Issue 9 Cover

OtR: I'm going through this phase where I feel like I haven't said anything meaningful or interesting or witty for several months now. I read so many interviews with artists and I listen to a lot of public radio where authors and musicians and various creative people are constantly talking about their ideas. Everyone is so articulate and colorful. I'm feeling very run-of-the-mill.

ACM: We were looking back over the newsletter you send out. It's very thoughtful and introspective and mentions a little background on each of you. What do you do to entertain yourself when you go to a town to do a show...

OtR: Well..., the antidote for touring, for most of us, is seeking out antiquarian and rare edition bookshops where we can fill the gaps in our libraries... We're fairly bookish people. Bookshops are the most popular haunts, but Brian enjoys wooing nubile girls, Ric likes to hunt for pre-CBS Stratocasters, and Karin likes to slip away to coffee shops and quiet nooks-and-crannies. I'm always looking for a good chess partner. (At home, when I have time to enjoy, I like to sit in my library and read. There's so much to read. It's something that gives me so many ideas. You learn so much from books. They're not considered incredibly hip, I suppose. There's so much visually high-tech media nowadays. Books may be getting neglected, but there's nothing like a book...something magical and mysterious and blatantly spiritual about books. It's a shame that the flash of MTV-style media has taken away from the subtle power of the printed word.) The most wonderful thing about touring is meeting people. I'm amazed at how fiercely intelligent some of the people are that we've met along the way. Some have become beautiful friends. Often, there isn't a lot of free time on tour. It's hard work. But you also develop a rhythm after awhile and it can be very discom-bobulating to come home.

ACM: Among the literature that you read, are there any favorite authors that you find fascinating, or that possibly even influence some of the songs you write?

OtR: Ric was one of the first members of the band to really start getting into C.S. Lewis. Between Karin, Ric and I...we probably have most of his works in early editions. Rare hardback copies. He's had a big impact on our personal lives. And I really enjoy a lot of the writings of Dylan Thomas. That's a cliche...I know that a lot of pop musicians, including Bob Dylan, like his work. I especially like his prose writing. Thomas referred to himself as 'one: I am a Welshman; two: I am a drunkard; three: I am a lover of the human race, especially of women.'... I've always liked Oscar Wilde. Also, of course, William Shakespeare is unsurpassed. The nice thing about this band is that we get a lot of letters in the mail from fairly articulate people. They turn us on to various writers. It's fun to exchange ideas through the mail with the people that we meet, or those who find our music and seek us out...a very positive thing about being in the band. Letter-writing is another lost art, it's a discipline ...very rewarding thing to do. Karin has been reading everything she can get her hands on by Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, etc. Ric likes Charles Williams and Madeleine L'Engle. According to Karin, Ernest Hemingway has influenced us as a band. Also, M. Scott Peck. I have recently been reading the writings of Thomas Merton which have kindled a sort of awe for the Catholic Church. Brian has been reading Anne Rice.

ACM: Do you find it difficult writing letters or reading while on tour? You're currently touring with Adrian Belew. Is that a fairly fast-paced schedule or do you have time to pursue your interests?

OtR: Touring, I find, is an exercise in extroversion. If I'm home, I tend to be alone quite a bit. I'm fairly introspective, introverted, and contemplative... When you get geared up to go on tour, it's easy to get happy and bouncy and... (you're meeting a lot of people that you don't know...) things tend to get a little superficial sometimes. It is very fast-paced; I find it very difficult to find any solitude. We're at the stage right now where we all travel together. There are usually at least five of us, but we tend to stay in one hotel room. People are sleeping on the floor, and it's very much a group-oriented endeavor. It's hard to keep your perspective when it's so gregarious. And to answer your question, I find it impossible to write while on the road.

ACM: Is it different for you when you get up on stage and actually do a show? Do you prefer the recording aspect more, the writing, or maybe a balance between these and touring?

