Now/It's: An Interview with Zachary Carter Threlkeld (October Tooth)

Take a moment to consider Aesop’s most popular fable – “The Tortoise and the Hare.” It’s a story of patience and persistence versus instantaneous gratification and vainglorious egotism. While that explanation for a story you almost undoubtedly already know is rather verbose and a little grandiloquent (as is this sentence, apparently), it’s a good allegorical cousin to the arena of music making, and creative output as a whole. There are aspects of entertainment that reward the most affected creators most immediately, while the more subdued, patient creators must marinate in uninsured long term economics. In the end, things tend to resemble Aesop’s competition based fable, but the in between of start and finish is rarely highlighted. In terms of Nashville’s perpetual “Tortoise and Hare” race, there are few that embody the former than Zachary Carter Threlkeld in his project October Tooth. A project borne out of seemingly aimless output has since shifted into half a decade’s body of work. An annual release project, Threlkeld and his collaborator Sam Gidley have toiled and grown in ways totally unbeknownst to themselves. 2017 marks the fifth annual release, Old Coat, recorded at Gidley’s home studio, and is the most realized version of October Tooth to date.

Now/It's met with Zachary Carter Threlkeld at Eighth & Roast off of 8th Avenue, in South Nashville.

Now/It’s conversation with Zachary Carter Threlkeld began discussing local artist Bantug.

Zachary Carter Threlkeld - [Bantug] and I have been talking more about [shows] and getting together each time we see each other in town.

N/I - Really? Well I’m trying to interview her. I think she’s a natural choice.

Zachary - That’d be so great!

N/I - I think so. She’s come up in at least two interviews - Sam [Gildey] and Joseph [Barrios] - and I think David [Swick]’s as well. So it’s always nice when someone comes up naturally.

Zachary - I think that would be cool. But she was telling me about maybe working with [Jacob Stewart]. She was like “What do you think of him?” and I was like “What do you mean ‘What do I think of him? He’s the best.’”

N/I - Well it seems like they’re trying to hit things pretty hard. So that’ll be interesting.

Zachary - I’m sure it will. I’m sure it’ll be great. I think that’s a good pairing.

N/I - I think so too.

Zachary - I think Stew can do very well with her music.

N/I - Yeah. That’s always been the type of music that [Jacob Stewart] is into. Before he got into all sorts of music, he was very into that indie pop world. Like our freshman and sophomore year, he was very into Lights. A post punk-ish vibe….

Zachary - But with a little more fuzz.

N/I - Yeah. There’s punch and sensitivity all the same.

Zachary - Which is just the sign of a good band. That description just indicates a good band in a lot of ways.

N/I - I suppose so. Anyway, is it mostly shows you and [Bantug] are discussing?

Zachary - Yeah. Just doing shows.

N/I - That’s one of those situations where I never really thought of the two of you together on a bill or anything, but now that I am, I realize just how great a fit it would be.

Zachary - We want to do some shows, for sure.

N/I - Right. It’s not like you and Bent Denim - don’t get me wrong, I love both bands - but it’s very similar. Just from the lo-fi aspect, but the similarity seems to be more on the spirituality of the songs.

Zachary - I agree.

N/I - It’s much more insular. Not to say the type of music Bantug plays is no less “insular,” but sonically, it comes in a different package.

Zachary - Right. Her phrasing and verbiage is different.

N/I - Exactly. How have things been coming along with the October Tooth release?

Zachary - If I’m being real honest, this year’s been a little bit of a shit show.

N/I - Really? Why is that?

Zachary - It just hasn’t really happened the way I really would have liked for it to.

N/I - How so?

Zachary - I don’t know, exactly. I really don’t know what I wanted, specifically. I think I may have had some unfair expectations about this year, honestly. The recording process was really easy, and it was really fast, and went really well. So we were amped about it. And then ever since then - we tried to submit to AWAL, and that didn’t really vibe, because they go primarily based upon socials for songs they’re looking for at that moment. And October Tooth has the worst socials of all time, compared to the buzz around it.

N/I - Now, AWAL is what?

Zachary - Kobalt.

N/I - But a publisher goes based off of nothing other than social media?

Zachary - I’m sure they’re more inclusive in general when it’s an artist they seek out, but when you submit, they provide info that says the first few qualifiers are social following and things like that.

N/I - So what’s the baseline? A thousand?


Zachary - It’s something like that. It can’t be something crazy, but they definitely look at those things first at the initial barriers to entry.

N/I - That seems like a bad thing?

Zachary - It is a bad thing.

