 25 seconds, an eruption out of a peaceful, pastoral scene. I learned at an early age that you don’t control as much as you might think. The end.

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[Published on: 2/14/11]

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