That there is a country scene in New York City is strange and illogical. That there is a bona fide thriving country scene in New York City is beyond comprehension. Yet, with a band like O’Death, who draw so heavily on the history of American roots music, it actually makes perfect sense. They see the genre not as something to be preserved and copied, with costumes and affected on-stage accents, but as a type of music that has far more to do with the our daily lives than we may think. Drummer David Rogers-Berry answered a few questions for us.
The L Magazine: Your arrival on the New York City music scene seemed fairly sudden. I was hoping you could talk a bit about your background, and about the band’s origins. David Rogers-Berry: I grew up in South Carolina, in the sticks of South Carolina. The rest of the band is from various parts of New York State. I think most of us had somewhat similar experiences with music growing up. The alternative thing was pretty strong when we were all 12 years old, and even though I don’t think we all listened to the same stuff as kids, we all did witness a revolution in popular culture, when bands like Nirvana made it seem cool to be intelligent and unhappy — two things that are usually frowned upon in popular culture, especially on the radio. So there’s that inescapable influence. I learned how to sing in church, and that taught me the power of sacred music, though the message was pretty lost on me. I think that’s the relationship a lot of us have with the music, because while we are not religious at all, the power and spirituality in that music has drawn us to sacred songs, and a spiritual feeling in our music.
So, anyway, we all went to school at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, and knew each other for a couple of years before we started O’Death in 2003. We recorded an album in 2004, but we didn’t start playing shows in NYC till the very end of 2005, and we picked up our bass player, Newman, right around that time. So we’ve been a show-slaughtering unit for about two years now.
The L: New York City, and specifically Brooklyn, has a thriving roots music scene — with the Cashhank nights at Buttermilk and the whole Alex Battles/Whiskey Rebellion scene — and while it would seem in a lot of ways to be a good fit for O’Death, you’ve managed to exist completely separate from that world. Have you made a conscious decision to go another route? DRB: Well... for almost a year we threw our own monthly party with bands that we felt were in our vein, like the Lonesome Doves, the Goddamn Rattlesnake, Poorboy Johnson, and Brown Bird Rudy Relic, as well as some great bands from out of town like the Can Kickers and Buzzard. We liked all these guys a lot, but from doing a regular roots party of our own, we started to get shows at other venues with New York City and Brooklyn country bands, and the scene just sucked. The bands were either making a joke or had some kind of gimmick or they were earnest and just plain boring. And we weren’t really about that. We also have never been
about recreating old-time music, we’re just inspired by it. So the whole throwback thing doesn’t do much for us.
The L: What do you say to detractors who would argue that O’Death is a throwback band? Is it something you’ve already had to fight? DRB: There is a question of authenticity from time to time. It’s like people get offended because we’re college graduates in New York City, and our band doesn’t wear skinny ties or sound like the Stooges or Joy Division. Well, I love both those bands, but we got our own song to sing.
As far as actually being throwbacks... you ever heard a drum set on an authentic bluegrass recording? I mean, a lot of old-time recordings that we’re inspired by are one or two people with a guitar or a banjo. We’re incapable of actually sounding like that. I like the idea of folk music much more than the genre itself. Same thing with punk. According to most dictionaries and encyclopedias, folk music, in the original sense of the term, is music by and for the common people. I mean, if that’s the case, what’s the difference between punk and folk? Time period? Aesthetic? Is there really anything more punk than Doc Boggs’ earliest recordings?
But then this thing happened to country and folk music: Nashville cleaned it up for church going American audiences and really stripped it of its grit and rawness, and made it very palatable and boring. Well, don’t get me wrong, I like some of that stuff too, but we’re a little more interested in pushing those other aspects of American roots music that got kind of cut short.
Sometimes we do get flack for being a roots band in New York, or people think we’re throwbacks. A lot of people make assumptions before they even hear the music, because it’s hard to describe what we do without using words like “country” or whatever you choose, but it’s understandable. There’s just so much garbage in this city that people feel the need to classify everything, just to have a bearing on what’s actually going on in terms of the movements that are constantly developing. There will always be haters, and I don’t think we absorb too much of that type of criticism. Anyone who wants to question our authenticity should come to one of our shows and see if they think we really mean it. I hope that answers your question, and at least five that you didn’t ask.