N/I - Well from my perspective, for the handful of queries I get from people reaching out to me - some of them have had really strong social followings, but that’s all based upon a couple of cover videos. So you’re left to determine whether or not the cover videos would translate into good original music.

Zachary - Right. You have to look at the content. It serves as more of a picture.

N/I - It distorts stuff.

Zachary - It always has, honestly.

N/I - That’s true. Before social media was prevalent, it was whose parents are most closely aligned with a publisher, or whose friends with the radio deejay.

Zachary - Right. Or “How big is your email list?”

N/I - That’s a more immediately recent example, for sure.

Zachary - But people weren’t able to just go onto your page and see that the number you reported is actually how many people subscribe to your email list.

N/I - True. There wasn’t much verification happening.

Zachary - All they could do was take your word about it.

N/I - They would have to trust, or take a chance on you with something like that.

Zachary - Exactly. Whereas now, they just go to the page and look at the number. It’s like “I saw the number. I already know.”

N/I - Yeah. There’s full transparency, so there’s no room to lie. Not to say that you would have to lie. If it were based on merit, that would be great.

Zachary - Well, in some ways, I wish I could [lie], because my social numbers might not be totally accurate, but on a large scale, it kind of is accurate. Isn’t that what October Tooth’s market share is? At least in the global sense - which is what Facebook represents.

N/I - True. And I guess from a business standpoint, you’re looking at the artist from the viewpoint of “How is this artist going to resonate with not only the people in Nashville, but New York, Los Angeles, Des Moines, and Albuquerque.

Zachary - Exactly. So, all these things are fair. It’s not like I was promised something and then it got taken from me. It was more just like riding momentum off of Easy Corners, which I think provided some momentum to putting out the “Windshield Notes” video. That did have some good engagement, even though it was almost a year since the album itself.

N/I - Oh yeah. It had really good engagement.

Zachary - So that was exciting. But it was a bunch of excitement, and then it was “Oh, we’re not going to do the show on the 27th. We’re not going to premiere a single.” We had some tricky things with art, and so I had to figure it out myself, so it’s just coming out now. I was hoping for….. We didn’t get a premiere for the single, which is fine, but it’s also the reason why I did a single. I haven’t done a single before, for a reason, because it’s somewhat arbitrary for October Tooth.

N/I - Sure. With a new or smaller artist, in general…. I remember when Hozier first came onto the scene. It was out of nowhere, like literally nowhere. And his first single sticks out to me, because it was “Like Real People Do.” It was very folky.

Zachary - Right. I was thinking it was “Take Me To Church,” but it was “Like Real People Do.”

N/I - And it was super folky, so my first thought was “Okay. This guy is classic Irish folksinger, whatever,” and for some reason, it was being pushed on people a ton, seemingly out of nowhere, but it turned out he had Columbia behind him, pushing him in a big way, and that opened the door for “Take Me to Church,” and that album as a whole. So that’s what happens when you have a huge machine behind you….

Zachary - It creates a mystique. Because there’s all this money to push super hard behind every single platform.

N/I - Exactly.It’s thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of dollars. But when you’re independent, it’s more along the lines of how many hundreds of dollars are you willing to sink into something that might not pay dividends?

Zachary - Exactly. On doing it yourself - during every single plug, my hashtag was the EP title (Old Coat), because if I’m doing it myself, and if I’m doing the EP in a lot of way, by myself, I don’t want it to be like “Okay, half the people saw the single, and another half only saw the album title.” Whereas, with the machine behind it, it keeps pushing more and more people to the desired outcomes. But with this, it might not. Some people might miss it. Maybe they were looking for one release, and they saw the single, but not the album. Granted, some of that chalks up to laziness, but it’s still a possibility. Anyways, that was not a big deal, but it was a hard pill to swallow, not getting the single, because the work I was doing in promotion in a way had become pointless for me. But instead of accepting total defeat, I just had to pivot. It became more art focused on Instagram, it became the build up for the EP. Make the most of what’s already been laid out.

N/I - Well I don’t think any endeavor that provides purpose for anyone is pointless. The gratification is simply delayed. It sounds like, based on the way things were going with the recording side of things - and I think this example could apply to anything endeavor based, be it business, music, or baking - when you see a little momentum, you’re just beneath the top of the hill, having just reached the summit, and you can see how far you can go, but it turns out it’s a much more gradual incline to get the ball rolling, so instead of just saying “Let’s go!” on to the next goal point, there’s more effort to get things moving.

Zachary - Exactly. It’s not a chute.

N/I - It’s not a chute, it’s a very, very gradual incline/decline.

Zachary - That’s right. And I know not to get my hopes up too much during the release. I know mentally. I know theoretically, not to. I’ve released enough things to know otherwise.

