Smile Politely

Soundcheck: Neoga Blacksmith

This week Chris catches up with local roots rockers Neoga Blacksmith and gets to the bottom of whether any of them is actually a blacksmith or from Neoga.

According to their Facebook pageNeoga Blacksmith is composed of Matt Wade (guitar/vocals), Brad Olson (guitar/vocals), Kyle Usher (keys/harmonica/vocals), Tony Ewald (bass guitar), and Ryan Hoffman (drums) and they hail from Champaign—not the town of 1,800 in Cumberland County.

Smile Politely: First things first, is anyone in the band actually from Neoga or a blacksmith?

Olson: None of us are actually from Neoga, although we all come from a small town which is probably pretty similar in most respects. Picking Neoga for a namesake was about a 20 second process, about as simple as dropping a finger on a map, although we think it serves as a good representation of the kind of culture that we come from and as a result what our music sounds like. We’re all pretty crafty in various ways, but Matt Wade is our resident “blacksmith.” He has been known to dabble in making metal junk art, so currently our garage practice space is filled with things like deer heads made from mailboxes and flying propane tank pigs.

SP: Your music has been described a number of ways, is there a certain genre you think fits your band most?

Wade: Genre is something that we definitely try to challenge. We get lumped into the country category pretty often, although that’s not always such a neat fit. While we all have an appreciation for a lot of classic country and alt-country, the belt-buckle scene of today isn’t really our thing. Our stuff tends to have more of an edge to it, and is probably more than a little bit nostalgic for the music we grew up around. Our method seems to be taking bits and pieces of country, rockabilly, folk, grunge, blues, alt-rock and others and seeing how they fit together. At the end of the day, I suppose that makes us a rock and roll band.

SP: Where do you draw inspiration for your songs?

Hoffman: Since all five of us bring a lot to the table when songwriting, our inspiration can come from a lot of places. In general, our songs are often inspired by events, people, and other aspects of our small-town lives. A lot of our songs seem to begin with one of us telling a story at practice, then working it into a song sometime after. There is a lot of abstraction, embellishment, and pure invention too though, so its almost as though we’re writing about an alternate universe inspired by our real lives. “Crop Dusting Charlie” is a good example of this kind of “half true” song. The character is based on a real person who, according to town legend, was slipped too much acid at a party a long time ago. Thankfully, the crop dusting part is entirely fictional.

SP: Can you tell me more about the Hogchute Opry? Specifically, how it came about and how the experience was?

Usher: The Hogchute Opry was something we talked about doing for some time before we actually got the ball rolling. The original idea was to get a bunch of bands and musicians in our vein together, and hopefully everyone would get some exposure to new fans. We didn’t want it to be just a Neoga Blacksmith show, but something a bit different. In part, it was referencing the term “opry” as a rural, counter-cultural response to opera and other high arts. Eventually the idea grew to including artwork by some local artists, which helped reinforce that theme. After getting in touch with Bill Taylor at the Kalyx Center, we knew the barn would be the perfect place to hold the event. It turned out to be a great time with good people, with the biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen, and some amazing performances by bands like Cody and the Gateway Drugs, Manzanita Bones and more.

SP: Would you like to do another Opry?

Ewald: Yes, absolutely. We’re currently planning to get another one going in the spring, and hopefully this time it can be even bigger and better. It might be fun to add a little more variety show and invite other types of acts to participate. Incorporating things like comedy, film, and other types of performance could be a great way to get even more people involved, so that might be a possibility. Things are pretty early in the planning process, but we’re working on it and always open to suggestions. There should be more details coming out in 2014.

SP: It’s been a year since you released your second full length album, have you been writing much since?

Wade: We started writing new songs almost immediately after the release of the last album. While we spent a good deal of the winter and spring playing out to promote “Some Pig”, working on new stuff in between shows was a good way to keep us from getting bored and sucking the life out of the songs we were playing so often. There might be a few things that didn’t make it on that album that have rolled over, and a lot more new ideas are starting to take shape.

SP: How does your new work differ from what you have already recorded?

Usher: The last album was pretty eclectic with a lot of different sounding songs, while the new stuff we’re working on seems to be a little more cohesive in style and theme. Some of the songs are sounding pretty bluesy and riff oriented, and there’s a few that are more traditionally country sounding, so we’re trying to find a way to tie things together. We’re also trying to take a new approach to recording, working out of our garage. The past two albums were recorded at Earth Analog with Aaron McCallister, who over the course of a weekend per album was able to get us a great live-sounding impression of our material without overworking it. This spontaneous approach worked great in the past, but for this new stuff we think shaking things up and working in the garage will allow us more time and freedom to develop the songs more fully and put together some interesting new work. I’m sure we’ll still be calling Aaron to bail us out of a jam at some point.

SP: Do you have plans to record again soon? 

Hoffman: We’re currently in the process of recording demos in the garage of the new stuff as we’re writing and working them out. Ideally we’d like to get some basic tracking on a few things worked out in the next couple months, and then start having some real fun refining everything. We’re not sure yet if the new stuff will eventually come out as an album, series of EPs, or other format yet, but in the meantime we’re keeping people in the loop in the form of a new recording series from the garage, “Neoga City Limits”. We’re planning to post a new episode each month that features live recordings of old stuff, first listens at new songs, details about where we’ll be playing next, and more.

SP: Do you have plans to tour or plans to play more shows locally in the near future? If not, when do you expect fans can see you again?

Olson: Right now our calendar is wide open as we focus on writing new material, but we will certainly be booking a few local shows for the fall and winter in the coming weeks. We don’t currently have any plans to tour much out of the area, but are hoping we’ll be able to hit the road with new material in the summer. The best way to keep posted about upcoming dates or tell us where we should be playing is to follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

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