We play something called “Americana.” Or at least that’s what our official bio says. And even though it’s nearly impossible to really define that, I’ve been thinking a lot about what that might actually mean.
Of all the essentially meaningless genre classifications in modern music, “Americana” comes closest, in my opinion, to describing the complex web of influences and expression that we draw on for songwriting inspiration. It at least has the most possibility for expanding rather than constraining a musical vocabulary. It’s also admittedly problematic for a number of reasons, including that it depends on an already-existing idea of “America,” but in many ways, I think it can also resist that. Part of what’s useful for me about the term is that it always contradicts itself – “Americana” is such a patchwork of different ethnic, regional and global elements that it’s essentially UN-American. And I don’t mean that it’s a “melting-pot,” whatever that is – I mean that it’s a fist fight.
There are some characteristically “American” things about Empty Orchestra’s music: the songs depend to some extent on the English language; they draw influence from a lot of musical forms usually thought of as traditionally “American” like country and western, blues, and rock and roll; they share an obsession with American places and geography. More broadly, though, what it’s really inspired by is folk music – and by that, I don’t mean some bland coffee-house bullshit. To me, it means music that has a relationship to a community, and usually a relationship to struggle. Folk music is not “pure” or unadulterated, and it is impossibly messy, but it is also an constantly changing tool for people to express joy and navigate pain, and of voicing outrage and solidarity. It is a way of telling stories and of trying to understand your relationship to your home and to the people around you. And that’s certainly what EO tries to do.
It’s been said by some reviewers that Empty Orchestra seems to have multiple personalities – that it seems like 2 (and sometimes 3 or 4) different bands went into the studio and produced completely different kinds of songs on the same record. Besides the fact that it’s exactly this quality that makes me love some of my favorite bands and records so much, I think that it’s also a big part of what keeps me interested in making music. I also love records that have a single, cohesive sound – but more often than not, I think that records that sound the same (especially in the modern music business) just end up sounding…the same. A “consistent” sound usually produces a record that’s easy to review in 140 characters (Gritty! Hard-hitting! Full of hooks!), but doesn’t really change lives. And I’m definitely into songs that change lives, including mine.
I’m the child of an immigrant with a weird collage of tastes, and so my earliest musical education took the form of long car rides where I heard a shuffling of cassettes that included polkas and waltzes, country vocal groups and musical theater, pop music and Motown. All that was folk music to me, and so was the local punk rock that I dove into as soon as I could get a ride to an all-ages show downtown. That always made sense side-by-side to me, and it still does. It still inspires me to write songs that attempt to collect the love that I feel for all those different kinds of music and transform it into some kind of whole. In my understanding of songwriting, folk and punk and blues and country and everything else can’t be separated – they always have to be rubbing up against each other un/comfortably. That’s the peculiar strength of the folk music collage called Americana, that it can be forever changing and learning from itself.
And hopefully that’s what gives strength to Empty Orchestra songs. If it sometimes sounds like 4 or 5 different bands at the same time, it’s because it is. I hope that each record and each song has a fist fight of traditions and generations and genres and tempos and joy and doubt and death and punchlines — and that’s way more interesting to me than something that can be summed up in 140 characters. This is brain surgery to me; it’s rocket science, it’s life and death.
We try to write political songs and love songs, and songs that we know and some we don’t know, and some we probably have no right to. We write songs that try to understand who we are and where this stuff comes from, and that try to make sense of the places and people around us, and songs that try to make and remake community. For now, i guess “Americana” works as well as any other genre to describe all that, for what it’s worth.
Thanks for reading.