No Safety Net: An Interview with Over the Rhine's Linford Detweiler


The seminal Ohio folk rockers Over the Rhine released a fine new album, The Long Surrender, last month - check out the MT review here -- and now the band will be making a stop at The Ark in Ann Arbor this Tuesday (April 5). After beginning life as a four-piece in 1991, Over the Rhine has for some years now consisted of the husband-and-wife team of guitarist Karin Bergquist and multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler, with Bergquist's ethereal vocals flying over eclectic arrangements that swing as often as they brood. Detweiler kindly answered a few questions about the band's latest work, legacy, and live show via email. * * * Over the Rhine is associated very strongly with the midwestern U.S., a distinction you seem to wear more proudly than many other bands from the region. But of course your followers are everywhere, and The Long Surrender was recorded in California. Do you still consider Ohio a large piece of your identity, and is it a noticably different experience performing elsewhere in the U.S.? Ohio, geographically speaking, has undeniably become romantically entangled with our music in ways that are hard to quantify. The fact that we’ve stayed rooted in Ohio near friends, near our childhood roots, has made all the difference. We were always fascinated by the idea of certain American writers and artists that are immediately associated with a specific place: Robert Frost, Flannery O’Connor, Georgia O’Keefe, Wendell Berry . . . We’ve been blessed with a regional following that has remained devoted to the music, but as you say, it has grown outward in significant ways from our home base. Now when we play Seattle, or DC, or NYC, or Chicago, or Atlanta, there is palpable excitement, and returning to those cities to reconnect with those who have found our music always feels like a homecoming as well. Coming home to extended family. On record, The Long Surrender's songs are intimate, even hushed; since your lineup of backing musicians varies, do you aim to duplicate this on stage, or do you tend to "open up" the material? Karin suggests that if it feels too hushed, you may not be turning the volume up loud enough! When it comes to our songs, we’ve always said, Quiet music should be played loud. And our audience gets that I think. When we play live, it’s a big sound. And yes, we always want to remain open to the idea of letting the songs bloom in front of an audience. It’s not about recreating the recordings meticulously. It’s more about letting the songs breathe, and leaving room in the songs to respond spontaneously to the arc and spark of a particular evening. You don't seem to get much recognition for your longevity, but you stand up as one of the longest-running and most consistent independent bands. Are you still playing cuts from those Scampering and I.R.S. albums? How does something like Patience sound to you today? Thanks for the compliment. We have survived for over 20 years now. We’ve made a living doing what we love. I think that might be called success. Karin says she’s grateful for those early records, because they document our growth as writers and singers and performers. Some people who appreciate our music remain very attached to our early recordings, and some of the early songs continue to resonate with us, but we’re not a nostalgia act. I think we are writers first and foremost at the end of the day. When we make a new record, it’s almost like we’ve written a new play in three acts. We want to go out and perform the new play in front of an audience. That’s what’s exciting. The new songs are the most intimate expression of where we are now in the journey. They feel the most dangerous and alive. Playing the new songs feels like living fully in the moment. But it’s a balancing act. We know some of the older songs mean a lot to people, and we do want to celebrate the miles we’ve covered together with those who have stuck with us for the long haul. I have the impression that getting a new record off the ground is, even for such a widely loved band, increasingly an uphill battle. Do you notice more struggle and lead time compared to ten or fifteen years ago? Yeah, there was a lot of time and effort involved in getting The Long Surrender wrapped up and out the door. But I think most of that had to do with the actual writing process. And I think that should take longer as the years go by. That should be an uphill battle. It shouldn’t be easy to do the best work of your career 20 years in. Later in a career it’s less about inspiration, and talent, and luck. It’s more about resilience, patience, endurance, the willingness to do the work of refining a song in order that it might live up to its full potential. That takes time. Increasingly, writing becomes about patience. Persistence. We hope we’re late bloomers. We hope that if our songs outlive us, our legacy will include the songs that we wrote in our final few laps, at the top of our game, when we were all but out of breath, leaning forward, the red ribbon of the finish line in sight. You've mentioned that a song like "The Laugh of Recognition" is infected by the current economic unrest, something that has overshadowed much of the world since The Trumpet Child was issued four years ago. Do you think such tumult tends to result in more widespread creativity? I’m not sure. We’ve resisted the urge to make proclamations from mountaintops with our music. We’ve ultimately tried to keep it personal. Conversational. We speak for ourselves, and we speak from within a cherished circle of friends and mentors. That being said, if we tell the truth as we see it, hopefully we will nudge up against the universal from time to time. As we were writing the songs on The Long Surrender, we were often in conversation with close friends about the latest economic downturn. Some of our friends lost businesses that they had worked years to build. And of course there is a lot of uncertainty that is built into the life of a songwriter and performer. Karin and I have never had a backup plan. We’ve never had a safety net. Over two decades into your career, is it an un-rock 'n' roll insult to declare your work (this album in particular) "comforting?" Absolutely not. It doesn’t get any more rock-n-roll than “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable ” We make sad people happy, and vice versa.
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