The charm in Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra is easy to see for anyone who’s lucky enough to be looking. It only begins with the unapologetic fervor displayed on stage at each truly unique and intoxicating show, but can also be found on every track of their debut album, Pray for Rain, as they seamlessly weave dark hypnotic blues with a drunken minor swing and soulful, gravelly vocals.
The mostly three-man band of instrumentalists from Santa Cruz are lead by impassioned frontman Marty O’Reilly on the resonator guitar and faithfully flanked by the spirited (and often shoeless) Chris Lynch plucking away on the fiddle, unrelenting Jeff Kissell hammering away on upright bass and an animated Matt Goff oft-joining in to beat away on the drums.
While what they’ve produced in the studio is impressive, it’s what they do live that’s magic, whether its at a scaled-down venue like the compact but charged Crepe Place in Santa Cruz or at a secluded tree-veiled, clown-cursed Carnival side stage at Outside Lands, they absolutely shine. We caught up with frontman Marty and the group before their show at Slim’s to discuss the bands upcoming tour, future plans and recent happenings.
You have such a special sound, how do you classify it and what are your inspirations musically?
There are a lot of overlapping answers there. We sort of have a difficult time classifying our sound by genre, because we like to experiment and delve into different genres with each individual song, so we often find it easier to describe what kind of music we play based off of our primary influences: Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf and Andrew Bird, with Chris bringing the whole Andrew Bird thing to the table. It always changes though, really, depending on what we are working on. When we started the project we were focusing more on minor swing sort of stuff, a little bit more of an old-timey feel, whereas now as we have progressed we are getting a little bit more… I don’t want to use the term experimental, but we are delving more into folk and the dream-like qualities of music.
How do you approach songwriting?
The songs pretty much always start with something that I cook up, then I’ll bring that to the guys and they write their own parts to it, and from there we just judge on a case by case basis, you know, what does this thing that we are doing and creating call for? Then we just add and add… and add the layers to it. The cool thing is, I feel like all my band members specialize in making a variety of different kinds of sounds with their instruments, distinct textures, and I almost think of that as extra instrumentation, which is one of the reasons why I thought of the word Orchestra for the band name when we were starting the project, because I always feel like there are more than three instruments I have at my disposal.
Speaking of orchestra… sometimes the configuration of your band varies from show to show, no Chris on the fiddle and more of a skeleton crew, and other times you add, your cellist Alexis (Hawks) and Drummer Matt, how does that impact your songwriting and performances?
The way that started was, basically Chris was on tour with another band so I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. But it is good to do every once in a while! I prefer to keep nights like that to smaller shows because the main thing is when we are losing the fiddle specifically it puts a lot more pressure on me because I have to take full control of the lead work and I prefer not to do that, to share that. I mean, it’s a little bit of fun for a minute, but then it’s like…
Jeff: It’s because you have to dress up more, too, which you don’t like doing.
Marty: Exactly. I even have to take my shoes off like Chris does.
So how is that going to work on your upcoming tour? Are you adding layers and touring with the full band?
Touring is a funny thing. There are so many factors, so many things to think about than just what you want or want to do or how you want to do it. For instance, we are doing a run up the West Coast on tour with Brothers Comatose in April, and though it may not be a scheduling or financial issue, you don’t want to bring a drummer to open up for a Bluegrass band. So it will mostly just be the three of us.
Being from Santa Cruz and performing a lot in the North Bay and West Coast in the past few years, do you notice a difference when you leave it and venture off elsewhere on tour?
Totally. You notice a huge difference. City by city, venue by venue, totally different vibes based on the various demographics. Our style of music doesn’t really play everywhere and that could be because it’s a college town, or whether people are wealthy or not, or simply because certain towns love to listen to live music and others don’t. There are scenes everywhere, from LA to Seattle to Wales to North Carolina, and they are all different and certain types of people attend certain types of spots, so its always up in the air with how we are going to be received, which is part of the fun. You can play in a city, to a specific venue, ten, fifteen, twenty times, and sometimes you’re playing to a room of three people, which is not what you want but sometimes that’s the case and sometimes in… Astoria or Nashville the show is packed to the brim every time. It’s all about your sound, your buzz, your history in that city and that venue.
You guys have a really fun, creative and… unusual way that you engage with social media, how did that all come about?
I think that’s the only way to go about it. I genuinely like focusing a lot of energy on social networking and social media, because it’s not only so important, but it’s actually really fun. (Marty checks phone). Oh look, Slim’s is happening tonight. Thank you, Facebook. (Encompassing laughter). I think that more fun equals more success. I mean, Lake Street Dive, man, they are the best with social networking, so we really model our approach after theirs and take a page out of their book. Everywhere they go on tour they stop to have a blast, document and share it, which makes not only them as people more accessible, but their music more accessible, which is what we want. I feel like our music as a whole is pretty serious, but Chris, Jeff, myself, all of us are pretty ridiculous people, so naturally we want to share that, too.
Chris: Jeff’s car was a boat, that was pretty ridiculous.
We were on tour in Chico a few months back and there was this huge storm and the sun was about to set and we come to this one road real close to the venue and there is this puddle (Chris and Jeff laugh) — okay so it’s entirely flooded , but cars are going through it so it’s our turn and we go for it, Jeff’s out in the back of the car pushing in waist-high water and I’m just leaning out the window filming it all and giggling. Anyway, car dies and becomes a boat.
That’s pretty ridiculous. But, I mean, your album is titled Pray for Rain.
Marty O’Reilly and the Soul Orchestra will be back in SF on May 1st at Doc’s Lab.
Q&A lead by Baily Hopkins, article written by Maxwell Salvati