For Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the founders and sole remaining creative forces of Over the Rhine, home has always been both an abstract concept and a concrete reality.
After moving to Cincinnati from smalltown Ohio nearly a decade and a half ago, the city became the pair's adopted hometown. It's also been the base of operations for OtR, their gauzily pretty Pop band (once self-described as "post-nuclear, pseudo-alternative, folk-tinged art-pop") that's inspired an exponentially large and cultishly fierce fan base over the years. The groundswell began in Cincinnati naturally as OtR rose in the local ranks, then quickly grew as they were embraced by a regional audience, until finally they belonged to the rarified world of nationally and internationally renowned recording artists.
And with each successive tep, home became an increasingly fractured reality. Home was two small towns in Northern Ohio. Home was the two apartments Detweiler and Bergquist maintained in the 150-year-old neighborhood that was the band's namesake and earliest songwriting inspiration, places they kept even after their 1996 marriage. Home was a van and a stranger's couch and an endless succession of hotel rooms. Home was a studio.
After working long and hard to escape the gravitational idea that they were a local band — OtR's only area appearances for several years now have been their annual Christmas shows — Detweiler and Bergquist have returned home.
Not in the literal sense, though. OtR is firmly ensconced in their major-label recording contract with Virgin Records imprint Back Porch, and they're still a band that very much belongs to the world.
And yet the roots of OtR's 10th and latest album, Ohio, are, as the title would imply, very much a product of Detweiler's and Bergquist's childhood experiences and earliest influences, all of which were cultivated here in the state that now serves as the banner for their new work.
A sort of homecoming
It's fitting then that with all of this talk of home, the conversation concerning Over the Rhine's latest project should take place in the cozy kitchen of the Norwood home that is OtR's new base of operations. Neil Young's Decade, Bergquist's avowed favorite album of all time, plays in the background as wine glasses are filled and memories recent and distant are recounted to explain both the motivation and the execution of Ohio, the first double album in OtR's extensive catalog.
As with most creative endeavors, especially by groups with long and much-examined histories, Ohio began with a little bit of healthy soul searching.
"Now that we've been doing this for a while, I think there's always a period of questioning and self-doubt, or at least self-awareness, that precedes the recording of a batch of new songs," Bergquist says. "Do we still believe in our music? Are we repeating ourselves? Is there still a spark? But once we got into these songs, we had the overwhelming sensation that we were coming home."
Detweiler paints a similar picture but uses hues suggestive of a band coming to grips not just with a new album but also with its very survival.
"We turned a corner when we were making Ohio," he says honestly. "Something happened. We realized that, barring any unforeseen misfortune, we were going to be making records for the next 20 years. Songwriting and recording and spreading our songs around to whoever has ears to hear is just what we do.
"Now, more than ever, I really believe that our music probably has a lot to do with why we're here. I no longer have the sneaking suspicion that we will eventually set aside our songs and do something more important with our lives."
If Detweiler had come to any other conclusion, OtR's fans would have challenged his idea of importance on any number of fronts. Since forming Over the Rhine in 1989 (with original guitarist Ric Hordinski and drummer Brian Kelly) and playing their first gig at Sudsy Malone's, the band has consistently been a fan favorite.
That fandom spread as OtR's circle of exposure widened. They self-released 'Til We Have Faces in 1990 and Patience in 1991 (which also featured the photography of soon-to-be-huge Cincinnatian Michael Wilson) and signed to IRS Records, which reissued both albums and released Eve in 1994.
The band's watershed year was 1996. IRS was dissolved in a corporate merger and OtR was freed from their contract, which cleared them to release a pair of dark acoustic albums: Good Dog Bad Dog and The Darkest Night of the Year, a moody rumination on Christmas. Detweiler and Bergquist decided to make their romantic pairing permanent by marrying in the fall; two months later, Hordinski left to concentrate on his side project Monk and Kelly (now with Cincinnati band Anonymous Bosch) bowed out as well.
