It’s been a couple years since we’ve heard something new from Oakland’s Toby Oler, who released the wonderfully weird OVTOV in 2012. On OVTOV, Oler wrote the songs and had a bunch of his musician friends record them for him. For his most recent release, he took a similar approach, but worked with a primary vocalist, Michael James Tapscott (of Odawas), thus creating the aptly named Tapscott Sings Toby. While OVTOV was all over the place stylistically, Tapscott Sings Toby successfully zeroes in on the elusive lounge-synth-folk-jazz genre – a cohesive theme that won’t bore you. It’s not quite like anything you’ve heard before, and I recommend giving it a listen or three. I chatted with Oler and Tapscott about the album below.
The Bay Bridged: How did you guys get to know each other, and what made you guys decide to do an album together?
Toby Oler: I was in college at Indiana University and my buddies and I used to read the Indiana Daily Student and laugh with these two highfalutin music critics, like who are these guys? Real ballsy for school paper music critics. The two in question happened to be Michael Tapscott and Isaac Edwards of the Odawas. Fast-forward 5 or 6 years later, and I meet Michael and Isaac and they are absolutely two of my favorite people. Michael and his lovely girlfriend Shelley have lived at my house for the last year so we see each other a lot.
As far as us working together musically, our start, as I recall, was I briefly played with the Odawas (banjo first and then an ill-advised and tempestuous switch to bass) and then Tapper had sang on 2 tracks of OVTOV. The decision to make the album for me it was as simple as I love his voice. I don’t get sick of hearing it.
Michael James Tapscott: I had known Toby as a stand up guy for sometime. I heard the sound of his banjo in this country version of Odawas we had going about 3 or 4 years ago. That band blew up, basically destroyed by the pedal steel player leaving town, the drummer quitting and Toby taking over on bass, but keeping the bass player in the band as well. Then I got divorced and Toby offered a room for my troubled soul.
TO: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
TBB: How has being midwestern transplants in Oakland shaped your music?
TO: Oakland. I came for the weed and stayed for the weather. And I know a bunch of other midwestern musicians in the same boat. There’s a loose good ol’ boy network of sorts. Like attracts like. It reminds me of that spot in the Keith Richards book where he talks about what tipped the scale in picking Ronnie Wood to be Mick Taylor’s replacement in the Rolling Stones was because he’s from England too. Might not always be technically the best man for the job, but our base tendency is to want to hang out with our countrymen.
MJT: Hard to say, I get more parking tickets out here, which keeps me hungry.
TO: Michael hungry.
TBB: What was the process of making the album like?
TO: Once we had the title, all that was left to do was to get to work. Pretty obviously, we copped the title directly from Nillsson sings Newman. One night real late in the kitchen, Michael must have put on that LP. I have a spot in my kitchen that is the the number one place to listen to music in the world for me. Anyhow, this idea popped up on a receptive night cause we ran with it.
Well, we walked with it. It took a real long time to get going. We moved about as fast as pond water. Tapscott and I did the demos at his old apartment at the Sears Building in Oakland where the unit next door was Governor Jerry Brown’s bay area smash pad. Sometimes there would be a secret service guy sitting on a metal folding chair right outside the door. The ceilings were like 20 feet tall there so the demos had this great natural reverb. We usually did one song in an evening, maybe two, so that part was a few months.
Then I went to Mike Walti and we started building beats on top of the demos. Next, bass with Connor O’Sullivan at his studio in the Outer Richmond. He has a ton of cool synths so you can go real deep over there. Mostly overdubs were at Mike Walti’s over the course of a year. It was all good, but sessions that stand out were doing harmonies with the great Elliott Peck & Grahame Lesh and Michael Coleman on the white grand piano over at Shipwrecked Studios next door to Walti’s. Also, Walti knew this dude Valentino from a salsa band that came in one night and did some sick percussion. And of course, Matt Nelson is the truth on the saxophone. 99th percentile. Very exciting to be in the room with him while he does his thing. Thinking back to that makes the hair on my arms stand up.
Once the tracks started to sound pretty good, I gave it back to Tapscott to sing on. When he was done, Walti and I kept after it until it was right. It took so long that I think Walti and I developed our own sort of proto-language by the time it was over.
MJT: I don’t remember it taking that long, I’m a first take kind of guy.
TBB: You definitely made the most of those synths – what were some of your favorite synth moments to create and listen to now?
TO: As far as creating, One of my favorites is this thing Connor has called a x0xb0x, which is a clone of a Roland 303 bass synth that I think he made from a kit he bought online. Whenever I hear it in a rap song now, it immediately jumps out at me. For example, Clams Casino uses it on that Squadda B track “Kissin’ on my Syrup.” There’s nothing like it. We used it to make the bass line on “Walti Please” and on “Undefeated” on OVTOV. I love that little box. I compare it to an allen wrench, there’s like one single thing that it does and no other tool does that job as well. It’s not like a vicegrip where you can use it for a bunch of stuff. One that’s more like the vicegrip is the Moog Little Phatty that we used for the “icy monolith rising from a barren spacescape via electric blue tractor beam” sounds in “It’s a Child Night,” among other things.
One of my favorites for listening back now is Isaac made these tense synthesized noises in the middle of “Wall to Wall” but I have no idea how he did it. It’s not music you could very well notate. The finished tracks he gave me had weirdo non-descript names like Texas Siren and he artfully deflected any inquiries I made into how it was created. He’s a master at sustaining the mystery. Sometimes even i’m not allowed to see behind the curtain. And it’s my curtain! I own the curtain. Also, the casio harpsichord on “Fool’s Gold” still sounds fresh to me. If Michael Coleman were a piano robot, I feel like I set his dial back 300 years that evening and pressed play.
