The Oh Wells | Interview | “Music saved me from a dark place”
The Oh Wells are an American band from the Pacific Northwest consisting of singer songwriters Brian Kerrigan and Ira Merrill. After meeting at a recording session for a fellow band in 2016, Brian and Ira began working together on various music projects.
Brian (a veteran of the US Army) was in a transition in life after two tours overseas in Iraq. The final tour resulted in a life altering injury sustained in combat. Brian was looking for opportunities to return to his love of music. After a decade of war, Brian struggled with getting back to where he was before the Army. His injuries impacted his ability to play guitar but he slowly regained use of his arm and began writing songs. As Brian began playing his own music at open mics and small performances, he began collaborating with Ira, a former member of Seattle power pop group Super Deluxe and guitarist for Seattle rock band Rain Light Fade. The two came up with an idea to go back to the basics and tell stories using a more simplistic classic pop driven musical structure. During the pandemic, Brian and Ira began sending songs to each other over the internet and co-wrote over 20 songs. The focus of this project was to lean into their foundational influences (The Beatles, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello) and not over complicate. As the two entered the studio to create their first LP. While working on the record, they released a Christmas’ EP with former Super Deluxe frontman, Braden Blake, entitled ‘Braden Blake and The Oh Wells – Satin Bows and Arrows’. The duo then released a self recorded EP of original songs in May of 2022 titled, ‘Dakota’. In September of 2022, with their LP completed, the band released their first full length LP, ‘Alice’. On the heels of our first LP release Brian and Ira have gone back into the studio and are working on a second LP as well as a power pop EP with Braden Blake. The band has received positive reception and has begun playing several well known Seattle venues to include the Tractor Tavern, Conor Byrne and the historic Blue Moon. Seattle producer and studiohead Don Farwell (Earwig Studio) stated, “There is a definite folk-rock backbone to this EP, but for me, it’s all about those gorgeous harmonies. Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, even a bit of Big Star come to mind. The Oh Wells will disarm you with a simple melody right before a riptide of guitar takes you out to a sea of deep vocal harmonies.” The band is backed up by Steve Gale on drums and Jason Denny on bass.
“Music saved me from a dark place”
How did the band originally get together?
Brian Kerrigan: Ira and I had been playing music in the same circles for a couple years. I had just got out of military service and was wanting to get back to my roots and had been playing guitar for some local country and traditional Americana groups mostly as a back-up singer and player. I was also doing some acoustic cover shows with a friend and really, I was just trying to get back out there playing. I was a bit out of practice.
Ira Merrill: I met Brian at a recording session in Tacoma, WA. I was playing with a rock band I was in at the time. We were all mutual friends; I just hadn’t met Brian before. He asked me about a solo pop album endeavor I’d done under the name “Hemlock Pop” (it’s up on Spotify if anyone wants to listen), and he seemed to like it, so we started talking.
Brian: Ira’s Hemlock Pop record was great. I loved playing old school Americana, folk tunes, and covers but really, I am a sucker for a melodic pop song and who doesn’t want to be in a rock band? When Ira asked me to back him up on Hemlock Pop, I was excited to get out there playing the songs. We didn’t know we were just rehearsing for co-writing and creating The Oh Wells. We had talked about starting a real band from Hemlock Pop or starting to co-write, but we were busy with life and other music projects. Then came 2019 and the Covid pandemic. This forced all of us into our homes and live music stopped. I saw this as an opportunity to start writing. I had a bunch of partially completed songs and wanted to complete them. I decided to send one to Ira to see if he wanted to add to it.
The first song I sent was ‘Someone Walks Away’. The song was about 50% complete with a melody, structure and a few lines for a verse and a chorus. Ira asked me about the story I was trying to tell, and he started adding to the song and sending me sketches for me to provide feedback. After maybe 140 text messages and a bunch of minor changes back and forth, the song was complete. The process was so easy for us, and I remember listening and thinking “this is actually pretty good” so I sent another and another.