The following year saw the fan club release of Besides, a rarities compilation. Not long after, OtR was signed to Back Porch, the small Blues/Folk imprint of Virgin Records. Amateur Shortwave Radio was the first release under the deal in 1999, and 2001 marked the much acclaimed Films for Radio, as OtR became a duo surrounded by a rotating cast of hand-picked musicians.
The road to 'Ohio'
Two years later, and with the air cleared of any lingering doubts about the band's immediate and long-term future, Bergquist and Detweiler set to work on the songs that would comprise Ohio. Ironically, the title track was the first song written for the project, although a few of the songs had actually been kicking around for quite a while.
" 'Suitcase' was written 10 years ago and basically shelved until these recording sessions," Bergquist says. "Show Me' was also written at least four or five years ago but continued to morph lyrically up until the day we finally put it on tape. 'Anything at All' was written on the road a few years back, but we've been playing it out for some time. It was inspired in part by a treasured conversation between myself and (local Bluegrass musician) Katie Laur and in part by my own experience of life on the road. But much of the project is very new."
As the writing and demoing for Ohio continued, it became apparent to Detweiler and Bergquist that they were beginning to amass a sizable body of songs for a single album. Considering they'd just questioned their ability to bring something fresh to their process, the amount of material they were producing was something of a revelation.
"We went into the studio knowing that we had quite a few songs," Bergquist says of OtR's wealth of material. "There had been some talk of maybe recording two projects simultaneously — one more bare-boned and acoustic in nature and one more full-blown, more of a band project. But as the sessions progressed we were having a really hard time imagining how to separate the songs. They felt like a body of work. The songs felt like they belonged together."
Although the duo hadn't consciously set out to make a concept album, and while it's clear that Ohio doesn't contain the requisite narrative thread to satisfy the definition, the songs transcend their inherent differences and hang together in a loose but coherent musical arc. (See Mike Breen's review of Ohio.)
Detweiler's sense of the album's connectivity is manifested in the presence of his and Bergquist's earliest influences on OtR's sound over the years.
"Ohio, perhaps more than any other record we've made, celebrates the music we grew up with in small Ohio towns: Gospel, Country, Rock & Roll," he says. "There was the music we were hearing in church. My first public performance was at a small revival meeting at the church in Fairpoint, Ohio, where my father was minister. I played the hymn 'I'll Fly Away' on an old upright piano.
"But there was a different kind of revival that was seeping into us simultaneously via our friends' record collections: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, The Pretenders, Janis Joplin. We were growing up in a surreal musical world where Elvis is King and Jesus is Lord."
The intersection between secular and spiritual music has always been the foundation of OtR's sonic philosophy, the hushed reverence of their musical presentation balanced with the interpretive feel of their lyrical message — all of it deeply touched by Detweiler's and Bergquist's individual upbringings and full range of musical experiences. After nine albums of exploring that range one record and one genre at a time, it's an interesting twist that they've used Ohio as a forum to examine all of their influences simultaneously — from the winsome Soul/Pop of "Nobody Number One" and "Lifelong Fling" to the propulsive Rock shudder of "How Long Have You Been Stoned" to the Country sigh of "Jesus in New Orleans" to the moving piano balladry of the title track.
Although Ohio producer Paul Mahern might have enhanced the colors in the sonic quilt the band had assembled, the album's relative complexity wasn't his original suggestion for the band.
"Paul really wanted us to make a simple record," Detweiler says. "So we worked primarily on an old 16-track analog tape machine, and we didn't use any loops or samples."
Detweiler and Bergquist met Mahern in Bloomington, Ind., while doing some recording at Echo Park Studios. When the subject of producers for Ohio surfaced, they both thought of him for the job. For his part, Mahern immersed himself in OtR's ambiance by listening to every single recording by the band.
"He said he really liked our previous records, but he said he felt like there was a veil between Karin and the listener," Detweiler says. "He wanted to remove that veil."
That's where Mahern's concept of simplicity came to the fore. His belief was that OtR would be better served with as little instrumentation as possible and Bergquist's voice front and center on everything — a definite difference from the gauzy and amorphous production beauty of the band's earlier work.
