JEFF "OLY" OLSON: "Skull Session"

By The Great Sun Jester

I doubt if I will soon interview someone else with the same easy-going, but unquestioned, passion for life and music. Jeff Olson's role as original drummer for Chicago metal legends Trouble confers upon him a certain amount of status, but you wouldn't know it talking to him. We discussed his time with Trouble, The Skull's forthcoming album and the newfound chemistry there, his Retrograve project and other work with Victor Griffin. What I heard is an intelligent, happy man with his feet firmly planted on the ground and laughing. A lot.


WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: I interviewed Eric [Wagner] recently and he sounded really excited about the impending Skull album. Has it lived up to your expectations?

JEFF OLSON: Oh, totally. Beyond. [laughs] It's great.

WC: Great! I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but it's a question that I'm sure a lot of longtime Trouble fans are wondering, but beyond the hype that comes with any new album, is this a real artistic statement or more an exercise in nostalgia for you guys?

JO: Oh, in no way nostalgic, except in that it will become that. It was very cool because we pre-produced the record with us meeting in Ron's practice basement. The hospitality is just amazing there. So we got together there about four or five times putting together all of the music, writing it, constructing it together, and it just kept getting better and better. Actually, it started changing a little as it went, it got heavier, and we were just constantly blown away by the freshness of the material. A lot of times when you turn in a project, you're just beating a dead horse, but it's not like that at all in these sessions. So the entire time we were working on the items together as a group too, we were able to turn it on time with no stress about that. We had time to tweak and go back, try different mixes, and positioning of songs, longer than you would if you were in a hurry trying not to go past your deadline like most bands. I love the record and feel it represents a departure from all our bios that we cling to, our early roots. We have to, that's why we're still around. This is The Skull and we sound like The Skull. We actually hear a difference in ourselves that is pretty cool.

WC: I think projects like the Retrograve albums show you're willing to subvert the audience's expectations about what it is you do. You do what you do, but you're willing to overturn that apple cart from time to time, so to speak. Is the shadow of what you've done in the past and the influence its had down the years a burden in any way?

JO: No, but I've felt that way about live material, always playing Trouble music, but we really wanted to do that for people who may have heard the band, but never had the chance to hear those songs live. But a lot of us don't want to do that, we want to be new, we want to be The Skull and kind of break free from that, you know? But, at the same time, we don't want to be disrespectful to people who want to see us play songs we played a long time ago with Eric's voice. Some of the drumming and the way Ron plays bass... it sounds cool. It's kind of hard to explain. It's a cool question. It's all good, I'm up for doing anything. We're about ready to do Psalm 9 and we get to do something that's, actually, kind of unique. We're going to do two sets. Usually, you go out there, do eleven songs, and get kicked off the stage. What we're getting ready to do for the next 10 or 12 shows is two sets. We're going to be throwing in some neat surprises and, I'm not going to say how it's structured, but we are going to be playing the entirety of "Psalm 9" in one of those sets, straight from the first needle drop through Side 2. To do that is really exciting, so that kind of answers the question in one way - we'll have one set of old material and another of the new stuff. A lot of bands have done that and we've always wanted to. Remember the Melvins doing that? Whole albums over weekends! [laughs]

WC:Speaking of Trouble, the band has released infrequent studio albums, endured countless lineup changes, controversy, and never really smashed through to big commercial success, why do you think people are still listening to the band thirty years on?

JO: I don't know. Sometimes I'm shocked by that. [laughs] I just think they're good. Rick and Bruce are awesome, they're great guitar players, and the rest of the group as well. We gave a hundred percent when we would do things. We used to rehearse insanely and I know that with their new chemistry, with their new goals, I'm so happy to watch Kyle, Rick, and Bruce enjoy themselves in that way with the new lineup and new album. I liked "The Distortion Field" and actually got to sneak a couple of keyboard things on there for them, but it's only about ten seconds. [laughs] I'm really proud of them. We kind of had a fight with them, like oh look at us, oh look at you, and I don't like that kind of thing much. But, at the same time, it's kind of fun, there's kind of a competition thing there and there's a lot of back-story in that kind of situation. [laughs]

WC: When I was finishing writing these questions last night, I thought I'd ask you to do a bit of self-evaluation. Are you ever satisfied with what you've gotten out of your talents as a drummer or is there always more?

JO: Man, there's always more. I look at professional musicians who don't have side jobs and sometimes think it would've been cool to just stick with being a musician, but I always push the envelope. My mentor was in the drum and bugle corps, a precision drummer, he's fifty-six now, so I come from that kind of drummer, rudimental. Every day I go to his website and try to play with what's going on! [laughs] I read and push myself with rehearsals of things I may not be able to do. It may not pan into something with The Skull, if you know what I mean, but it builds muscle and you're constantly losing muscle mass after fifty. There's so many drummers. I could just list and list. There's Sleep's drummer and the drummer in Orange Goblin in the super-heavies and then there's the cool musical drummers like in YOB, I just love the way they play. I hope I will always push myself into new influences,

WC: Another question about the new album. I noticed that the title quotes Simple Mind Condition's "The Beginning of Sorrows". Is that an intentional connection or just a great phrase recast?