OtR: The most meaningful part of being in the band is the feeling I get sometimes when I'm trying to write a song... just by myself. I'm sort of tapping into things. Sometimes I don't understand the ramifications of everything that I'm writing. It's very rewarding to watch a song grow, and then live with it for a while. You learn things from it. I do enjoy playing live. I think there are difficult aspects to both, and both can be very rewarding. In the studio, we try to make every note count. We don't achieve this, but we strive for it most of the time. In a live concert, we stretch arrangements and Ric and Brian open up a lot more. They're both wonderful players and I tend to rein them in probably a little too much in the studio. But live, they have the freedom to really cut loose and play.

ACM: Do you ever find yourself adding to or changing songs in the process?

OtR: We're a lot different live than we are on tape, and we like both. But live, we're a bit more aggressive all around. Things are stripped down and a little bit more direct. We also tend to allow improvisation to creep in. Sometimes songs get extended and arrangements grow over time. We have people who feel that the live performances are much stronger than the recordings. Then, we get people who appreciate the recordings more. Hopefully, we land on both feet in the middle somewhere.

ACM: You'll be at Cornerstone this summer, so those who attend will have the chance to compare your live performance with your recordings. You've more dates ahead with Adrian.. Then, where will you be?

OtR: For an unsigned band, we do get around. We're based here in Southern Ohio. On this particular leg of the tour, we'll be as far West as San Francisco and Sacramento. We'll be playing a couple nights in a theater in Boulder, Colorado. And, we'll see some mountains, which is rare for us. Not as rare for you... Then, later in the summer, we'll be doing some of the large festivals in Europe, namely Flevo and Greenbelt (Flevo in Holland, and Greenbelt in England). We hope to do some club dates over there as well. We were fortunate enough to do some touring with Bob Dylan... some dates in Wisconsin and Iowa. And we hit Chicago every so often. We try to get around as much as possible.

ACM: Do you feel that being an unsigned band gives you some additional freedom, or do you find it has some limitations too?

OtR: I suppose the limitations are that you have to do everything yourself. Sometimes the creative process gets neglected in the interest of business and planning and promotion and so forth. Obviously, artistically, there's really nobody telling us what to do. We do have a publisher, ...a wonderful person. He put up some money for the most recent batch of recordings that we did and we recorded them at a studio in Nashville. Everything prior to that had been done on home-spun gear here in Cincinnati. When it was his dime, so to speak, we did feel a little pressure...that we better have something to show for all of this, because it tends to get expensive quickly when someone is putting you up in hotel rooms, paying for a studio, and flying an engineer in. He doesn't put a lot of artistic parameters on us, so this batch of songs that we're releasing July 1st is pretty diverse. That is one obvious freedom of not being on a label. Stylistically, we are free to pursue virtually anything that our hearts concoct.

ACM: So, up until now, you guys have been eking out a living and working part-time and/or full-time. When I called the other night to arrange a time to talk, you mentioned that you guys pooled your resources in the past to work towards something together.

OtR: I always said that if this band didn't fly, i.e. if we don't eventually get signed to a major label and make records that are widely distributed, and so forth... If that doesn't happen, I want to be out on the street, decrepit. I want to know that all my resources and energy went into it. I don't want to live the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I would have tried harder, or used more of my savings. I mean we've put everything on the line and borrowed a lot of money along the way. Most of it is paid back, but we have a lot of VISA cards, and we think nothing of putting six or eight thousand dollars on VISA to make something happen. We try to count the cost, and put everything we can muster into it.

ACM: An all or nothing approach... Do you ever get concerned that you may end up on the street yet?

OtR: Well, there is nothing wrong with making a new start. I mean, I'm still relatively young. I have lots of interests. We're going to try very hard to make it work. I feel very good about starting over with nothing. I don't fear it. I feel very good about doing something with all my might.

ACM: How long have you been working together as a band?

OtR: The summer of '89... We got together and started writing material. We recorded about a half dozen songs...the first half of our first cd, 'Til we have Faces. Karin didn't live in Cincinnati at the time and, over the course of the next year, she relocated down here. Ric and Brian did some touring as side men during that time. Then, in the summer of '90, we finished our cd. In September we started playing clubs around the Midwest. So, it's been about a year and a half now that we've been performing. We played Cornerstone last summer and met a lot of people there. The rest of our performing takes place in your typical college setting on a weekend night. We were kind of concerned whether our music, certainly not party music, would be received well in that context. Actually, we built a fairly large and loyal following over the last year and a half. We have an extensive mailing list, and we've received a considerable amount of airplay across the country here and there. Some commercial stations along with college stations. It's surprising what pops up.

