No less than three albums will UK solo artist Oli Heffernan AKA Ivan The Tolerable have released this year. One of them, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (Library Of The Occult Records) flew under Weirdo Shrine’s radar, but the other two have boldly found their way to the editor’s desk. Last year of course I talked about his incredible album The Long Year (ft. his Elastic Band) and interviewed the incredible American poet Karen Schoemer who featured on the album. This year I felt like the musician behind that album and many many more deserved a little extra attention, and therefore I hit him up for a chat, which he generously indulged in. Vinyl pressing issues might mean that the albums talked about below haven’t quite reached their target audiences yet, but they will, and you need to know about them and about Ivan The Tolerable.
Black Water/Brown Earth (2022, Up In Her Room Records)
Before jumping completely within the skin of his alter ego Ivan The Tolerable, Oli Heff was in King Champion Sounds, with members of The Ex, and collaborating with illustrious rock icons like Mike Watts of the Minutemen, and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. This is just to say that he is a veteran musician, a skillful sound maker, and you know, he’s been around the block a few times (just check out the incredible musical library he is building with Ivan The Tolerable alone!).
On Black Water/Brown Earth, his second of three albums in 2022, Heff called in the help of his Dutch friends Mees and Elsa in King Champion Sounds again, and wrote the album in a long distance session. The album feels like an excursion in nature, featuring bird song, flowing water, pots and pans percussion, and a genuine feel of wandering about and experiencing the outside world with eyes and ears wide open. It is a band effort too, with organic sounding drums, the characteristic saxophone, and droning synths. Out of the two albums on display here it is probably the most likely to return on a live stage somewhere as a vibrant jam session.
The Aleph (2022, Echodelick Records)
The Aleph is a rather different beast than its predecessor. Much more than painting a certain atmosphere in nature it feels like an immersion into a different world. It is an ancient Mesopotamian world, guided by tribal drums, Morphine-like saxophones, droning synths, and an allround stifling atmosphere. Is it free jazz? It is definitely free…and the rhythmical excursions are definitely quite out there at times. But there is a strong repetitive element to The Aleph as well, a drone, a pulling power that takes the listener into a spin and sucks it into this “other” world. It is unlike anything I have heard before, really. An adventurous experience, both for musicians and listeners.
On The Aleph Heff did work together with Thomas House (Haress, Sweet Williams) who mixed the album and added some guitars, but it is mostly a solo album, and sounds like less of a joint effort too. In a way that makes it a more exciting listen because you feel that the music could go any direction its maker pleases, and yet it remains a coherent story that somehow resonates its background story and its artwork (check out the interview below).
So let’s meet the mastermind behind the sounds: Here is Oli Heff(ernan), Ivan The Tolerable himself! What drives him, where does he live? And how the heck does he make so many beautiful records each year…read on to find out.
How are you, and how have you struggled through the pandemic period?
Aside from the impending collapse of it all, I’m good thanks! How are you? The pandemic was a total shitshow – so many unnecessary deaths caused by an appalling governments colossal mishandling of the situation. I found the whole ‘stay at home’ aspect of it quite a blessing! I got 8 months off work and I’m not very sociable anyway so I got loads of music recorded and watched an awful lot of TV – there was a point where I thought I’d completed Netflix! It was the longest time I’ve had away from work and touring since I was a teenager, so it was a welcome break really. I think i made about 8-9 LPs in 2020-21 during covid, so yeah… PRODUCTIVE! I lost my day job at the end of it mind, but it’s all good now! Haha
Can you tell me about your musical background?
I guess it’s the same as most peoples – I started playing guitar when I was a kid, probs around 1994, just teaching myself as I went along by figuring out songs I liked, then formed a band with my mates at school, then more and more bands followed until we get to today! I’ve never stopped really, not for more than a month here and there anyway…I’m kind of the odd one out in my family as no one else is into music or plays an instrument which was kind of nice growing up cos I could just find my own way without being made to take lessons or listen to things that were forced on me. I liked that way. I’m a firm believer in just finding your own way to do things
Can you tell about Ivan The Tolerable, when is it just you and when do you have a band
recording with you?