JO: Intentional, I would say. Eric was waking up every morning at five, and he was never a morning person back in the day, and looking at piles and piles of past lyrics. He has connections to those stories still, even all the way back to the first lyric he ever wrote, and he likes to connect and thread it together. I do too. Quoting brings questions about whether you changed your mind or have you stayed true to your convictions. I see that in these lyrics. That lyric is controversial because it has double, if not triple, entendres and, in order for it to be work and be grammatically correct... well, it doesn't. That's part of what makes Eric's psychedelic writing. It's poetry at that point and poetry has a license all its own. We love that.

WC: After you wrap all the business up for this album, do you have any idea yet what might be next? Have you looked that far down the road?

JO: Yeah, Eric finished up Blackfinger, just finished this record, and thought he might have nothing left to say for a while, but quite to the contrary. He was just asking me to send more! Another thing is that adding Matt, the guy can write, so we have an entirely different chemistry than before with The Skull. Like Michael Carpenter [former guitarist], Matt is his own self, totally unique, and an incredible guitar player. He only wrote two or three parts on this album, but they blew us away. Ron's writing has finally surfaced too. No one really knows that Ron wrote a lot of things he never got credit for on "Manic Frustration" or on the self-titled album. It was always hard for Ron to get his writing credited and yet he's written a lot, a lot of grooves. He wrote part of "Black Shapes of Doom", for instance. We've got a lot of that old chemistry and, with that kind of chemistry, the sky's the limit about where we can go with things. It's not stressful - it makes things creative. We're like, check this riff out, and someone will be like hell yeah! It's like we're young. [laughs]

WC: You were talking about Ron not always being credited properly on Trouble albums and it leads me to ask if you're satisfied with how Trouble's influence and history has been represented?

JO: Of course. The only thing I don't like is the negativity that sometimes comes up. Or the complaining and the griping. I think what's interesting about our history and who we are is that we just chose to be ourselves back then. I mean, there were times when we asked if we should do something or someone wanted to do a specific song because they thought it would be cool, so when we talk about the history, the negative things bother me, like were we pretentious, overly God, or overly Christian? Or were we just expressing ourselves like every other person who writes music, paints paintings, or does shock art? We may be just a bit mellower than they are and not as exciting, but what we have is quality in our history. All five Trouble members are playing live again and I think that is really cool and to see everyone having fun, that's what's really important about it. It's also been cool to see some people express themselves differently and change things up like Trouble have - it sounds like some of the old history and some of the new. Same thing with The Skull. You'll have some of our history and writing styles along with the new world that's coming in. [laughs] I don't really look on us as being that great. Here's an example. When I listen to CoC, Orange Goblin, or YOB, I'm floored. This kid at work, Dan, brings in tons of art doom new music and I'm blown away by that, so I just feel we're kind of average. [laughs] It's a little low on self-esteem, but I'm nothing like that when we're with each other and playing. I'm like yeah! [laughs]

WC: We know that there's a strong entertainment element on the work of a professional musician playing live. It's a release for the crowd and the band alike. At risk of sounding pretentious, do you see yourself as more of an artist than entertainer?

JO: [laughs] Athlete! [laughs] I like to entertain it. It's fun. But I think when I'm playing live, I'm just trying not to gag on my own air passage. [laughs] I'm trying to survive. I'm trying to make sure it's not pretentious, but it's loud, hits all the spikes, and makes no mistakes. The art comes when we write and explore sound, chords, and scales. Things that make things sound like, oh man that's bad! [laughs]

WC: Well, this music doesn't always get taken seriously by the critical establishment. I believe someone like Eric Wagner, for instance, as much as people have talked about the quality of his lyrics, they have talked about them enough in my mind. They're great lyrics and should be singled out. There's more than just chords, volume, and riffs going on here. There's artistry. Perhaps I read too much into it.

JO: No, that's right on. That's the whole idea about bringing Eric in to write these stories. It's almost journalistic. Even when he writes text messages or email, it's like Japanese poetry in the way the lines descend. I think he takes all of the reflections he's introverted and extroverts them when he hears a particular mood coming from the music. That's when he feels like, this is a song, I know it is, and I may not even have something for it. Or other times we can be playing something and have it musically tight, and I used to have a little anxiety about this, but he'll listen, breathe, and say, [does Wagner impersonation] I got it. [laughs] He'll even rattle it off to us and we're like, wow.

WC: You're on another recent album that I rank high, Victor Griffin's In-Graved. I spoke to him recently and he had high praise for your contributions to that and I was wondering how it's held up for you since its release?

