The men of Eolian on their backgrounds and the creation of Egg, their concept album
Adam Edwards, Ian O'Dougherty and Sean Merrell are Eolian
In this week's issue, the Rough Mixes entry focusing on Eolian, the progressive-rock project led by Ian O'Dougherty (Uphollow, Ian Cooke, TaunTaun) and featuring occasional Backbeat contributor Sean Merrell (tintin, Ian Cooke, A Shoreline Dream) and Adam Edwards (A Shoreline Dream), barely scratched the surface of our recent conversation with the guys. Click through to read the interview in its entirety.
Westword: How long have you been working at this project, and what musical path did you follow to get here?
Ian O'Dougherty: I've been playing pretty inconsistently as a solo artist for about eight years. A lot of times, it was out of convenience or to fit on the bill better with, like, Richard Buckner or something. With these Eolian songs, I never played a solo show, but as a duo, with just me and Sean [Merrell]. It was cool, because we loved the improv nature of the project and because we could use a loop pedal and come back and keep the album going.
That was really fun, but we just missed the low end with just the loop. Bob Ferbrache, for one, said, "You've got to get a bass player." So we did, and Adam [Edwards] is awesome. He and Sean both used to work at Bart's up in Boulder. They're record-store nerds in the best sense. They know their musical history far better than I. Both play many more instruments than they play in this band.
Sean and Adam knew each other from Bart's, and we'd been talking about different bass players for a while, and when we brought in Adam, there was a noticeable difference after he re-recorded all the parts. They were the parts I had written, but he's so much better at bass than I am, and he really brought something new to it. And we recorded it all at Bob's house.
The album is pretty straightforward. A lot of the stuff we do live is not on the album. That being said, we play live very close to this. I say "improv," but it's more dynamic improv rather than parts. We're not noodling, ever. That was the tricky thing, of course; it was 35 minutes of rehearsed music, so it's tough to remember it all.
Lyrics are difficult, in general, for me to remember. Sean and I have been playing this for two to three years and learned it in parts. We knew it would be one big thing, but we didn't really have the order. We jammed it out and changed the arrangements, speeds and keys -- we changed everything. That helped us to play it as a whole, because we knew it in parts. It was a matter of writing the segues.
"Parable" used to have completely different lyrics with a completely different melody, but I changed it to fit the concept more. A lot of the lyrics in the first song, almost all of them, reappear later in the album. Those that Chris Fogal and Julie Davis sing, they sing later. It glues it all together, sort of.
There's at least another album's worth of material that are all bird songs that we had that didn't really fit this. Honestly, we planned to put this record out as a two-piece; it's the simpler arrangements. The other songs I had required three instruments. For a while I wanted to do the Geddy, Lee Moog Taurus thing, and I just couldn't do it. So the remainder of the songs are more band-oriented songs. So this, although it doesn't sound like it, is the more stripped-down version.
You've recorded with a number of engineers over the years. What brings you back to recording with Bob Ferbrache?
IO: Bob is a generous and caring and loving guy with a phenomenal base of knowledge on a lot of things. Music, specifically, but he's a really knowledgeable guy, and he's fun to be around. He has an amazing background of recording techniques and production ideas. He also has a phenomenal collection of microphones and guitars, and I used one of them for the polishing touches.
I wanted his opinion, and I wanted the stress of someone else listening to me sing, because if I record myself, I'll take as long as I feel I need to. I like the stress of him telling me that it's not any good. And he'll tell you. He's one of the few people that has the balls to be honest. I love that. I think that the world needs a lot more of that.
What's the story behind the band's name?
IO: It means "transmitted by the wind." So seeds, smell or birds, I suppose, technically. The noun is those things you see in Nevada -- the windmills. For our purposes, it was musical, but also seeds, birds and flight and anything transported by the wind. I thought it was a fitting name, but it wasn't until way late into the game that I came up with that.
You wouldn't consider this a continuation of Uphollow, would you? Or is it kind of a continuation?
