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Over the Rhine Link
Over the Rhine

My then eight-year-old sister Grace informed me that I had a couple of options when it came to the piano. I could play the hymns that we were growing up with, or I could be a concert pianist, which meant to play the piano for silent movies.

Over the Rhine—Films For Radio
Interviewed by Dan MacIntosh
September, 2001

I was scheduled to interview Linford Detweiler. before their LA show, but because their van broke down, and they just barely made it in time for the concert, our talk was moved to that next morning. Rock & rollers are not at all what you might consider to be "morning people," but Detweiler was awake, sharp and focused for our little talk. Over the Rhine's music can best be described as ethereal pop. The backbone of the group is Detweiler’s writing, matched to Karin Bergquist’s angelic singing. For over a decade, this group has been creating music that tells the stories of their lives—warts and all. Their latest, Films For Radio offers more of their uniquely picturesque take on rock & roll.

D.M.: You said last night from the stage that you were on your own personal "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" adventure. I hope the whole tour hasn’t been like this.

Linford L.D.: No, the tour’s been great.

D.M.: You call the new album Films For Radio, and I’ve always noticed that your music is very cinematic, so I’m wondering if films may have been your first inspiration, before music. Or did you start with music, before receiving inspiration from film?

L.D.: I think these two are kind of tangled up together, and I can probably credit my sister Grace for putting me into a mindset where the two are connected. When my father brought home our first upright piano, I knew that wooden house was going to be an important part of the story I was going to write with my life. I started playing quite a bit as a child, just fooling around and making up my own music. My then eight-year-old sister Grace informed me that I had a couple of options when it came to the piano. I could play the hymns that we were growing up with, or I could be a concert pianist, which meant to play the piano for silent movies. We were growing up without television, so I was very intrigued by this idea of playing for silent movies. I think somewhere along the line I came up with the theory, even as a child, that the movies were inside of us.

D.M.: Did your parents intentionally not have a television in the house?

L.D.: Yeah.

D.M.: Was this a cause of frustration for you?

L.D.: I don’t think so. Children who came over wanting to play with us were typically pretty excited because our imaginations were a bit more independent. We’d come up with pretty grandiose schemes. But when we went over to other peoples’ houses, we immediately put down roots and wanted to watch whatever was on TV. Ultimately, I’m glad that we went without television.

D.M.: In interviews, you talk about the characters singing the songs as being outside of yourself—that you’re not really speaking for yourself, always. Do you see them as cinematic episodes or scenes that you’re creating?

L.D.: Yeah, I do. I’ve always been prone to argue that I’m not trying to make every song autobiographical, but as I look back over our last seven or eight records, I can see that I’ve been working loosely on making sense of my own life story through this music. And it is probably all connected in some way.

D.M.: How do you collaborate with Karin on songs?

L.D.: It changes from song to song. Her songs tend to land in one piece sometimes. And sometimes I do the same—I write songs from beginning to end. Other times we bring unfinished ideas to each other, and work together.

D.M.: My favorite song on the album is the "Little Blue River," which kind of reminds me of a Van Morrison song…

L.D.: Oh, you nailed it!

D.M.: You know how he gets into a mindset and a mood, and he just wants to stay there as it evolves while he’s singing. I find that it happens with this song, as well. What inspired that song? Was there any particular event?

L.D.: Karin was sitting in the passenger seat one night when we were driving home from Chicago. We crossed over this little river, The Little Blue River. It just started happening and she wrote it down. It was probably six years ago, I think, that she wrote the song. During that time, we discovered some of those early Van Morrison records. She spontaneously started connecting part of a hymn called "In The Garden." I think it was loosely inspired by the feeling of some of those early Van Morrison recordings. You tend to get lost in the vibe of the song and you want to stay there for a while, like you were saying.

D.M.: Now that you’ve had some time to live with the album, what are your feelings about it? I know a lot of songwriters tell me they don’t always know what their songs are about when they write them, but after some time, the songs begin to reveal themselves.

L.D.: I find that to be really true, and I know exactly what you’re saying. When I write, I seldom have an agenda in mind. I’ve learned along with everybody else the various things a song might mean. I think that the songs that ended up on the record loosely fit together with the theme. They’re all being sung in the first person. I think I have–being in my mid-thirties now–enough perspective to look back on my life. It’s increasingly obvious to me that we write stories with our lives, with a cast of characters that wander in and out. Some stay, some leave. We’re the protagonist and antagonist in our own story. And I think in all these songs, Karin and I are sort of wrestling with this idea of how do we live a life worth remembering. How do we make our life a true story? That’s the way I see the songs fitting together. There’s a line in the first song, "The World Can Wait," "Roll the movie of my life inside of my head." I think that line sums up many of the songs. In the last song on the record, "When I Go," Karin is asking the question: "Will it make a difference when I go?" To me, it’s about thinking about the end of the story, and what kind of an ending do I want to write. What is important to me? And does any of this stuff matter.

D.M.: If it were to end today, what kind of legacy do you think you’ve left? What are the important things that you’ve left with your art?

L.D.: I’ve made peace with what I do, and if it all ended today, I could hang my hat on it and feel good about the last ten years. I think my legacy is that beauty needs no justification [laughs]. I see my music as little splashes of color on a much bigger painting. I may not be the most important or recognized artist out there by any means, but I know that what I’ve tried to do is from an honest place that’s real. I know that people have connected deeply with what I do. A couple of years ago we began to see this theme in letters people would write to us, where we could almost line them up and cover the whole gamut of human experience. People were saying that they fell in love to our music. They conceived to our music. Some of them actually took our records to the hospital and gave birth with our music playing. People have grown up, gone to college, and sort of figured out what’s important to them listening to our music. And a lot of them say our music helped open them open wider and has given them perspective. People have written to us and said loved ones have passed away and our music was instrumental in helping them get through those difficult times. I began to see, wow, our music is connecting with people’s experience—from birth all the way through. What more could we possible ask for as songwriters?

D.M.: Doesn’t that put on added pressure?

L.D.: Not at all. It takes the pressure off, because I realize that if I just try to be true to who I am and what I believe is important, people are going to discover that and it’s going to mean something to them. I don’t have to try to be something that I’m not, in hopes of gaining wider recognition. I’d rather just try to do something real, and let the world catch up, if and when they’re ready.

D.M.: Does it frustrate you that you haven’t had more commercial success with your music?

L.D.: Sometimes. I believe in what we do. A lot of people have had their misadventures with the record industry. We’ve certainly had ours. Sometimes it feels like we’re wasting a lot of energy. We're just going to try to do what we feel is the truest version of what we do. That doesn’t mean that we won’t occasionally experiment. We're not going to try to play the game in terms of having somebody from a major label come in and reinvent us and shape the vision. We won’t go there.

D.M.: Trying to understand the music business and make sense of why some artists have success, while others do not.

L.D.: There are a lot of variables. Some of it, I think, is a bit random, having things lined up at the right time. I still think that Over the Rhine will have a lot of success. We’ve had enough where we’ve been able to make a living at it for a long time. I’m really grateful for that, in spite of whether we’re on labels or off labels. People who have discovered what we do are tremendously supportive. Regardless of what happens, it’s been a pretty great ride.

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