Ira: It turned out the process of writing together was so fluid and easy, that we had written more than an album’s worth of songs by mid 2020. I would work them out as much as possible and create demos at home for the purpose of starting a real recording later that year. At first, the more Americana/folk-rock focused material was a bit foreign to me because most of my background for years had been playing in rock, punk bands, and even a bit of metal…but, ultimately, I’m about the song itself and got more and more into older country, and whatever other stuff Brian was sending me. Primarily I consider myself a songwriter, and I started to see the light. This type of format – the Beatle-esque, power pop and folk-rock structure with an emphasis on melody and storytelling is such a great vehicle. The more I sort of sank into that saddle, the more the horse took over and the songs would write themselves. As well, the more my flair for awkward analogies has honed itself to a fine, fine point.
Brian, you are a veteran of the US Army, what is it like to be back playing music?
Brian: I joined the US Army right after the events of September 11th, 2001. There was an emotion in the US to try and act after those attacks and as a young guy in my 20s I wanted to enlist. I spent nearly ten years in service with two tours of combat in Iraq. During those ten years I rarely played music other than strumming a few songs on my couch to my kids or playing a few Bob Dylan tunes in the desert when I found someone with a guitar. I was wounded in action in 2007 and sustained serious injury to include my right arm. It sounds dramatic but the Doctors warned me that I would lose a lot of functionality in my arm and that I may never play guitar again. When I got out of the Army, I had a deep desire to return to what I loved before the military and was determined to play again. There were countless hours spent on my couch trying to regain use of my right hand and get to playing again. It was a big deal the first day that Ira and I stepped into the studio to record ‘Alice’. I remember thinking to myself that regardless of whether these songs were good, I had overcome odds. To me that is the one thing that makes this record so special. Every time we take the stage, go back to the studio or I send another song to Ira to work on I stop for a second and appreciate the gift of music and how much it means to me. It really saved me from a dark place. I have met my goal of recording this record and it would be a bonus if these songs could give a little something to someone else.
Ira, would you like to tell us about Super Deluxe and Rain Light Fade?
Ira: Back in the 90s, I’d gone to a show to see Seattle favorites, The Posies. Opening for them was a power-pop band called Super Deluxe, who I had heard of, but was blown away when I saw them live and on MTV. Fast forward many years, I’d played in a bunch of local melodic rock/punk bands including Common Heroes, Pris, and The Finger Guns. I got a phone call one day from Chris Lockwood, the drummer for Super Deluxe, saying he’d seen me perform and wanted me to audition for lead guitar/backup vocals. It ended up working out and I played with them for 3-4 years and it was awesome, as I loved their albums. This was some of the most challenging material I’d encountered as far as coordinating the playing and singing at the same time. The Oh Wells has since collaborated with Braden Blake (singer/songwriter of Super Deluxe) several times as “Braden Blake and The Oh Wells,” so it has been a long-standing friendship revolving around making solid gold hits and we will have a few tunes from this collaboration coming your way soon.
Rain Light Fade is the vision of mad genius and stellar singer/composer, Dane Vance Creek. I played with them for nearly 11 years, and it is more of a dark rock, occasionally bordering on metal endeavor. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and quite a test musically. The Oh Wells drummer, Steve Gale, is also part of Rain Light Fade, and has been my constant partner in crime in countless bands. I moved on from RLF last year mainly to focus on The Oh Wells, to experiment with different tonal palettes, and because I’d really gotten tired of carting around a Marshall 4×12.
“‘Like Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ I feel like ‘Alice’ is a collision of 60s/70s tones and jangle with a sprinkling of twang and American roots music”
What is the creation process like for you two? How do you recall working on your first LP?
Brian: Ira and I have not shifted much in our process. We are still writing the same way we wrote ‘Someone Walks Away’. One of us will have a sketch that could be 25% complete or could be 80% complete. We send it to the other person and tell them some backstory. We text questions and thoughts back and forth and start working on it. When we get closer, Ira will create a demo before we go into the studio to record. For ‘Alice’ everything was a bit new for me. I had only ever been in a recording studio a handful of times, and it was not for my material.
Ira: I’d recorded in studios countless times, but not in this context of a singing/songwriting partnership, so I really didn’t know what to expect. But, just as with our songwriting process, the studio ended up being streamlined and simple. I think both Brian and I can have strong opinions but ultimately, we agree that it’s all about the song and work well together to figure out what the song needs. Ask the song for the story, and it will tell you. I think of it like a sculpture that is already there, and we’re just picking away all the parts that are not the song as we go, It seems to work well and sound as it should.