IO: It is totally different in that it's a different band. But musically, there are some similarities. But it's not meant to be a continuation. In Uphollow, there were two or three concept albums, and it's similar that way, too.
You're good at tailoring your drumming to your various projects. How would you characterize what you did with Eolian as compared to what what you do in tintin, A Shoreline Dream and Ian Cooke's band?
Sean Merrell: Eolian is the natural progression of my drumming via tintin; the atmospheres and attitudes of those two bands are quite similar in that all members are interested in an organic discovery of music through creative collaboration and a genuine melding of everyone's influences.
If tintin were still actively writing, I believe that it would be pretty similar to Eolian, with the exception being the pop-punk and metal background of O'Dougherty versus the more eclectic influences of Patrick Selvage. O'Dougherty likes to challenge himself as well, and I can't express enough how important that is, not just for musicians, but for artists overall. That challenge is even amplified in Eolian when compared to TINTIN.
One of the best things about Eolian is that we challenge and encourage each other to see and play things differently, and I don't think that kind of atmosphere would be possible if we didn't respect each other, and it would certainly not have been possible if we came to the proverbial table with a bunch of expectations beyond just playing in as lucid a way as possible.
A Shoreline Dream was a little different. At first it was kind of like being in a cover band because they had such a wealth of material that had already been recorded and released to the public. I had to respect that level of familiarity while still finding room for my creative voice. Those guys also had a very specific and regimented way of writing songs and recording albums.
We butted heads a lot for the first year, because -- as I said before -- I've been so enamored with the communality of making music in an exploratory fashion. I am accustomed to basing my expectations on the results of those explorations, whereas A Shoreline Dream seemed to be about fitting itself into a pre-defined space.
As the years went on, the band started changing, and I'm so impressed with the attitudes of those guys at present. Instead of just finding someone else to do what had been done before, as many bands do with -- and expect from -- drummers, they started embracing the evolution of the band into something greater than our four individual perspectives. As a result, A Shoreline Dream has really become a very unique project with exciting prospects.
Ian Cooke is an entirely different beast. The primary consideration is Cooke's vision, and whether or not the band can successfully augment his compositions; when we can't enhance his vision with our insight, we're perfectly content to let him shine on his own.
Playing with Cooke was an entirely new experience that required an entirely new way for me to think about my role as a drummer. I started off being "the other drummer," and played several shows sitting on the floor with a random array of percussion. That evolved into using Roland V-Drums to expand the array of orchestral sounds available to me, which then challenged me to think orchestrally behind a standard rock drum kit.
Cooke was really open to the idea of electronic percussion and experimentation overall and was incredibly patient while I tried to wrap my brain around his totally unique perspective. His musical background is unlike anyone else I've ever composed with. If any project keeps me on my toes and challenges me to reinvent myself as a musician, it's working with Ian Cooke, and I am endlessly grateful to him for that.
Overall, I'm always doing my best to honor the song, which usually means opening the lines of communication with my fellow musicians so wide that when the right thing comes down the pipe, we're practically drowning in it.
The new Eolian record is a concept album. How did you maybe change your portion of writing and composition to create a continuous piece of music?
SM: The continuous piece of music came out of necessity; we desired to craft a live show that was powerful and assertive. As we learned the songs while preparing for our first shows, we sought to eliminate pauses between songs in an effort to not only be more efficient, but to overwhelm the audience. We wanted to get to the end of the last song and have people think: "What just happened?" We wanted active listening and thought to be a requirement, so we sought a way to foster that.
The present version of the album is about half of Ian's original material, and we really let the songs dictate their order as we were learning them. If a song seemed to end with one particular rhythm, we would match it with the beginning of another song that had a similar rhythm; f one song ended with a certain progression of notes, we would begin another song with a variation of those notes.
It really felt like we were assembling a puzzle, and my parts -- most of which did not exist in the original versions of the song -- were crafted to blur the divisions between the puzzle pieces. Ian continued to erase other divisions with additional dynamics and guitar parts, and we eventually came to a point where those original songs became one large song that was indivisible.
