It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child, so why not let everyone in to help raise Okey Dokey? Their third studio album Once Upon One Time does just that by allowing anyone to send in audio that is featured throughout the record, using submitted videos as promo, adding a third member (Jeremy Clark) and for the first time ever allowing other bands to decide the overall sound of the new album by having six different mixers from six different bands. Once Upon Once Time features behind-the-boards contributions from Dave Harrington (Darkside), Grizzly Bear‘s Chris Taylor, and members of My Morning Jacket and the Shins. The new album finds Johny Fisher and Aaron Martin expanding their swinging rock music to encapsulate cosmic orchestral pop, squishy funk, swelling folk rock, and everything in between — shattering any boundaries they’d previously set for themselves.
For their upcoming album Once Upon One Time, the Nashville band Okey Dokey decided to enlist musicians they’re fans of to mix every song. Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor took up the challenge, lending his talents to several songs created by the band’s core trio of Aaron Martin, Johny Fisher, and recent addition Jeremy Clark. In this chat, Taylor and the band chat about the admittedly strange but ultimately rewarding method.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Aaron Martin: Where in LA are you living?
Chris Taylor: In Mount Washington. Do you know Highland Park? It’s next door to that. That’s where I go to get groceries and do things when that’s possible.
Aaron: I had a really weird view of LA the first time I went. It was all Echo Park and then Venice Beach. I had nine hours. I saw such off-the-path parts of it.
Chris: It makes sense that you’d go to Echo Park and Venice, that’s where there’d be young, fun stuff to do. Restaurants, bars, maybe check out the beach. I think that LA is, just in general, a really unwelcoming place for visitors. It’s the opposite of New York City, where you can just literally drop anyone into the middle of it and just be like, “There you go. Have fun.” And you will. And in LA, it can really be overwhelming and big and strange-feeling. I did not like the city for the first maybe 10 years, and then it kind of clicked for me. I do love living here, but it’s a steep curve. I think about having to leave LA now, if I ever had to do that, and it’s like, “Aw man, I couldn’t surf.” But you just find something new to do wherever you move, right? I lived in New York for 15 years, and it’s definitely nice to be back on the West Coast.
Aaron: Grizzly Bear, at least for me, is associated with New York.
Chris: Yeah, for sure. We spent the bulk of our career there.
Aaron: We’ve been in Nashville for 10 years now, so we get tons of the music industry crossover stuff. Friends move typically to New York or LA.
Chris: Aren’t people moving to Nashville, too?
Aaron: Yes. But I guess with the kind of music we make, there’s a lot of transients or something. People kind of bob around. It’s really cool because then you get to tour, and there’s families all over the place for you to see. But I’m always curious because I do have a lot of friends that have moved to LA who’ve seen success or failure. And my opinion of New York has always been that there’s opportunity everywhere. It’s like every hole in the wall is some kind of beautiful thing to get into.
Chris: Could be, yeah. I feel like it’s changed a lot, but I haven’t lived there for five years, six years. I know that when I left it felt very different. Maybe it’s just an age thing. When you’re in your younger 20s, the world feels like a bunch of opportunity, which is beautiful and true. Maybe as you’re getting older it just starts to feel less opportune. I don’t know. I feel like the price just became prohibitive for artists to be able to survive there. So community was just straight up leaving town en masse, to Maine, to Long Island, to upstate New York, to California, you name it. People were heading out in every direction.
Aaron: Do you feel like the city lost a musical identity that it had at that moment?
Chris: Yeah. If anyone can show me some formidable music scene in New York, please do. I would love to see that. I know stuff exists. It’s not like an event everybody in the world is aware of. It just seems more, and this is a big blanket statement, but it seems like it’s more about individuals making their music with other individuals. And it doesn’t have that same sort of… This is a case in point, right? We haven’t even hung out in the same room, and we’re working on stuff. And it worked well, and it was fun. Things are just a lot more remote, and it’s less tied to a place now.
Jeremy Clark: I would argue that scenes hardly exist anywhere anymore.
Chris: Yeah. Even in LA, it’s kind of hard to figure out, even though there’s musicians everywhere. And I’ve talked to other musicians about it. There was, some years back, a real LA scene. And there are definitely pockets—many, many, many pockets. That’s maybe more what it is, but there’s nothing you could call the LA music scene. It’s just too many different things.
