Eric Olsson has been a mainstay of the Valley's music scene for decades, and is familiar to many as a guitarist and singer who's played with The Bombastics, Stash and Unit 7. He's also lent his talents to multiple other projects. His musical development is generally steeped in funk, R&B and roots-rock, and there are many local paragons of these genres who continue to maintain loose orbits around him, from former bandmates like bassist Donny Hayward and vocalist Kim Zombik to the core of his current band, bassist John O'Boyle, drummer Joe "Jopey" Fitzpatrick and sax player Tom Mahnken.
Olsson's current lineup, which also includes trumpet player Nick Borges and backing vocalist Amy Sullivan, displays what's been a pivotal shift in Olsson's approach to music, originally placing him behind the piano keyboard instead of the guitar. The instrumental traverse has also pushed the genre of his music into a jazzy New Orleans-style mix of boogie-woogie, blues and even gospel, a style that persists even though he's currently boomeranged back to the guitar, at least for the moment. Olsson cites influences from Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong to The Meters and Sly and the Family Stone, and has expanded his musical persona into an even more soulful and genuine thing since his transformation. The results are evident in the band's latest album, Dirty Little Secret, released in the summer of 2011.
A handsome, energetic man who looks good for his age, Olsson posesses a radiant, almost off-puttingly positive presence that makes one wonder what sort of stem-cell milkshake or torturous Pilates regimen he adheres to, and if there's any more where that came from. According to friends, he's always been that way, and it's never more obvious than when he's enveloped in the sphere of inspired musical creation that a live band provides. He found time to speak with The Advocate last week over lunch at the Northampton Brewery.
Valley Advocate: So how is the record doing?
Eric Olsson: We've got our own Pandora channel, we're all over Amazon, iTunes, et cetera, but mostly we're selling CDs at shows.
Have you done any touring to support it?
No, mostly just local gigs.
You mentioned you've been doing some more recording at Spirit Haus. Have you been writing a lot? Is there another album in the works?
Yup, I actually have two whole albums worth of stuff written right now, and we're about to start working with a local producer, Josh Meltzer, and we'll probably wind up back at Spirit Haus, which is a great studio, [run by] Danny [Bernini] and Paul [McNamara]. They do have a label, though we're not on it; I think Sun Parade and Lux Deluxe are on there.
What was the impetus for your big switch from guitar to piano? That's something that takes a lot of confidence.
Well, actually I've switched back to guitar—I'm only playing guitar at the Iron Horse gig. I guess I go back and forth because I just get bored. I actually started playing piano because we lost our keyboard player, and now I think I'm just trying to pare down a little. It's really hard to bring a keyboard and a guitar and an amplifier, you know, so there's no keyboard right now. Right now it's just me and Jopey [Joe Fitzpatrick] on drums, and Tom Manhken, and right now we have Nick Borges, trumpet player from The Primate Fiasco, a great bunch of musicians. Actually, two records ago they played on that record, that song "Pussycat Rag," which was one of our big videos.
You seem to have developed a more sharp-dressed, hat-wearing style to complement your tack toward New Orleans-style music. Did you go to The Big Easy and get bit by some sort of bug?
[Laughs] No. I have been to New Orleans, and I do love it, but I've always worn hats—maybe not in Stash, that was more like a hippie vibe—but definitely in The Bombastics. We always wore funny hats and coats and what-not. I mean, basically, I believe that we're playing a show, and we should really dress up. People are coming out, they're paying money... you shouldn't just wear a T-shirt. That's just my own personal belief.
The Eric Olsson Band is, essentially, a pared-down version of Unit 7, correct?
It's actually the same thing as Unit 7. Originally, it was the exact same band—I just changed the name and switched the horn players. Now I've pared the band down to six people, and that's only because of economics; it's just expensive to play. It was nice to have a Sousaphone player and all, but $50 just for a guy to play triangle... those days are gone with Studio 54.
