Oli Heffernan | Ivan The Tolerable & His Elastic Band | New Album, ‘The Long Year’ | Interview
It’s impossible to write a short foreword about Oli Heffernan, one of the most active musicians in the rock music underground.
After the release of last year’s album ‘Out Of Season’ (featuring Mike Watt), Stolen Body Records are releasing tomorrow ‘The Long Year’. The album is reminiscent of Can and Neu! with spoken word provided by Karen Schoemer (lyrics to ‘Out Of Season’ as well). “Krautrock”, free form jazz and even afrobeat bring this immersive album all together. ‘The Long Year’ is an album, a journey, which is best listened to as a whole.
“I make music to get away from what’s going on in the world”
I gotta ask, who is Ivan The Tolerable?
Oli Heffernan: It is me – or at least a version of me, Oli Heffernan, age 39, 6’5”, some of my own teeth – Middlesbrough, England. Obsessive smoker and coffee drinker, overthinker and incredibly careless musician
You have so many active projects that I will start at the very beginning and we will slowly get to your latest releases. How did you get first interested in music and what was the first instrument you picked?
I grew up in a very unmusical house in the suburbs of Middlesbrough (North East England, an hour from Leeds and an hour from Newcastle.) I was at secondary school in the mid-90s when everyone was forming bands so my friends and I decided to do the same when we were about 13-14 – I didn’t have an instrument and had never tried to play one so we had a band before any of us could play – the best way! I asked my mom for a bass guitar but she said they were too expensive but she bought me a crappy acoustic guitar from Argos and said if I stuck with it til my birthday, she’d get me a bass then – and I did. And she did. A day I can still vividly remember. We learned how to play off other people’s records, which I still believe is the best way – I’ve never had a music lesson, or wanted a music lesson. I don’t have any patience. I prefer to make my own rules up – and then ignore them
While browsing through Discogs, I found that your very first release is a duo called British Lichen Society.
That wasn’t my first band! Discogs is a liar! I’ve been in about 10,000 bands over the years but I call 2009 my Year Zero – I don’t rate anything I did before then and stand by everything after (more or less, haha). BLS was a band I did for a year or two in 2009-10 with friends from Middlesbrough. We were pretty good but none of us could drive so we didn’t play much! When that band ended, the drummer and I started Year of Birds which was my main band for 7-8 years. I still miss that band. We made LOTS of records and played lots of gigs, it was fun. I met some great people through that band. It fell apart due to life getting in the way and we were doing other things. Michael also drums in Drunk In Hell (awesome band – check em out) and Danni plays and sings in GGAllan Partridge (also most excellent)
Around that same time you started Year Of Birds. Would you like to share a few words about how that band came together?
Year Of Birds started when I’d gotten sick of being in a pompous indie band and wanted to do something fast and loud and throwaway. I wrote a bunch of songs over a week in my old studio space above a shop in town (about 20 I think) and then sent the recordings to some friends and said lets start a band – the classic move – so we did, and we rattled around the country for 7-8 years playing amazing and terrible gigs and we made a load of records and met some amazing people, stayed on peoples sofas – it was fun, just total throwaway music – write and record and release an album in the space of a week very often – we were never precious about what we did. Good clean fun. For the uninitiated – I recommend ‘Slack Handfuls of Nothing’ (an LP collection of all our early EPs and singles released by Third Uncle Records in 2015) and ‘White Death To Power Alan’ (our last album, released by Odd Box Records in 2016). GO FIND ‘EM!
You managed to release several albums during the last few years. The most eye-catching has to be ‘White Death To Power Alan’. Where did you first encounter Louvin Brothers’ ‘Satan Is Real’ cover?