Jeremy: Even in Nashville, there are lots of scenes. But I wouldn’t say that there’s one. There’s not a community. I just feel like when I was growing up and paying attention to music, you dove into a whole sea of bands. We still have friends that make music and hang out, but I don’t feel like any of us take notes from what the other people are doing. It’s also different and just pieced together and random. And everybody just hangs out whether or not you’re making music or not. It’s very weird.
Aaron: I wholeheartedly thought that I had 400 friends in Nashville that all knew one another. I contribute our exodus of connectivity to the fire marshal. When the Ghost Ship in San Francisco burned… So many people died. The fire marshal in Nashville was like, “No way. That’s not happening.” And they shut down 14 DIY venues.
Chris: Oh, wow. I didn’t even know about that.
Aaron: Our city ran on house shows.
Chris: That’s really interesting, and tragic. But I guess pretty justified. Nothing’s more tragic than losing innocent people in a building fire with improper codes. I get it. Maybe because I’m a dad or something.
Jeremy: I think the main thing that really came from it is we played some of the most disgusting places. Like nails in the floor, you’re like, “Whoa!” Watch Johny get electrocuted and pass out, and get back up like, “That shit’s awesome!”
Chris: Did you get electrocuted from a mic?
Aaron: Absolutely. That shit is so annoying.
Chris: How fucked is that feeling? One time, I literally had a camera flash. It was so intense. We were in Dublin. We had a power disparity between our power step-down converters.
Aaron: I do think I saw a shift in the music scene in that any fairweather artists were just like, eh. And the people who really wanted to go for it did. And then a lot of the DIY spots opened actual legit venues. It felt less just slapping on guitars and being like, “We’re here.” The music scene was evolving and getting old.
Chris: I feel like this pandemic… I can’t see into the future, but I would guess that it’ll have a similar sort of effect, where you’re going to get really committed to this or you’re going to quit. Because it feels like a very weird time to make music right now, in the sense that if anyone is releasing anything, it’s tough. You can’t tour it. And you’re like, “All right. Well, this is just PR, and hopefully y’all keep with us when we can get out there and do something. And, let’s be honest, try and make a living.” The music industry’s in really, really terrible shape right now. It was already in bad shape. It’s on life support, and life support got pulled. But we’ve got to keep on keeping on. I’ve been making a lot of stuff. You guys feeling good?
Aaron: Absolutely. I’m thrilled about the music we made together. We were like, “We could go with producers or we could find people who are producers who could make us great.” I don’t really want so-and-so if there’s nothing that’s made me feel passionate about them before. So for me, working on a whole record with one person was like, I just don’t believe in that yet.
Chris: I think there’s a lot of value in picking special names to see where that collaboration goes, and it’s difficult to find someone that can do that for an entire album.
Aaron: But for us it was great. I had met you once before.
Chris: Where was it?
Aaron: It was when you guys played the Ryman with UMO, like four years ago. A lot of us met up at Robert’s, the bar through the alleyway.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aaron: Our meeting was brief. Basically, I was just like, “Look, dude. Record’s amazing. I’ll give you that. It’s true.” And I was like, “But that guitar tone on ‘Sleeping Ute’ sticks so well.”
Chris: I remember this conversation. I have a weird way of, if you give me enough of what we talked about, I’m like, “Oh yeah. I remember talking about that.”
Aaron: I wasn’t even a musician at that time. I was the art buddy of the music friends of mine. I just did illustrations and album covers and stuff. So my first view was playing music with Jeremy and Johny in a different thing. And they were just like, “Play bass. It doesn’t matter.” I was awful. I played with this claw hammer style because I’m a finger picker dude.
Jeremy: The whole band was really bad.
Aaron: It’s also true. So bad!
Chris: Bound to happen for a while. That’s kind of how it goes.
Aaron: That unnamed group was the first thing. And then Okey Dokey starts rolling, and we’re talking about ways to get more progressive with what we’re doing. And I was just like, “Man, if we’re doing producers, it has to be these people that have in one way or another rubbed off or influenced us.” And so we heard that you worked on projects this way.
We were really looking for evolution in the people we were working with, and also people to really run with that concept. It was kind of hard to sell in the first place, like, “Hey, we don’t want you to build us a song. We don’t want you to build us a band. We wrote songs. Here they are. We just want to know what your brain would do with them.” We had a few artists I won’t name, but they literally had the stems, had the sessions, were working on it, and then just completely dropped off the face of the earth. And it was kind of a similar deal, similar people where it’s like, we’ve only gone here because we think that this would be epic. Even if you respect someone, or really adore what they create, it’s still such a question mark. I will say you are one of two people who really took this concept and just ran with it.