N/I - Well do you think it’s because you’ve been doing October Tooth for as long as you have now? Because it’s the…. Fifth year?

Zachary - It’s the fifth. I mean, I do think there was some more weight to me personally, because it’s like “Oh wow. It’s the fifth year.” That’s one thing I think I’m going to struggle with, or at least constantly keep on my mind, is knowing that I see this as a project. So the more I add to it is adding layers to a project. I continually see it as something that’s just started, so why would anyone else think of it as anything other than a normal release?

N/I - Right. It’s tough, because in trying to push a single to AWAL, you’re still on your way to where there have been seven releases, at least, then socials will have increased, because of the passing of time, but it still might not be a massive following, but at least by then, there’s a substantial body of work that is good and keeps getting better. It’s not “Why haven’t I ever heard of this, but it looks like lots of people like it,” it’s a healthy, arguably the most natural, realistic growth model you can take as an artist.

Zachary - Well you definitely couldn’t do monthly. Or even quarterly.

N/I - And you’re not taking big, sweeping chances in terms of changing sound.

Zachary - I’m not leaping from genre to genre. Bombay Bicycle does that in a great way, with every album that they’ve done thus far. Each album is a different genre, but still uniquely Bombay. That was something I really love about them. But this is not that, it’s not jumping, jumping, jumping.

N/I - Sure. And on top of that, Bombay Bicycle Club’s success has a timing aspect to them, as well. I feel like with October Tooth - not to make it seem like I’m blowing smoke up your ass - but I feel like you’re ahead of your time, in the trend of “bedroom musicians.” Like right now, it’s very 808s, mini Moog, Moog modulars, and stuff like that, and then I look at you and Bent Denim as the next iteration of that being full band, with actual, organic instruments. Does that make sense?


Zachary - It does. It really does.

N/I - But all the while, it still maintains that bedroom production mentality of art that just needed to get made, studio or not. So who’s to say you don’t have a similar thing to Bombay Bicycle Club? Because all the same, Bombay - I don’t know what label they’re on now - if you think of what happens with a band that signs with any label, they take all the music down for a while. So there could have been eight or nine albums that were already out. Look at Car Seat Headrest - when he signed with Matador Records, his most recent releases were one album that coincided with taking all the original albums off bandcamp and turning it into a “Greatest Hits” record, which was Teens of Style, and then Teens of Denial was “debut.”

Zachary - And it worked. It worked very well.

N/I - Exactly. And he did what? Eleven albums?

Zachary - [Laughs] Plenty, for sure.

N/I - So in that pathway, you’ve still got six more to go, you wouldn’t even be halfway done.

Zachary - And that is exactly right. I think I just let myself get down about something that isn’t even a bummer.

N/I - Well it’s still…. It’s still justified. I was going to say it’s still a bummer, but it’s not a bummer exactly.

Zachary - Right. It’s still coming out.

N/I - It’s still coming out. It sounds really good. If you look at the baseline of “Is it an improvement in any way? Do you feel good about it? And do the people that do listen to it, do they respond to it?” And you checked all of those boxes off after you put the single out. Which by the way, I listened to that for like three hours straight. Every single time, I would hear something different that would make me want to restart the song, which would then make me want to listen to the song all the way through, only to hear something else that would make me want to restart that entire process over once again. So you and Sam really managed to get something impressive going.

Zachary - We were zoning in, for sure.

N/I - And Sam wasn’t along for the entire existence of October Tooth, right?

Zachary - Well it’s kind of three, officially only two.

N/I - Right, his full involvement came on Easy Corners, right?

Zachary - Well on Three, it was really close.

N/I - Was he doing mostly drums and post stuff?

Zachary - Well on Three, I think I brought mostly sketches and then we would flesh it out together. So that was where we started working things out more together. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to you about this, but we really try to collaborate. It starts out with me on guitar, or me on piano, and Sam working on the drum, and then us talking about the drums, and then we’ll really zone in on the drums, and then it’s floorboard drums, then get a guitar tone. But we were building it the we always did this year, and then scraping everything away. It was “How can we build this on things that we don’t normally build upon?” A really great example is “Soundless Place.” Or “Easy Corners,” even. It builds in stair step fashion, and the chorus is the biggest part, and the section before is a moderated section. It’s longer. This time, we were having small to large conversations, trying to leave space. Because of waveforms, I keep picturing the Soundcloud thing as moving, and instead of the normal waveform, it’s just crescendo. It’s up in a good way, and I like that, but with this, we’re revealing a square in an empty space and then a crescendo into a different circle, or something. This one has been a little different, it’s not that drastic. But I think one reason is because this is most effective we’ve had everything blend together with different elements that you can hone in on, and you can hear where it travels throughout the song, is because we did that on purpose. This year, it was almost like it feels like the most designed in a good way, to me. We’re doing what we normally do, but we’ve gone through all these designs, but this time you can see behind the sketch that instead of erasing pencil marks, we didn’t even use pencil, this one is just straightforward. Not more design, we’re just more familiar with our tools.

