[This interview was originally published July 30, 2003, at the original Looking Closer website.]
On August 19th, 2003, Over the Rhine will celebrate the release of their tenth album by making it a double.
Ohio boasts two full-length discs of new material. And that most astonishing thing is that, after they have played for ten years to stellar reviews, chances are 9 out of 10 that you’re reading this and saying to yourself “Who are Over the Rhine?”
Somehow those who discover the band always come to the same conclusion: “These guys are going to be big.” But they have not yet become “big” in the sense of Rolling Stone covers or MTV or Super Bowl halftime shows.
The fans, when they stop and think about it, are probably grateful. There is something intimate and immediate about the band’s live shows that would be difficult to duplicate in a large arena. But they show no signs of slowing down, and that breakout may yet happen, especially with the catchy new single “Show Me” reaching the radio and euphoric numbers like “B.P.D.”, “Changes Come”, “Long Lost Brother”, and “Bothered” burning at the four ends of that new double-album.
Perhaps the poetic, discomfortingly honest nature of their lyrics have set them apart as a bit too literary for the fast-food consuming crowd that browses the aisles of Tower Records looking for music instead of listening for it.
But those who care about art, beauty, subtlety in musicianship, the history of American music, and good writing tend to find their way eventually to this band from Cincinnati.
‘Over the Rhine’ has been the moniker over several combinations of performers, but two names have stayed the same—Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. They’re two unique singer/songwriters born in the Ohio Valley that first had a love for music, then found a love of collaboration, and eventually fell into the kind of love about which most great songs have been written. Currently gearing up for a major tour, Detweiler and Bergquist are joined by bassist Rick Plant, who recently toured with Buddy Miller; drummer Will Sayles; and multi-instrumentalist Paul Moak for what promises to be one of the most thrilling live shows ever to take place under the banner Over the Rhine.
I caught up with Linford a couple of weeks after witnessing their tour kickoff concert at the Cornerstone festival in Illinois. We chatted a bit about the festival and its remarkable history, and then got down to business discussing the new project.
You’ve certainly been busy writing songs! What did this double-album idea come from?
I think as far as the turning point, we had been thinking in the studio about which ten or twelve songs are we going to pick to embody this experience of recording and everything that was happening around us, and which ten songs were we going to save for a year and a half later. And that’s what was killing us. I didn’t feel like we could pull 10 songs out.
So I sat down and talked with the band and it just popped into my head—double album. I said it to Karin and Paul. Of course immediately it had the sense of a joke, but a few minutes later we said “Wait a minute!” It just made a weird sort of sense. I called two journalists that I trust just to see how it hit them, one in England and another one here in the States. Both of them were very skeptical at the outset. I mean, “double album”, it just sounds self-indulgent and silly. Both of them had the same reaction that we had. About five minutes later they were too curious to dismiss the idea outright.
We were only really willing to do it if our label would agree to sell it for the price of a single CD. The compromise was that they needed to tack on an extra buck to cover the packaging. Everybody came on board.
It’s our 10th project. It just felt like it might be fun to do something a little different. We’re going to do a special edition on vinyl, in a gate-fold jacket. We’re really excited because we’ve never done a release on vinyl before.
We started thinking about it and thought, well, we can’t really imagine the history of rock and roll without The White Album … London Calling … Exile on Main Street … Songs in the Key of Life. Believe me, there aren’t very many good ones. It’s funny, people are very passionate about double albums. Everyone has a few that they can’t imagine their record collection existing without.
I’m curious to know if we made a big mistake.
We have both albums on all the time! But I do think the listener might need to take a deep breath between the two parts…
And I love that you can do that! It’s two fairly digestible records. You can listen to one and then put it away and take a break. I like that more than trying to put fourteen songs onto one cd and having a really long record. It made sense.
For a double album to work, there has to be a lot of variety. There has to be something in each song that is quintessential to the band. It could be just one line in the lyrics. That’s what we went for. It was an intuitive process.
For the record, Disc One is my personal favorite.
[laughs] I’ll be very interested in the responses of people who have followed the band’s music regarding which disc they like better. We’ve had a strong number of raised hands in our circle of friends where people seem to love Disc Two. Something started to happen on that CD.
As far as the sequence of what went on the first and what went on the second—I didn’t really think about it that much. We had just finished mixing and I went back to the hotel room and I had to come up with a sequence so the label could hear the record, and that was my first attempt… and we just went with it.
On Disc One, I was thinking of Side A and Side B, like turning the record over after “Ohio”. It felt to me like Disc One is the essence of what we did, and Disc Two is more like… “All this stuff happened too.” But there were too many songs we couldn’t do without.
You carried a lot with you into this period of songwriting. It’s been a heavy couple of years for you and Karin, with all the unexpected events that took place with Karin’s mother.
It was a tragic thing that happened out of the blue. Karin’s mother [Barbara] is 69 and she suddenly suffered a devastating stroke that left her in a wheelchair only partially able to communicate. Karin has had to go through this whole grieving process for the loss of a parent. And she lost her father unexpectedly back in ‘94. Of the people in our circle of friends, Karin is the first to have to deal with a lot of these issues. Most of us have not had to navigate that terrain yet.
The good news is that Barbara is well cared-for. She does have some ability to communicate. She is comfortable and is trying to make the best of it.
Karin has weathered it well, all in all. We’re going to break up the tour so she’s not away for more than three weeks at a time. We’ll go home and check in and make sure everything’s okay. She visits her mom a couple of times a week. It used to be several times a year, so that’s good in one way; it’s too bad it has to be in a nursing home. But yeah, she’s doing all right. Thank you for asking.
Karin has really enjoyed getting to know the workers and the residents where her mom lives. Someone described the place as a head-on collision between comedy and tragedy. It’s been heartbreaking and hilarious, inspiring and sobering, you know? It runs the whole gamut in there.
You frequently mention the value of eavesdropping to a writer. There must be a lot of inspiration in experiences you have there, interacting with the residents.
When you’re just sort of getting your feet wet there, yeah, there’s a lot to take in. Karin’s been in there more than I have.
One of my first memorable experiences there: a lady wheeled herself up to me and said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you. I don’t mean to be a burden. I was wondering if you could help me. We gotta get outta here!” [laughs]
With Alzheimer’s patients there’s just this sense of being lost and wanting to find your way back home. One would say, “How do we get back to shore?” Karin has talked about going up to this woman named Geneva [who responded to her by exclaiming “Only God can save us now!”]
It goes back to that metaphor of having ‘ears to hear and eyes to see’… there are these little clues, these little snippets of the eternal that are constantly coming into focus for a few moments and then disappearing. I often wonder how much we miss.
Just from a writing standpoint, there are little bits of interesting language constantly coming at us and we want to take some time to snag things.
Yesterday I was filling up the car with gas, and I saw something on the pump, a little notice that said: The gasoline island is under constant surveillance.
The gasoline island! It was so great.
There are so many cultural and societal movements that would gladly turn us into passive bystanders. I think part of the artist’s calling is to try to rip that veil open and help people keep their eyes open.
OHIO … and the Guy who Kept Showing Up
Well, the theme of Being Lost and Trying to Find Our Way Home is clearly winding through the lyrics of the new album!
The album is such a journey… like a tour of Dante’s Inferno, with stories about mourning, loss, marriages in trouble, the bruises of abuse. And yet there is so much beauty throughout the album.
I’m curious. You mentioned a couple of other titles that were in the running—Only God Can Save Us Now and then Elvis is King and Jesus is Lord. But you settled on Ohio. Do you feel these songs are all connected in some way to the Midwestern experience?
We had a number of working titles. We went with Ohio because, over the course of recording this series of songs—I guess a lot of people take a long time to get to this place I’m about to describe—we realized that this music is what we do. And it’s probably not going to go away any time soon. As far as writing and recording songs… I’m guessing we’re going to be doing that for the next twenty years. It felt like we were coming home to that place… that music has a lot to do with why we are here.
We’re finally allowed to just own that without being edgy about it, without being haunted by this feeling that any day now we’re going to move on and get on with our “real lives”, or something more important, or any number of those fears and doubts that sometimes provide a backdrop for the artist. It just felt like coming home.
The very first song we recorded for the collection was Karin’s song “Ohio.” She plays more piano on this record. It seemed to be a central song to the project.
In the last couple of years we’ve thought a lot about moving away, and realized that in some strange way this is home and probably always will be. We’ve got great friends here and… I don’t know. It was a simple title and it seemed to feel right.
And yet, there is this sense of transition throughout the record, a sense of loss and painful change in the world beyond the borders of Ohio. You mentioned that the day you wrote “Changes Come” was the day you turned on the news and saw tanks rolling through Baghdad and Bethlehem.
Karin wrote the music for that song, and she wrote the chorus hook—“Changes come, turn my world around.” We sat down together and wrote those verses pretty quickly. And then we recorded it in one take: She played guitar and sang and I played piano, and then I went back and recorded the Hammond organ and she started developing the little ‘Karin choir’ in the background.
It was a really cathartic moment for us. There’s this sense of sadness and disappointment that pervaded the recording sessions. On the one hand it was a really joyful time for us, but watching what went down in Iraq and what was going on in the Middle East we had this overwhelming feeling like ‘We’ve got to be further along by now!” There was sort of this sense of helplessness and yet we wanted to stay focused on our work, which was in some ways the most redemptive response we had to what was going on. It gave substance to our beliefs that we live in a world where ideas are more powerful than ‘smart bombs.’
