Liam O’Brien is a Milwaukee-based musician and producer. His group, Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers, is a band of moving parts, swapping musicians in and out, depending on schedules and interest.
While O’Brien composes and leads the songs for the outfit, musicians are given the opportunity to add their own styling and contribution.
The group is looking to stand apart from the standard band dynamic — seeking to carve out a new way to play.
On Sept. 30, the Faithless Followers hosts an hourlong variety show at the Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee. The show will feature the range of style and sound that comes with mashing up diverse talent. The show also will feature performance art and orchestral composition.
I recently discussed with O’Brien the upcoming show, the opportunities in artist-residency programs and how these programs contribute to his creative output.
WiG: For those who don’t know you, describe what you do.
Liam O’Brien: I gig around town with Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers, but music is really everything I do. I perform in a few different groups. I first started performing in this area with Holy Sheboygan! It’s a collective of songwriters and musicians. We get together in a project-based way.
What does the term “faithless followers” mean to you?
Well, my first album was called Faithless. At that time, it had a lot of different connotations. I grew up Christian and I was thinking about the priesthood track, at a young age.
I learned to play guitar in a Christian band at God camp. Somewhere around 15 or 16, a new priest came into our church and he started preaching anti-gay. He had so many homophobic messages and I started walking out of his sermons. I stopped going to church all together.
I checked out different religions, the classic middle-class, existential thing. I got into a few a little bit. A teacher once said to me, “You can spend your whole life walking around the base of the mountain, but eventually you need to go to the top.”
That constant searching is a big theme in a lot of my music. I have songs called “Nowhere to Go” and “Faithless.” If people were to put down their badges, I think we’d find a new kind of faith. There is a powerful faith within faithlessness. I think a lot of people in my generation feel that way.
The Faithless Followers is also sort of tongue and cheek thing on false idols. Everyone is following someone on Twitter, following others on social media.
We’re all following Trump and his every move. In this crazy world of communication, no one is as focused on their own lives. They are trying to follow someone or look for the next big thing.
What are you working on at the moment?
The most recent project that we’ve started is this song-cycle based on the life of an artist named Phil Kalinowski. We were living at the Worm Farm, which is an artist residency program in Reedsburg, when he passed. Jay and Donna of the Worm Farm were friends with Phil, and when they heard the news, they wanted to commemorate his life and work. A little while ago, they came back to us and asked if we wanted to be involved.
We are just working on music. It changes in genre. Maybe indie-folky. There are elements of rock, folk and electronic. There is a lot of song writing and group singing. We did a weeklong residency a couple of weeks ago.
Doing residencies is my favorite way to do work. You live with the work. Everyone involved is away from their daily lives. It is like summer camp. I have done some solo residencies in the winter, as well. The Faithless Followers evolved from that. I love being able to set aside a large chunk of life to let things flow and let things come into fruition.
When you are not doing these intensive retreats, do you find yourself having difficulties being creative?
Sometimes. My daily life is filled with a lot of business nonsense. A lot of answering emails and texting and getting flyers out to people and Facebook events — communication that is so crucial to music. It’s all about bringing people together. So much of the joy that is experienced through music is communal. It’s a lot of reaching out. That goes away when I am doing artist residencies. Cell reception is bad, internet is slow. It’s a different sort of inspiration.
Is your Faithless Followers project centered on that aspect of community in music?
The Faithless Followers play a lot of songs that I’ve written while living in community. A lot of songs reflect that. In terms of the band itself, I wanted to create something that was able to shape-shift easily. From working with Holy Sheboygan! I saw how people are so easily drawn to other cities and other projects and I wanted to leave space for that. Everyone has something else they are doing. I want the Faithless Followers to be able to ebb and flow.
I especially owe a lot to the people who’ve stuck it out for the long haul and really put in a lot of time to make the music come to life.
The current big version line-up is Eric Klosterman, Ryan Shaw, Josh Naylor, Ryan Pilochowski, Hesper Juhnke, Drew Baumgardner and Dria Rushing. Jack Tell, Ousia Whitaker-DaVault and Cole Heinrich join in when they can. Eric really goes to town — putting in the extra time to develop these massive soundscapes for the project. When the album comes out, you’ll also hear Casey Marnocha, Ben DeCorsey, Travis Leger and John Tyborski, all of whom were instrumental in getting this thing off the ground in Milwaukee. Alex Heaton has played a big role in that as well.
What’s happening for your show on Sept. 30?
The room sound is great and a lot of what I do is acoustic. It’s going to be an hourlong variety show of just the group, no other acts.
I want to give people the opportunity to see the different directions this band can take. It’s going to start very stripped down and folky.
As the event progresses, it’ll get more orchestral and then transition into a crazy world with surround-sound electronic soundscapes.
There is a performance art piece with 20 people talking all at the same time. There’s a string quartet. It’ll wind its way back to orchestral folk at the end. It’s going to be quite a journey.
What recordings are you working on?
I have a recording that I’ve been working on mixing and mastering for a long time. It’s going to be titled “Nowhere to Go.” We recorded it live in my upper on Pierce Street as one continuous take from start to finish.
I am also a producer. Most of my time is spent doing that. I just wrapped up a record that I’ve been working on for two years with Jared Bartman, called Slow Down Ego. He’s from Peoria, Illinois, and my business partner and good friend Mike Noyce and I did it in his home studio and up in Eau Claire. We’re working on a single with Caley Conway right now.
Cole Quamme (of the Fatty Acids) and I are working on a project together. It’ll be an EP. Cole is really into this specific kind of afro-pop called Bu Bu. He asked me to do bluegrass over it. I don’t know much about bluegrass, but I’m into Irish folk music. So, I took traditional melodies and married them with that. I also substitute teach as a music teacher.
Are there any groups that we are sleeping on in the music scene?
One of my local heroes is Jon Mueller. I love D’Amato — the energy he brings to the stage is incredible. I signed up for his band right away. It’s a blast to play with him.
Caley Conway is great. Tonbi Claw is great. They are good friends of mine and they have wacky music that is worth paying attention to. They do a great live show, with full lights and visuals. Cairns doesn’t get enough rep, fantastic stuff.
I really dig Fivy, too. One of my favorite records from Milwaukee is Marielle Allschwang’s Dead Not Done.
Erik Schoster’s “He Can Jog” is a great experimental project in Milwaukee.
One of my favorite things out of Milwaukee is Milo — the lyrics are incredible.
Dusk is a phenomenal Wisconsin group also worth checking out. They are based out of Appleton.
Maybe I have a bloated sense of self-importance, but I feel like music is peace work. Some of the most important work humans can be doing together is learning how to communicate. When you are in musical projects, you need to figure out how to collaborate, schedule and communicate a message to an audience. Learning how to get along together: From that everything else will evolve.
Catch Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers’ variety show, Understatement, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Charles Allis Art Museum, 1801 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. For more information, go online to facebook.com/faithlessfollowers or soundcloud.com/faithless-followers.