Do you write out arrangements?
We're pretty loose. I come up with the songs. Tom Manhken's been writing a lot of the horn parts for the new material. Usually, I leave the horn parts up to the horn players, although sometimes I have some ideas on it. On this last bunch of stuff I wrote the bass parts, but I still leave it open if John [O'Boyle] wants to change the stuff.
Your upcoming gig on Friday is sort of a "versus" vibe, with you guys going up against Trailer Park. Do you have any musical zip-guns or brass knuckles up your sleeves?
Unfortunately, I cannot reveal the arsenal that the Eric Olsson Band might be using against Trailer Park, for fear that they might counter my attack pre-show. I will tell you, though, that we did get our hands on some private communications that have led us to believe that we will probably win the match [breaks into maniacal laughter].
I hear that your son Addison will be playing sax at the gig. How long has he been playing?
My son Addison will indeed be playing with the horn section. He's been playing saxophone for about four years, with the high school band and the jazz band, and I figured, why not? He's a cool kid. Got pretty blue eyes.
Just like you.
Yes, thank you.
Your personality is attractive to a lot of people, and your wit ups your entertainment value even more. Who are some of your favorite local people to riff off of, humor-wise?
I have to say Tom Manhken—a very, very funny guy. I've always very much appreciated Ed Vadas, always thought he was hilarious, and not just for fear that he might say, "Oh, so now I'm a fucking joke to you?" I don't know—the town's so full of great musicians and talented people, and funny people. I love the guys at Unite [the downtown Northampton store/gallery], they're always very supportive. I hang a lot there, at the store in town. And I hang a lot at that new music store, Birdhouse—it's right above Jake's, awesome new music store. And the guys at Spirit Haus.
You have some really creatively done video work for some of your songs up on your website (www.ericolsson.com). Is that something you've been putting a lot of effort into?
Yes. I think the video stuff is awesome and YouTube is awesome. It's a great outlet. Both the videos that we have right now were worked on by Spooky—do you remember Spooky Daley?
Yes—Brendan Daley (formerly of Spooky Daley Pride). He's doing video now?
Yeah, that's like his main gig now, Thunderbolt Productions. We did it [the video for "Just Can't Deny"] in the building where the Hampshire Piano Company is now, in Holyoke. The floor below them is kind of an abandoned floor. It's stop-motion, so basically it's done all with stills, probably 10 to 15 thousand stills. It took about two days of very grueling photography.
You're a veteran of many a Transperformance as well. This year's theme is "Food Groups"—are you guys performing?
We are. We'll be backing up Monte Belmonte [of WRSI The River], who will be playing Meat Loaf. We're looking forward to it. We're a little nervous—it's an epic song. But I can't say enough about Transperformance—that is a great gig, an awesome opportunity both for musicians and for the people who come to see it. To be able to perform as someone else for 15 minutes—there's something about the short format that really lets you lay in and get that set just right, you know, the costumes, the lights—just to get to play on such a big stage, with a crowd of 2,000 people, it's awesome, and Bob Cilman's amazing.
If you could describe your relationship to music in one sentence, what would it be?
I love music. I think that anybody who is blessed with the ability to play music on any level is very, very lucky. When I'm in need of something, music is pretty much always there. You can always play; there's always a piano, there's always a guitar around, you know at parties, there's always fun to be had. It's just great, there's always a record to listen to. The other day we were talking about a Hendrix guitar solo we were listening to, and we were like, "Wow, man." You can still feel him, after, what, 40 years? He's been dead 40 years, and you can still feel his solo, and that's fucking amazing. And not only that, but now, you can still feel it coming through your computer, your iPod, and into your ear-bud, and you still go "Wow, dude, listen to that!" That's fucking amazing. I don't know what it is, but, it's a blessing.
The Eric Olsson Band plays with Trailer park this Friday, Aug. 24, 7 p.m., $10/advance, $13/door, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, www.iheg.com.