Since New Berlin native Todd Umhoefer moved back to the region in 2012 after two years in San Francisco, the mastermind of experimental folk project Old Earth locked himself away in his downtown Milwaukee studio, recruited collaborators from some of the city’s most respected acts, and managed eight releases that seemed to get continually better. Though Umhoefer thrived artistically, he struggled to find a consistent audience in town, which eventually nudged him back to northern California last autumn. On June 5, he returned to town to record a new EP and play a small batch of Old Earth shows in the Midwest, including a June 20 show at Club Garibaldi. Before his homecoming performance, Milwaukee Record asked Umhoefer how his new home is treating him, what he misses about Milwaukee, and how he came to trust a new cast of collaborators on his first release since leaving his home state.
Milwaukee Record: So how has Northern California been treating you so far?
Todd Umhoefer: Matching expectations is impossible, but I’ve been working hard and I feel humbled and inspired by the environment, which is good for the music. I reach out constantly, and am starting to get unsolicited offers for shows, which is a big step. I’d say it’s been treating me well, despite being a hard place to make a living.
MR: Having occasionally been one of eight or nine people at select Old Earth shows in Milwaukee, how has the reception been out there?
TU: Well, though numbers are roughly the same, here it was eight or nine dear friends, whereas out there it’s strangers. The audiences have been attentive and receptive, though, and I’m getting to know other artists. People seem curious and interested, because as far as they’re concerned, I’ve essentially come out of nowhere.
MR: What are some things you miss about Milwaukee’s music scene, and about the city itself, for that matter?
TU: It’s definitely hard watching things develop from a distance, but overall I know that this place will progress with or without me. Missing some of the shows that’ve happened in the past few months kind of stings, and though I don’t feel like I took being here for granted, I probably could’ve dragged myself out of the studio more often to hang out. More than anything, I miss unexpectedly running into people I know.
MR: How has the city shaped and nurtured you, I mean if it has at all?
TU: It completely shaped and nurtured me. I grew up and spent most of my life here, so going from being a teenager seeing punk shows in VFW halls in the early ’90s to being an artist that some people know and read about in the city is kind of crazy. I don’t feel the music I do has a great chance anywhere, so the fact that there was a local impact outside of my group of friends is surprising. This will always be where I’m from, and where most of the people I care about live, so I’ll always feel nurtured here.
MR: I see some unfamiliar surnames in the …until they’re called liner notes. Was it hard to bring new people into the fold when you’ve established such a rapport with accompanying Milwaukee musicians like [Christopher] Porterfield, Travis Whitty, Erin Wolf, and Michael [Brooks]?
TU: My guitar and vocal tracks were engineered by Scott Evans. He was great and just rolled with how I work. He was pretty surprised at how quickly things went, which made me proud. Before I got out there, Jon Mueller put me in touch with William Ryan Fritch, and Porterfield connected me with Brian Moen. I went into Moen’s studio and he engineered Karla Lopez’s vocals, and then I watched him completely own those songs on drums. We took turns tracking piano that day, and later he wrote some organ parts. Fritch turned in his cello parts like two days after I sent him the basics to play along with. He operates on a level with music that very, very few people do.
I met Lopez at an open mic, where she offered to collaborate. Normally that kind of thing doesn’t work, but I sent her some guitar demos and a few days later she recorded her own lyrics and vocal melodies, which are virtually the same as what ended up on the final version. That’s the first time someone else has written lyrics for Old Earth, and the trust was immediate. Chad Burnett played bass and guitar, and I’ve been in bands with him since ’01. He’s practically a brother, and another person that operates on a different level with music. His style is ridiculously intuitive and fluid. He’s the one who got me in touch with Evans. I mixed everything myself as usual, and the mastering was done by Gregory Thompson, who Evans recommended, and he’s done some very legit stuff. He pushed the sound into a new place, and it was encouraging to have someone like that put their hands on the work.
MR: Beyond playing some Midwest dates, you’re back here to record with Nick Berg again, right? What are you working on, and are any of the familiar studio hands involved?
TU: I have another four-song EP that should be done in a month or so. I thought I’d be able to knock it out during my stay, but it didn’t turn out that way. I did a session with Nick at Bobby Peru a few days ago, and now I’m feeling like the songs need about 10 percent more tightness and finish, so I’ll just take another swing at it in July. I didn’t even have the words finished, I just hoped they’d shake loose once I started the record. It’s hard to know when something needs a push, and when you have to back off and live with it longer. The local hands I had in mind are just going to have to record their own parts and send them to me.
MR: What can we expect at Saturday’s show? Are you excited to play with Twin Brother again?
TU: It’s always wonderful sharing a stage with Twin Brother, and it’s doubly exciting that Berg is playing keys with them now. I’ve toured with Twin Brother a few times now and a lot of deep bonds are formed from those experiences. We definitely fought up a few hills together. As for what to expect, I’m going to open the show with the best set I can play, and I’m going to have a great time catching up with people throughout the night.
Old Earth opens for Futurebirds and Twin Brother at Club Garibaldi on Saturday, June 20. The show begins at 9 p.m. Listen to an in-studio interview with Old Earth on WMSE between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday.