GROWING UP IN Tennessee and spending most of my adult life in Colorado, I’m used to seeing bearded men in overalls playing fiddles and banjos. In Memphis, these were my neighbors. And in the Rocky Mountains, gangs of such guys roamed the campgrounds at bluegrass festivals. In the big city, however, people who fit this description— like the members of O’Death—are less common.When I see them, though, I gravitate toward them, thinking maybe I’ve found some long lost friends. But when I spoke to O’Death, I discovered that none of them were from Colorado, and only one—drummer David Rogers-Berry—hailed from the South land.The other four are Empire State natives.
With Rogers-Berry being the only scallywag in a band of Yankees, what exactly in spires the redneck-tow-truck-driver style, this tattered-and-tattooed look of cheap denim and poor genes? The answer is their musical roots. “We initially appropriated old-time music,” explains Rogers-Berry, “and then applied our punk aesthetic to it.” As I speak with Rogers-Berry, I realize how intelligent, well spoken and thoughtful he is. I admit, I’m surprised. I’ve seen the boys on stage, mostly shirtless with bellies jig gling, and—no offense guys—thoughtful and well spoken isn’t exactly what comes across.
For the next hour, the 26-year-old drummer details the band’s past, present and planned-on future.The boys hooked up while going to school at SUNY Purchase, where they were part of an exceptionally musical student body that included Dan Deacon, Langhorne Slim and some girl named Regina Spektor.
After graduation, the quintet continued honing its chops in small bars around the city, self-releasing a couple of albums.
Then, last year, Head Home, the second of its two DIY albums, got picked up for do mestic and international distribution. Crit ics buzzed, and the band suddenly found itself in high demand.The boys started playing to bigger crowds in the city’s better venues; last month, more than 4,000 people showed up at Pier 54 to watch the band play under a hot setting sun. “It was the biggest show of our career by far,” Rogers- Berry says. Now O’Death is trotting the globe, and booked through next April. In fact, Rogers- Berry is talking to me during a two-day lay over in between a European tour (the band’s fourth) and “the strangest gig ever” on a barge in the Bermuda Triangle.
Next week New Yorkers will be able to catch O’Death on local waters when it headlines a “Rocks Off” cruise down the odoriferous East River. Banjos and hillbillies—sounds like Deliverance redux, set in an urban jungle with Swedish-designed faux waterfalls and a large French statue. (Though I hope there will be no bows and arrows, and any pig squealing sex will be consensual.)
The three-hour voyage will offer fans a live preview of the 14 songs that make up Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skins, out on Oct. 28.The album is expectedly aggressive and brash, a continuation of the pickin’-on-punk theme, but also an expansion. Switching genres as quickly as it shifts tempos, the band segues from its tra ditional punk fusion into oom-pah-pah klezmer into tender alt-country, lurching into some abrasive heavy metal toward the end.The result is a polygamous marriage of the Violent Femmes on meth, Gogol Bordello on fatback and the bastard lovechild of a Charlie Daniels Band-Japonize Elephants-Metallica three-way.
And while polygamy might be illegal in most states, this marriage works. Broken Hymns, Limbs, and Skins is dedi cated to Rogers-Berry’s late fiancée, who died last November from an aneurysm. “We were on tour in Europe, isolated in Sweden, when we found out.We cancelled the rest of our dates and came home.” Several of the songs on the album were influenced by that time, and while grief is expressed in disturb ing lines like “Find a sacred resting place/ where the pecking hens won’t harm her eyes,” Rogers-Berry hopes the album will ac tually be a paean to the light she brought into others’ lives. “She brought so much joy and positive energy into people’s lives. Hopefully we can carry that on with our music.”
“Still,” he says, referring to the new album, “it is some dark, heavy shit.”
Sept 10, Skyport Pier (FDR & E. 23rd Street), 212-571-3304, 7, $20/$25.