Ivan The Tolerable started by accident in 2013 when I recorded a bunch of songs for my band at the time (Year Of Birds) but they were a bit left-field for a speedy garage band so we didn’t end up doing them and I just put the tape out myself to get rid of it ( I hate having stuff hanging around) and then I kinda just never stopped doing them – for the first 4-5 years it was just me playing everything but for the last 4 or so years I’ve got a lot more people involved – it’s kind of like a very loose collective pool these days, which is great for me as I can work on stuff a lot faster! IDEAL! I have three albums on the go at any one time (with three different sets of musicians) so while I’m waiting for people to do their parts on one album, I can crack on with my parts for the next one – it works well if you are as impatient as me ha-ha. I still do stuff on my own quite often, but i prefer the ones with other folks more as I’m lucky that I get to work with some of the very best people! I think I’m up to about 25-30 albums? I’ve lost count!
You music is like entering a completely different world! How do you go about creating it,
especially all by yourself? Is there for instance a narrative you have in your head?
Not really, I never have a plan really, other than to make an album and I just start recording and keep going until its finished – occasionally if I’m working to a set of lyrics, I’ll have more of a plan but mostly it’s just instrumental stuff so I can just do whatever, which is the best way to do it! No constraints and nothing to overthink! I guess that’s the key for me – I can just do whatever I like! I never spend a great amount of time recording an album – that’s not fun for me – I see it more like audio photographs of a moment, rather than some overproduced, overblown “artistic statement” – life’s too short for that kind of thing, i just love recording and like to do it fast! If once I finish an album I feel like I never want to hear it again, then I know I’ve overcooked it! ha-ha the thing I do notice is that I can make two different albums a few years apart with totally different people and totally different gear and it always still sounds like me – that’s a pretty cool thing I guess. Like some sort of intangible quality that is there but also isn’t…Dunno how it works, but it’s true! I can also hear anything I’ve done and tell you exactly what I was doing, where I was and how I was feeling when it was recorded – which goes back to the audio photo theory!
Where do you live and how does it affect your music?
I live with my girlfriend and a cat in Middlesbrough, England (Between Leeds and Newcastle, right up in the North East) and it has zero impact on my music other than I find it hard to find the right people to play with in my town. There are lots of bands and musicians but it’s all very indie/rock/acoustic/covers-bands kinda stuff round here so I have to look further afield for people who are into the more left-of-centre stuff, which is why I record a lot and play live very little! A lot of the folks who play on my records live in Netherlands, USA and Spain so practicing is a bit of a pain! Hahah! but I do have a UK live band finally so we can play shows if something good comes up – we played Astral Festival in Bristol earlier this year which was the first time we’ve done it and it was lots of fun – I’d deffo be up for doing more so we shall see…But anyway – Middlesbrough has no effect on what I do – its where I live and where all my friends are, plus it’s a relatively cheap place to live (not that anywhere is truly cheap anymore) but I could make these albums anywhere I reckon, and they’d
sound the same. I could spout a load of bullshit about how I’m influenced by the hills and the industrial heritage and all that, but it would be a lie! It’s all just rattling around in my head trying to punch its way out, and my head can go anywhere!
The first album I am reviewing is Black Water/Brown Earth, what can you tell me about its
conception and its background story?
I had a mental block between November and April this year where I couldn’t seem to get anything done – my head was just not in it (It felt like the end of the world at the time, it always does – but in hindsight I think I just needed a break) I had started a couple of sets of songs but I was making no progress on them and just annoying myself – so I shelved them for a bit and started a new thing that I wanted to be very simple, just me and two other people (Mees and Elsa, who play on lots of my stuff) we were in King Champion Sounds together for almost a decade so we are very used to playing together, so even doing it via email it still sounds pretty organic) so I sent them sketches for a bunch of songs and then when I got their stuff back I added some more stuff and then mixed it very quickly and it all just came together really fast – it was such a relief to finally finish something after 6 months
of frustration! The week I finished mixing it I got an email off the folks at Up In Her Room asking if I wanted to do an album with them (They had seen us play at Astral Festival) so I sent them it and they liked it so that’s how it all came about! think it’s a nice sounding record – I cycle down a river every morning when I go to work and I made some field recordings on my phone over a couple of weeks of the birds and the water and they are mixed into the tracks too…aside from those bits it’s just the three of us playing on it – the trio thing is always fun, working with a smaller palette is nice sometimes!
The second album, quite quickly following the previous is The Aleph, what can you tell me about that one?