I’ve loved ‘Satan Is Real’ for many years – I heard it via the band Country Teasers, after they did an album called ‘Satan Is Real Again’…I owned a record store for a bit when this album was finally reissued and bought it then – years later when we made ‘White Death’, I needed a cover but I was too busy to do it myself so I asked a friend, the infamous Belgian cartoonist Herr Seele (he of Cowboy Henk-fame) to repaint the ‘Satan Is Real Again’ cover with us as the devil and the Louvins instead of them, haha. It was funny. I was almost going to call the album ‘Satan Is Real Again Again’ but we found a better title thanks to some terrible graffiti on the wall next to our practice room. But yeah, ‘Satan Is Real’ is a colossal album – a total one off, nothing else like it before or since. Have you read Charlie Louvins book? If not you deffo should – it has EVERYTHING! A wonderful book.
“Ivan The Tolerable started by accident”
Ivan The Tolerable is a project that’s already a decade old. What was the initial idea behind it?
Ivan The Tolerable started by accident. I made a tape of songs that I sent to the rest of Year Of Birds to learn for our next album, which was going to be called ‘Ivan The Tolerable’ (I still have the artwork somewhere…) but they said they were too strange and unplayable and that I should just put them out under a new name. So I wrote another bunch of songs that became the Year of Birds – ‘Jaw’ LP and put the rejected tape out as the first Ivan The Tolerable album, just dubbed a few tapes myself and gave them to friends. If I’d known I was going to be doing things under that name for over a decade, I’d have maybe thought of something more suitable! Haha, but I kinda like it – better than having a name that fixes me to one spot – I like to just do whatever I want, whenever I want so I guess having a daft name suits my daft methods. It’s very English I think…. Tolerable. Haha. I guess I am tolerable, nothing more, nothing less. I listened back to some very early ITT stuff a while ago when I was putting a live set together – I thought “How the fuck did I get from this to where I’m at now?!” It makes no sense. But you can trace the line I guess if you listened to everything in order (I don’t recommend anyone wastes that much time though!).
You have a brand new album coming out via Stolen Body Records at the end of November. What’s the story behind ‘The Long Year’?
I started making this record straight after I finished ‘Out Of Season’ in 2020 – there was little else to do with no work to go to and no pubs open so I just carried on working on music.
I’ve worked with Karen Schoemer on and off since 2013 but we were in touch a lot during this period and after she wrote all the words for ‘Out Of Season’ for Mike Watt to deliver I thought it would be nice to have her do the vocals on this album. I sent her rough mixes of all the music I’d recorded remotely, with Mees Siderius (Utrecht, drums), Elsa Van Der Linden (Utrecht, sax and clarinet) and Ryan Duncan (Chicago, Modular synth) and she wrote words and sent me vocals back – I tidied everything up and then sent them to Hugh Major (studio wizard behind BENEFITS – current favourites of Frank Black and Sleaford Mods) as I was keen for a different approach and sound to the previous two Elastic Band albums and he rebuilt everything from the ground up to make a really deep, spacious and clear sounding record – it sounds really great on headphones…
I’ve made/played on 12 albums since Covid struck in February 2020 but this is definitely one of my favourites. I don’t think it sounds like anything else…. its equal parts serene and claustrophobic – which is how my world was at the time so I guess all these things come out in the wash.
The pandemic gave us more time to reflect on our life and I think a lot of musicians are reflecting that in their work. Do you agree?
OH YES! 100% – I was off work for 7 months! I’ve never had that much free time since I was a kid, plus at the time I lived alone so I just made music everyday – lots of stuff on my own and lots of stuff remotely with friends. It was great! I got so much stuff done – I’m not the sort of person who writes songs about what’s going on in the world – I make music to get away from what’s going on in the world! Haha – so I wouldn’t say the pandemic affected my music, but the time it gave me to do stuff was the only good thing to come out of it! I deffo needed some time away from work – I loved how quiet the world was for that first lockdown period – you could hear a pin drop. It was lovely. But aside from the bonus free time and delicious silence, I guess I was super lucky that all my friends and family made it through the last two years unscathed – I really feel for people who lost loved ones… I just hope people start looking after each other a bit more – and get vaccinated, for fucks sake.
How would you compare ‘The Long Year’ to your previous albums, ‘Out Of Season’ and ‘Rations’?