Brian: When we set out writing these songs, we were looking to write simple catchy classic rock songs with a sprinkling of American folk or country. We needed a producer and place that could help us capture our vision. A specific record comes to my mind and that is ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ by The Byrds. Here was this California folk rock band that traveled to Nashville and what they came out with in my mind is a masterpiece.
Ira and I were both fans of The Posies, so our first inclination was to reach out to Ken Stringfellow to help us with this record. We were both shocked with the result. ‘Like Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ I feel like ‘Alice’ is a collision of 60s/70s tones and jangle with a sprinkling of twang and American roots music. Ken was really our George Martin here and the production you hear is his influence on our original vision.
What’s the story behind ‘Alice’?
Brian: So the story behind the name and album art is interesting. Alice was my grandmother’s middle name. She and my grandfather had a very interesting life and after her passing I had started writing a song where I took phrases from her eulogy that my father had written. It was a challenge to write because she was a force in my life so in Oh Wells fashion, I took a half-written song and sent it to Ira and stepped away from it. Ira worked his magic only knowing a little about my grandparents and his distant perspective really brought the song together. We both liked the idea of making Alice the theme of this album and I will let Ira talk some of his thoughts there. Ira, what is your perspective on why we landed on Alice as the album title and artwork?
Ira: The name Alice conjures up a lot of images. It can be a modern name, but you don’t hear it as often, and to me it generally smacks of an earlier, simpler, more “vintage” time, if you will. The actual song ‘Alice’ off the album was maybe the second or third song Brian and I wrote together, and it was kind of pivotal for me – it was when I finally “got” what we were doing, and perhaps challenged Brian a little with how I work…because I really like wordplay, even if it bends the actual story in an unexpected way. For instance, there was a line in the song originally in which Brian said, “This was all she needed to be happy and grow old”, and I suggested – hey what if we say “Was this all she needed…?” – add some tension, change the narrative, give the character some longing – even if it wasn’t exactly how the real Alice was. He was cool to go along with my madness, and we ended up with this very vintage, Americana, heartfelt love story – even if that tension was thrown in. Then when Brian showed me the actual picture of Alice and Jimmy – I knew this had to be the album cover and theme, and I did my best to cobble the artwork together. I wouldn’t call it a concept album or anything, but ‘Alice’ just summed up the overall vibe to me, especially with the even production and mix Ken helped us achieve.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favorite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Brian: There have been several times in my life where I only listened to The Beatles, like for a couple months all I listened to was Beatles records. I would try to learn from them and listen to every note and instrument. Other classic folk rock has been the same and is a big influence for me, Jackson Browne, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all come to mind as staples. As I was learning to write songs, ‘Odessy and Oracle’ by The Zombies and ‘XO’ by Elliot Smith were big for me. I’m also a big fan of classic country records and could talk about American country music for a long time (I spent a lot of my life in Texas so maybe it’s that). As for new items to recommend to readers, Jesse Daniel’s ‘Beyond These Walls’ is a “new” classic country gold, Seth Swirsky’s ‘Songs from The Green Couch’ is fantastic. Oh, and people need to go listen to another Seattle band, The Rallies. Their album ‘Serve’ is on constant repeat for me right now. If you are in Seattle this summer, you might get to see our bands play some shows together.
Ira: I’ve been constantly spinning ‘Rollin’ On’ by Jesse Daniel, a very old-school country sounding album that came out in 2020. Stellar songs and production, if you’re into that sort of thing. Also, Corbin’s moody, trip-hop masterpiece ‘Mourn,’ which came out in 2017. This isn’t modern, but lately I’ve been on a kick exploring Red Simpson’s albums ‘Roll, Truck, Roll’ (1966), and ‘Truck Drivin’ Fool’ (1967) on repeat. Could just be because the truck driving and roadside diner themes remind me of my Pop who passed away a few years ago, but also, they are just a portrait of a different time. I love the live feel, the great musicianship, the plate reverb sounds, and simple themes shot through the lens of that era. Other than that, my staple is always Elvis Costello, and I typically warm up my voice to songs from his ‘King of America’ album from 1986.