A Conversation With Moviola

Columbus, Ohio-based Moviola’s first record, 1995’s Frantic, was certainly representative of its era, featuring melodic, occasionally noisy rock, and while enjoyable, it didn’t necessarily indicate the band would still exist more than a quarter-century later. The quintet—Greg Bonnell, Jerry Dannemiller, Ted Hattemer, Jake Housh and Scotty Tabachnick, who all write, sing and swap instruments—has evolved into a collective far more varied, and timeless, in sound without losing anything that already made them a worthwhile listen. The group’s 10th LP, Broken Rainbows (Anyway), deftly blends touchstones like Neil Young, the Band and, yeah, some prototypical indie rock with tinges of straight-up dive-bar country, New Orleans jazz and probably a few other genres I’m not knowledgeable enough about to discern. The result is a deeply rewarding effort from these nice Midwestern fellows, who deserve more attention as well as some acclaim—even if the latter doesn’t particularly interest them.

Dannemiller and Hattemer drew the short straws and answered insightful questions about Moviola’s history, the band’s geographic influences and challenges, and the notion of fleeing the country due to a burgeoning idiocracy.

In either ’94 or ’95, I saw Moviola play a show with Superchunk and, of course, Snotboy ’77. Do you keep in touch with the guys in the latter?
Ted Hattemer: That was at Annie’s Roadhouse outside of Cincinnati, where I grew up. That place was where hair-metal bands played on the weekends, so for me it was an oddly hilarious place to be opening for Superchunk. The club used a metal-tinged jingle on the classic-rock station: “We will rock at Annie’s/Tonight.” We endlessly mocked it growing up.
Jerry Dannemiller: You have a good memory. Snotboy ’77! Wow. I think the local promoter was trying to cover all their bases there. The only recollection I have of that show is eating some pizza backstage that was surely supposed to be just for Superchunk, which I still harbor guilt about to this day.

All of you are from Ohio, correct? How do you think being from that part of the country influences your music?
We are. Ted and Jake are from near Cincinnati. Scotty’s from Akron. Greg is from around Columbus. I grew up mostly in a small town, Findlay, in northwest Ohio—Flag City, USA. Ohio is a total crossroads, a melting pot of the U.S. I-70 and I-75 cross somewhere near Bob Pollard’s house in Dayton. Go north and you’re quickly in Canada. Step over the Ohio River and you’re in the Deep South. Northeast Ohio is basically a suburb of New York City. Western Ohio, is well … lots of corn, very Midwestern. Musically, we’ve been exposed to all flavors, so, yes, it’s all in our DNA.

I’d consider 1999’s The Durable Dream to be the best Moviola record, or at least my favorite. At the time, I thought if any record was going to raise your profile, it was going to be that one. How do you feel about it? Did you think it might bump you guys up a notch?
Hattemer: I love that record for the music but also for the time in our lives it came from. We were rehearsing three days a week, writing new songs constantly and recording ourselves in an old concrete warehouse. There was a clubhouse feel to it all. But as for our best record, I think Broken Rainbows is the best thing we’ve ever done, and (2020’s) Scrape And Cuss is a close second. The Durable Dream is number three for me for sure.

Your Bandcamp page says Rumors Of The Faithful was released on 9/11. Is that true? Other sources say it was released in August, but if it was out on 9/11, was that weird at all? Circling back to Superchunk, they released Here’s To Shutting Up a week after 9/11, and I recall band members saying how depressing the tour was supporting it. I was wondering if something similar happened with you guys.
Hattemer: It’s true. Back then, records came out on Tuesdays. Rumors Of The Faithful was set to come out on Sept. 11, 2001. That following Friday, we were set to play in Boston, Saturday at the CMJ and Sunday in Philly. None of that happened, of course. We regrouped for a string of shows in Canada and Chicago later in October, but the mood was definitely low. It was hard to even know how to respond to it all. I had a conversion van at the time with a TV mounted for the back passengers. On the way leaving Canada, we watched as we drove; Bush bombed Afghanistan and the U.S. went to war.

In 2004, I wrote about Moviola for No Depression. Why do you think you guys didn’t vault to stardom after that?
Dannemiller: Well, clearly it must have been something wrong with the quality of writing in the article. There’s simply no other explanation. Now we know who to lay it all upon. Thanks.

That was to promote East Of Eager, which, to my ears, found you guys embracing Americana/country music even more than you had previously. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, was it a conscious choice to write in that vein?
Dannemiller: Sure. I think we were all just growing up a bit as humans, trying to not mask our songs behind a layer of four-track fuzz and hiss and be a bit more direct. There’s no doubt a noisy aesthetic to our early records, which was borne out of necessity and less of a conscious choice. By East Of Eager, we just wanted to let songs come through a bit more clear without unnecessary adornment or burying the vocals. We were also listening to a lot of Workingman’s Dead, it’s true. It’s also borne out of us operating as a bit of a DIY entity. We had, and still have, a mentality that we wanted to be the ones writing, playing, recording, designing, etc., and not relying on others. We’ve always been a bit focused—and a little stubborn—in that regard, always learning about the craft of creating music and art, which is a good thing to us. We’d rather be the ones experimenting with a new micing or mixing approach, rather than rely on someone to do that for us.