Well I made those three in quick succession with a lot of the same people, for the same label – so I guess there is an accidental sequence to them? It’s not a trilogy or anything daft like that – but there is a thread that runs through them, due to nothing more than circumstance! I think ‘Rations’ is a different beast to the other two – ‘Out Of Season’ and ‘The Long Year’ are deffo more like two sides of a coin – one was made in Lockdown 1 and the other was made in Lockdown 2, haha.
I think ‘Out Of Season’ is a warmer, hazier record and ‘The Long Year’ is a colder, more claustrophobic record – ‘Out Of Season’ was made in very early lockdown when everyone thought it would be over and back to normal soon, but by the time I made ‘The Long Year’, it had been going on for over a year and the grim reality of what was happening and how many people had died and an end to it was nowhere in sight – so I guess the global feeling has seeped into the music by that point. I dunno, everything I do is pretty subconscious – my music is like my diary, sounds instead of words – but I can listen to something I made years ago and I can tell exactly how I was feeling by how it sounds – even without any lyrics. If that makes sense? It’s hard to explain without sounding like a hippie prick!
What did the Mike Watt collaboration look like?
‘Out Of Season’ was the first full album I’ve done with Watt but we’ve been recording together since 2008 – lots of tracks here and there and a few EPs/7”s (Check out the Detective Instinct LPs and singles I made with various folks – some good stuff in there). Watt is great to work with – he works like me, very quick! No messing about – just get the job done! If I remember rightly, I started a project called Detective Instinct in 2008 and basically just got other people to record vocals on my songs – Watt heard one of them and sent me a message (On Myspace! Remember that?!) asking if he could play it on his radio show – so I changed my arm and asked him if he wanted to do one with me and he said sure – I remember it was Christmas Eve when he sent me his vocals – I was in bed when I got the email (different time zones innit!) but I was so excited I got up and mixed the two tracks there and then, in the middle of the night – that was the moment I realized how I was gonna work from then on – I don’t think I’ve been in a recording studio since that day – stuff I make at home is just as valid as stuff made in studios – it really is the way forward! Work to your own clock, not the studios.
You are performing under different monikers. What is the reason for different names, maybe different kinds of recorded material?
I’m involved in lots of things with lots of people – some are projects where I’m the leader, some are other people’s things and some are total collaborations – that’s why they are all under different names. Different hooks for different coats. There are a lot of crossovers with personnel but they are all very different projects….
There’s also a new King Champion Sounds album out. ‘Between Two Worlds’ is featuring Ajay Saggar alongside members of Dutch anarcho legends The Ex and a host of exciting guests. How did that come about?
As I type this, it is officially ‘Between Two Worlds’ release day! 22-10-21! It’s our 2nd double album and our 5th album overall. Not bad for a band that lives all over the place and only sees each other a couple of times a year (or not at all for two years in this case).
Ajay is probably the person I’ve made the most records with out of anyone – in various capacities – we obviously both play on King Champion Sounds and University Challenged records, but I usually do the artwork and posters for his solo stuff/other projects and he mixes a lot of my Ivan The Tolerable albums – we exchange favours relentlessly! The medieval bartering system in full effect…
I’ve known Jos from The Ex since we worked together on some Detective Instinct tracks in 2008 and Ajay since about 2010 via playing Shrug gigs with his then-band The Bent Moustache – Mike Watt was playing in Amsterdam and asked Ajay to support him (told you everything is connected!), but he didn’t have a band so he put a shout out to people to do a one-off gig at Occii in Amsterdam and I fancied a few days away, plus I knew Jos and Watt too so it made sense! This was 2013 I believe? Anyway, to cut a long story short – we had a blast so I went back to Amsterdam a month later and we made the first record – and then made more records and played hundreds of gigs all over Europe for the next 8 years – a wonderful time! We got derailed by Covid for this album (I had flights booked to go and record in March 2020 but they were cancelled) – but we decided to do it remotely rather than wait and lose momentum – it’s totally different to our other albums, due mainly to how it was made I guess – but it’s got some really great moments on it. Check it out, it’s out now via the amazing Hive Mind Records! It’s Ajay’s favourite of our LPs I believe? People seem to be enjoying it, which is nice! I’m still hardcore 3rd/4th album as my favs though! Always the contrarian! Haha.
