INTERVIEW: Joe Olnick Band

Hi Joe, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Doing good! I’ve been really busy getting the latest album out, but it’s a good kind of busy!

Can you talk to us more about your song “Downtown”?

The song “Downtown” came about in the usual manner, which is coming up with riffs on the guitar. Then I show the ideas to the rest of the band in the studio, and we see what happens. Afterwards, I take the tracks back to my place and work out additional parts until it starts to sound like what I was thinking conceptually. In this case, I was thinking of something funky, but with a Miles Davis-sort of solo after the initial intro. Something like early ’70’s Miles, but with a more modern production (if that’s possible). Also wanted it to be fairly short in general.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

Not really. I spend a lot of time in the cities, living near Philly & Baltimore as well as NYC. I’m a big Miles Davis fan, especially early to mid-’70’s Miles, before he took the long break. I’m also a big Medeski, Martin & Wood fan, so combining the two was in the back of my mind to an extent. But it always ends up sounding like me and the band!

Any plans to release a video for the track?

Yes, I actually put together some footage from a recent trip up to NYC. Most of it was shot in the SoHo area, but there is some from the Lower East Side of Manhattan as well. Just me messing around with my extremely battered old iPhone, but after editing and processing, it seemed to work pretty well at getting the vibe across. You can see it at my web site,

Why naming the album after the track in particular?

The theme for the entire album was the city, since it’s been such a big part of my life, and just seems to be more and more so lately. As soon as I finished this track, I just knew it would be a great way to kick off the album, so it sort of came together at once. Sometimes the songs sort of suggest themselves, and I’m just the messenger. This was definitely one of those moments. I always like it when that happens! Sometimes I have to really work at it, but other times it just naturally flows. The key is to keep an open mind, and trust the process. Eventually, it becomes obvious, at least for me.

How was the recording and writing process?

For the groove-based material that I do with the band, I like to work out the main melodies and themes on guitar. Then I’ll show the rest of the band at the recording session. This is important, because I like to capture the initial feel of everybody working out the groove. It gives it a certain edge. I just show them what I’m thinking, and they fill in what they think it needs. I like to work with individuals that are talented and experienced enough that I know what they will bring, and other than giving them very basic parameters, just let them go! It’s a different way of working, but it’s a lot of fun.

After getting basic tracks recorded, I’ll take everything back to my studio and start coming with additional elements like the guitars and keyboard-sounding parts. I’ll frequently just spend a weekend doing guitar solos, and then start editing the sections that work the best together into one solo. This way I can keep it both loose and jammy, but also concise at the same time.

Adding in more parts sometimes changes what I end up with. For example, the riff in “Downtown” at the beginning ended up sounding very different than what I originally recorded. There was some distortion on one of the guitar parts, but I ended up processing the distortion out of it by making it more wah-wah oriented. It gave it a bit of a ’70’s feel that worked very well. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was one of those happy accidents.

Over time, I keep adding a bunch of things in. Then I start gradually removing what seems to be not really necessary, and fine tuning what’s left. And I just keep repeating this process for each song. It’s very time consuming, but once it’s done something original has been created. And that’s the goal: something original that sounds really cool.

What was it like to work with Reuben Cohen and how did that relationship develop?

I had been looking for somebody to master my last album with the band, Defiant Grooves, last year. I was checking out the big names, and their recent work, and really liked what Reuben had been doing. His stuff sounded really good on the radio, and had a contemporary sound. He also didn’t distort things like so many folks have done to make it louder. I have a really picky ear and am really sensitive to that stuff. After all, I worked full-time in a studio in Philly out of school. I wanted the result to be very hi-fi sounding but modern, and he certainly nailed it! His list of credits is amazing, and it’s easy to see why he is a Grammy Award winner. He’s super nice, and I always enjoy chatting with him about the goals for the album, and the technical part of it as well.

How much did he influence the album?

He really adds that final gloss to the mixes, making them sound more complete and professional than I could. He provides a fresh set of ears and perspective that I can’t really have after hearing the mixes as many times as I do. He also knows from experience what is needed, and has high-end equipment in a room that he knows well. Lurssen Mastering is a legendary facility, and I’m grateful that he was able to squeeze my album in between all of the other projects he has going on at all times. He really pushed it to a whole new level.

How has Phish and Pink Floyd influenced your writing?

I get compared to Phish & Pink Floyd, and in the case of Phish I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s also a guitar-driven jamming vehicle. They are so good at creating tension & release musically, building things up nicely to quite a peak at times. I try to do the same in my productions. They are also fearless, and at their shows can really stretch things out. I like to also play off of the crowd as well as the other members of the band. They have a group improv thing that is impressive, and always has been.

In the case of Pink Floyd, I can also hear the similarities, especially when I’m playing my Strat. David Gilmour really knows how to uniquely phrase solo’s and melodies in a way that is so human, and so touching. There is a certain emotional quality that I keep in mind at times in my playing as well. And his tone has certainly influenced a lot of guitarists, especially on my earlier work. Lately I’ve been moving more to the Gibson side of guitar, though. But there are certainly spacey moments, especially in the more ambient parts, that would remind folks of Floyd.

I also admire the multimedia aspects of the live shows in both bands, too: they both have had spectacular lighting that is in sync with their playing, some of the best lighting designers ever. I’ve also done some lighting for friends in other bands, and have tried to emulate that to an extent. I would love to do more of that for my shows. I’ve done some video projection, and will probably expand on that in the future.

What made you want to make a solely instrumental album?

I’ve always been drawn to instrumental music. My very first memories that I have are listening to albums by The Ventures that my mother would play to keep me occupied while she was doing stuff around the house. I’ve always been really into jazz: I played sax before I started guitar in high school. I wanted to be the next John Coltrane in junior high school! My very first concert that I ever saw was Dizzy Gillespie. I was really fortunate there. Of course, I love most kinds of music. All that matters is that it’s good!

It’s a real shame to me that instrumental music is more popular overseas than it it is here in the US now. Jazz has always been a big part of my life, and there’s been so many magical events when a band jams live that I’ve witnessed so many times I’ve lost count. There’s something about a band creating something right there in front of you, right now. When it works, there’s nothing better. It’s not for everybody, but there are a lot of folks that really, really like that.

I enjoy working with singers, too. But for my solo original material, I wanted it to be instrumentally-based.

How did you get to capture the urban life on this record?

I really was thinking about life in the Northeast, where I’ve lived for so long. I’ve been spending more and more time in NYC in particular lately, and while starting to work on this album I really wanted to explore that vibe further. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, so I would think about some of the spots in both cities as I worked on the album. I think the results would apply to any major city, though. The city is always full of surprises, and I think my music incorporates that as well. Plus, I just love the jazzy, groovy vibes.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yes, I am currently working on setting up some shows for next year, in the spring. I just did a show this past weekend that was a lot of fun, and want to get the band out more. It’s tough when you aren’t as well known yet, and working in a different format. But I just keep at it, and eventually will get some new sounds out to everybody.

What else is happening next in Joe Olnick Band’s world?

The album has taken over my life over the past year, and now I will be working more on getting out on the road when I can. I encourage folks to sign up for the mailing list on my web site, and follow me on Facebook. There are lots of plans for more shows and more albums to come!

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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