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Good Old War: A Close-Knit Family.

August 29, 2011

Our Jillian Mallon spoke to Tim Arnold, the percussionist and vocalist from the Philly band Good Old War.

You were in the band Days Away before forming Good Old War with Dan (Schwartz). What made you decide to switch from the sound of Days Away to the harmonies and acoustics of Good Old War? Was it a conscious choice to adopt a folkier sound?

I think the choice was no necessarily to adopt a folky sound, It was kind of just to simplify things, you know? And, you know, tone it down, use acoustic instruments. We kind of talked about just simplifying things and then other things kind of took shape, like the harmonies, for example. But we weren’t really, like, saying, “Hey, let’s make a folk band.” We were kind of just like, “Let’s just turn the volume down and concentrate on writing songs.” It kind of evolved naturally that way.

What did you think about your sound when you first started? Did you like your new sound or did you want to go back to the old music?

Oh, no, we love the new sound. We’re never going back. Once you make a decision like that, it’s kind of like, you’ve got to go for it. And if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s kind of pointless, isn’t it?

How did the three of you first decide to start singing together and figuring out that you had these kind of harmonies in you? Did your voices immediately click together?

Well, Keith (Goodwin) and I have been singing. In Days Away, we did harmonies and keys, so we knew we could sing, but, uh, what pretty much prompted us to start singing harmony was, um, we were playing in bars, you know, doing cover songs of old classic tunes and we all starting singing together and we really enjoyed singing together. We were singing Simon and Garfunkel tunes and I would have, like, a third harmony or sing Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It just blended well and we were like, “Wow, this works! Let’s do this.” Also, out of necessity.

What do you mean by “out of necessity”?

Well we needed to make money to live so we needed to play at these bars. It kind of prompted the harmonizing, you know?

Who are your individual musical influences?

We all grew up with the oldies. Now it’s the golden oldies, like The Platters and The Shirelles and all that, and you know, I guess you could say Simon and Garfunkel and that stuff. But we each have our own specific catalysts of what make us kind of different from each other. Like I kind of grew up with Frank Zappa being played all the time by my father. Keith’s dad was really into, like, the Eagles and like, vocal groups like that. Dan, I’m pretty sure, is pretty much like Keith in that aspect. I’m kind of the wildcard with the Zappa freakness.

Who, collectively, are the band’s musical influences?

Oh, it’s very wide-ranging. I mean, Keith and I like some electronic stuff. Dan likes a lot of, you know, he’s really been listening to a lot of Aerosmith recently. I like to just keep it eclectic, you know? I think we all do.

Do you think you implement that in your sound?

Yeah, I think that we’re influenced by everything, even stuff we don’t like, you know? That influence could be, “Let’s not do that”, you know? We try and, at least for me, I can’t really speak for everyone, but I try and listen to as much different kind of stuff as I can and hope that it is absorbed and put out in a positive way.

Would you consider your music folk music?

I don’t know, not really. I don’t know, they’re not, like, protest songs. I guess pop music, but it doesn’t really sound like modern pop. That’s like one of the hardest questions for me to answer just because it’s hard to describe your own art. I just kind of want it to speak for itself. People can figure out what they want to call it, you know?

You’re not doing art to do a genre. You’re doing art to –

Yeah, express yourself. And we just choose to do it in a way and if people want to call it folk, that’s fine. If they want to call it, you know, classical, if they want to call it punk rock, they can do whatever they want.

What do you think makes people think that your music is folkier? Do you think it’s the acoustic instruments? Do you think it’s the instruments you are playing?

Yeah, I would probably assume that it’s because of the acoustic guitars and the harmonies.

Have you noticed more bands nowadays becoming more acoustic and harmonic like you?

Yeah, there’s definitely a little, like, something happening, because there’s tones of bands coming out with really nice vocals that are kind of chill. It’s nice. It’s not a bad movement.

Have you been more accepted in some areas than others?

Totally, yeah. I think that’s also just because there’s no visibility in some areas for us. That’s what we’re trying to do now, just get out to as many places and play in front of as many people as possible. When we do go to a town where we’re not very well-received, we can just keep going, and then everyone’s happy. Everywhere. All over the world.