The Aleph was one of the ones I started in Autumn last year, but I hit a wall with it and shelved it for a while. After I finished Black Water/Brown Earth I returned to this one and it all came together quite fast now I was back on the proverbial horse – I added few more synths and doubled some bass tracks up and then sent it to my pal Thomas House (he plays in Sweet Williams and Haress, and used to run Endless Records out of Brighton, who put out a couple of Ivan tapes and records over the years) and he added a bunch of guitars and then mixed the album for me – he’s very good at stuff so it was very painless- again! Mostly 1st mixes of everything are what you hear on the album – he’s got the good ears for stuff – I’m really pleased with this record – I’m normally guilty of the “throwing everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach whereas Tom is all about space and minimal layers – but I wanted a different sound and he’s totally nailed it – he’s a genius. I was reading a book
of Jorge Luis Borges stories while we were making the record and there is one story called The Aleph which is all about the idea of there being a point in space that contains all other points, from where you can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping, or confusion – which I really liked and it felt kind of apt, so I named the album after it.
The Aleph especially has some incredible artwork! Who made it, and what is the relationship with the music?
I did the sleeve for this one (PLUG ALERT! I have a side-hustle doing sleeve art for bands, check out @ackackackdesign on Instagram for recent work – I’m cheap if I like you! PLUG OVER!) The image is a close-up scan of the endpaper from a Victorian encyclopaedia which I really liked the colours on, so I matched everything else up to it and all the lettering is hand done, one letter at a time with Letraset from my personal collection! ha-ha. Old school cut and paste! I think it suits the music nicely though, which is always the main goal. I do most of my own sleeves but in the last couple of years I’ve had too many records out so got a few other people whose work I liked to do some here and there, so I wasn’t swamped – Limited Output (my old pal Chappy from Newcastle) did the sleeve for The Long Year, Jordan Warren did the sleeve for White Tears and Nathaniel Winter-Herbert did the one for The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – check them all out, they are fine folks!
Now you have released two albums in one year, what is the next step? More recordings?
I think its three albums this year actually! The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe LP on Library of The Occult was earlier this year wasn’t it?! ha-ha – so yeah – 3! it’s not my personal best (I managed 5 in 2020) but it’s a strong effort! After The Aleph and Black Water/Brown Earth are released, I have another album which is already at the pressing plant which is due out in April (it’s not announced yet so I can’t say any more, but I’m
REALLY pleased with this one cos it’s the first time I’ll have an entire ITT album I am actual able to play live so watch this space…) but I have plans to record a new album for Library of The Occult during November and December as I have some good chunks of time off work, and then after that I’ve got a couple of live things coming up that I need to work on…that’s as far as I’ve planned! I love watching TV too much to commit any further than that! I’m still getting used to not really touring anymore – Brexit and Covid and everything getting so expensive has really made it impossible for the small acts to make it balance anymore, sadly! I toured Europe for a month out of the year every year for the last decade, so it feels weird not to have any stuff on the calendar but I’m sure I’ll get used to the idea eventually. It’s probably why I’ve made so many records over the last two years – I’m overcompensating!
What is your ultimate dream goal as an artist?
I don’t think I have any! I just enjoy doing what I do! I’ve never wanted to be a musician as a job, I like having a normal job (I work in a print room) and doing music around it – stops it getting boring – I reckon it would suck if you HAD to do music every day, especially these days with all the bullshit social media you have to do constantly – i couldn’t do all that, which is probably why I’m not much further on than I am! I like it the way it is though. But yeah, my only goals are to keep making records until I peg it – keeps me sane! It’s a good release for an overactive imagination. But BIG goals nah, don’t have any! I wish I’d got to do a Peel Session, but I never did, does that count? Probably not seeing as it’s no longer possible! I’ve kind of done everything i ever set out to do and more! I’ve made loads of records, toured in loads of countries and met lots of the very best people. JOB DONE! I would secretly love to make a record in Studio 2 at Abbey Road though, but shhh don’t tell anyone.
What should the Weirdo Shrine reader do immediately after this interview?
Well, I’m going to go outside for a smoke, listen to the new Szun Waves album AGAIN and have a beer and then watch some TV. So you could do that if you want, but I’m not yr fuckin boss! DO SOMETHING THAT YOU LOVE! Eat a cake! Knit a jumper! Paint a room! Go for a bike ride! Have a sleep! If you are happy then, so am I.