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On The Water: “We’re Never Gonna Do The Same Thing Twice.”

August 25, 2015
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With a sound as old and beautiful as the Appalachian mountains, yet as twisted and oddball as the nightmares of Tom Waits and Reverend Glasseye, West Philadelphia’s freaky folk collective On The Water have been spreading their particular brand of magic throughout the land and have recently returned to work on their sixth album, Mirror Master. Our Sean Barrett caught up with frontman Fletcher Van Vliet, a multi-instrumentalist whose vocals range from inhuman to all-too-human, who kindly took the time to play the interview game with us.

So, tell us how this all got started.

On The Water started … just kind of born of the D.I.Y. scene in West Philly. We were doing a lot of punk shows and we saw some bands that were all acoustic, and started writing some songs like that about, I dunno, 7 or 8 years ago. We opened it up to a lot of my friends at the time. It grows and recedes, people come in and out, and we’ve kind of settled into more of a band over the last couple of years of whoever could be committed long-term and make shit happen.

The line-up has seemed to vary from show to show. Is that still the case?

Well, that kinda depends. Taylor, bass player, and Robin, electric guitar, they’ve been doing it for almost the whole time. Evan and Aubrey – cello and vocals – they just joined the group recently. We’re getting ready to make a new record and wanted a lot more sound on it than the last few things we’ve done, which were pretty stripped down. Lucas, our drummer, he’s been playing with us for maybe three or four years now. He’s Robin’s brother, so there’s that family element.

They’re all solidly in the band?

Yeah, that’s our new full line-up.

You’re able to tour with that many people?

Evan, our cellist, she only played like five of the shows. She has the most serious job of us all, so she flew to Arizona to play a few shows with us. But otherwise, yeah, that was the whole line-up. That’s our official line-up these days.

Any plans to bring anyone else in?

Jesse Sparhawk, who’s been on two of our records so far, plays classical harp. He’s wonderful. He’ll probably be on the next one too. I think he might play banjo on it too, just a couple tracks. He’s our frequent collaborator but he doesn’t play any shows or anything.

OnTheWaterDo your tour dates usually take place in D.I.Y. venues?

As long as it’s a good D.I.Y. show, that’s what I prefer. As long as somebody’s organized and taking care of things. We end up doing about half and half because not everybody feels the way I do about D.I.Y. shows. They can be a little wild and outta control, and trying to survive on the road can be pretty tough. It’s hard sometimes at D.I.Y. shows to fill the van and fill your tummies, you know, to survive. But that’s what I prefer. I feel like it’s a more straight up connection with people. That’s why I’ve been involved in that scene for a long time.

Between you guys and Hoots and Hellmouth, it seems that West Philly’s better suited for folk music.

Philadelphia could produce any kind of band at any moment from any part of the city. Although each part of the town is different, and people have different attitudes [breaks to hug bandmate goodnight]. But it’s a very creative city all around, a lot of bands, a lot of ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a freaky experimental folk band to come out of anywhere in the city.

On The Water performing in a small space creates a really charged atmosphere. How does that translate in bigger venues?

Sometimes easily, sometimes not at all. I think that just depends on the town and the crowd that night. Sometimes it’s like no one’s listening, and I think that’s inevitable in this time period. There’s so much music and people have so many interests. Sometimes it’s easy to not be noticed. That does happen to us, but there are plenty of culled shows where we are able to create that atmosphere, but it’s not every one. Then again, it’s not every D.I.Y. show that feels magical. Just most of them.

Your last album, Cordelia, was more stripped down than is usual for On The Water. Is that the new direction, or something of a sidestep.

Yeah, less instruments and more amps. We just kind of follow our instincts and that’s just what happened. As far as trying to rehearse for that album, the big band fell apart a little bit and we were interested to see what kind of dynamic we could make with a louder set-up, mainly wanting to have more dynamic drums, you know, the drums are pretty fuckin’ loud, so trying to catch up with the drummer. With the cello and other sounds coming back in, I feel like we went as far as we were gonna go away from folk music, or whatever you wanna call it. Now we’re making our way back to some kind of style in-between the heaviness and the folkiness.

Heaviness is the word. Parts of your set feel like doom.

Yeah, we really like metal. Lucas and I are in a metal band also and one our big passions is metal music. Metal is the lord! A lot of us have been into metal since we were kids, so we like the heaviness and the theater of metal, and kind of bringing those ideas to this is really fun. When the next record comes out – Mirror Master is the record – when that’s out and done, it’s gonna be the heaviest thing we’ve done, for sure, like…heavy. But, you know, with some folk instruments back in. There’s gonna be accordion. I’m gonna be playing accordion and mandolin and a little toy piano and there’s a cello and all that stuff. We’re never gonna do the same thing twice. That’s our nature, mine specifically. I get bored easily.

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