TBB: How did you write the album? Were you writing with Tap in mind?
I usually write with a guitar and an open word doc on the laptop. I’ll email and text myself phrases that I enjoy and keep that in a running doc. Looking back, I had a turning point in my songwriting that ended up on this record, “She’s Mad at Me Again,” a country style duet that Tapscott does with Elliott Peck. It’s the last song. See, I wrote it and then I couldn’t play it for my girlfriend because I was certain it would start a big fight. So from then on out, I’m not in there in my songs as a character or moreso any details are entirely divorced from my reality. Now I create a story from found phrases. Some of them sound like little confessionals, but It’s not me in there. Like Denis Johnson says, “English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.” The songs are like that to me, just little TV shows. And although he makes it sound like it, I did not write any of these songs with Michael Tapscott in mind. I have since though.
TBB: Toby, why don’t you sing much on these albums?
TO: I don’t sing at all on this one. It was conceived as a feature for Michael. My experience in total has been that other people sing my songs a far cry better than I do.
TBB: How much input does Tap get on the composition, and how much does Toby get on his singing?
TO: Well a lot of these tunes are real old so the composition was done by the time they made their way to Michael. I did try to pick out songs that were closest to his vocal style, so in a way, that is a certain sort of overarching input.
As far as my input on the singing, Michael sings it how he sings it. I decide to keep it or ask him to take another pass. He turns in quality stuff, I mean, we even used some of the demo vocal takes. There’s no niggling over details. He’s a skilled technician.
MJT: I don’t remember ever being allowed to make a decision.
TBB: Michael, why so many collaboration albums over the last couple of years?
MJT: With the dissolution of my band and marriage, both blows dealt with my own hand, I was really lost. I played in other people’s bands, sang on other people’s records, stole so badly from others that I had to put their names on my records and in turn there were people stole so liberally from me that they had to put my name on their records. I was trying to discover a new way of doing things. What I discovered was that I had it pretty good to begin with. Oops!
I’ve got the band back now, maybe I’ll get the wife next?
TBB: What did you learn from OVTOV that you applied to this album?
TO: I feel like on OVTOV, in regards to how the songs turned out, Connor and I were going fishing and doing a lot of experimenting as we created it. This project, except for a few songs, there was a lot of intent in how they would sound from the beginning. It was built from the ground up. Also on OVTOV, I learned I liked working with people, not instruments. I don’t need an instrument to come play a specific part of my choosing. I want a person to come up and do their thing.
MJT: I learned that Toby will make a lot more of these, and except for a few dips into uninformed but interesting territory, they will keep getting better.
TBB: What were you listening to when when you wrote the songs and made the album?
TO: Phish. I listen to Phish all the time. Years on end really. The Stones, JJ Cale, some Hip-Hop, Run the Jewels, Gucci Mane, Dilla, Minaj, Yeezus, old Wu Tang. Isaac introduced me to DJ Screw and I can get down with that. Dub. Bluegrass. Showtunes. Opera. Anything. If it’s good I like it. Total sucker for a nice song.
MJT: Begrudgingly, whatever Toby was playing in the kitchen. At the time of recording my vocal tracks, I was not into music. So it’s pretty stunning just how well they turned out if you think about it.
TBB: Any chance you’ll play it live? Maybe just the two of you & a banjo?
MJT: This seems unlikely, right?
TO: If someone were to step up and offer us a lump sum, I can answer for the both of us: yes. To do this material justice in it’s current form would take a good band and, like it or not, a good band is gonna want some money.
We could make some fine music with the two of us and a banjo, but I reckon we would pick material based on those limitations. This studio stuff was made without considering for even a moment the constraints of a group of musicians performing it live.
TBB: What’s next for both of you?
TO: I just recorded an instrumental album at New Improved Studio in Oakland with a 6 piece band. It’s called Thank You Bird Snider. We did it all live. It’s really cool. I set out to make an album that featured my banjo playing. Bird Snider from Brown County, Indiana built the banjo that I use. He’s the coolest. I’ve got a million stories about him. So I wanted a music project to focus on this incredible instrument that he built. It’s kind of a love letter from me to my banjo. And it’s not what you would expect. I’m like the world’s slowest banjo player. In a good way.
The band is real special, a bunch of Hoosiers. Notably, Pat Spurgeon on drums. My old buddy Matt Lundquist, who Tapscott refers to as “ that beautiful man,” on pedal steel. We will most likely play some shows in the fall. I want to play the Chapel. I like the tall ceiling there. It feels like an old german beer garden that is missing the long wooden tables and sauerkraut. It feels right to me. So, Emery and I have been mixing that album. Don’t sleep on Emery Barter as an engineer, that kid is a champ.
Next Tapscott/Toby project will be a calypso album. Not kidding. I already wrote it.
MJT: It should be a good year for Odawas. We have a new album coming out on June 2nd, REFLECTIONS OF A PINK LASER, on 12 inch vinyl via Bookmaker Records in France. We will play shows and follow that at the end of the year with another full length 12 inch on Bookmaker called BLACK HARMONY.
TO: One last thing, I wanna say thank you to Russell from The Bay Bridge for asking these questions and if anybody has read all the way down the webpage thus far, thank you for spending your time with us. If you want a free download of TAPSCOTT SINGS TOBY, email me through my website and I’ll send you a download code.