ACM: How would you describe your music to someone who hasn't heard it? Is there any particular focus with your lyrics? Any style that you lean towards?

OtR: When we first started the group I thought about the direction a lot, but I don't think we articulated our thoughts too formally to one another. I know some of my concern was that we write songs that could stand on their own, and that were powerful without a lot of elaborate arrangement or flashy playing. I wanted a simplicity and a restraint in the writing. Also, I was interested in the folk approach to lyrics... I liked lyrics that painted very striking and specific images... and told stories. I definitely haven't mastered the art of telling a story in a song. It's a big goal. We definitely wanted to stay away from a lot of the slick pop that was being made in the 80's (with lots of keyboards and sequencing). We wanted a lot of acoustic instruments. This is all extremely boring to the average reader, so I should probably say something more exciting...

ACM: Your last cd has a very elaborate cd booklet, probably one of the most artistic I've ever seen. Its' very complete, very striking... with lots of very interesting illustrations and photographs. It is even packaged in an onion skin cover. What led you to go that far into the booklet?

OtR: I guess, to us, it couldn't have been any other way. We tried to make the cd sound as good as possible, with the equipment that we had to work with...which was very limiting. We took great pains to make it as good as we could. When it comes time to present the band visually, we try to be as creative as we can with the resources that we have. We're very fortunate to know a very gifted artist who's a photographer; his name is Michael Wilson. He's also a bit of a mentor for the band. He has a book that he published himself, with some of his photos and some prose in it. It's a beautiful book, and I find his work so moving. I was just thrilled to be able to associate it as much as possible with our music. He's done some photos for some other well-known bands. He did the All Shook Down cover for The Replacements, and he did the last BoDeans album. He did the last Lyle Lovett booklet...the photography for the inside of Lovett's Joshua, Judges, Ruth album which was recently released... I don't know if elaborate is the right word...we tried to make something beautiful. I think the philosophy of the band has always been to go the extra mile in anything we do, and to try to not leave well enough alone, but go the extra step.

ACM: So, every aspect of what you do, you do the best you possibly can, then take it a step further.

OtR: That's probably accurate...we try.

ACM: Just looking back through some of my notes... I would like to know where the name Over the Rhine came from.

OtR: I was always a small town boy. Most of us were raised in rural settings. Ric and Brian and I had some musical opportunities made available to us, which sort of led us to relocate in Cincinnati (which is not a huge city, there's probably two and a half million people in the greater Cincinnati area). But, for some reason, we ended up living right downtown in a little village called Over the Rhine. When we moved down in '88 or so, it was undoubtedly the seediest neighbor-hood in Cincinnati...and now it's sort of appalling in its diversity. You have very rich, art gallery types driving their Jaguars, and then you have the couple of stoned pan-handlers with their collective grocery cart hitting people up for change so they can make it through one more night. There are a lot of artists in the old German neighborhood, most of the buildings are 100-150 years old. It's really...especially when we first moved here...just an artist's dream environment, because it was so full of imagery. Most of the songs that we originally wrote for the band were written in my third story bedroom overlooking the activity on Main Street. We didn't have a name, and we tried the name was a perfect fit. We just adopted the name of our neighborhood.

ACM: So, it just happened.

OtR: When we leave Cincinnati, we get a lot of positive feedback on the name. People just assume we're from Europe or something. Here in Cincinnati, it was initially sort of frowned upon because the area was almost an embarrassment to the city. But now it's such a hip place to live, if we're not careful, we'll be associated with some kind of yuppie hangout. But, really, most people aren't familiar with the neighborhood in Cincinnati, so it just conjures up some image of a river or rainbow or something.

ACM: Now, you have a new project...a new cd that's going to be available about the same time that Cornerstone starts this summer. Was that a coincidence in timing, or were you preparing it to take with you?

OtR: I think we timed the release date so Cornerstone would be the first place it would be widely available. The people at Cornerstone were very kind to us and invited us back. They are treating us like a normal band, even though we're unsigned. It's our little way of saying thanks...timing the release so you have to go to Cornerstone to get it initially.

