Cincinnati music veteran Brian Olive is about to release his solo album, 'Living On Top'

It might just be the album of the year.

click to enlarge Brian Olive - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Brian Olive
Like Mark Twain, the news of Brian Olive’s demise was greatly exaggerated. Well, not Olive exactly, but his highly regarded Northside studio, The Diamonds, and not demised so much as damaged, relocated and reinvented. Or at least well into that process. So maybe not like Mark Twain at all.

In any event, as Olive conducts a walking tour of the 112-year-old house perched on a bluff in the foothills of Mount Airy where he is building his new studio — which he has christened Mount Saturn — it’s clear that the multi-instrumentalist/producer/singer/songwriter has a long-range vision for the facility as well as its surrounding property.

Although Olive notes that the studio won’t be fully operational until this summer, Mount Saturn has already notched its first production as both a studio (at least in spirit) and a record label (Mount Saturn Sound) with the imminent release of Olive’s stunning third album, Living On Top, coming nearly six years after his equally impressive sophomore effort, Two of Everything.

Quite a lot has transpired in Olive’s life during the gap between albums. Just as Two of Everything was on the verge of release, he was busy learning a 20-song setlist in order to guest in music legend Dr. John’s band for his SuperJam set at Bonnaroo in 2011. Olive had already done the sessions for Dr. John’s then-imminent new album, Locked Down, which was being produced by Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach, who had also co-manned the console with Olive for Two of Everything. Two years later, Dr. John took home a Grammy in the Blues album category, and everyone associated with Locked Down was recognized for that achievement, including Olive. This clearly begs the Carmen Sandiego question: Where in the world is Brian Olive’s Grammy? There’s a catch.“That’s a funny thing. Because he’s a solo artist, they gave the statue to Dr. John and I spent a year and a half explaining to people, ‘I don’t actually have a Grammy; I have a certificate,’ ” Olive says from the rehearsal/chill loft above Mount Saturn. “Then we were down at Dan’s studio mixing the last Electric Citizen album, and I looked up and Dan has a statue, and Collin (Dupuis), the engineer, has a statue. And I was like, ‘I don’t care anymore, I’m tired of explaining about the certificate — I’m just going to tell people I have a Grammy.’ I’m not sure about this but someone was saying if you talk to the right people and pay for it, you can get one. I’m happy with the certificate. You don’t have to worry about someone stealing it.”

Jerry Springer lends a hand on Olive's pre-order video for Living On Top:

Olive's Twists

Not long after his Grammy win, Olive began setting up his studio space in the basement of a Northside jewelry store. The ancient sign above the storefront inspired him to dub his facility The Diamonds. In that increasingly cramped locale, Olive produced a number of great releases by area artists, including every Electric Citizen album to date and recordings by The Tillers, Royal Holland, The Perfect Children, Ohio Knife and Wonky Tonk, among many others.

As Olive’s star as a producer began to rise, tensions began to mount with his landlord. The basement space was always somewhat problematic, but issues escalated at an alarming rate and few were resolved to his satisfaction.

“There was an ongoing series of calamities,” Olive says. “The landlord wasn’t happy with the situation, I wasn’t happy with the situation and we were kind of stuck there, waiting for the bank to come up off the new place so I could buy it. We were still working; I did another Electric Citizen album and (You, You’re Awesome’s) Yusef Quotah solo album, so in the last year we were doing good things. But in my mind, I was already up (at the new space). It was just one thing after another, a general bad vibe.”

The final straw for Olive was a plumbing concern that resulted in a fairly substantial leak over his studio piano (which he’s since repaired). After this incident, Olive was resolute that remaining in the space was not an option.

“I was right in the middle of doing overdubs for Living On Top,” he says. “We were starting to feel the cramped space, too. It was always a small space, but it felt like it was getting smaller and smaller and pushing me out. And it did. But I’m trying to remember only the good things.”

When Olive had been in the initial phases of what would eventually become Living On Top, production jobs and occasional touring opportunities naturally interrupted his work flow. At one point, he got a call from Auerbach, who was looking for a saxophonist to accompany him on the road with his latest side project, The Arcs. Olive had actually tracked some of The Arcs’ 2015 album, Yours, Dreamily, but believes the only thing that survived from those sessions was a live vocal take of Olive and Auerbach on what became the last song on the album, “Searching the Blue.” Olive accepted the invitation, cleared his schedule and waited for further details from Auerbach.

