A post for Omnified by Caitlin Hardee
The folk-rock band Mighty Oaks has rooted itself firmly in Berlin soil, but in order to do so, its three members each had to journey far from their respective homes. It’s an origin story that feels so familiar in Berlin, it might be the set-up of a joke: An American, an Italian and an Englishman walk into a bar…
The bar and the music scene in question were in Hamburg the better part of a decade ago, but once Ian Hooper, Claudio Donzelli, and Craig Saunders met through small gigs and started playing together, it didn’t take long for the trio to find their way to Berlin.
Fast forward to a blustery afternoon at the end of August. This year, the music program TV Noir is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, crowned by a series of live show tapings in Berlin’s Admiralspalast with the crème de la crème of local singer-songwriters. During soundcheck, as show techs moved around adjusting gear and levels, the three men sang into the circling silence of the auditorium.
“One shot is all I’ve got, it’s taking me far away, from the place that I love…”
Their voices resonated, brushing against each other in raspy-edged harmonics, rising plaintively, falling to depths weighted with aching gravitas.
It’s a relatable quandary for anyone who has ever left the nest – the tug-of-war between worlds, the old home and the new, the constant longing for what isn’t there.
“I think that it’s really hard to appreciate where you come from until you leave,” said frontman Hooper, upstairs in a spartan green room. Among the things he misses about his native Pacific Northwest are the mountains and the chance to escape into true wilderness. “It’s nice and beautiful here, but it’s not wild,” he said. “You can’t just go into the mountains, hike in and camp wherever the fuck you want. It’s some ‘Campingplatz’ where there are mobile homes and people live there.”
That sense of “Heimweh,” or in English, homesickness, featured prominently in the band’s early material, less so on their second studio album “Dreamers,” and will be making a comeback on their third LP, which is currently in the pipeline.
“Some of the songs are definitely about home and the Northwest,” said Hooper. “One about Portland and one about Puget Sound, Deadman’s [Island], Point Defiance, just being home. I think a lot of people identify that with our music. You know, even people who have nothing to do with the Northwest, I think they like the pictures that it inspired or just in general an affinity for nature.”
The trio packed their bags and raw material and headed off to Washington state to record “Dreamers,” settling into a converted dairy farm reborn as the rustic, woodsy Bear Creek Studio, complete with en-suite band apartment, for six weeks. An intense, immersive experience to be sure, but with certain perks to offset the pressure of producing a highly anticipated sophomore album.
“It was like a band retreat,” said Hooper. “Baked a lot of bread, played a whole bunch of pool, drank too much red wine and sat in the hot tub all the time.”
“Yeah, there’s a nice pool table, courtesy of Dave Grohl, that he bought them once,” added Saunders.
After spending a chunk of time in the Pacific Northwest, Hooper’s bandmates had a chance to become more deeply familiar with his home and its landscapes, which figure so prominently in the lyrical world of their guitar, mandolin and piano-based musical wanderings. Saunders and Donzelli reminisced about their first encounters with the coasts, forests, and mountains that loom large in Hooper’s writing.
“I remember the first time we went there, we sing a lot about this area and we hadn’t ever been, so when we did, like, the ‘Brother’ video shoot, we were kind of like, ‘Ahhhh, this is the pebble beach, and the…’ – we actually got to see it. It was nice to connect the two,” said Saunders.
“The Horsehead Bay sign,” Donzelli nodded.
“It’s a really special part of the world over there,” smiled Hooper. “Especially when you live over here, you know, we’ve become very romantic about it. I don’t actually know what I’d be doing if I were still in Gig Harbor. I got buddies and they go for day hikes on the weekends, but you know, everyone’s working. When I go home, I’m home for like, a month, and I get to explore all this stuff. I realize that’s not a normal life.”
