Nestled in Los Angeles is a small home studio lovingly built by musician, artist, and photographer J.D. King over the past several years. On the wall is a large taxidermied buffalo head, which looms over King’s collection of vintage microphones and recording equipment, as well as a multitude of instruments, including a bansuri flute, a concertina, and a Jew’s harp. Outside the studio sits the flamingo-pink main house and a kidney-shaped pool surrounded by giant cactuses that stud the property, while fragrant jasmine snakes along the garden walls.
It was in this quintessentially Southern California idyll that King and singer-songwriter Pete Yorn recorded their self-titled debut album as The Olms. And the laid-back, eclectic surroundings inform everything about the record, especially its free-wheeling sound, which melds folk, rock, country-rock, and Brit pop, thanks to jangly acoustic guitar, wistful melodies, radiant harmonies, and unexpected instrumental flourishes. Songs like the strummy “Wanna Feel It” and “Someone’s Else’s Girl” glow with a lush ’60s vibe, while the honky-tonk-ish “On The Line” shows the duo’s harder-rocking side with hints of psychedelic organ. “The album has an old-sounding feel, but I feel like it still sounds really fresh,” Yorn says. “It sounds uniquely like us and a hybrid of our influences, from my love of Brit-pop and groups like The Beach Boys and The Kinks, to J.D.’s love for British Invasion bands like The Animals, as well as bluegrass and country music.”
What keeps The Olms from sounding too retro-minded is its lyrics, which brim with personality and dark humor. The King-penned and sung “She Said No” tells a morbid tale of a murder suicide. (“I have no trouble taking on different personas to tell a story,” King says.) Beneath its breezy surface, “Wanna Feel It” addresses feelings of numbness and apathy. “What Can I Do” might be upbeat musically, but is essentially about two people stuck with each other until one of them dies. “A lot of songs written in the ’60s were very lyrically idealistic,” Yorn says. “It’d be like 'I love you and we ended up happily ever after,' whereas I’m always thinking about the day after they ride off into the sunset, when it’s three weeks later and they’re sick of each other.”
“Some of my favorite music sounds happy but there’s a worm inside the apple,” King says. “It has a bit of sadness. It’s like you’re optimistic, but you can't be too optimistic, because CNN ruins your day. But you move on.”
“We had fun bouncing ideas like that off of each other,” says the New Jersey-born Yorn, who rose to fame with a series of well-received solo albums, including the 2001 gold-certified musicforthemorningafter and 2003’s Day I Forgot. “Some days I'd come into the studio and I’d be running on empty. J.D. would pick up the slack. Another day I’d come in and J.D.’s would be a little burned out, but my brain was working, so songs would develop that way. It’s cool having a partner.”
Yorn and King met seven years ago through King’s girlfriend and became fast friends. “We just got along,” Yorn says. “He always had something interesting to talk about. He was only 21, but he was an old soul. We would go out to dinner and talk about philosophy or weird phenomena.” King grew up in Norco, Calif., a horse community in Riverside County. One day when King was 10, his father came home with an old record player and a box of Beatles and Elvis albums that he had found. “I'd never even seen anything like that,” King says. “No one in my family really listened to music. I fixed the record player and started listening to the albums over and over. I knew from that point on that I wanted to be part of making music.” Having already taken piano lessons for a few years, King taught himself various instruments (bass, saxophone, flute) and began writing songs and playing in bands. But because an actual career in the music business seemed out of reach, he pursued photography in high school. “This was before the digital age when there was a real romance to it,” he says. “I built a dark room in the back of my house and started showing my work.” At 18, King took up keyboards again after acquiring an old organ and a honky-tonk piano, and a few years later — inspired by artists like The Everly Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and Tony Rice — decided to make a record.
Yorn was a fan of that album, Here’s J.D. King, a ragtime-influenced, country-bluegrass collection filled with colorful, character-driven story-songs that King released independently in 2008. Yorn invited King to tour with him and the two began hanging out at King’s home where he was in the process of creating a recording studio. In Fall 2011, the two decided to try to write a song together, which resulted in the album cut “Twice as Nice.” Before they knew it, they had ten songs.
King and Yorn agree that the best part of making the record was that they were doing it for fun, with no expectations about what it would sound like. “We wrote songs and it just guided itself,” Yorn says. “When we went to lay down a track, we'd feel where it needed to go and didn’t restrict it. It felt very free.” Adds King, who engineered and mixed the album, and illustrated its Art Nouveau-inspired cover: “Most everything was done in one or two takes, so what you’re hearing is pure inspiration. Nothing was preconceived.” The album was recorded to tape, specifically to a vintage AMPEX 440 analog recorder that King loves for the warmth and hiss it provides. “It gives the sound a transience and depth that you don’t get when you track straight to digital,” he explains.
As a result, The Olms’ album puts a fresh spin on the sound of albums that its label, Harvest Records, would have released back in the day. The Olms are the first signing to the newly re-launched label, which was initially created in 1969 and released albums by such progressive rock acts as Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, and ELO throughout the ’70s. “It feels good to be in the company of some classic acts,” Yorn says. “We made this record not really thinking of an audience, we just knew we liked the music. We have to give Harvest kudos for recognizing that the music we made needs to be heard. We're proud to be a part of their tradition and to have the opportunity to find our audience.”