We’ve been thinking a lot about children and, like every prospective parent, the world we’re bringing a child into. Sometimes the only sane response is “Thy Kingdom come”, whatever that means in terms of what we can get our hands on, whatever we can do to push the world in a direction where something like Christ’s Kingdom makes sense.
Jesus kept turning up on this record. That can be a little bit problematic when you’re trying to do your work. We were recording songs, making a double album, and Jesus kept turning up. But we were up for it.
I guess our prayer would be that if we are haunted by Christ, which of course we are, that it is the Christ that declared obsolete forever the “kill or be killed” approach to resolving differences, the Christ who turned over the tables of those who were trying to make a buck off of salvation. The Christ that turned water into exceptionally noteworthy wine. That’s the Christ that I want to be haunted by, that I would welcome… I would welcome that Christ’s influence on any song.
That’s a kingdom that I still deeply believe in, in terms of where I am with Christianity, in terms of growing up in the Church. In some ways it’s hard for me to get really interested in this idea of getting right with God so we can be whisked away to heaven, and experience eternal bliss. But when I start thinking in terms of there being a kingdom that could come to earth to resolve all of this madness, that’s what I start getting excited about, that’s what I start remembering. I start remembering that, yeah, people could die for this. There is something potentially revolutionary going on that can heal deep-seated violence and roots of bitterness that seem to poison our best efforts.
It did startle me … how openly you addressed faith throughout the album. I was chewing on that as I listened, trying to figure out why it came across so differently than it does on so much of what is called ‘Christian music’. I think it is because you grounded it so much in personal poetry and in place.
Grounding the lyrics so much in a specific place, in the heart of our country, with these specific stories… it seems so much more honest, so much like a part of something larger, instead of sounding like you have an agenda. People won’t feel like they’re being shouted at. It will give them more of that feeling that maybe they are eavesdropping… on someone’s private thoughts.
You are totally onto something. The fact of the matter is that America’s music has something to do with gospel music and blues and jazz and rock and roll. Part of the process of coming home for me is a continuing sense of where I come from and who I am. More and more I find myself willing to be open about that.
You can’t divorce what I do musically from the music that I grew up with… the hymns that I grew up with… some of the gospel music my dad discovered. He loved playing Mahalia Jackson—don’t ask me how or why he found her records, but he did and he loved it. It was part of the musical fabric of my childhood. On the one hand all of these hymns are seeping into it constantly, and yet I’m in the back of a Buick wildcat convertible with my brothers and friends as a 7-year-old listening to Credence Clearwater Revival. Trying to get these worlds to co-exist as a child is quite an adventure.
Anyway, I know at times we went far out of our way to downplay our deep deep roots in this place called Ohio. But I was born here and Karin and I were both raised here. A lot of our formative years were spent in Ohio. Karin was born in California but moved to Ohio when she was about 7 and grew up in Ohio. We met at a small college in Ohio. There’s a liberal arts and literary thing in Ohio that is part of the mix—like Oberlin and Kenyon. I think the Kenyon Review was the first literary magazine to publish Flannery O’Connor. So there’s a strange mix of the church, the Midwest, literature… To me it feels like this music is connected pretty deeply to where I come from and the ground we’ve covered.
“Making the Record We Wanted to Make”
This is your second album for Virgin/Backporch… third if you count the re-release of Good Dog Bad Dog. After the dismantling of the I.R.S. label where you were previously, how is this going?
They didn’t hear a note of any song or any demo [for Ohio.] They didn’t come by the studio when we were recording. We had complete carte blanche as far as making the record we wanted to make. They get big big points for that… lots of extra credit. They worked very hard on Films for Radio, and have typically done right by us. I don’t have any complaints about the label. I feel like they’re doing a good job. And today they start advertising the first single—“Show Me.”
On the subject of specific songs: What does the title of the first song—“B.P.D.”—stand for?
It stands for Borderline Personality Disorder.
That song is sort of a mental note that Karin wrote, but really it’s a note for both of us. We have a habit of trying to rescue people in ways that are probably counterproductive. It’s been a process of learning that not everybody who cries “Save me!” is interested in changing their life in any significant way. We’ve had to learn that through a couple of difficult experiences, but good and necessary experiences.
Our songs are in some ways moving away from the confessional thing and into more of a narrative approach. Music for us involved a lot of internal work on our records. Now some of that work is done and we’re looking around and coming to grips with the fact that all is not right with the world and we need to engage.
What prompted the re-recording of “Bothered” [which was previously on the album Eve.]