N/I - Right. You understand it’s less getting into the feel - is that fair?

Zachary - There’s less “Versions 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on.” We’re already skipping to Version 4, because….

N/I - You know what you would have done on one through three.

Zachary - Exactly.

N/I - Okay. So let’s say on Easy Corners, last year - you come in with a full song figured out, record that once with all those parts - would you sit there and pick what doesn’t need to be there?

Zachary - It’s better to think of in a song-by-song sense. Because with Easy Corners, Sam is on the computer and I’m on the synth, and then he goes through different synth sounds, and I’m trying different things. We’re getting more efficient with our workload.

N/I - Within that process.

Zachary - Right. He’s finding it, I’m finding it, and then I play the chord that winds up becoming the base foundation of Easy Corners, and then we have to figure out what song that would be and go from there. That was - the song “Easy Corners” was one thing that we never really talked about, but I was taking it as a strong snapshot of what the subsequent 2017 release would be. Because it was like “Man. We found it really fast.” When I hit the key, we looked at each other really excited, and then we were like, “Okay, this is the song.” Then we went and wrote it right there. I looked at my notes, and then I knew it was this, that, and the other, for whatever reason. It just spoke to me. Have I shown you the voice memo for “Leave All Your Flowers?”

N/I - I don’t think so.

Zachary - I may not even have it anymore, so it might not be worth it anymore. But it’s a really good example of what happen in the room now, with Sam and me. Year five has been the most efficient, but it’s not even efficient, it’s more that we’re so confident playing off each other, things keep going unsaid, and just stack and stacks every year.

N/I - So was every song on Year five kind of like that then?

Zachary - Let’s see. “Universes,” I had that song and we had played it live, and then it turned out to be real tricky to actually get right. That one took some time to get right, because we had a specific vision for it, and after we had fleshed it out together in a different way. That was the first song we had played live first and then recorded. We played it the way that I wrote it on guitar, live, which is something that we don’t really do. In past years, we probably would have had to give up on it, because the chords and what we were ultimately trying to do with took persistence while also being really agile. But “Forest Hill Irene” was quick. That was really a fleshed out idea except for the chorus, which is really everything in it, honestly. Let’s see…. What else is on there?

N/I - Well how many songs are there in total?

Zachary - Just four this year. It’s “Universes…..” and then “Scorpion.” Actually, now that I think about it, “Universes” was pretty much already written, “Scorpion” was pretty much already written, and “Forest Hill Irene” was already almost done, and then “Sometimes” was a demo from Sam.

N/I - Really?

Zachary - It was the first song that he brought me a sketch of.

N/I - And he wrote that specifically as….

Zachary - He wrote it as a demo. It was “I don’t know, something like this….” He initially showed me the drum part, because he was really proud of it. It’s centered behind the groove and took a really long time to program, because you have to do it measure by measure, and then he had to move it around, because it sits back there in a certain way that if you put it actually on time, it would be rushed. So it’s literally offbeat to make it run tempo. It’s interesting. So then I was like “Why don’t we just use that as the song?” instead of trying to emulate the drums in another. So that was exciting. That was the first time something like that happened. Sam also helps with lyrics, and it’s hard to start picking and choosing with Sam, because it’s all a conversation, we’re talking and then recording, and then keep on talking. So it’s hard to say what he doesn’t have an influence on now, and what I don’t.

N/I - Well that’s interesting. I’ve found in talking to other people that have recorded with Sam - there’s a definitive influence that shows up in each recording that is Sam, but at the same time, it’s not like a….

Zachary - Like Dan Auerbach, or something?

N/I - Right. It’s not Dan Auerbach going in and making it a Dan Auerbach production. It’s more like Jacknife Lee. Are you familiar with him?

Zachary - I am not.

N/I - He’s a big time rock producer. He started out small with bands like Snow Patrol, Kasabian, Bloc Party, The Hives as they were coming up. That UK indie rock scene. And he did the newest record from The Killers, and now it’s bigger acts seeking him out, but it’s interesting to think that he and Sam are similar, in my mind, because they’re both sought out in their own worlds. But as far as finding what the influence, what their fingerprint is on all the work they do is, it’s less of a signature and more of smudge. And I mean that in the best way.

