By: Rachel Elliot
On a sunny day at Spiderhouse Cafe, SMEAR caught up with human alchemist, Jeff Olson.
When he’s not busy mixing potions with his Dungeons & Dragons group, he’s drumming in the Austin-based rock band White Denim. We met up with Olson just before White Denim kicked off their spring tour to promote their new album, Stiff. We discussed his experiences with the band, other projects he’s working on, and possible solutions to severe sunburn.
SMEAR: How did you get involved with White Denim?
Olson: Been a fan since high school –
S: So was this like a dream?
O: A little bit, yeah. At first it was insane. They were playing at Stubbs and I was playing with Emily Wolfe at the time, around 2 years ago. We got asked to play the after show inside, which was already exciting because we played same venue, same night as White Denim. We watched them, then we played, then while we were loading out, they were still loading out. I said hello and told them I was a big fan and mentioned I played drums inside and James, the singer, said cool and asked if I wanted to help him with a gig for his side project, Bop English. So I was in shock and we exchanged numbers and went to the studio and hung out and jammed. We liked a lot of the same music and we got along personally. I think he reacted to that. It’s really important to him and in general that when you want someone to join your band, they have to be a compatible person with you. Especially a band that’s going to tour with you, you have to know before you make that commitment that you’re going to be able to coexist with this person. Someone could be amazing technical player, but if you don’t get along it’s going to be hell. I joined after I’d toured with Bop English.
S: How much were you involved in making Stiff, the new WD album?
O: I was involved in the whole writing and recording process. So I joined White Denim during or after the Bop English tour. And we wrote this last summer and fall of 2015.
S: What’s the concept behind it?
O: I think the idea was that the band has a couple of new members so we should treat it like a new debut album. I can’t speak fully for the other members, but I think they had a desire to get back to some of the higher energy material that was on their first couple of albums, which was muted [in] the last two albums for a higher production value. We had this opportunity to record most of the album live in a room with each other. Just knowing that was what was going to happen, we were thinking about things from the perspective of how to use energy from the people in the room to make a record that rocks. We referenced 70s rock a lot and older R&B too.
S: You’ve toured around a lot and been to different places. What makes the Austin music scene unique?
O: One of the most different things about Austin is the saturation of bands, the density of bands per capita is higher here than any other city. That has its pros and cons. There are a lot of good bands in Austin that would probably be more successful if they were based out of a different city because they would stand out more and would have more of a reason to tour. You can have a band that lives and dies in Austin; you feel like you don’t have to leave to make something happen. ATX is great, but in order to have any financial success, you need to tour. It’s very insular. There is definitely a pride that the city has in the music industry and I think that has a positive effect. We have the health alliance for ATX musicians, there are organizations in ATX whose sole purposes are to help musicians, which I think is cool. I don’t think you’d see that in a smaller city or another major city without as many working bands or musicians. The downside is that the fans are really spoiled or jaded, maybe is a better term.
S: Because they’re used to seeing shows every day?
O: Yeah, there’s so much going on – why should they care about what you’re doing? One time I played in Laredo with Kinky Machine and it was a Friday night at what I’m almost certain was the only bar in Laredo. No one had seen us, and it just said “LIVE MUSIC” on the sign and it was packed. Everyone between 20-40 showed up. That’s the far end of the other side of the spectrum, but that’s less of a common occurrence in Austin. There are all types of efforts to make an event “buzz” and sometimes with relative amounts of success, but it would be hard to make the whole city about one event. ACL and SXSW have a huge budget to market themselves.
S: How did you get into drumming?
O: I took piano lessons when I was a little kid, from age 3 to 11. Then I was going into middle school and I wanted to keep doing music at school. They had this divining process where you went to the band hall and the teachers for every instrument were in different rooms and you went through this gauntlet where you went to every single room and you’d see if you had any natural ability at different instruments. I was horrible at the wind instruments; I couldn’t make a sound out of half of them. The last room was the percussion room. The guy asked if I’d taken piano lessons and I said yes, and I could keep a beat and two different beats so I signed up and went from there.
S: What’s your favorite shade of yellow?