Ian said that you introduced him more to the progressive/art rock of the '60s and the '70s. Which of that music do you love most and why? And why is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway from Genesis such an important album to you?
SM: In short: A genre does not define whether or not I enjoy music of one kind or another, but I have gravitated toward music with the "progressive" moniker. I think that's because "progressive" really just means forward-thinking.
I try to avoid compartmentalization, as difficult as it may be in modern society; I think genres are another great social injustice. Marshall McLuhan spoke about inventions of convenience and being wary of what those things take away from us, and I think a genre is an invention designed to help us understand things.
However, in making something easier to understand, we inevitably remove ourselves from the ability to see things outside the scope of that invention. Simply: The pretense of understanding removes the ability to actually understand. It's the same as scientific reasoning. There's this perverse idea that if something cannot be measured, it does not exist. Yet all means of measurement are necessarily defined -- and created -- by us, so of what value is the measurement, and what's the point of exalting it?
Part of the reason I love the concept of jazz music so much is because -- if you look at the collection of things called "jazz" -- it practically balks at the meaninglessness of genres by the sheer variety of things which fall under its banner.
Genres keep people from experiencing new or unexpected things by encouraging them to make assumptions instead of making their own observations. Consciousness cannot expand without the unexpected. It's kind of like what I said earlier: if one is relieved of a faculty, then it becomes harder to recover and make use of that faculty.
These ideas are a lot of the reason I love The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It touches on the ideas of seeing oneself as a part of a larger entity -- expecting the unexpected. shattering expectations, seeing yourself in the world around you, seeing the world in yourself.
Really, it's the idea that the best thing you can do in life is to devote yourself to spanning that imaginary gap between one form of consciousness and another. The abyss always stares long into you as well as you stare into it. So you have a choice to make: Fight the monster or become it. Bridge the gap or vanish into blackness.
What kind of drum kit (or kits) do you use, and why do you favor that equipment over others?
SM: I've had three drum kits over the years, and I've learned to love all of them for their various qualities. My first kit was a black Pearl Export Series, which was purchased in the late '80s, and I've come to use that a lot at live shows, with a Remo Roto-Tom I purchased as part of a set a number of years ago.
The first reason I use that a lot is because it's much less of a liability than my custom kit. The second reason is that the finer parts of drumming are not something of which most audience members are consciously aware, and live sound isn't generally geared toward emphasizing those things; most people are happy with a descending array of thudding, but mostly an audible kick and snare.
The majority of drum sound -- as far as the actual drums are concerned -- comes down to two things: how you tune it, and how you play it. Virtually any drum kit can sound great with decent heads, good tuning technique and a mindful player. After that, it's all about comfort, details and how long the apparatus is going to last.
For those things, I favor Drum Workshop (DW) because they pay so much attention to detail, and their hardware is not only rock-solid, but it's user-friendly and intuitive. Most of my hardware -- as well as my custom drum kit -- is designed and manufactured by DW. The present impetus of Drum Workshop -- as opposed to the current model of a company like Ludwig, which was, but is no longer, innovative -- was innovation; making drumming more comfortable, hardware easier to use, and making hardware last longer were the goals of DW.
A lot of musical instrument companies get bought out and fall into the mindless, bar-lowering, corporate, money-making mindset of doing whatever worked to make money in the past, and I don't see DW as one of those companies; they didn't seem to rest on their laurels -- or even the laurels of drum design -- when I was introduced to them in the '90s.
For cymbals, I have always used Zildjian, because the craft of cymbal-making is basically a Zildjian family invention, and has been for nearly half a millenium. I've almost always been pleased with the array of sounds available in cymbals from Zildjian, and -- due to the nature of live drum sound I touched upon before -- I have chosen to use the subtleties and individual personalities of cymbals as more of a focal point in my drumming.