Zachary - Exactly. I love that. Because it shows that he’s always saying his opinions within sections….

N/I - But it’s done with tact.

Zachary - He doesn’t push it whichever direction he thinks is best for his opinion only.

N/I - Exactly. Just talking to you, you recording experience with Sam is much different than someone else’s is, because someone else might just come in with lyrics, and that’s the only thing that’s definitive, and the rest is up to Sam. And they know that he can….

Zachary - They offer up very slight notes, and then Sam takes it from there.

N/I - He can operate within as big or as small a sandbox as the artist permits him. There’s a lot to be said for his ability to integrate himself into any project. And I think October Tooth is the best example, and has been for the past two years, as I’m sure this year will only further cement that fact.

Zachary - I agree. It really is hard to say enough about Sam and what he brings to a session. Almost more than anything else, with me and with all these people that have recorded with him - Sam just has this way of making you feel confident, even if you want to try something really weird, ultimately making you excited, like it becomes a game. It’s all excitement, and when it’s not, he still works his ass off anyway. He can trudge through a song, but he has a great air about him nonetheless. It makes him pleasant to work with, to say the least.

N/I - So with what you were talking about earlier - getting ahead of yourself with expectation - do you think because the recording process is as good as it is - it sounds like one of the most idyllic recording processes, and the most idyllic part of October Tooth as a whole, writing excluded - do you think that had some sort of influence on that?

Zachary - I think that’s very fair. Honestly, if the more we talk through the recording process, and I actually verbalize it, I realize it is my dream process. I don’t know what I would change. And then the thought popped into my head that we were planning on going to the cabin this year.

N/I - And that’s in Montana?

Zachary - That’s in Montana. But it would have been a different EP, and I’m happy with this one. So I don’t know. It’s hard to determine.

N/I - Well all that to be said, it sounds like all of these different factors go to show that October Tooth is more of a long term project.

Zachary - It just is. Yeah.

N/I - It’s taken you five years to really, truly find the perfect recording process.

Zachary - And maybe the process is only perfect for this year. Who knows how long this version of the OT process is perfect for?

N/I - True. But even still, I would imagine everything - like we talked about before - everything amalgamates and further congeals to become a larger thing, so much so that the “behind the scenes” stuff is cemented into place and solid.

Zachary - Where we’re feeling good.

N/I - And after that, you can focus on the more external stuff.

Zachary - Exactly. And the more we do this project - the time comes in the year - this might be weird, but it’s another shape reenters the room. It’s like we’re interacting with October Tooth itself. It’s becoming it’s own being. I’ve never released this much music for a single project before, so I’ve never had this experience before. It does grow in a manner of which I wouldn’t be surprised that the entity of October Tooth gets up out of its proverbial chair and walks out of the room.

N/I - It’s an omniscient being. Or an omniscient abstraction of everything.

Zachary - And what a crazy experience to have with it. Especially when you think that it was created out of falling ass backwards into releasing some things one October. And all of a sudden, it’s something we’ve actually made. It’s wild to me [laughs]. It’s pretty cool. The more I talk through it, the more I realize I’m really happy with it. I know this started out with me saying that I’m bummed, but I’m not fully bummed. I am bummed to still be trying to find my place in the new music arena, but that’s just something everyone is looking and struggling to find. We’re yelling, but not really finding anything in return. That’s just something that’s going to be a frustration, and honestly, not my strong suit. So it will have to be something is always going to be there.

N/I - It seems like the irony of the “new music arena” as you say, does not necessarily benefit the most “talented” or most sonically realized. It tends to benefit the most ostentatious or the most histrionic. I think it’s one of those things that - not to place it in shrewd business terms - but the market will correct itself eventually.

Zachary - Right. And then it will eventually slip out of balance again. It’s always going in and out. It always is.

N/I - There’s YouTube’s impact on music. Then streaming. And whose to say that virtual reality won’t break down another barrier. It’ll always be changing.

Zachary - And almost as much - we talk about the recording process, and it sound great. It is great. But then trying to get it out there into the world makes sound less so, which is true, but at the same time, I’m able to personally release all my music on all the platforms. I have the most distribution that anyone has ever had. And I did it by uploading things myself. So it’s a little hard to complain about the music or anything related to it. If it weren’t for all this new stuff, I’d have to shell out for CDs, busting my ass to get it into Grimey’s, and selling at shows to play more shows. Just to get people think about listening to my CD over someone else’s. Whereas now, whatever, I’m not making a ton of money at the moment, but everyone’s hearing it. It’s all tradeoffs, but in the end, it’s still the dream.