Chris: What you guys were suggesting was where I find most ideal requests I get, that make me the most stoked to work on it. You’re into the song, you’re just open to an extra opinion, to see where that goes. That’s definitely the most fun because then when I’ve really taken that to heart and just gotten in there, it ends up feeling a lot more fun for me. I’m more engaged, obviously, and feel like more a part of it. And there’s a little bit of like, “Well, I don’t want to offend them. Or bum them out or any whatever variation of they don’t like what I’ve done here.” When there’s that much trust that you guys were putting out there… I think it’s the most fun for a producer and musician to take it however they want, and then dial it back. I was looking through the session just to remind myself, because it was a while ago, wasn’t it?
Jeremy: Your songs came back to us six months ago.
Aaron: Definitely before Corona shit.
Chris: Just to see what I did, there could have been a way of going further, but what I like to do is just hammer at it with all my first instincts, go as hard as possible with what I’m excited about seeing. And I’m like, “Well, maybe I’ll overshoot, and this is too far. But at least it’s easy to split the difference and dial it back.” And so we just found a really stoked medium, and I felt like it was really ideal for me, too, in terms of just a working environment, even being remote.
Jeremy: I think that was also the thing we had to accept. If somebody is going to be excited to work on this, they have to feel like they can take it anywhere they want to go, and not feel like we’re going to give them all these super harsh directions. Because being someone who does that with other people, I know what that feels like. And as soon as I get all this direction, I feel like I’m just mixing.
Chris: Enough musicians know how to record themselves and get the production going in a certain way. And if that’s just how they want it, but they want someone else to breathe on it, then why do that? Just put it out if that’s what you want. And if you do want that person to do something, then that’s why you called them up.
Aaron: Yeah, I think we wanted that. And the big part for me was the fact that you had a choice in what songs you were going to work on.
Chris: That’s a real luxury for a producer. I really appreciate that as well.
Jeremy: We had just finished “My Love” not that long before. And I just did not think that that would ever get picked up.
Aaron: You picked the oldest song and the newest song in the batches. I wrote the first version of “The Right Fit” four or five years ago. And I was like, “Man, this song belongs here now.” But then the other song you picked, “My Love,” was the very last one because through this album writing process, I met my partner. So that song is about pushing as a single person dating, just being like, “I also require peace and comfort and respect and honest spaces.” And just a song about how weird that stuff is to navigate, but also really honest and compassionately looking for something that feels right. It just feels easy as shit. I just found myself really vibing on that.
Chris: Oh rad. I love that little bridge. I think I sang a bunch of background vocals and some flute on that one.
Jeremy: That one turned out really cool. Every song we do starts off with electronic drums, and then we’ll usually retract them. And I think that was probably our intention. And then you just grabbed it before we did that. I love the fact that that ended up being electronic drums. It worked really well, but I don’t think that that was our vision for it in the first place.
Chris: That’s important, too, to be like, “No, that doesn’t suck. That’s good.” Or, “It just needs this, and then it’s going to work.” To not scrap stuff just because you think you should.
Aaron: When I’m writing the songs, I really have this cinematic person in my head that’s the right fit. The bad news is like a person, this fucking asshole. It’s like your anxiety, depression, whatever. It’s this stuff everyone deals with. It’s like if you can leach it out of your body, and put it next to you, it’s just the thing that’s with you all the time. You’re just like, “Hey, idiot.” The bad news got to me today. And that’s why the bombastic nature of that song is so epic. And then “My Love,” I’m not good at writing tenderly, I guess. It’s not my normal thing. Because of the character and the cinematic thing, when I’m writing about stuff that’s really core in my compassions or whatever, I’ve always had this view of just… Man, and then the strings come in. And it’s like Woody Allen films. So from my point of view, you were able to get both of those without much discussion at all. Which to me, this whole record was like, “Let’s see what the universe would do for us. Let’s go for producers, but let’s find people that matter to what we do in our lives and where we’ve been.”
Chris: Rad. I’m super happy to hear that. It’s always great when you’re on the same page with the mixed stuff, because it’s definitely easy to move things in any direction. The thing maybe not everyone understands is how much of a house of cards a mix is, for better and for worse. If you want to completely shift the conversation, and just make it a whole different thing, that’s quickly doable. But it’s always fun when you can build off some first instinct.