It’s inordinately quiet near the corner of Broadway and Michigan Street just before 8 o’clock on a Tuesday night. The silence is pronounced in the confines of a former office building, with an interior appearing to be either midway through renovation or demolition. Up the dusty stairs and past a reception desk left on hold from more profitable times, a sound begins to swell. Halfway down an otherwise darkened corridor, light shines through an open door. Palm-muted guitar and shrill, ominous vocals grow louder with each step. Behind the door is a cache of instruments and microphones, a computer, some empty beer bottles, a blanket-strewn futon and the source of this clamor, Todd Umhoefer. The force behind experimental folk project Old Earth, Umhoefer spends the majority of his weeks stationed in this room, sacrificing nearly everything to make music that’s now gaining an audience locally and helping put Milwaukee on the map for fans throughout Europe. “I try to shrink it down and say, ‘Are you making good songs?’” Umhoefer explains. “That’s what drives it all.”
The New Berlin native began playing in bands in the late ’90s, including heavy metal act Killtheslavemaster with current Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley. After graduating from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Umhoefer relocated to San Francisco in 2010 to focus on his music and art. After two years in California, family responsibilities meant Umhoefer – now entrenched in Old Earth – moved back to help his father take care of a family property in Menomonee Falls. It was in the basement of this home (that’s been in his family since 1842) where Umhoefer essentially “chained [himself] to a guitar” and wrote a low place at The Old Place. The one-track album is more than 18 minutes of brooding beauty divided into six movements that reflect on his bittersweet return to Wisconsin – a move predicated by the death of relatives.
photo by Adam Ryan Morris
“That’s basically the concept – working through some shit and reconciling these weird experiences I had of coming back to this family home,” he says. “That land that low place was written on, that record was so important because that [land] was the last vestige of my family.”
Christopher Porterfield, who is the lead singer and frontman of accomplished Milwaukee outfit Field Report, contributed vocals and additional instrumentation to low place, and most Old Earth output thereafter. “He’s completely and utterly uncompromising,” Porterfield says of his former Conrad Plymouth bandmate. “He has deep integrity with his art, and he comes at it from an art school background, a conceptual and thematic background.” Not long after that release, low place caught the attention of Edinburgh, Scotland-based record label mini50, which became Umhoefer’s U.K. label in early 2013.
“Immediately, it was just something I loved,” says mini50 label manager Euan McMeeken. “Some artists work hard, but working with Todd in the studio and seeing him live a couple of times just highlighted how seriously he takes his art.” The label initially agreed to release Old Earth’s 2013 EP Small Hours, but has since continued to release his laborious and frequent tracks of intricately looped guitar, with influences that range from folk to hip-hop. Umhoefer will have released six in total through mini50, including an album of live recordings released in April and an as-of-yet untitled album that is slated for an August release. While the mini50 agreement has been invaluable in helping Old Earth develop a foothold in Europe, Umhoefer is far from financially comfortable stateside. His commitment to his project finds him living as a starving artist, well below the poverty line and lacking a true residence from week to week (unless you count the nights spent in his shared studio).
“He doesn’t play the game,” Porterfield says of Umhoefer, whom he credits as helping him become a better songwriter. “He’s an artist first. He’s not looking to be a pop star, and what he makes isn’t a pop product. He’s managing to carve out an audience with [his music], but to get it, you need to take it on his terms.”
Umhoefer’s renderings certainly go beyond the music. His work extends to individually pressed packaging, issuing small runs of records in which his liner notes are as artfully arranged as the songs themselves. The moment a song is done, Umhoefer has set his sights on covering his next blank sonic canvas with the brushstrokes of determination, discomfort and an obligation to expression. “For me, No. 1 is putting work out there – more than money or recognition,” Umhoefer says in his instrument-laden office, the soft rumble of two small space heaters flanking his words like parenthesis. “I’m an artist first and foremost, and I will starve if I have to so I can make art the most important thing.”
(May 17). Inspiration Studios. 1500 S. 73rd St., West Allis, 414-587-3474, oldearthcontact.bandcamp.com.