And even with the numerous genre-inclusive arrangements that kept insinuating themselves into the project, Mahern's simplicity manifesto won the day. Although Ohio is rife with every musical influence OtR has absorbed over the years, the translation of those influences is sparsely elegant.
As the sessions for Ohio moved to the mixing phase, the amount of material was on everyone's minds.
"Right before we started mixing, I was sitting on the couch and I turned to Karin and Paul and said, 'Double album,' " Detweiler says. "After everybody quit laughing, we all sort of realized that in some subversive way it made perfect sense. It was a huge relief to know that we didn't have to narrow the record down to 10 or 12 songs and leave the rest for a year or two later or whatever. Plus, we have a finely honed instinct for commercial disaster, and the idea of a double album seemed to fit perfectly with that legacy."
With 21 songs to put in some semblance of a creative order, sequencing Ohio should have been harder than it was, based on Detweiler's history in this regard.
"We didn't really think about it that much," he says. "That was our first crack at the sequence. After we mixed the last song, we went back to the hotel room and cut that together. I did, in my mind, imagine turning the record over, halfway through each CD."
"It was the least amount of agonizing I've ever seen him do over a sequence," Bergquist says with a weary laugh.
"I'm an agony freak," Detweiler admits. "For years, we've talked about taking a list of titles to a psychic and just handing them over and saying, 'Give me the order.' "
With most of the physical work done, all that remained was to sell the idea of a double album to Back Porch.
"It was one of those calls that starts out, 'Are you sitting down?' " Detweiler says. "We just told them that we accidentally made a double album and that we wanted to put it out that way and sell it for the price of a single CD. They hadn't heard a demo, a track or a rough mix from the album until we sat down and played the whole thing for them. There was some vigorous discussion, but in the end they decided to do it."
Detweiler and Bergquist have strong feelings about becoming a part of the double album fraternity (which will include OtR's first-ever vinyl release to be packaged in an old-fashioned gatefold sleeve with lyrics printed on the inner sleeves).
"The lure of the double album is an important footnote in Rock & Roll history," Detweiler says. "It's hard to imagine the history of Rock without "The White Album," London Calling, Exile on Main Street, Songs in the Key of Life, Electric Ladyland. Everybody seems to have their favorite and their least favorite. Where have all the double albums gone?"
Bergquist looks at the experimental aspect of the expanded form as an opportunity for the band and its fans to stretch in their appreciation for each other.
"We figured that for a double album to work there had to be a lot of variety, but there also had to be something quintessential to the band in every song," she says. "So that's the way we approached mixing the project. There also has to be a song or two that leaves people scratching their heads.
"For example, Linford almost got beat up once when he suggested to somebody touring with us that (The Beatles') 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road' might arguably be a throwaway song. Turns out it was the other person's favorite song on 'The White Album.' I love the fact that on a double album you can push the envelope a bit and a moment that might be a non-sequitur to some people might be another person's definitive moment."
And therein lies the dichotomy that's always defined the heart of Over the Rhine. The local band that transcended the scene that spawned it almost immediately. The spiritual band with the secular ties. The major label band with the indie mindset. The husband and wife who live and work and travel and create together and who remain in a personal and creative relationship despite it all.
When the topic of how they manage to work and live together arises, Detweiler and Bergquist exchange a look and a laugh and share a story that illustrates the surprises they hold for each other and for their fans as well.
"We were invited to address a songwriting seminar, which was kind of funny to us anyway," Detweiler says. "We came up with a list of 'The Top 10 Rules of Songwriting.' The No. 1 rule was, 'Don't start a band with your fucking wife.' "
"And No. 2 was," Bergquist says, picking up the thread, " 'If you do, you can kiss my ass.' It wound up being a conservative crowd, so we didn't go with that."
But it's likely not far from that dichotomous truth. The successes that Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have achieved over the past 15 years have come by way of a number of devices both internal and external. Humor. Bad breaks. Good breaks. Grace. Love. And heart.
After all, that's where the home is.