People sometimes don't hear toms or ghost notes -- though I'll play them regardless -- at a crummy little venue, but they can't help but notice the ping of a huge-and-heavy ride cymbal, or the clatter from a stack of cymbal remnants. A good sound engineer can mike twenty different drum kits, and they'll all sound about the same to most of the people in the audience, but a good cymbal sounds like nothing else, regardless of what the engineer does.
How did you become involved with Eolian, and what interested you in being part of that project? What did you think you could bring to that project that it did not have before?
Adam Edwards: Sean and I had been playing with A Shoreline Dream for a little while, and he had been telling me about this new project with Ian O. On our way home from ASD rehearsal, he played demo versions of the Eolian album, and I loved it! The main thing I thought I could bring to Eolian was a bassist! Sean and Ian had been playing without one, and I loved the songs and wanted to be a part of the project and thicken up the sound live. I think my abilities and individual voice will be much more apparent when we begin work on the next album.
What kind of bass and rig do you use -- 4-string, 5-string, 6-string, passive/active pickups, tube vs. solid state amp, etc.? And why that configuration?
AE: My setup for Eolian consists of a Spector Doug Wimbish signature bass with an active Tone Pump pre-amp. I will also have a Spector Euro 4 that I am outfitting with a passive system made by Nordstrand pickups. It lets me keep the Spector feel that I love while allowing me two completely different tones.
The last bass in the live Eolian equation is an NS WAV4 electric upright bass. It allows me yet a third tone option and the ability to pluck or bow for new textures. I use an Eden Time Traveler solid state amp and an Eden 4x10 cab. My pedal board is huge and ever changing, so I will not bore everyone with the details right now.
You and Sean Merrell introduced a more progressive/art rock element to Eolian than if Ian wrote all of the music. Who are some of your favorite musicians and album out of that milieu, and why?
AE: To be fair, Sean and Ian had written the entire album by the time I came along. Ian has plenty of prog in him; he just needs Sean and I to bring it front and center. Sean and I are definitely prog players when we are allowed to play the way we want. I am also a huge fan of "fusion" music.
Some of my favorite bassists are Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Oteil Burbridge, Greg Lake, Miroslav Vitous,Tony Levin, Doug Wimbish and many more. I have recently discovered another amazing bassist named Tal Wilkenfeld. If you haven't seen her play, look her up now! As far as albums go, I love Yes - Relayer, ELP - Tarkus, Weather Report - Heavy Weather, King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King and so many more.
A lot of people who saw Uphollow in recent years have no idea it started a long time ago. When did it start and what musical styles did you go through as the band developed?
IO: Uphollow started in 1992. Whit Sibley and I were twelve, and we started playing music together. The current scene in Denver isn't aware of all of that because it's young. It's been five years, it seems to me, when the good, new scene started. Before then, there were only twenty bands in the whole town. Whereas now there's what? A thousand.
Back in the day, Crestfallen was huge to us. The background of the band is that the third guy in the band was Josh Kennedy, whose brother Chris was in El Espectro. They were like the Fluid Jr., as far as the scene goes and all of that. So we saw the Fluid's second-to-last show when Tom Hollar was murdered. It was at the Gothic. He was the owner of Imi Jimi and all of that. We were lucky to have all those bands as idols and mentors -- they were really cool to us.
We played with El Espectro, '57 Lesbian...This was before I could drive. This was '94, and I was fifteen, and the scene was great, and we had to get work permits to play the bars. But they let us in, and we just had to have the "Xs." We didn't drink, either, so that was a benefit. People just liked us because we were young and not bad. Not good, but we definitely weren't bad.
We got to play the Bluebird, and we got to meet the right people. Scott Campbell at the 15th Street Tavern would sneak us in to see the bands we couldn't see, and later we would play with those bands. So we were fortunate to be lucky enough to be connected to the right people.
Crestfallen, the Fluid, '57 Lesbian, Hop'd, Boss 302, the Hectics -- all those bands took us under their wing and showed us how to be a band and how to play shows and how to deal with promoters -- which was helpful because we were young, it was important not to be taken advantage of -- but of course we were.