“He’d told me that he wanted to have me come on tour for this Arcs thing, so I made all the arrangements to do that and then I wasn’t hearing anything,” Olive says. “So I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, so-and-so’s doing it because he’s already in New York.’ And I was like, ‘Thanks for telling me.’ ”

Olive was understandably miffed as he attempted to restore his schedule to some semblance of order. But Olive is now happy the tour gig didn’t happen — had had hit the road with The Arcs, it’s likely he would have missed the opportunity to obtain the house that will soon be the new address for Mount Saturn Studio.

“I would have been on the road with (The Arcs) when this came on the market,” he says. “So that’s why I was like, ‘OK, fine, don’t worry about it.’ ”

After looking over the property in December of 2015 and seeing its potential, Olive put in a bid; in the throes of a desultory holiday season, he received the good news on Christmas Eve that his offer had been accepted. A little subsequent detective work by Olive and his girlfriend, Helen Smith, revealed the adjoining parcels were also up for grabs, so they acquired all of them, utilizing one to install a driveway up to the house. One of the plots also had an existing home on it, but the structure had been condemned, so Olive and Smith were obligated by ownership to pay for its demolition. Their eventual goal is to build a new house on the now-vacant site, which will be a 30-second walk from the studio when it’s completed.

"Jubilee Line" from Olive's 2009 self-titled debut:

"Left Side Rock" from Olive's Two of Everything album:

Long Way to the 'Top'

In the midst of his real estate wheeling and dealing, Olive was intermittently putting the finishing touches on Living On Top. The 10-track album is a culmination of all of his varied musical experiences, from the raw Garage Rock shamble and shake of The Greenhornes (the Cincinnati Garage Rock juggernaut of which he was a founding member) to the visceral Blues swagger of The Soledad Brothers (the popular Detroit-via-Northern-Ohio band he left The Greenhornes to join) to his exposure to Auerbach and his broad circle of influence. Living on Top exhibits a slinky, soulful mood, a brilliant and exuberant mash-up of the ’60s Pop/Rock of The Kinks and The Beatles and the ’70s Soul/Pop ethic of Memphis, Tenn. in general and Stax Records in particular, jolted with a heart needle of contemporary Indie Pop verve.

The new album bristles with the excitement of Olive’s long personal history, as well as his eclectic musical tastes. The scorching Rock-and-Soul revue of “Somebody Stole That Song” could have been a mid ’60s hit for Otis Redding; the loping “A New Day Begins” has the Carnaby Street sound of the Davies brothers intertwined with Traffic at its poppiest; and “Sideways” sounds like Steve Winwood and Traffic in their transition from Prog/Folk to Jazz, as they attempt to charm a snake out of a New Delhi basket. Olive’s impassioned vocals have the gritty smoothness of Winwood or Paul Weller, and his sax solo on the title track sounds as if he’s holding a séance and conjuring the spirit of the late Bobby Keys at the height of his powers, namely his iconic work on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and his pervasive presence on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”

Olive and his current band performing new song "Loud and Low" live for WCPO Lounge Acts recently:

One of the major shifts on Living On Top was a reliance on computers during the recording and production process, something the tape/analog-loving Olive had yet to experience. Since he was essentially learning on the job, the higher-tech experiment ended up being another big factor in the new album’s lengthy gestation period.

“I decided to embrace the computer, which, by the way, I’ll never do again,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like I’ve done my time. I’m not saying I’ll never record on a computer again, but I felt like I should learn how to do this so I have an educated opinion. So I tracked everything to tape pretty much, but I ended up removing the bass and drums from the original recording of (the song) ‘Living On Top’ and adding in the percussion and redoing the bass, and it wasn’t done to a click track so it was a pretty serious undertaking. That took a long time to do, but I’m glad I did it because it gave it a feel I couldn’t get otherwise.”

Still, Olive prefers the old-school analog style of recording to tape much more and for numerous reasons.

“I do appreciate the computer… but I love the sound of tape. And it’s so much more relaxing; it’s less frustrating, you can talk to people while you’re doing it, you don’t have anybody peering at this little thing. In this new place, I might have a (computer available), but I just want to record analog because I enjoy it.”

