A Conversation with Cordelia’s Dad

The New Puritan ReView
Minneapolis, MN
December 1991

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation; most of which ended up in the published article, as it appears here.]

Among performing artists there has always been a tip of the hat towards William Shakespeare’s pre-existentialist wit and incestuous morality. More often than not, the characters themselves are used as social inferences, morality plays in themselves, and as such are given new identity: Shakespeare’s sister, for instance, became a classic reference from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie – as well as the title of a Smiths song. King Lear, of course, was the father of Cordelia, so it seemed only fitting that three collegiate rockers from Amherst, Massachusetts – who shared a fondness for songs about death and other such merriment – would fondly dub the Bard’s classic figurehead Cordelia’s Dad, and the rest would come to be whatever ‘twould be… or not to be.

In the following interview, these three determined young men [vocalist / bassist Tim Ericksen, guitarist / vocalist Tom King, and drummer Peter Irvine] reveal some of the ups and downs of straying so far from the cutting edge of “alternative” underground music, having plainly established an alternative or two of their own.

[Moot disclaimer: due to the shortcomings involved with deciphering recorded voices, the band as a whole is credited with all remarks. I don’t think anyone will be embarrassed by anything, at any rate. Except maybe the person conducting the interview, but that’s par for the course, I reckon.]

Q What provokes a band to pursue such an off-the-beaten-path course as you do?

A It was pretty much a conscious decision to try something… different.

Q What inspired you to stray so far into the past? You’re obviously attached to some elements of the independent rock scene.

A Just sort of running into it. I got interested in it just by going to a concert by accident.

Some records that my parents had.

Q Of the two predominant styles you employ, which provided more of an outlet for your musical roots?

A We were a rock band first. It was just a way of being able to do both things. We play acoustic as well. There’s something of a misnomer about traditional music and the association between traditional and folk music… mandolins and guitars, and this and that. Although there are certain traditions in this country; there’s certainly a banjo tradition that’s pretty strong – it’s largely been unaccompanied – just sung. It’s just another way of accompanying the songs. You know, accompanying with acoustic instruments is one way, and with electric instruments is another.

Q To what do you attribute such an avid interest in the past?

A There’s a distinction I make between traditional and “traditional”; traditional meaning “old-fashioned” and “traditional” meaning that it’s associated with an old tradition. So, our approach is not to be traditional in the sense of being old-fashioned, but just working with stuff that comes from some very old traditions.

Q Are there specific elements that left more of an impression on you?

A It’s how and where they were heard, I guess. There are different things that we found interesting about different songs; one song might be interesting because it’s something that you always kind of know. Other songs, you might like just the tune and not the words.

A lot of times, you can find a lot of different versions of a particular song and piece little bits that you like about each one together, to make one whole song that you like. You know, if the tune is getting boring, or the words don’t make too much sense, you can just sort of piece ’em together in different places, or add a line or two.

Q From what frame of reference do you draw these bits and pieces?

A Words to the English songs tend to be more complete than American tunes. American words tend to be more ambiguous. We’ve had a lot of specific references to sex and death that you might find more explicitly in English songs. So, we tend to work with American songs more so.

Q Do you favor the less easily defined approach?

A Well, depending… yeah. There are good kinds of ambiguity and there are bad kinds.

Something we’ve been doing lately is working with texts from nineteenth century songs, which tend to be more romantic. They’re not necessarily songs from the oral tradition; they’re composed songs that people just started singing, and then somebody went back and played it some thirty years later, in a slightly different form.

Q Do you feel this approach is received well, currently?

A Very widely. When there are people that are allowed to see you…

Real well in our own area, but getting out of that area… people just don’t seem to get out very much. New York’s been really good to us.

And Boston… everywhere’s getting better, it’s just kind of slow. It sort of takes enough times playing somewhere for someone to give you a good show, and then enough of those people come back to see you every time.

There seems to be a smattering of bands that are interested in working with folk music of some sort, whether it’s traditional songs or just blues stuff that just kind of sounds like it.

I think that a lot of the new songs that are imitations of the old ones, are very often picking up on the wrong things about the music, to my ears. The interesting thing about a song being contained in the words, rather than a keyboard or a drum machine sound. We have to take a totally different approach to making rock songs because we already have something that exists on its’ own, and if you want to preserve that, you can’t really mess with it too much. I think that a lot of the songs sort of start with arrangement and sort of grow into songs, and not really starting necessarily with some sort of structural idea – words and a tune. I find it actually harder than writing songs from scratch. You can’t just do whatever you want.

It’s certainly a tradition that that is steeped in storytelling, unlike so many of the cut-and-dried songwriting ilk.
There’s certainly value in that, it’s just a very different scene.

Narrative is making a total comeback. People are jumping at ’60s and ’70s ideas, so I hope we sort of get a similar sort of resurgence

Q You’re not concerned if people think you’re just caught up in a nostalgia trip?

A We just love the songs and I think that it takes a certain investment of time for a lot of people, because – at least in my opinion – it’s a little bit risky. There’s sort of a hokey-ness factor that we always sort of skirt around, and we have to sort of say, okay, we’re gonna listen through the potential for hokey-ness, and try to get out what’s good about these songs. I think we’re getting a lot better than the first record.

Q Was there an album released prior to the OKra LP?

A No, that’s the first, but it’s been out for a while, so we talk about it in the past tense. We’re still getting reviews, but we’re going in to record back in Boston. We’re recording one song for a German label compilation. There’s gonna be an old song off the record and one new song.

Q How did the label change come about, with the minimal publicity you’ve received thus far?

A They picked OKra’s stuff up.

Q A major label?

A Normal – a German label. They apparently want to do a compilation, in addition to regular records. We’re gonna do some other recording while we’re in the studio.

Q So you’ll be leaving the OKra roster? I thought Dan Dow had a personal interest in every band on the label.

A Not because of dissatisfaction with OKra, but… you know, because of money.

Not money necessarily for us, but money for the record, and pushing that a little more. If we could get someone to finance us in any other way, I would go with OKra in a second. Dan is really a good person to work with.

You can do whatever you want, and he’s very frank.

Q So what kind of changes does that see for the band?

A We have a producer now – a Rough Trade exec who decided to take us under his wing.

Q What kind of difference does that make?

A A lot. He makes all the phone calls. We’ve learned a lot in the past couple of months about the business side of things.

I think it’s just an evolution between going, “I don’t know”, and being able to say, “Maybe if we’re going to do this, here’s what we have to do”. Actually, at this point I think it’s a good thing. It hasn’t had a negative effect; it’s gotten us to think about some things. He’s worked with some interesting people – I don’t know if interesting is the right word – currently popular, at least.

It’s interesting to us that they’re able to make as much money as they are.

Q How does it feel to have someone come into the group on that level?

A I really like his approach. He has suggestions for us, in terms of arrangement of the songs and stuff like that. He’s not of the opinion that one has to be boring and top-40 bound, you know? Just thoughtful arrangement.

Practice, practice, practice…

Q How does the new work ethic affect your regular lives?

A At this point it is our regular lives.

Q Does this actually take care of you?

A In a very, very tenuous way. It kind of takes care of all our time.

There’s still time for Tetris! That’s excellent, because it’s on the same computer as all our mailing lists and lists of people to harass.

© J. Free / New Puritan ReView; 1991; 2022