O: No shade of yellow, I really don’t like yellow. Closest shade of yellow that’s just beige and not yellow, I would maybe accept that. It’s a garish color I think. It makes me think of over-confidence. I imagine someone wearing a bright yellow suit and what that person’s personality must be like to choose that suit. Even any accent you toss in that’s yellow is a bold accent. Something about it turns me off. I’m not a yellow person.
S: What other bands are you in?
O: I’m only in two others: Food Group and Kinky Machine. At one time I was in almost ten bands but that wasn’t an option once some of the bands got more successful or busy. It’s easy to be in 10 when each band only plays once every couple of months. That’s way less feasible when people start talking about tours.
S: How often do Food Group and Kinky Machine play?
O: I rehearse weekly with both. And both are finishing up records so we are not prioritizing playing live, just finishing the records. Food Group doesn’t play as often as we used to because of saturation. If you play every weekend, people can convince themselves to never go to one of your shows because they know you’ll play next weekend. It’s a rite of passage when you start a band and your live show isn’t totally polished you go through a year-long period playing almost every week to get really good at playing live. Then once you feel like you have a consistent live show and people know your name, then you can start to scale back and be selective about gigs.
S: When you go on the spring tour for White Denim, what’s going to happen with your other bands?
O: I’m optimistic I’ll get to keep working with them. The way that the WD tour schedule is set up is good for me. Two of the guys have kids so we’re not going to do six months straight. We’re going to go away for a few weeks and then come back and go away. There will be significant amounts of time that I’ll be back in town and able to work on other projects.
S: What’s your favorite band that everyone hates? Or artist?
O: I don’t know if this counts because I don’t know if everyone hates him, but I love Weird Al. I don’t think a lot of musicians like Weird Al. If there’s anyone that I would call a guilty pleasure, musically at least, I’d say Weird Al. He has an abrasive voice but I can totally jam his albums because they still make me giggle.
S: What are you most excited about for the tour?
O: I’m excited to go back to Scandinavia. It might be later in the year, but I think we’re playing Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen in October, it’s not finalized yet. When we did Bop English, we did Oslo and Copenhagen and both were such fun cities to be in. The people were nice and the air was fresh.
S: What advice would you give to someone trying to break into music, either in general or specifically in Austin?
O: Don’t waste your time and money trying to market yourself. Just make good music. I feel like I see people all the time trying to sell themselves as a musician or a band as a band when the content that they’re giving you is not worth what they’re saying. If they spent all the time that they spend concocting elaborate marketing schemes actually honing their craft, the attention would come. And that’s why you should be doing it anyway. If you want to break into music to be a buzzy artist, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. You should want to put your head down, work really hard, and make something that you’re proud of. Also you never know who’s watching. That sounds weird, but you never know who’s at your gig! Treat the shittiest gigs like they’re important.
S: What is the least cool thing about you?
O: I play D&D every week. We have an altered rule system we developed from a Lord of the Rings battle miniatures game, which is based on Warhammer. The combat in Warhammer is more intuitive and straightforward. We mashed all the combat aspects of Warhammer with the mad spellcasting and RP elements of D&D, which is a lot more fun. I play a human alchemist who creates potions that can be used during battle, like napalm.
S: Are you looking ahead to any new projects? Even outside of music?
O: I say this all the time, but I’m writing poetry and want to put out a collection. I’m halfway there. I think about how many poems is an appropriate number, I’m not trying to win an award, so I don’t need like 40. If I had 15-20 good poems, I would feel really happy.
S: Have you thought about publishing online?
O: Yeah, maybe. That seems like an easy way to test the waters and check if anyone even likes your poetry. Although I’ve sort of had something published online. I won an award for a poem last year called “As Above, So Below.”
S: Oh yeah, I’ve read that!
O: I wrote it after drinking an entire bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. I was touring with White Denim in Miami and we went to the beach the day before we were supposed to do anything. We hung out for like three hours and I forgot to use sunscreen and got the most sunburned I’ve ever been in my entire life. After the gig that night I was in so much pain from sunburn that I went to the hotel room, got the bottle of scotch from the mini bar and sat in the shower with the water on cold for like two hours trying to numb the pain from the sunburn. So then I composed the poem in the shower in my head.