JO: I love it! That's an album we did the exact opposite of what we just finished with The Skull. We actually emailed our parts to be fit in and there are a lot of cameos. For that album to be produced the way it was shows Victor's talent in the studio, as well as his engineers, people he's worked with on Place of Skulls and Pentagram stuff. I think another interesting thing is you have Minnesota Pete (Campbell) in Minnesota, I'm over in Maine, and we met the day before we went out and showcased at Roadburn and we ran through the whole album in one day with the bass player from Pentagram. So then we went to Europe and rehearsed one more time before hopping off on tour, so when I look at how we developed up until our final show at the Days of the Doomed Festival, I think we were smokin' at that show, it was jammin'. I was playing through a Laney head and the fun thing for me playing a Hammond organ Nord, a keyboard that sounds like a Hammond organ, we'd shove it through super-heavy guitar amps and it was intense, we'd just get that sound roaring off the stage. So I like going back to the live stuff, but when you go back to the album and hear those songs, you hear Victor's conviction. You hear stories about his faith and experiences like losing his father and his relationships with his family on that record. Plus, you get to hear some of the tunes he loved listening to growing up, like we did Jethro Tull's "Teacher". [laughs]

WC: Unexpected cover, but it worked wonderfully.

JO: Oh, his sound is just out there. You know how you can put a blindfold on and ask, who am I playing now? Oh, that's Jeff Beck. You can do that with Jeff Beck and you can do that with Victor Griffin. You can actually do that with Bruce [Franklin] and Rick [Wartell]. Victor Griffin's got it across the board. There's certain guitar players that doesn't happen to, but when you hear Victor's guitar, you can blind taste-test that. So that's how I felt about that whole experience, but I was a little scared at first. I used to play little intros behind the drums with Trouble, but to go out with Victor, it's like, I'm playing Hammond organ?!?! [laughs]

WC: He told me that was one of his unrealized musical ambitions was do a great album with keyboards like a Hammond organ.

JO: I think he's going to do it again. Let me not forget to tell you about Mike Puelo is an awesome organist on that record too. He plays differently than I do, my scale passages are simpler, and I've got to tell you that trying to play his parts on "Late For An Early Grave", for instance, weren't easy because of our different approaches. I didn't have it written down, so I would listen to Mike's part, and it's unbelievable. His playing is just fantastic. [laughs]

WC: Another philosophical question. Is there any sort of self-discovery that comes through music for you? Is performing live a cathartic experience?

JO: Yes. There's no way it couldn't be. The thing that bugs me the most is that people who are involved in creativity think they're great. That bothers me. I like the experience of creating something. I think I like it as enjoyment. You know, everyone like it when someone says, hey, that was cool.  I'm working on music notation again and that's important to me. It's different than, let's say, when you grab a keyboard or piano, but you will use those instruments sometimes when you're writing that way. It's more like transcribing what you heard when you set down to play the piano. But when you sit down with nothing, write it on a piece of paper, and then listen to it back or try to play it, it's totally different. It's like a different creature, it's scary. It's like a ghost. It's like you didn't even write that maybe. It's like, I'm gonna roll the dice here and have three C sharps in a row? Okay! Then you play it and it's terrible. [laughs] So you roll the dice again. I like it as enjoyment, I think, but I like to be flattered, so if people want to flatter me, well, I'd like that too. [laughs]

WC: What unrealized musical ambitions do you still have?

JO: [laughs] Tons, man, tons. It's pretty much like I just said - chamber music, or electronic chamber. It's the kind that comes from Modernist 21st century composers, but the 20th century as well, and blending that into deep, heavy music. Just to do that might take another twenty years and that's not much time for me, [impersonates old man] I'll be very old! [laughs] Related to that, I just had a series at work called a Strengths Finder from my manager at work, super mellow guy, and you go through this thing figuring out that you might want to focus on what you're good at as opposed to what you aren't. [laughs] For me, I might use guitar for a distorted, sustained electric sound, but for me to start studying scale passages and learn how to play guitar? I'm not going to do that. There was a time when I was starting the Retrograve records that I was like, I'm going to learn guitar, but as I went into that, I thought, no way. I'm good at solid notes, maybe melodic lines, but I just can't do the chords. With open chords, I can mess around, because you're just holding one finger down. Guitar is very difficult for me. Stringed instruments, in general, are, but woodwinds, brass, I already play those. I understand those. What I'm going to start honing my skills with mallets. I'm going to focus on vibraphone and marimba again, xylophone, and glockenspiel.

WC: When you have some downtime lately, what music have you been listening to?

JO: Everything from Terry Riley, a Modernist composer, John Cage, Morton Feldman. These are composers who write pieces that are sonically amazing. When I'm at work and we're jammin' on Spotify or something, we've been listening to bands like The Meters, they've got a really cool, funky sound. I like avant-garde and modern orchestral music a lot right now. As far as heavy music, I've mentioned YOB in a lot of interviews lately. I love their music, it's incredible. But then I'll journey, like I was just playing the first Gamma album, love Ronnie Montrose. I like a lot of rude, off-color comedy too. [laughs]

WC: Any last words before we finish?

JO: I'm proud of Trouble, I'm proud of The Skull and all the hard work that Ron and my wife have done in getting this going. Tee Pee Records has invested such time, money, and care into us that the thank yous aren't enough. For me, it's to reach out and thank some people. I'd thank Rick, Bruce, and Kyle. I'm different like that, or try to be, but there's times when I'm a grumpy old man. [laughs]