New York-based band Olden Yolk are making a name for themselves with the timeless nature, abstract poeticism, dreaminess and motorik rhythms of their music.
There are few places in the world more lively than New York City. Led by the intertwining harmonies of Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer, Olden Yolk has looked to the frenetic energy and lively surroundings of New York, with this spirit being as much a part of the creative process as the music itself. “I enjoy the noise of cities. I like hearing people talking over one another and hearing someone’s stomach make weird gurgles next to you on the subway, if you can hear it over the engine roar,” Caity says. “It’s humanizing, but you never forget that you’re living with a bunch of advanced machines, too.”
Led by the intertwining harmonies of Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer, Olden York’s unique sound has begun to capture the hearts of many for its timeless nature, abstract poeticism and motorik rhythms. Their eponymous debut album that released earlier this year draws upon life in New York, from the artists that have graced before to the subway platforms, kiosks and monuments that characterize the city.
How did you two initially meet?
Caity: I was hitchhiking, he was headed my way. Just kidding, though that’s more or less the story.
Shane: We met on a Harvest Moon in Austin, Texas. We only spoke for 5 minutes when we first met, but decided to stay in touch and haven’t stopped since. About 6 months after knowing each other (and after finishing a collection of poetry together), we started to collaborate on music. Now we’re traveling around the world playing with each other. It’s been such a natural and unique blessing.
Olden Yolk itself was initially conceived as a one-off for songs and visual art. How did it end up becoming an entity in itself?
Shane: I decided to start exploring some different sounds, recording techniques and visual work with the Olden Yolk moniker in 2012. After making a handful of recordings over the years, it just became time to take the project more seriously. Fortunately, I met Caity and now have a partner to collaborate with in the project’s writing and vision. We’re also really fortunate to have a great backing band; Dan Drohan, Jesse DeFrancesco, and Peter Wagner, who we’ve been playing with over the last year and other collaborators we’ve worked with along the way.
How do you want people listening to your music for the first time to think or feel?
Caity: A word that comes to mind is patient. It took time to become close with a lot of my now-favourite records. I’m thinking of artists I’ve known forever but have only recently come to love in a deeper way – musicians like Alice Coltrane, Fifty Foot Horse, the Pastels and a slew of classical composers. Of course, you hope that people will return to your music, consider it and accept it as some marker in their lives. I mean, this is the most we could ask for.
Shane: Whatever way makes them feel best is great for me. I love how the songs can take on completely different voices pertaining to each person’s individual experiences. What a song means to me may mean something completely different to another person, so I don’t think I can hope for a specific feeling from anyone. Yet, I do hope that the music on some level helps them connect with themselves and with their surroundings in a more refined and deeper way. For me, that has always been such a great thing about tunes. Getting to know myself and “where I am.” I hope we can give that experience to others on some level.
Who do you guys make music for?
Shane: People and dogs.
Caity: Well, in all seriousness, I wish I had a noble answer, like a higher power. I’m really inspired by traditions of making music for devotional or spiritual purposes, and sacred music was my first real introduction to the form. When I was younger, I did have lofty intentions. I thought about family and friends listening to what I’d written generations after I’d been gone; I thought of music as an everlasting extension of myself that didn’t have to be shared or even acknowledged in this lifetime. Of course, those ideas are now a bit more focused, since our band Olden Yolk is a public thing. Even still, I’m left with this sort of selfish answer: I’m probably making music for whatever sense of “higher power” I see in myself. Over-considering an audience’s reaction sucks the fun out of the thing—and I don’t think listeners wants us to do that, either.
Your music is reminiscent of past decades of music, but also seem to incorporate a modern twist. How do you balance this?
Caity: That’s nice to hear. We’re a product of the time we live in, and right now there is a lot of music available to listen to. The term nostalgia has been used a lot in regard to OY, which I don’t always connect with. I’m increasingly interested in using instruments and tools outside of the traditional guitar-driven rock band format and excited to get into this for the next record.