Olive and his band recorded live at The Emery Theater in 2012:

Rediscovery Channels

Six years ago in an interview for CityBeat, Olive spoke to me about his musical influences and the way they had an impact on the outcome of Two of Everything, saying he felt as though he had focused his inspirations into his own distinct musical identity. Now, he says he largely feels the same way about Living On Top, but admits that his musical persona can be something of a shifting center point.

“I think that’s kind of a fluid, flexible place in my mind,” Olive says. “Each time I do something, I’m like, ‘Now I’ve got it figured out. I’ve got it.’ But it changes. At (the time of recording Two of Everything), I’d been in The Greenhornes for five years and The Soledad Brothers for six years, and that was a lot of touring around and ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’ every night. I think I just got burned out. I’ve always loved certain Pop music and I wanted to do something kind of mellow, so I really feel like the first two solo albums were me trying to do all the things I felt like doing.

“But then I didn’t feel mellow anymore. I started doing a show here and there with The Soledad Brothers and I got that bug; I came from the Rock & Roll and R&B world, and my confidence as a singer had grown to the point where I was like, ‘I’m going to sing however I feel like singing,’ and I really liked it, even more than before. This is how I sound. So I think I could say the same exact thing now (about finding myself musically). I feel like I’ve figured out who I am, again.”

Part of Olive’s evolution over the past six years has also come from his exposure to the artists he has produced at The Diamonds. He has become that rarest of entities — a musical producer, a studio technician who understands a musician’s heart and muse almost as well as the equipment required to translate it.

“I feel like I’m offering the services of a producer without the producer’s price tag,” Olive says. “Everyone wants to make more money, but I enjoy doing this and if I can earn a living, I’m happy. And I get something more out of it. I get inspiration from the players and the songs they write. Working on a production will help me with my album and experience with my own music I might be able to apply. It’s symbiotic.”

Another aspect of Olive’s latest work is a fresh, creative anger, which he readily admits was present prior to the last election cycle, though that heightened and sharpened it. It may have been the culmination of the situation that ended The Diamonds and the frustrations he encountered in rehabbing a structure with poor drainage and significant damage. Whatever the source, Olive’s outrage is channeled through some of his new songs. He cites the title track from the new album as being representative of his current state of mind, even though it was written four years ago.

“‘See what you’re doing, living on top,’” Olive says, quoting the opening line of “Living On Top.” “See what’s happening to people. Do you see it? Do you care? I’ve heard stories from countries like Nigeria, where the government does whatever it feels like and the people are so oppressed that the only way they can make a point and come up with any money is to abduct someone and hold them for ransom. So the rich have flamethrowers on their cars to catch people on fire if they try to get into their car. And I’m thinking, is that what we want around here?”

Olive will likely be channeling that righteous indignation into a musical fury when he presents the album in its entirety at the release show/listening party at The Woodward Theater this Friday. His calendar is a groaning board of activity after Friday’s festivities. He’s playing sax with Barrence Whitfield & the Savages on a number of European dates in June and some summer festivals as well, and work will continue apace on the Mount Saturn complex. Once the studio is complete, Olive has big plans for the surrounding grounds, including proposed cabins to house visiting bands and development of existing paths that could connect with municipal trails further up the hill behind the studio.

Of course, the primary focus is on finishing the studio so work can resume on recording the kind of music that Olive loves. On the surface, the name he chose for his new studio would seem to relate to Cincinnati’s Seven Hills, or even the planet itself, but Olive had something completely different in mind when he envisioned Mount Saturn.

“I saw this palmistry chart and the Mount of Saturn is at the base of the middle finger and it has to do with the need for solitude,” Olive says. “I saw that and I thought, ‘That’s all the shit I’m looking for.’ It was one of those kismet kind of moments. But it could be the Eighth Hill. The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Brian Olive’s Mount Saturn Studio will be an amazing facility when it comes to fruition later this summer, but the real wonders will occur when artists come to the studio and the man behind the glass helps to realize their musical dreams. The music, whether it’s his own or someone else’s, has always been the most important part of the equation for Olive, and that formula isn’t likely to change anytime soon. What’s good for him is good for them and vice versa. Like Olive said, it’s symbiotic.

Title track from Living On Top:

BRIAN OLIVE’s release party for Living on Top is Friday at Woodward Theater. Tickets/more info:

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