The Olms are a new band devoted to some old ways, recording to tape on vintage gear while writing songs in a classic folk-pop mode. The duo of singer-songwriters Pete Yorn and J.D. King came together a year ago in the hills above Los Angeles, and on Monday night, they performed sunny and contemplative songs from their upcoming self-titled debut album for an intimate crowd hosted by public radio station KCRW.
“It’s a combo of our sensibilities, whatever we’re going through at the time,” Yorn told Rolling Stone of the songs, sitting with his musical partner an hour before their performance at Apogee studio in Santa Monica. A recording of the show will be broadcast June 5th, one day after the album is released, on the station and online. “For me, it’s some of my demons being exorcised, exploring different emotions, good, bad, taking it all in. A lot of it seems really sunny, but if you look at the lyrics, they’re also tinged with reality.”
Many of the album’s 10 songs echo the emotional, sweeping sound of certain mid-Sixties pop tunes, with rich hooks and harmonies, but King’s interests go much further back in time: he haunts Southern California record swap-meets in search of ancient vinyl going back to the Twenties.
“Part of me says, like a total purist, that after 1932 they should have completely stopped improving their production because it was so amazing at that time,” said King, tall and stylish in a black vest and scarf knotted at his throat, groomed with a sculpted D’Artagnan mustache and helmet of black hair. “It sounds incredible. I play a 78 [rpm record] and you’re just enveloped in this cloud of amazing vibe. Any way I can mimic that with modern songwriting, let me at it.”
For their 10-song performance, the duo were joined at the studio by four other players, and interviewed by station DJ Anne Litt. They began the set with “On the Line,” a strummy ballad sung by King that was equal parts bubblegum and Seventies-era Brian Eno: “I can hear you breathing on the line/ It’s so misleading/ Like a serial killer in the night/ But it’s alright.”
They took turns on lead vocals, King sitting behind a pair of keyboards, Yorn mostly strumming an acoustic guitar. On “Someone Else’s Girl,” a wistful Yorn sang to a driving heartbreak beat reminiscent of his solo work: “Everyone is having fun while I sit here and cry.” King then let out a “Yeehah!” and blew a energetic, hopeful harmonica solo.
They met through a mutual friend: Linda Ramone, widow to the late punk-rock icon Johnny. Yorn was close to the Ramones guitarist and his wife, and met his future partner when King began dating Linda. Yorn noticed the elaborate collection of gear in the studio King was building in the house, and heard songs King was writing. One day over lunch, Yorn suggested they write a song together, and they kept going.
“I think Johnny would love this record,” said Yorn, turning to King.
“You think so?” replied King. “That makes me happy.”
“‘There’s good pop songs on here,’ I think he would say,” Yorn added with a smile. “He liked a lot of real innocent Sixties stuff. He was a huge Beatles fan and the 1910 Fruitgum Company – he loved that stuff, and there’s some of that weird, whimsical Sixties stuff on this record.”
During their KCRW set, the Olms also performed a cover of the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around,” and Yorn later jokingly strummed a brief moment from the Kinks’ “Lola.” The band closed with “Twice As Nice,” the first song the Olms ever recorded together, mingling acoustic guitar with piano and vocoder melodies.
It was the band’s first hometown performance, following a handful of West Coast dates opening for Band of Horses. Their next shows include a June 3rd record-release party at the Troubadour in West Hollywood and a June 6th show at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, followed by a mini-tour through New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago.
The band is already halfway into recording another album, said Yorn, who also has a solo record nearly completed. “We’re very productive,” said King. Since their earliest sessions, the Olms gather at King’s studio to write and record – Yorn on bass, drums and acoustic guitar, King switching from piano to flute and cello. Yorn calls King “the Inventor” for his ease with gadgetry from across the decades.
“He has this setup where it looks like you walked onto a movie set – with a giant buffalo head, wood-paneled walls and pictures of all the great country crooners in little frames everywhere,” he said about King – who is also a photographer and Super-8 filmmaker – mingling analog and digital with ease. “Naturally you walk in there and I get a little possessed by it. When we started recording, with the sound coming through that equipment in that room, there were a lot of ghosts floating around. It just got into us.”