Old Earth photo courtesy of the band's Facebook page
When I ask Todd Umhoefer to tell me what he’d been listening to recently, I’m not just mining for Q&A fodder. I’m genuinely curious. As Old Earth, Umhoefer makes music that bears little resemblance to any contemporary style or trend. It’s folk, technically, but it probably has more in common with classical music and Gregorian chants. So I was surprised when he informed me that one of his major influences is Gucci Mane. “His work ethic has pushed me so much further,” Umhoefer says of the hyper-prolific rapper. “There is no such thing as ‘good enough’ for him, and for me, too. And I can relate to that so strongly. There’s a hustle to it, a grind to it.”
Umhoefer has been on his own grind since 2009, putting out a whopping 13 albums and mixtapes, playing shows on both coasts with several bands, working maintenance and grocery jobs that he could quit easily when it came time to tour again. Basically devoting his life to his music. So it’s surprising that until recently, very few people beyond a trusted circle of friends had ever heard it. That doesn’t bother Umhoefer, though. He wanted it that way. “The reason people are hearing about it now is because I’m really putting myself into it now,” he says. “I finally feel everything’s working the way I want it to. Before, it was a lack of self-confidence. I didn’t want to put it out there if I really wasn’t putting the best statement out there.”
Last year, he felt he had finally said what he wanted to say with the chilling 18-minute reverie a low place at The Old Place, recorded in his grandparents’ vacant home. He had the record pressed to vinyl, a first for Old Earth and a sign of his progression as an artist. He rides that confidence into his upcoming release, a three-track album called Small Hours that he recorded with the help of friends and collaborators including Christopher Porterfield, Kurt Spielmann, Damien Strigens and Betty Blexrud-Strigens. The album is warmer and more decisive than low place, but shares its fragmented, spectral sound. “It’s a lot faster, a lot more dynamic, a lot more rocking,” he says. “Just because I feel like I explored some of the slower and more drawn-out areas with Low Place.”
Old Earth is deep, spiritual music. Through repetition of simple patterns and phrases, Small Hours creates space for the listener to get lost, to fall almost into a trance. “At its core I feel what I’m doing is spiritual music. It’s not about romantic love. It’s about a deeper-rooted kind of love, putting something meaningful out there. When you do things like repetition, that’s how people get into a more spiritual place.”
That said, the album never lingers in one spot for too long. It’s a work in three movements, with various shorter fragments nested in each. And while it may sound like a daunting listen, it’s the way Umhoefer feels the work needs to be presented in order to “include people in the conversation,” to transport them and give them a meaningful experience.
After Thursday’s show, celebrating the digital release of Small Hours (which won’t be out physically until later this spring on Scottish label mini50), Umhoefer will spend time trying to find shows and promote the album in San Francisco and New York. Then he’ll start working on a full-length follow-up, which he says will be a new challenge for him. “I write in two-minute snippets,” he says. “It’s gonna be, how do I pull more out of them and be a little more patient.”
Umhoefer sees no end in sight for his music. “I’ve never met someone who has put down their dream of working on music and been proud of it,” he says. So, the hustle continues.
Old Earth plays with Cousin Kurt and Control (Madison) at Sugar Maple Thursday, Feb. 28 at 9 p.m. Prints with a digital download of Small Hours will be available for purchase.