Over the course of Old Earth‘s decade-long run, Todd Umhoefer’s personal project has managed to create some gorgeous and moving recordings in some rather unconventional locations. His 2012 effort, A Low Place At The Old Place, was written and captured in the basement of a generations-old Menomonee Falls home shrouded in recent loss. Not long after that, he gave Milwaukee a Scottish souvenir in the form of a series of field recordings be made on the streets of Edinburgh. Since then, he briefly relocated to northern California to write and release more music, before eventually winding up back in his native Wisconsin.
This morning, Old Earth’s extensive and impressive catalog grew when Umhoefer put out Beast Of Needs, a digital release and the potent parting shot for a project that’s been kicking since 2009. Prior to that swan song and before the project’s final show at Linneman’s on Friday, September 6, Milwaukee Record sat down with Umhoefer to talk about Beast Of Needs, the decision to end Old Earth, and what’s next for him.
Milwaukee Record: Let’s begin at the ending. Ultimately, why are you putting this project to bed? Why and why now?
Todd Umhoefer: It’s definitely a combination of things. About two years ago, I felt like the vision kind of slowed. I was normally like two or three records out from whatever one I was working on, and that helped the process stay really dynamic. But around 2017, I had the record I was working on now and a few other songs that were kind of dangling, but I felt there was no immediate need to get it out there. It was just the intuition of trusting that if there was nothing to say, then I wasn’t going to push it.
MR: The completion of Beast Of Needs is right down to the wire to line up with the last show. Was this a deadline imposed on yourself to push you to get the record done in time?
TU: Yeah, definitely. The timing, I felt, lined up too conveniently. It’s going to be the 10-year mark of when the first record came out, so I figured I would shoot for that deadline and just close it in that way. I thought that would be really interesting. So yeah, it was a little bit of an artificial deadline.
MR: What are some of the most memorable or most important experiences you’ve had with this project over the last decade? I know you’ve been able to go to Scotland, you’ve moved out west for a while, moved back, and Old Earth seemed to be the one consistent thing in your life throughout.
TU: That’s not unfair to say. Yeah, I’ve really arranged everything around it—sometimes to my personal detriment in a way of putting the art first or whatever. That’s been something to contend with, too. There’s a sense of personal identity, and now if I don’t have that, what am I? But I know my story isn’t just playing guitar.
Getting to tour Scotland was amazing. A lot of [what stands out] is just getting feedback from people. It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in a while, I’ll get these messages from people saying my worked really helped them through something they were going through. Good. That’s what it’s there for: creating this space for people to work their shit out. Another highlight is that it remained sincere the whole time. I did my best with it. No one can say I didn’t, and I can’t help but be proud of that. I took it all at my own terms, I did it my way, and I feel good about that.
MR: It’s always a hard thing to describe your own music, but what were attempting to accomplish with this last release? You seemed to mention following a path. What are you attempting to get across with this parting shot?
TU: If there were any straggling ideas, I wanted to throw them at the board and see if I can get them to stick this time. There’s always leftovers from other records that I would’ve liked to have it in, so you try and try again. But this is a weird one because it came together in a way where it was being written as it was being recorded, and I’ve never done that. This got very unwieldy and overwhelming at times. I just bought an iPad just to make this thing on, and so I could work on it whenever I wanted and pick away and be nitpick-y if I wanted. I wasn’t used to working that way, so it really out of control at times.
MR: Where did you record this? I know you shot the latest music video at that church in South Milwaukee, but was it all done there or kind of scattered around?
TU: I ended up doing what ended up being some vocal tracks there at Margaret [Muza]’s photography studio. I wrote a song and started another one there, so it was so productive. I recorded there. I recorded at my house in a live room. I did a little bit at Holiday Music Hotel in Sturgeon Bay, which was a really cool experience. I didn’t realize how much this whole project had to do with different spaces and where the recordings happened. It was more about place than I ever thought it would be, and that’s been really interesting.
MR: Whether people have been along for the whole journey or they’ve dipped in for an album or two, how do you hope people remember Old Earth?
TU: I hope people can appreciation the idiosyncrasies in a way where I wasn’t trying to make anything perfect. There’s a lot of unfinished sentences in a lot of the work and this sense of the making and seeing the process in the performances and the recordings. I was just working on myself and working it out through these songs, and I hope some people were able to get that.
MR: You might not even know the answer yet, but what’s next? Are you going to set aside music for the moment? Are you done altogether? Or are you going to start making music under a new name?
TU: I have a few side projects that I’m going to be helping people with. I’ve always kind of done that, even when this project was at the forefront. But really, I’m just taking this big piece out from the front of my life. I have some ideas for a different project of solo stuff, but it’ll be a pretty different sound. I just want to get more into visual stuff and I have a book I’ve been working on for a couple years. I feel that it’s important thing to work on. These past 15 years in my artistic life, I’d swing into music, then I’d get the itch to swing into visual stuff, and then I’ll be in the visual stuff long enough where I’ll get the urge to record. We’ll see where the pendulum swings, but I’ll play as long as I draw breath.
Old Earth‘s final show will take place at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn on Friday, September 6. Christopher Porterfield will play in support. The show begins at 8 p.m. and costs $10 at the door.