ACM: You mentioned that you're new material is a little more diverse, you feel that it's a stronger project, because of the resources you had this time?

OtR: I definitely don't feel it's a lot stronger. It's a little different, but there again, even though we were in a pretty decent studio this time, it's still very much a rush job. It's not an album project, it's very much a demo project. I don't know why, but it's become sort of a policy to invite people to snoop around in our sketch books, by putting out these demos. I think it's good for us to get feedback from listeners. I guess I should have mentioned that we're using the term album loosely...even the first cd is just a collection of songs that we demoed out, to get a feel for the direction the band was going to take, and there are certainly flaws in this new batch of songs. I read so many writers, Dylan Thomas e.g., (one of my favorite authors) the preface to his famous book Collected Poems he says that if he changed everything he didn't like about the poems in his collection that he'd have no time to write new poems. I sort of feel that way sometimes. When we get a record deal, and it's time to work on a record...hopefully there will be months involved where we can have time to live with the material and capture the sounds of the instruments the way we want to. Even then, I'm sure we won't achieve everything we strive for. Right now, we just don't have the resources to spend a lot of time in the studio. But sometimes, when you're forced to work quickly, little surprises come up that are not without charm. Hopefully, people will find elements of this collection that they like.

ACM: What would it take for you to be able to take that next step, ...and sign with a company and spend that time in the studio. What would be the carrot to encourage you to let go of all the freedom that you have?

OtR: It wouldn't take a whole lot, if a good major label...and someone with integrity as a person, wanted to sign us. We'd be happy to forego some of the artistic freedom that we enjoy now, in exchange for a company that could distribute us and take some of the business aspect off our hands.

ACM: Is the appeal for a label more to make the product more accessible to the general audience, or is it to free you up more to be artistic and to spend less time on the the business end. What's the pull for you?

OtR: I think when we get a record label, hopefully we will be able to focus more on the music. And, obviously we're concerned about making the music as available as possible to the public, not that everybody has to like it and shoot us up the charts. It's just that we're spending so many hours just to make the band known and get the word out. A major label has all sorts of networking capabilities and distribution systems in place, and they can make that their responsibility to let people know that we exist.

ACM: Is there anything else you could say to describe Over the Rhine?

OtR: I always am surprised that people tolerate the idea of one more band. Do you ever feel that there are too many bands trying to make it? Like, enough already...I don't want to hear about the next band that has to get signed to a record label. Sometimes I just feel a little self-conscious...I want to be in a band too. I ask myself, why does the world need one more band? It started out for me that I felt I had something I wanted to say. It's been a couple of years now,'s been pretty hard work. I think that artists start out wanting to express themselves, and they clamor and clamor, and fight and claw for the opportunity to finally stand up on a soap box and say their piece, and by the time they do get everbody's attention, they can't remember what it is that they wanted to say anymore. I feel that way sometimes. We work so hard to gain the audience, and get airplay, and get the stuff distributed in stores, and we're working very hard for a platform. I hope that when we get there, that there is still something meaningful within us that needs to be said, ...make it worth it. It's fun to take our brand of music into an alternative bar. And we try to write poetic lyrics, and a lot of them deal with fairly serious issues of spirituality, and the difficulty of maintaining meaningful relationships, and the difficulties of survival in our materialistic culture. A lot of the times I feel the big percentage of organized religion is sort of missing some of the innuendos and subtleties of what Jesus taught. These are the sort of things we are discussing in our the context of alternative clubs and bars across the Midwest and elsewhere. It feels good too. A lot of people were skeptical that 'alternative' people would be into what we are doing, because we come across as caring about what we do, and that's sort of ...very uncool. It's much cooler to be detached and above it all, and distant. Anyway, it can be very rewarding in those settings, to see people give the music a chance and be drawn in, and have people say, "I wouldn't normally listen to this, but it's working." Maybe because our songs attempt to be somewhat literate in their approach, we tend to meet some fairly intelligent people that have a lot to offer us. I've enjoyed meeting some very bright students and so forth, and continue developing a relationship through correspondence.

Tom D. Stephenson