Scotty moved to Vermont after that record. At the time, it seemed like that was going to end his Moviola tenure, but he’s remained involved. How has it all worked out with him living out of state?
Hattemer: Scotty comes to Columbus at some point most summers, or at least the last three. He’s a public-school principal, so he has some amount of flexibility to visit and record his songs and whatever others we can fit into a long weekend. We rehearse them for a few months so we can crank them out in the time we have. Going forward, I think technology is something we’ve embraced to make sure that we can keep recording with one another for a long time no matter where folks are living.

You guys released Dead Knowledge in 2007 and then the rarities compilation Broken Horses in 2008 but then didn’t put out another LP until Scrape And Cuss. Why the lack of activity? Was there any official breakup?
Nope, we all just got a bit busy with life. We kept recording, demoing and playing some occasional shows. We played an Anyway Records 25th anniversary show a couple years back with Scotty, which sort of kickstarted us again toward remastering the back catalog, which is now all up on Bandcamp, and then doing Scrape And Cuss. We kept rolling into Broken Rainbows.

Here’s the obligatory COVID question: How did the pandemic impact how you recorded Broken Rainbows?
Hattemer: We created a trust circle pretty early on. Everyone wore masks at rehearsal for a long time. We would do vocals in a separate room to be safe against COVID. I think we handled it responsibly. The pandemic really had an impact on some of the things we decided were the right songs to move forward with and record as far as subject matter and attitude goes.

“Expat” is a pretty strong political statement: “Want to ditch this place, leave without a trace/Homegrown stupidity has won the race.” Was there a specific event or moment that inspired that song?
Dannemiller: Oh boy. I don’t know, maybe reading the news or looking at Twitter every day? I harbor no illusions that going somewhere else is going to be any better than right here in the good ol’ USA, but there are moments, and there were moments in the summer of 2020, when I sure contemplated the thought, as no doubt many folks do. The death spiral we seem to be in now just makes me, depending on the hour of the day, equally want to ditch for Norway or MooseJaw one minute, and then the next say, “Fuck that,” and stay here to help be part of the solution. I’m also a Libra.

The band is playing Broken Rainbows in its entirety, featuring “expanded staging” at an arts center in Columbus September 24. How did this come about, and what exactly is “expanded staging”?
Dannemiller: Adam Elliott of Times New Viking works in the performing-arts department at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, the big contemporary-arts center connected to Ohio State—go Bucks—and asked us to play. He was like, “You guys have done 10 records, I think it’s time you play here.” I used to work at the Wex, and we all went to Ohio State, so it’s sort of a mark of achievement to play there. We’ve all seen so many amazing shows there over time—everyone from Terry Allen to Black Dice to Lonnie Holley—it’s going to be really special. For the show, and because we really don’t want to just rip through 11 songs in 45 minutes, we’re really expanded each of the songs with some interstitial narratives, projections and turning it into a bit of a theatrical experience without getting all “rock opera” on it. Think Terry Allen and Juarez, etc. Ted’s son Toby, and Jake’s daughters, Camille and Haley, all of whom are in college, are singing backup, along with Jake’s brother Josh flying in from San Francisco. It’s a whole family affair. We’d ideally like to take it to other places like the Wex around the country where we could stage it a bit, so we’ll see.

Moviola has been around 25-plus years, and I swear I’m not blowing smoke when I say that you’re very well respected, at least among those who care enough to pay attention. Do you ever consider your “place” in music or reflect on what you’ve accomplished
Dannemiller: Nope, not our role. Broken Rainbows is our 10th record, to which we are all like, “Hey, that’s something, huh?” and then promptly moved on to the next mixing session or whatever was next up. Our “place” is set by writers, Instagram followers or other markers based largely upon people with a stake, monetary or otherwise, in seeing us get “bigger.” That hasn’t really happened yet. When other musicians like Eric (D. Johnson) of the Fruit Bats or Tim (Rutili) from Califone say nice things about our record, that’s why we do this. Our strong point is making records in the here and now.
Hattemer: I feel we’re as obscure as the number of Moviola CDs in each band members’ basement, and we’re completely OK with that. Jake spent most of 2018 and 2019 remastering our records, and he did a really great job. He inspired a renewed interest within the band, and I was right there ready to jump on in. Frankly, I enjoy the camaraderie and friendship as much as the music. We’re a band and one that’s been this formation for a long time. I mean, if a song sucks, you’ve got to call it out. But now I think we know how to encourage each other to focus on what’s working and push each other to make the best music we can.

—Matt Hickey