Nostalgia Meets Folklore: The Evolution of Brother Oliver

Nostalgia Meets Folklore: The Evolution of Brother Oliver

August 30, 2019

CANNAPAGES dispatched music correspondent Matt Erickson to Appleton, Wisconsin, for the 7th annual Mile of Music festival. There he first encountered Andrew and Stephen Oliver, the South Carolina “psych-folk” duo known as Brother Oliver. Two weeks later, as the band returned from the Philadelphia Folk Festival to their home in Greenville, SC, Erickson spoke with Andrew to discuss the release of Brother Oliver’s new album, the two brother’s relationship, their recent time in Appleton, and their proclivity to residing in places called Greenville. The guitarist-trumpeter-songwriter-producer weighed in over friendly conversation.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to CANNAPAGES. There are a number of things I’d like to get into, but first, what are your thoughts on the new album, Well, Hell?

Yeah, Well, Hell. We took forever to make it. It took every bit of two years to do. It’s got 14 tracks, which to me is a lot. We really wanted to go big with it, just kind of go big or go home. The way I tell people about it, it’s a psychedelic circus of an album, within a folk-rock structure. It’s a wild ride to me and that’s what I wanted, just to epitomize Brother Oliver as a brand, and kind of leave us in a place that we can breathe easy for a couple years if we felt like it. I don’t want to have to worry about putting out another record for a minute. We inevitably probably will, but I just really want to put something out that represented the last three or four years of our lives, and I feel like this did a pretty good job. 

The shortest song is just over 3 minutes, “The Descent.” Was it a conscious decision to write longer songs and make a longer album? 

None of that was really conscious. It’s funny that you said that, that the shortest song is three minutes, and that’s an instrumental, transitional track. It does seem like until we finish a song, it’s like, “this is a pretty long song,” and I like that because it means that it doesn’t feel long when we’re playing them and writing them. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I do like that they’re long because I know that they’re pretty well developed, at least to me. 

Where do you think that comes from? What’s the reason they’re getting longer?

Dynamics are really important to us. When we arrange our songs, I like things that grow, that really use the dynamics of the song. I like songs that drop off and get more quiet and build back up. The dynamic side of it probably plays into how long they are. I like intros and outros. I’m a sucker for all that stuff.

I think you’ve accomplished that on this album and that leads me to my next question. Why the name Well, Hell?

We always joke about it ’cause it can mean literally anything you want. Like if you get some good news you’re like, “Well, hell!” Or if you get some really bad news it’s like, “Well…hell.” So it’s how you say it. I like that the title can kind of mean something different for different situations. It has a flexible meaning in that sense.

But it’s also that a lot of the songs are indirectly spiritually driven in the lyrics. There’s a lot of religious commentary. Nothing super direct or explicit, it’s always very subtle, but it’s there, and a lot of the songs on the album actually talk about heaven and hell. Like, especially use those words “heaven” and “hell.” So the title was kind of fitting in that sense, it’s like “well, hell." To really dig deep, this is kind of where we’ve landed after four or five years. We came out of a religious background that’s not super supportive of this stuff. And there’s just something about it where it’s just like, well, hell. Now this is what we do. And it’s kind of worked out well. It’s our career now, people are into it. It has been interesting to me and to us based on our background coming out of it.

Can you just run me through your process of writing lyrics and what you’re trying to achieve? It’s not overly religious, but religion is there.

Yeah, obviously it’s in so many of these songs, and it’s kind of the same for some of our other albums as well. Most of our catalog has those themes. It’s something that’s important to me. We come out of a background that’s religious. I went to Bob Jones University which is a private, very strict religious school. So I’m raised that way. Those things are present in my life, and they are also things that have been troublesome in my life, you know. And in South Carolina we’re in the Bible Belt. It’s very religious and that’s cool, I’m not anti-religion at all. But there’s things about that I think people don’t talk about that aren’t necessarily good, or things about that people wrestle with, and I like to touch on those when I can, because a lot of people don’t. So I think people find it relatable because there is not a lot of stuff out there that addresses a lot of those things, even subtly. You can accomplish a lot just by asking questions. You don’t have to make declarative statements on all of these different issues. The right question can say enough.

One lyric that stood out to me is from “Altars.” You say “we sacrifice tomorrow on the altars of today.” What does that mean to you?

That song is about living in the present moment. The chorus where I sing that, it kind of paints it in a nostalgic, positive light. It’s got major chords, like it’s the brighter side of the song. It’s trying to map out emotionally that positive feeling, those moments where you’re in the moment, maybe you’re with friends, and you’re at a show and it’s hitting just right. You have those good moments in life. That’s what the chorus is trying to map out. But the verses talk about the negative sides that come with it. So it creates a balance, that it is beautiful to have these moments, but it comes at a price, basically.

Let’s talk about the first track, “Coffee and a Cigarette.” It was on an old EP called Kindred Fellow. It was then on your debut LP Stubborn Fool. I know you’ve developed it a bit, it’s changed a bit. Why did you decide to re-record it for this album again now?