There’s also a lot to be said for being based in Berlin, Hooper said. “I think Berlin is a very, very cool place, especially now that we’ve got families. It’s pretty abysmal, the way that America treats mothers and children. As soon as we had kids, I was like, oh my god, I don’t think I could move back now, until they’re grown up or something. Like, they want to go to college? Pay how much a semester, you kidding me? Here it’s free and they can just get an education.”
All that’s missing to make these Berlin transplants perfectly content in their adopted home is a bit more wild topography – and authentic British pubs.
“For me, the mountains. I want mountains on both sides, the Cascades and the Olympics,” laughed Hooper.
“Just being able to walk on the beach,” chimed in Donzelli, who misses the ocean piers of his Adriatic hometown Pesaro. “It’s something that does so much for my mind. Also having an edge in your geographical space, where you can’t go further. You have that reference, everywhere you are in the city, you know, that way there’s the sea.”
The band also reflected on Berlin’s historical role as a low-cost sanctuary for aspiring artists.
“Berlin, it was, actually I still think it is, a great place to come and start out, kind of sow the seeds of your idea,” said Hooper. “I think it’s really important for young artists to have a place that’s inspiring and full of other creatives and affordable enough to live in, that allows them the time to test out their ideas.”
Of course, the city presents its own set of challenges. The specter of gentrification and rising Berlin rents poses one growing threat to the bohemian lifestyle.
“That’s the reason why all the corporations came here, because there was some interesting magic happening,” said Donzelli of the city’s artsy, edgy reputation. And now? “I think it’s gonna change like everything’s gonna change.” However, the spontaneous aggregation of people and projects that define Berlin can only come together and endure under certain conditions, he said.
Aside from rising costs, Berlin also lures its young would-be creators with an abundance of distractions.
“It’s good when people also, you know, when their ideas come to fruition, as opposed to them just getting lost in the Berghain dark,” Hooper said wryly, remembering numerous creative acquaintances who came and went without ever getting around to producing much. A trap Mighty Oaks is resolutely avoiding: Donzelli is performing his solo piano material at this year’s Lollapalooza Berlin, and the trio is busy as well. Along with the work on their third full-length album, the band is planning a tour for February and pondering an EP project.
“We’re playing with the idea of recording the EP that Claudio and I recorded in his apartment at the very beginning, which kind of got us our start, our ‘Driftwood Seat’ EP,” said Hooper. “Which we never really released, but we still play – like, ‘Driftwood Seat’ is a song we play every night when we’re on tour, it’s the last song, because we love it. And we’re thinking about trying to record that quickly before the end of the year. But yeah, we’re definitely going to be recording our album, March to April next year, and release it in the fall.”
With their February concerts, the band is planning to go back to their roots, playing stripped-down, acoustic shows in intimate venues for around 500 people. “We played Zermatt Unplugged and that was a really nice experience. We’ll hit the road and try to make a nice tour for people, to come in from the cold and see us play, just the three of us, like how we started out,” Hooper explained. “We’re getting together at my house these days and running through things acoustically. We were on the road with six people onstage this whole summer. Which is really cool, but also, we played a show last night where there were just four of us onstage, and it was cool to do again. And tonight’s three.”
The performance was their second at TV Noir – the first, at the show’s regular venue Heimathafen back in 2013, saw the trio at the start of their rise, before the 2014 release of their breakthrough single “Brother.”
Joining the Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir for the TV Noir anniversary show, Mighty Oaks delivered a selection of songs that highlighted the leitmotif of longing and deliberation over a sense of home that runs through their work. Performing the bittersweet, aptly named track – unreleased as of yet – “Berlin,” the trio ruminated over a prominent issue lurking in expat minds, the quiet question echoing in every blissful moment of “Hauptstadt” hedonism – can this transient paradise last? Will I see another winter in this city? Where will we be when we’re older? How long is now?
Perhaps the answer lies in holding the two in balance, roots and adopted “Heimat,” near and far, past and future. As they sang in “Driftwood Seat,” their nightly closing anthem: “Ooh, oh I’m holding on, oohhh, to where I’m from and where I’ve gone.”
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