The L: How has the band been received in other parts of the country in relation to how you’ve been received here in New York? DRB: Fantastic. We were all overwhelmed by the response we got from people in the Bay Area. That felt just like being home, but in other more rural parts of the country, too, people got what we do a bit more. It was really nice being in parts of the country where country music is more prominent, because those people almost never mistake us for a country band. They know right off the bat that we’re doing something quite different from that, because they’re closer to that music.
Of course, not that people don’t get us in New York. I mean, this is our home, and the criticism we receive for being a folky band from the city is clearly outweighed by the warmth we receive from the people who come out to our shows and enjoy the music. And you really couldn’t ask for a more responsive audience than we’ve found here. Sometimes when we’re playing, I realize I see someone who’s been to most of our shows in the last few months. There’s only like one or two bands that I’ve seen more than a few times, and some of these people come out all the time. And we play a lot of fucking shows.
The L: A few years ago, the documentary American Roots Music came out, and for the most part, it was really well-done. But one thing about it struck me as depressing, and, well, stupid. One of the last scenes showed a bunch of really old dudes playing bluegrass at a state fair or something, giving viewers the impression that this music had essentially reached its end, and was no longer being built upon by younger artists. It seemed not only a slap in the face to your standard alt-country bands (who, in a lot of ways represent the next logical step in the music’s development), but to bands like O’Death, who are even more loyal to and aware of its past. DRB: For some people, this roots thing is a fascination with the past. For some people, it’s probably better to think about it as dead because then it’s more exotic and your imagination is allowed to operate around this vague idea of a thing that is different from where you are — like a, “wasn’t life better back then,” fantasy. But in a lot of ways, I think the progression of traditional American music was halted.
The L: Why, do you think? DRB: Oh man... there’s the Nashville thing I spoke of before, and I think that was a huge factor in making country music boring, and not attractive to young forward thinking people. And that’s just the record business killing art, right there. I also think there’s this thing that happens to folk art, where people are very concerned with preserving it. Which is a beautiful and necessary. But it’s quite hard to preserve something sacred and still make it grow at the same time. And then there’s the genre-fication of folk music. It comes with a lot of trappings, and people get caught up in keeping it real rather than making it awesome. And finally, there’s the young preservationists. And a lot of them make really beautiful music, but they’re simply not bringing that much to the table.
It’s a funny battle, because when Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys invented the style, they were trying to preserve the old-time sensibilities and the rawness of the mountain music that was theirs, because country music was getting pretty clean and watered down. And in their attempt at preservation they invented a new style all together. Well, that’s pretty awesome if you ask me, but why the hell would I play their style? I mean, I’m inspired by those guys to take another step forward, not keep it real.
The L: In the past year or so, this has become a pretty standard question we ask of every band we interview, but you released Head Home without the help of a record label — a popular choice for young bands everywhere. What are your thoughts on the new role of the record label? What have been the advantages and disadvantages of working on your own? Do have any plans to work with a label in the future? DRB: Well, the music industry has been changing for years now, and it’s not all that clear where it’s going to end up. One thing is apparent to artists like us, and that’s that if we ever want to make a living off this project, we’re going to have to play shows. A lot of shows. Hopefully all over the world. People are simply not buying records enough to support artists and labels. However, it seems that some of that money people are saving by sharing music is being spent on going out, and I think a band like us, who’ve built a reputation for putting on an intense live show, have a good chance of getting those people to come out and support us that way.
A lot of labels are seeing this trend, and trying to tap into all of the music business rather than just cutting records. Some labels are getting into publishing, some management, and it’s all quite sensible really. There’s so many more bands than there ever were before, but there’s also more people interested in listening to music and following bands.
As far as us not working with a label... I don’t know. We’re broke. We’ll probably always be broke, but we are negotiating record contracts in America and in Europe, so I’m just hoping that we can travel as much as possible, and that I don’t have to book any more tours. The last time we went out on the road, our van died in the first week of a five-week tour. Not having anybody we can call to help us out with that situation sucked, but it didn’t end the tour and it didn’t kill the band, so it was fine. But I’m looking forward to working with labels because I think they can help us reach more people, and what’s wrong with that?
It comes down to this: when we started this band, we realized that it was special early on, from the reactions we were getting from audiences early on, but also from the way it made us feel. I’ve played with a lot of shitty bands, and I just knew that O’Death was onto something much more important than anything else I’d ever been a part of... and when it feels like that, you have to do it.