That was the high-school era and the pop-punk era. Have you ever been to Louviers, Colorado? '57 Lesbian actually played in an old bowling alley where you set up your own pins. They were cool enough with us and themselves to play down there. We played with them at DU and stuff. These bands took us under their wing and appreciated that we were just having fun.
At that point, every show seemed to have two bands that sounded like Green Day, regardless of the genre of the show. Everybody sounded that way then, and we were tired of it. At the end of high school, we had toured ten times and met the cool bands in whatever cities we went to and played with some amazing bands. Fugazi we played with in '98.
By playing shows, we knew promoters, and we knew people, and we got the show as main support in Ventura. It's still kind of the best show we ever did. It sold out and all of that, and we had fans in Ventura that were there for us. Then everything was stolen. Our van was broken into, and everything was stolen from us, and we quit for years. It was the end of that.
At that time, it was the beginning of that next scene with the Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World and No Knife, and our music had changed more in that direction as well because we were listening more to Fugazi than the Queers.
I think those early bands are really good, and obviously it got diluted into something very different later on. We played with all of those bands, and they were our buddies, and it was the same thing. They were all five years older than us and took us under their wing. They showed us the cool vegetarian restaurant in Phoenix or whatever -- important things to know!
We played a lot with Jimmy Eat World and felt we were doing similar things to all of those bands. When everything got stolen, we couldn't continue because we couldn't get new gear. That was the end of high school, and I went to Australia, Whit went to Europe, and the drummer went to Nantucket. We were devastated by the loss.
It was weird how much it meant, because at that point, that was all we did. Every break from school, we toured. All of our money went to touring and the band and putting out records. We put out two seven-inches before we could drive. We did a record in 1995 that Matt Bischoff from the Fluid produced for us. I remember I got my driver's license during the recording of that, and he made fun of me because I was driving my mom's minivan to the studio. Then we did one the summer after.
The summer after high school, we put out Soundtrack to an Imaginary Life, which was our first concept album and our first decent bit of music. The first album is just pop punk. It was juvenile, although there are little bits where you could tell where we were going but we just weren't there yet. Basically, we played as fast as we could, because it was the only thing we knew how to do.
We had changed what we were listening to. Whit was listening to ABBA, and I was listening to Jethro Tull. We were both listening to Fugazi, and that's exactly what the next album sounded like: vocal harmony concept album, post-hardcore. The concept was a writer sitting at a desk sees a woman and invents a story about her. It's about a writer writing a story, and the twist is that she had seen him and had been writing a story the whole time as well.
It was similar to Egg in that it was forty minutes of continuous music. There were track breaks, but it was one thing, and we played it as one thing live. We passed out lyric booklets at shows. We thought of it as one song.
Like Thick as a Brick.
IO: Exactly. And completely influenced by Thick as a Brick. At the time, that was ridiculous. It was ambitious, but also kind of stupid, because no one wanted to hear that in '98. Nor do they want to hear it now, really. It's a very '70s concept. It was ignoring everything music was doing then. And it's certainly ignoring what things are doing now. Albums are essentially dead.
As was expected, people didn't care a whole lot about that album. We were a four-piece then -- two guitars Fugazi style, rather than a three-piece pop-punk style. Jason Heller actually played bass for us for a while at that time. I guess the point of that whole thing is that this album is certainly related to that album. I still think that concept albums are cool.
Like Operation: Mindcrime.
IO: And same thing for Queensryche. That was an era when bands weren't doing that. They were writing ballads. Because that's what was on the radio, and every metal band turned into a ballad metal band. Queensryche did not do that. They had "Silent Lucidity," but even that isn't really a ballad.
Because I was named after Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull -- my parents were big Tull fans -- I always thought concept albums were cool. Certainly a more impressive work of art than a three-minute pop song. I like those, too, but I think if you're going to do something, put some effort into it; do something with some ambition.
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