Would you say that you are well-received in Philadelphia?

Uh, yeah. And it feels good. It’s kind of one of the goals: to be able to rock your hometown. Big, big deal.

Did Philadelphia shape the way you have written music?

I’m sure. I don’t know if I could pinpoint any examples for you of how it shaped it. Maybe because, you know, Philly has that old sound of… For example, you could cruise on your bicycle down to South Philly sometime and maybe see some old dudes singing on the corner in harmony and it’s kind of that thing. Maybe it’s just in my blood. I don’t know.

You posted something on the Good Old War website about The Shirelles song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Philadelphia in the 1950s was a hub for doo wop music and street corner harmony and vocal groups convened in tunnels and alleyways to blend their voices. I have been in contact with doo wop DJs such as Charlie Horner and Jerry Blavat within the past few weeks about the future of vocal harmony in Philadelphia. They are working to preserve the history and record of the music. You mentioned the declining presence of this music on the radio, which is evident.

It makes me sad.

Do you feel that old-fashioned group harmony should be preserved or adapted?

Are you asking if people should continue this tradition and keep it alive?

Yeah. And street corner music in Philadelphia. Tell me your thoughts on that.

Vocal music with always be around. It’s the ultimate instrument, you know? Everyone’s born with it. You’re not born with a guitar in your hands. You’re born with a voice.  Some people, I guess, are tone deaf, but you can always work on that. I think that’s the ultimate instrument and everyone has it and it’s how you use it, and if you want to use it in a positive way and sing in a beautiful harmonic way then I say go for it. Do it. Keep it going. Because I love it.

Do you think your vocal harmonies are an homage to those in the past?

Sometimes. Sometimes we try and say, “Oh, let’s do this kind of harmony, like a Beach Boys-y type thing. We were actually just talking about, you know how doo wop groups sing like, “shaboom” and like, “ramalamadingdong” and all that stuff? We’re trying to come up with some new ones.

A new vocal onomatopoeia?

Yeah, exactly.  We’re working on it. The next record might have some of that on it.

Any ideas?

Actually our sound guy had one. It was uh, “tomdelongedelay”?

What’s that?

He was talking about the effect he was using in some session he was having in the studio about how you can put some Tom Delonge delay on there. Tom Delonge from –

Like from Blink 182.

And we were like, “Tomdelongedelay!” That’s amazing! That’s perfect! So maybe we’ll do that, I don’t know.

That’s so funny.

Yeah, and like, M. Night Shyamalamalan. We’re just gonna keep coming up with new ones and see if any of them work. Yeah maybe we’ll put out a doo wop record. I don’t know. Anything’s possible.

Your harmonies kind of influence what you are listening to, it sounds like.

Well, maybe. Maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t know.

What you’re listening to influences what you make?

Yeah, probably. I mean, I feel like if I am influenced it’s kind of like an intrinsic thing where I don’t even know it’s going on. It’s kind of inside and it’s happening subconsciously, you know? If it was not that way I feel like it would kind of be like stealing. I feel like you should just take influences but don’t really, like, deliberately take them. Let them come to you. So I guess if music that I listen to is influencing us, it’s just kind of happening and I don’t really notice it but people might, so that’s cool.

It seems like you care a lot about the music you listen to.

Yeah, I mean it feels good to listen to good music. It’s the ultimate drug.

When did you all start playing the instruments that you are using in your band? Like your accordion and just a lot of the newer instruments that Good Old War is using.

I started playing the accordion three years ago because I was just interested in it and I love the sound. I kind of just taught myself a couple of things and figured out what I could do. I’m still learning, you know? I’m definitely far from being really good at the accordion. It’s fun to pick up new toys and try to make something sound good out of it.

It’s a hard instrument.

Yeah, it really is. Which is why it’s going slowly, you know? I think I found a teacher, so I might be able to take some lessons when I get home. Then I’ll be tearin’ it up.

Are you thinking of recording again?

Yeah, we’re going to go back and do a couple of more tracks and then hopefully release this record early next year.

