I can’t listen to Marty O’Reilly & The Old Soul Orchestra without experiencing an out-of-body experience. Where my soul goes, I cannot be sure, but it no longer remains in the realm of the physical and definite. Instead, it drifts into the ether and finds solace in the nebulous, creative world of Marty O’Reilly (guitar and vocals) and bandmates Chris Lynch (violin and keyboards), Ben Berry (upright bass) and Matt Goff (drums and percussion).
It is for this transcendental place that O’Reilly and The OSO have been searching. Over its first two albums the band wandered through meadows of old-timey blues and folk that popped with contemporary color, though whose roots were set in familiar and hallowed soil. On the band’s new album “Stereoscope,” the songs bloom with true creativity and whose influences range from Howlin’ Wolf to Charles Mingus to Radiohead. The new batch of material couldn’t be mistaken for anyone but O’Reilly and The OSO, which is exactly what the band wanted this album to be: a showcase sounding like no one else but themselves.
In that they have succeeded and in the process have become the masters and creators of their own little world, nestled somewhere deep in their hearts and souls. With “Stereoscope,” we now have a chance to go there whenever we want.
Tahoe Onstage: What was some of the music that was foundational in shaping your tastes? What did you appreciate about those artists? Is there anything in your musical output or preparation today that you can trace back to being influenced by specific artists?
Marty O’Reilly: Guitar was an escape for me during some tough adolescent years, but it was also something close to meditation for me. Like meditation but … with angst. It was something I found in John Lee Hooker’s music. His older records, where he’s solo and the recordings sound ancient. The songs often don’t really go anywhere. He’s often literally strumming one chord or one riff the whole song. Sometimes there are dynamic changes like a rise or fall in the energy. That’s another thing I learned from him. Dynamic changes alone are enough to create the arc of a story. I think those might be two of the most definitive things to me about my own music: working with dynamics, and working myself into a trance like head space.
The band is from Santa Cruz area. What is that scene like, both musically and culturally? Who are the bands you consider friends?
We started touring early in this band, and so while I’ve played a million different places in the Santa Cruz area, I’ve always felt like the “scene” we’ve been a part of is one that moves around. And it’s fascinating. There’s this very tangible web of bands that all cross paths, and share stages together and consequently hang out and become friends. You see each other at different festivals, and cross paths in different states, and watch each other’s musical journeys over time. We’re all always on tour so we rarely see each other otherwise, but then you get lucky and cross paths.
It’s a very wonderful thing to witness and be a part of. It’s the closest thing I have to a social life, too. There are countless bands that we consider friends, and each member of my band has different bands that they might be closer to. Maybe they’ve collaborated musically and gotten to know each other, or maybe they live closer together, or just really hit it off. First ones that come to mind are Royal Jelly Jive, Rainbow Girls, Whiskerman and The Riverside. Again, each band member would probably give you a slightly different list.
I saw you at Lost Sierra Hoedown in 2017, where did a late-night set in the lodge in front of the fire. It was a special special set for me, something I’ll probably never forget. It seems LSH is a special place for you too. Can you talk a little bit about you and your band’s connection to that festival and what have been some of your favorite moments over the years?
We’ve always been big fans of festivals that have a thousand tickets or less. Once you experience a festival like that, you can’t go to a giant festival again without understanding that they are missing some of the best things a festival can offer. People don’t really interact and get to know each other the same way when there are 100,000 people around. Lost Sierra Hoedown just does everything right. You can’t really go without coming home with some new friends and a few stories.
You’ve transformed a bit in band and sonic makeup from when I first saw you, especially with the addition of Matt Goff on drums. What did you see in Matt that made you want to include him in the band? What has his artistry done to the Old Soul Orchestra sound?
Honestly, I’ve had a pretty incredible amount of blind luck with finding musicians who share a really similar vision of the music we want to make. All I knew when I met Matt was that he was very good. I didn’t understand enough about working with a drummer to really know how good of a fit he’d be. Matt has always done a really great job of teaching me about what his role means. It’s incredibly different than mine.
Having drums on board also just changes the music fundamentally. Before it was just fiddle, upright, and myself on guitar. If I stopped strumming along rhythmically, there’d be no foundation left other than the bass. That’s great sometimes, but it’s inherently sparse. Now the foundation of the music can be much richer, and busier, and covering a much broader sonic range.