Shane: We listen to so much stuff from every era. Whether that be more recent music or older stuff — we just consume as much as possible and then regurgitate it back through our songs. We have stuff we are attracted to and just work with that. Some of that is new, and some is old. I’m personally much happier with a mix of the two than just one or the other. Music is a continual language, and to be in conversation with the history we are always coming out of and the future we are always moving towards is important…and just more fun. Would never want to be limited that way.
You’ve previously mentioned that your album is an ode to living in the city, from the subway platforms to monuments. How does this manifest in your music?
Shane: We were living in New York City (my home city) while writing and recording the album, and couldn’t help but pay homage to our surroundings and the frenetic energy of the city. Yet, the “city” we are talking about and referencing in the songs is at times a collection of various cities we have lived in. New York is a very raw place that is constantly shifting and changing, along with my relationship to it since I was 14 years old and first moved there. Specific songs on the album reference some of the feelings that have come from those changes and growing up and living in that environment.
Caity: For myself, I enjoy the noise of cities. I like hearing people talking over one another and hearing someone’s stomach make weird gurgles next to you on the subway, if you can hear it over the engine roar. It’s humanizing, but you never forget that you’re living with a bunch of advanced machines, too. I have a hole in one of my eardrums, and sometimes sound strikes my bad ear in a ticklish (I don’t know how else to describe it) way. A lot of ticklish, high-pitched, Spiderman soundtrack sounds here that could stand by themselves as a piece of music. We try to incorporate some of that.
How has New York specifically had an impact on your music?
Caity: There are so many great players either who live in town or are cycling through. There’s an energy here that brings out some strong emotions. It’s a harsh environment for a lot of artists, but that can be thrilling.
Shane: Well, personally I was thinking a lot about musicians from New York who had a really big influence on me while I was growing up and from current times; everything from Sonic Youth, La Monte Young, The Velvet Underground, The Fugs, Black Dice, PC Worship, I’ve always been attracted to a certain rawness found in some of these NY musicians work: one that embraces both the beautiful and the abject. The same thing pops up in these artists lyrical content. A way to embrace all sides of the human condition through sound and words. Of course, this thing is not specifically ‘of New York’ — for me it is just where I first discovered a lot of this. Being in that city brought me up to it.
You’re both vocalists, multi-instrumentalists and songwriters. How important is having a well-rounded foundation in music to you guys?
Shane: We do what we can. Haha. I’m not a trained musician in any way. I taught myself how to play guitar when I was 15-16 years old. I had a guitar teacher for 5 lessons who pretty much just told me to play Led Zeppelin and U2 songs, so I decided it would be better to just learn on my own. I really just wanted to be able to write songs and sing. That has always held precedence to me over being a really ‘refined’ musician. I’m much more into raw energy than “playing it right.” Yet, over time – especially in later years I have developed a new found love for learning the more refined parts of musicianship. I’m still a beginner really. It’s great to play with Caity who also is interested in all aspects of musicianship and writing. I feel like we really have been pushing each other to get better, and also to loosen up. It’s a good mix.
How do you think your harmonies complement each other?
Shane: A lot of my favorite music I’ve heard through my life has had a mix of voices that way. I’ve also been a big fan of bands who have both male & female lead-vocalists. Don’t know what it is…just something I really love in music. Just a taste thing. It’s also so nice to have different energies at play when constructing full albums, sets, etc… There is an amazing balance that happens. It’s been a blessing being able to work alongside Caity vocally.
Caity: It’s rewarding to have a counterpart there for you. I think about it less in terms of gender and more of what we offer as two different personalities working together.
What’s next for Olden Yolk?
Shane: Touring a bunch, then recording a bunch, then releasing a new album, then touring a bunch.
Caity: I have a hunch that there’s a bunch to be launched.
Words by Braeden Alexander – Catch Olden Yolk in Toronto at the Smiling Buddha on May 2.