The drummer gets the credit for that. We’d never recorded a band version of the song. We played it last December, and Will came up with that groove, and he really wanted to record it. So we just kinda did on a whim, thinking we would use it for a b-side or something. When the whole double-album thing became possibility, we decided to include it. People respond to that song and still want to hear it live. It’s like it still has work to do.
Have you been listening to anything lately that’s really captured you?
We really enjoyed that Daniel Lanois record [Shine]. We had to promise ourselves we wouldn’t buy records while we were in the studio, so as soon as we were finished we ran out and bought the new Daniel Lanois and the new Lucinda Williams. We’re going to go see David Gray and a new band called Turin Brakes. Karin really likes Turin Brakes. They’re a British duo. Their first record kinda snuck up on her, and she’s a big fan now.
We like that new Radiohead record [Hail to the Thief], but I’m really hungry for them to write the great songs that I know they can write. I know they’ve been really self-conscious about not trying to make another OK Computer. But unfortunately they let the cat outta the bag—we know they can write those amazing five minute worlds and they’ve been running from song structure ever since.
You’re still experimenting with different styles too. This also feels like the most country-flavored project you’ve produced.
Which, again, is part of owning up to our roots. There was this radio show, Jamboree U.S.A., which was the oldest radio show playing in the U.S., and all of these people would come through every Saturday night.—Johnny Cash, Willie, Emmylou. My parents would flick that on in the background sometimes.
A Calling to Write Songs
Growing up in the church, around artists, you hear the word “calling” a lot. So many singer/songwriters will refer to their art as their “calling.” But when I look at the Scriptures, it seems that a calling was something that people ran away from, terrified by it. It was a discomforting thing.
Some use the term in a way that seems to mean merely a desire to play for God or paint for God. But when that happens, the term can also be used as an excuse for what is sometimes really lousy art. We hear people denying constructive criticism because “God called me to write this” or “How can you question what I’m doing? It’s my calling.”
Do you make a distinction between a calling and merely a desire to use what God has given you? And would you say you have felt a distinct calling?
One of Kathleen Norris’s books—Amazing Grace—has a chapter called “Chosen.” [He happens to have the book with him, and thumbs quickly through it.] On page 139 in Amazing Grace she addresses that whole concept of responding with ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ and the fact that a calling is a dangerous thing. I think what she has to say about it is pretty powerful.
Mike Roe of the 77s and Lost Dogs talks about a time when the clouds parted and he encountered God calling him to go into ministry, and he ran the other way for a long time.
I am close to being able to say that songwriting is my calling. I may not use those words, but I think I secretly do believe that at this point. It’s been a long 20-year journey for me to start getting to a place where I can be comfortable saying that. I think I probably have tried to run the other way a few times. Believe it or not, I was very open to doing something that was less crazy than trying to make a living as a songwriter and all of the traveling involved in something like that. But… “Just when I thought I was out they keep pulling me back in!” … to quote The Godfather via The Sopranos.
I often wonder how much of what I do has to do with my own desire. I think there might have been an important saying in the Gospel of Thomas that got lost along the way… that said something to the effect of “Don’t do something that you hate and never tell a lie.” I think there are a lot of people who, in the name of something-or-other, have chosen a life that they don’t really enjoy. I’m not saying it’s going to be bliss all the time to pursue your calling. It’ll be a heartbreaking journey to pursue your heart’s desires.
There’s a school of thought that I grew up with that said, ‘If you enjoy music then that’s probably something that you need to give up.’ That approach to life is certainly a sad one.
I asked a fellow Over the Rhine fan recently what she’d like to ask the band. She came up with a question that I and many others involved in the arts struggle with—people who try to devote themselves fully to their own artistic ambitions while also trying to make ends meet. So she burst out with the question, “How did they pay the bills all those years while working on their records and touring?”
[laughing] For being a bunch of losers we’ve really been blessed!
Seriously, we’ve sometimes struggled with what Julie Miller describes as times when you’re “between money.” All in all it’s been rather miraculous that we’ve been able to do this. I feel a strange combination of having been blessed beyond my expectations while simultaneously being ignored [laughs again].
But I feel like things are often the way they’re supposed to be. We’ve seen in other people who have reached different forms of success that there is overwhelming damage control that needs to be called in. Our journey has been the right one for us and we have been watched over.
When I first interviewed you in 2000, you were thinking seriously about writing your memoirs and putting them all down in a book. And then you eventually published a sort of prologue and made it available online. How is that project going? We enjoyed the piece you published.
That was a sort of introduction to this memoir that I keep scratching away at.
But I turned a corner when we were making this record, and that is that I’m a songwriter at the end of the day. Yeah, I still want to bang together a memoir when the time is right. But being a songwriter is going to keep me busy … I’ve had to make peace with that. I do a fair bit of additional writing for my own sanity, to figure stuff out. But… I’m a songwriter.