And you’re also collaborating with Ajay on University Challenged.
Again, I was supposed to be flying out to record this album but Covid happened….same old story!
We played some three-piece improv gigs in 2019 – Ajay, Kohhei from Bo Ningen (who had just moved from London to Amsterdam) and myself – and enjoyed it a lot so planned to make an album at Ajay’s studio, which we ended up doing remotely during the first lockdown just before the KCS LP – and it came out really well – I love this record. It came out, again, on Hive Mind Records as a double LP and sold out almost instantly, which was a nice surprise! We are playing the Le Guess Who festival in Utrecht next month and doing a week-long tour of Holland and Belgium – first proper gigs I’ve done in two years! It’s gonna be amazing! I’VE MISSED SEEING PLACES AND PLAYING LOUD!
What else did I leave out? Detective Instinct, Houseplants, Shrug …
Detective Instinct I’ve explained, I think? As much as it can be anyway – the records are out there for anyone who is curious! Two LPs and a bunch of 7”s – Some great stuff on those records – I think the ‘Black Floral’ album is still probably my favourite record I’ve made, all things considered – it was a really weird time in my life and that record just came out of that strange period as this perfectly formed diamond – I’m really proud of it – great contributions from Jad Fair, Mike Watt, Kevin from Truman’s Water, Jim from Radar Brothers and loads of other wonderful folks….Check it out! I’m always most excited by the latest thing but that is a special record to me for many reasons.
Shrug is a hometown institution – they’ve been going since 1985 and I joined in 2005 – the laziest band in showbiz! 2-3 gigs a year, first album in 1989, the follow up in 2018! Haha – best experienced live but the first Shrug album is a stone-cold classic!
And Houseplants is a recording project I do with Leighton from Country Teasers/Arndales (In The Red Records) – we made a tape for the much-missed Monofonus Press back in 2016, and we made a follow up during 2020 with added drums from Neil Turpin (Bilge Pump/Yann Tiersen) which is coming out on vinyl later this year – super excited for people to hear this one – it’s a really great record! I recorded all the music, Leighton did vocals and Turps did drums – with some guest Synth from Robbie Major (Benefits) who plays on a lot of my stuff – the first album is on Bandcamp somewhere if anyone wants to hear it – I think the tapes are all long sold out.
“It’s the collaborators more than the collaborations that mean the most”
It’s absolutely impossible to cover your discography. Would it be possible for you to choose a few collaborations that still warm your heart?
Hmmmm, the 2nd Detective Instinct album will always be a special one, my last few ITT LPs on Stolen Body and Library Of The Occult, and the University Challenged LP – they are all winners for me.