That’s such a good question. That song is like Brother Oliver’s theme song in a funny way. It’s been by far the most popular song as far as fans and what they want to hear at shows. And it’s also, I think, the oldest song in our catalog. One of the first ones if not the first one. So as far as the re-recording, for me, I keep wanting to update it because people love it so much at shows. Like we were playing that song five years ago and we play it different now because we’ve developed and grown as musicians over the years. The song naturally changes in ways that are more entertaining, or whatever it is, you know, the song changes over time. We did it again because I wanted it to be modern. I want it to sound the way we play it live. And it’s also just, like, iconic for our brand. So that’s kind of why it keeps resurfacing. It’s kind of the song that doesn’t seem to go away because people like it. Another thing too, every time we put out an album, I always want to be the album. Like if we stopped the next day, it would be like, “Yeah, that was it, we nailed it, that really represented us.” So that’s part of it too, I wanted it on this album because I think this album is going to be something that we’re really proud of and I’d like it to be included. 

I love bands that evolve and grow and their sound develops, but at the same time they still sound like themselves, and I think that’s something you’ve accomplished extremely successfully on this album.

Well, first of all, thank you, that’s a compliment to say that we’ve kept our sound like that. That’s something that you always fear as an artist. You don’t want to put something out that doesn’t sound like you, or what your fans think sounds like you. So I personally do think we pulled it, where we’ve evolved the sound but it’s still a clear Brother Oliver sound.

What’s led to the change in sound? Why has it taken that direction?

For the last couple of years, we play shows for a living. We depend on it. Part of the evolution of our sound is due to how much we play live. We play live all the time so obviously we spend time playing in a way, or writing in a way, that we think is going to go over well live. And so our sound naturally because of that got livelier. It’s a little more rhythmic, it’s not as many “song” songs per se. You know the album is upbeat, it’s got a lot of rock, and a lot of that is just because we’ve been playing live and that’s the sound that we enjoy playing live and it seems like people respond to the most in the places we play. I think that plays into how our sound has developed. But there’s definitely some studio tracks on the album that were written in a studio first and then performed second. But overall I think the live game has kind of shaped our sound. A little more rock-centric, a little more edge to it.

Yeah, I could get a sense of that up in Appleton. Can you tell me about your experience at the Mile of Music Festival in Appleton and how it compares to other festivals or venues that you’ve played before?

They were so well organized and everyone was so friendly. Every festival is different, the cultures are all different, the levels of organization are all different. Mile of Music is just on their game with it. The culture was right. Everybody there was there to hear music. We played some really cool places, and it’s all officially curated by the festival and they’re using whatever rooms they can find. We played a set in a sports bar. Typically if we were on a tour and we showed up to a spot like that, we’d be like, “oh shit,” you know. People are going to be watching TV or not paying attention. But at that festival, everyone is paying attention to the music. They really nail it, the culture.

That’s gotta make it rewarding for the artist.

Yeah, and there are some places where we showed up and it’s empty and then five minutes before, everyone starts pouring in and the room fills up. It’s such a small strip, everyone is just walking and they’re on their phones, looking at the app like, “Oh, it’s 3 o’clock, let’s go,” and they always pour in right for showtime. It was cool.

I was really impressed with how well your guitar and Stephen’s mandolin intertwined together. Seeing it live was like two threads weaving into the same tapestry. If I ask you to describe your brother’s mandolin playing style, his tone, what words come to mind?

He’s really heady. It’s really, not be cliché, but it is psychedelic. It’s atmospheric to me, very textural. His job is to provide a texture and a blanket over my chords. He gives the song that kind of identity, really spacious. He adds space with his tremolo, reverb. Without that, the song would probably still be cool but might be kind of dry. 

To me, especially on the new album, it’s also haunting or eerie. Some of those tones he’s getting out of that mandolin, it’s like you’re watching a slasher film and there’s those goosebumps because you know something’s about to go down.

Yeah, that’s awesome. I like that analogy. It’s definitely haunting, that’s for sure.

How is your relationship with your brother? How do you guys maintain spending so much time together in a positive way?

Yeah, it can be tough. He’s actually sitting right next to me so I can’t saying anything too mean [laughs]. It’s not really hard, but we basically work together every day. There’s definitely some kind of tensions that happen, but it’s actually easier to do deal with, ’cause if you work at a job and you’ve got a co-worker who is getting under your skin, there’s no ties there, but since we’re brothers we can let things go, or you just know that at the end of the day it’s not a big enough deal to matter. Like if you get in an argument with someone who’s not family, that usually is a little harder to get over than someone who is family. So that’s helpful. We do get along quite well.

You two are brothers, hence the name Brother Oliver. Why not Brothers Oliver? How did you arrive at that specific name?

I like how it sounds better, Brother Oliver. It’s more singular, it’s more of a singular entity. A lot of people actually call us Brothers Oliver. It’s incorrect, but it doesn’t bother us. I don’t go out of my way to step in and correct people. I just think it sounds better, Brother Oliver, it has a better flow to it. That ’s' kind of interrupts the flow.

Last topic here. Do you only live in places that are called Greenville?

[Laughs] At this point in my life, yes. 

There’s a Greenville in almost every state. Do you anticipate doing an all-Greenville tour?

We could. That would be kind of funny if we did an all Greenville tour. But I imagine that when I eventually move away from Greenville, South Carolina, that I’ll probably move somewhere that’s not called Greenville. I would imagine, but who knows. I might find myself in a third Greenville. 

BONUS: Listen to Well, Hell below! You can also follow Brother Oliver and await the Greenville tour at: BrotherOliver.com or listen to Brother Oliver on Spotify. Need more? Read Erickson's review of Well, Hell right HERE.