What is this record going to be like? Is it going to be different from the last two?

Yeah. I think that it should just flow naturally and evolve in a new way. It’s not going to be, like, crazy different, you know? We kind of took different approaches in songwriting on some tracks and did the old classic Good Old War tricks here and there. We stretched it out a little bit and flexed a little bit and pretty much tried to make the best stuff we could and pushed ourselves, so it’s not going to be all wailing electric guitars or anything. We’re going to have the basic elements, but I think, I don’t know, we’ll see. So exciting.

What is new about it? What different approaches did you take?

I started writing more on this record. The last two was mostly just Keith and Dan would come in with songs, I’d throw in a couple of ideas, but it was mostly their tunes. On this one they had a couple of songs. I had a couple of songs. And then we all sat down and just reworked everything together. I think that’s going to change the sound a little bit, but it’s still Good Old War.

It sounds like right now you’re all taking lyrics to the table and then working on it together. Was that different in the past?

Yeah pretty much. We kind of just, we didn’t really work on lyrics that much in the past. We’d kind of vaguely come in with lyrics and be like, “That’s great! Let’s put it down!” But this time we kind of wrote them out and bring them to the table and really work them out and say, “Well this word could be replaced with this” or “We could say this differently”. So yeah, I think it’s going to be a little bit different.

So you’re editing each other’s writing as well as each other’s music?

Yup.

That’s interesting.

Yeah. It’s a group effort. And I think we really trust each other at this point, so it’s easier now, you know?

You’ve really grown to have a better bond in the past few years.

Exactly. We’re brothers. We’ve become a close-knit family, which is nice.

When you guys come home to the Philadelphia area, do you notice anything about the scene and the people that see you in Philadelphia? How do you feel about Philadelphia and what’s going on musically there?

I love it. I keep seeing things online about our good friends Hezekiah Jones. That whole group, those are our boys and girls. I don’t know, it seems like there’s some kind of a something happening, I’d guess you’d call it the folk scene. The Spinning Leaves, Hezekiah Jones, tons of bands, all jamming together. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. I wish we were home more often so we could do it more.

I actually spoke to Raph from Hezekiah Jones a few weeks ago.

Oh yeah? How’s he doing?

He’s doing well. Turns out we live in the same hometown so we got to meet at a diner in our hometown.

That’s cool. Haverford or something?

Yes, Havertown.

Havertown.

It’s  confusing. There’s a Havertown and a Haverford.

I love that guy, though. He’s the man. We’re going to tour again. If we do a headlining tour, hopefully they’ll be able to come out with us. We did a little short run a few years ago and every night we would all just jam together onstage and it was a blast.

Yeah, that’s the thing that he was mentioning and that you started to mention: the folk community in Philadelphia, or just the community of singers that do this kind of acoustic stuff, you really do bond together and you really do care about each other’s music.

Yeah, totally. Everyone’s good at what they do so it’s easy to sit down and start playing. Everyone has fun with it, it’s good. I like that about Philly. Everyone’s cool. There’s no pretention in that scene. There’s no, “Nah, I’m not playing with you, man”, you know? It’s like, “Hey, why not? Let’s jam.” Everyone’s cool. We all hang out. Drink some beers. Sit around. Just play. It’s fun.

So it’s really the community aspect in Philly.

Yeah, it’s awesome.

So maybe that’s the root of the folk scene. Just people banding together and making music together.

You might be right. And of course every time you play with someone else, that also influences you too, you know? If we were to sit down and write a song with Raph, it might give us a little insight or how a different way to do it would be. And that’s another way to be, to grow: playing with other people. Just getting out there and just hanging out, you know? Talking about music with other musicians and I think that’s why, maybe, the Philly folk thing is thriving at this point, because everyone’s friends and everyone works together and makes the best that they possibly can.

They learn from each other.

Exactly.

Good Old War will play on 9/25 at the Ukie Club as part of the Philly FM Fest. To get tickets to all four days of the Philly FM Fest at a massive discount (only $50 for all four days, with more than 100 bands), click here.

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