Obviously in addition to all that, Matt brings a really profound sense of his musical personality to the band. He doesn’t play many straight forward beats that might sound familiar. He just writes parts as he hears them without being too genre specific. And that’s how this whole band prefers to write these days.
When did you first start conjuring up the songs and ideas that would appear on your latest album, “Stereoscope?”
Albums have this inseparable quality of feeling like snapshots from the time they were created. We ran with the repertoire from our first album for a long time, four years and probably more than 300 performances of all different kinds all over the world. After that, I find I’m more surprised when a band’s work doesn’t change much between albums.
I didn’t write much between albums. I had a few years of writing very little, and then I reached this point of understanding the big picture for what I wanted the next album to be. It started right when I met the love of my life. She really inspired me, and meeting her really marked a huge change in my life and an obvious opening to the next chapter. The first song I wrote on “Stereoscope” is about meeting her, and how it reawakened my heart. That, in turn, affects my happiness, my thinking, my creativity, everything. It’s called “Come and Go Heartbeat.” I wrote the whole album in a number of months after that.
Your band’s online biography states about “Stereoscope” that “the album represents the maturation of artists shedding hero worship and embracing the creativity within.” Can you elaborate on what that means? Practically speaking, how do you “embrace the creativity within?”
There are lots of different ways to write music, and one of the most prominent in folk music, and blues, and rock and so forth is to hear a song or an artist you like, and to sort of do your own take on that sound. And there’s something really valuable and beautiful about that because it actually highlights an artist’s own voice in an existing genre.
There’s this other kind of writing that exists, though, where you don’t say, “I’m going to write a folk song or a blues song or a rockabilly song.” You just say “I’m going to write music” and there will be inevitable influences from music you’ve listened to, but I find that when I write this way, I get influenced by music all over the map.
And that’s how most of “Stereoscope” is. There’s influences from Radiohead, Charles Mingus, Andrew Bird, Howlin’ Wolf, and so on. They exist in this musical space altogether. That doesn’t really happen for me if I decide I’m going to write a song in a specific genre. What I get sounds less like my heroes, and more like myself. And more like Chris, and Matt, and Ben, and more like our own lives and our travels and our own story.
Doing a good job of telling someone else’s story, or the story of a fictional character, can be fascinating but you know the difference when you hear an artist that is truly sharing what they have to say about their own life, and thoughts and feelings. You can hear it easily in lyrics, but you can also do it with music, too.
As you’ve played the “Stereoscope” songs live this year, what is something you’ve noticed or appreciated about them that wasn’t there before you started playing them for audiences? What do you think the fans have picked up on about this album and how it translates live?
“Stereoscope” is more challenging live. It requires more attention to detail, and there’s much less room for improvisation, which is a big part of what we do. For that reason, despite its intensity, it also has a very real delicacy about it. We need good sound to do it. We need to be able to hear each other very well. We need the audience’s attention more than we do with previous work.
I’ve learned over the years that having the audience’s attention is largely dependent on the surroundings. Do people feel like they’re supposed to be quiet and listening, or raging? We can usually tell when we walk into a room what kind of show it needs to be and we build the show around it once we get there.
You’ll be heading to Europe for a couple shows in January. Have you played in Europe before? What are you excited about? If you’ve played before, how do audiences compare between United States and Europe?
I think this will be my fifth tour of the United Kingdom. I tend to go once a year. And there’s a collection of fans that come and support me every year and I’m usually most excited to see them. And to hang out with James, my agent and tour manager for the UK.
Audiences change from city to city, room to room, night to night, wherever you go. The scene that I’m plugged into there is more of a listening one than in the states. And that’s not to say I prefer it either way. But people are usually seated and listening when I play in Europe, and in the U.S. they’re usually standing and dancing and drinking and singing along. Having both those experiences is exponentially more rewarding than having just one all the time.
You have a very distinct voice that surely a lot of people like and appreciate. But I also know it can be weird to hear your voice on record and to hear it played back at you; it never quite sounds the same. What does your voice sounds like in your head versus what you hear on record?
It’s a terrible feeling when the voice on the record is not something that makes you proud. When I listen to our first record, I sound significantly different than on our most recent one. And that’s for this exact reason. I think I spent a long time getting rid of vocal affectations and trying to sound like myself as much as possible. I feel like I’ve largely succeeded in that. I don’t feel embarrassed when I hear my voice on “Stereoscope.” I think “good… that sounds like me and it sounds honest.”
— Garrett Bethmann