I think for me it’s the collaborators more than the collaborations that mean the most – the work is everything to me, but it’s the people I do it with that matter the most…I have a core group of go-to people that I play with a lot – I met them all in different places and at different times – but when I meet people I love to play with I cling on to them as it’s rare I find people who will work at my pace with little fuss and just GET what they need to do – I’m lucky that I get to work with these brilliant people, really I am – cos I’m a total nightmare a lot of the time so I’m just glad that these folks give me their time and energy and ideas – cos I’d be lost without them…I’m in the middle of making an album with Neil from Bilge Pump and Tom House from Sweet Williams/Haress which is nice – I’ve known Tom for a good while but we’ve not really worked together on music before (he’s put my tapes out on his label and I’ve remixed his band but that’s it) so we are just finding our feet with that – but he’s a brilliant musician so I’m sure it will turn out nice in the end…
It’s pretty well documented that I’m not really a fan of networking (I’d probably be a lot more popular if I could schmooze and bullshit like I’m supposed to – but I just CANNOT bring myself to do it) or people in bands in general. Really, but I do also meet a LOT of them because of what I do – and when I find ones that I just get on with I hang on to them for dear life as they are few and far between, the good guys…
The main players on all my more recent stuff (say 2016 onwards) are (in no particular order):
Mees Siderius (King Champion Sounds)
Ben Hopkinson (Kingsley Chapman)
Robbie Major (Benefits)
Christian Alderson (Unit Ama/Archipelago)
Mike Watt (Minutemen/Firehose/Stooges)
Kevin Nickles (Ecstatic Vision/Writhing Squares)
Karen Schoemer (Sky Furrows, Jaded Azurites)
Elsa Van Der Linden (King Champion Sounds)
Neil Turpin (Bilge Pump/Yann Tiersen)
Tom Carter (Charalambides)
Holly Habstritt-Gaal (King Champion Sounds)
They are the people I’d be lost without – I just wish they all lived a little closer to me so we could play more, but we make it work…
Plus the mixing and mastering skills of Ajay Saggar (Bhajan Bhoy), Hugh Major (Benefits) and Anthony Chapman (Arndales) when I can’t face doing it/want it doing properly – Hugh did the most AMAZING job on the next ITT album, it’s a total headfuck but I love it. The sound Anthony got for the next Houseplants LP is so deep and clear – can’t WAIT for people to hear that one – and then the ITT LP after the next one, Ajay mixed it again (as he did for the previous two – so all is good in the hood there, as always – the lad has good ears, unlike me – I shouldn’t have spent my entire life hunched over 100w amps on 10 with no earplugs, but you live and learn).
How are you coping with the current pandemic and what are your predictions for the future? Do you think the music industry will adapt to it?
I’m not very sociable so I found it pretty easy dealing with lockdowns and such – it just meant I didn’t have to make excuses not to do things, haha. I got a lot of music done because I couldn’t go anywhere, didn’t have to go to work – it was good in that respect. But a very strange period of time, that’s for sure – it’s still not back to normal – whatever normal is – and I don’t think it will be for a fair while yet but locally it feels a bit more like it used to – going to the pub or to a café etc… I’m going to the Netherlands and Belgium for a University Challenged tour in a couple of weeks which is proving difficult to work out – so much paperwork, tests, vaccine passes, passenger locators, quarantine declarations – it’s a mess to be honest – but that’s what happens when the cherry on top of a global pandemic is the clusterfuck that is Brexit.
I think the music industry needs to change anyway, regardless of covid – it’s an outdated model. Music will always exist – people will always make it and people will always listen to it – it’s the ways that people make money from it that need addressing – and have needed addressing for many years. I worry about small venues and small labels, always – especially in recent years – but the big guys? Fuck em – they’ve had their day.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
I can never pick my favourite albums but a few records I’ve been listening to a lot of late would be:
‘Pearls from the River’ by Pelt
‘Bitchitronics’ by Bitchin Bajas
‘Music For Living Spaces’ by Green-House
‘Mindset’ by The Necks
‘Descension’ by Natural Information Society
‘Egypt Strut’ by Salah Ragab
‘Exoplanet’ by Rob Frye
‘Promises’ by Pharoah Sanders & Floating Points
‘Made Out of Sound’ by Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt
‘Prophecy’ by Laurence Pike
‘The Quickening’ by Jim White and Marisa Anderson
They have all been on pretty constant rotation over the recent months – all come very highly recommended by me. Yr welcome!
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Look after each other, keep your head down and stay safe. And well done if you read this far.
Ivan The Tolerable Facebook / Instagram / Bandcamp
Detective Instinct Facebook / Bandcamp
King Champion Sounds Official Website / Facebook / Bandcamp
University Challenged Bandcamp
Year Of Birds Facebook / Bandcamp
The Tolerable’s Self-Isolation Orchestra Bandcamp
Magic Smoke Chords Bandcamp
The Grete Bloch Bandcamp
Stolen Body Records Official Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter / Bandcamp / YouTube