What happens when you get trained, talented, ridiculously over-qualified musicians together to play minimalist, bluesy garage rock? The answer is Ol Silver Tongue, an up-and-coming Oakland, California-based duo who are putting on one of the best live acts on the US West Coast right now. Featuring San Diego-born Joshua Boronkay (aka Boronkadonk) on guitar and lead vocals, and Cairo McCockrain (aka C. McCock) on drums, the duo just released their excellent debut EP Nobody Special, and are planning on releasing a follow up EP Dead or Deranged before the end of 2015.
I was lucky enough to spend two days with Josh, culminating in their record release show, a shared bill with the wildly talented Bhi Bhiman (who McCockrain also plays drums for), who also just released his excellent sophomore full-length Rhythm and Reason. As it says on the band’s website, the two met at a salsa dance party last year. They started by jamming and covering tracks by artists like The Gories and The Velvet Underground. Another artist which the duo initially covered while still working on original material is Jimi Hendrix, whose influence is heavily apparent on Nobody Special.
The manic energy of their live shows also brings back memories of other bass-less, thrashy more modern garage acts like The White Stripe and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but the clarity and precision of Boronkay’s voice is never lost amongst the thunderous noise. Standing in the crowd of their sold-out record release show, a girl yells into her boyfriend’s ear over the noise, “This guy can REALLY sing!”. Anyone who knows Josh in person would never be surprised by this, but to the band, the element of surprise is key, and they wield it like a weapon.
To compensate for the lack of bass player, Josh uses an Electro-Harmonix Polyphonic Octave Generator (or POG), a pedal popularized by Jack White, which can create additional octaves on the guitar and generate a convincing artificial bass sound. He then runs it through a channel splitter, which allows him to plug the guitar into both a bass amp and a guitar amp at the same time, making it sound like there are two separate instruments.
It’s amazing that more players haven’t used this approach before, since it’s an absolutely genius way of filling in the low-frequency range. In fact, not even Jack White ever used both the guitar and bass ranges of the POG at once, and the lack of bass was always noticeable during White Stripes gigs. “I’m definitely a gadget nerd, even though my setup is really minimal. For this kind of music, it’s always been about trying to get the most out of a small set of sounds”, Josh says when talking about his effects pedal setup. “I like to just invest in one really nice pedal at a time, and spend lots of time figuring out all I can possibly do with it”.
Boronkay’s musical history is vast and diverse, with almost twenty years of experience. After spending time at Humboldt State University in Northern California, where he studied double bass, sang in a jazz choir and played upright bass with local band The Bucky Walters who established a decent reputation in the area before their guitar player was killed in a tragic car accident. “It still sits with me pretty heavy”, Josh says before pausing for a moment.
“What’s cool though, is we used to tour around the west coast in my pickup truck, which I clean maybe once a year, at most. And I found this old slide that Brian (the guitarist) used to play with. It’s just a normal black Dunlop slide, but to me it has magical powers”. Slide playing is something Josh has only been messing with recently, but he’s already putting it to great effect on tracks like “Devil’s Breath”, which sounds like the Black Keys if they had found a better drummer and never sold their soul to Danger Mouse.
Nowadays, Josh spends the majority of his time teaching music to kids in the Bay Area, where he works at up to ten different schools at any given time during the year. Every summer for almost ten years now, he has also been volunteering his time with Living Jazz, a non-profit organization based out of Oakland. In addition to various concerts and talent competitions they put on each year in the Bay Area, they put on two annual summer music camps. There’s Jam Camp West, a kids music camp at which Josh is a teacher, and then there is the flagship, Jazz Camp West, a world-renowned all-ages camp that features an all-star-faculty, where he serves as a member of the equipment crew.
This year the artist in residence at Jazz Camp West was legendary drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who has played with the likes of Yusef Lateef, Dexter Gordon, Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock, and others. Even though these camps are primarily jazz-centric, there was one experience at Jam Camp West a couple years ago that Josh describes as “the most rock and roll thing that’s ever happened to me”.
During a performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the amp that his guitar was plugged into suffered some kind of malfunction and literally burst into flames. “I was playing and all the sudden these kids jaws start dropping and they’re just staring at the amp. I turn to it and it’s literally on fire… But I finished the song, and they lost their shit. And THEN we put it out. It was fucking beautiful, man“.
Late at night on the last day at Jazz Camp West 2015, I watch Josh play on the double bass (something he only does sparingly these days) by candlelight, in front of a sizable crowd of both campers and faculty. Amongst a series of goofy, vulgar campfire songs and a rousing cover of The Zutons’ “Valerie” (which was immortalized by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s superior version), there is a true standout: “Shoes”, a mid-tempo funky piece with clever lyrics using shoe-shopping as a metaphor for relationship troubles.
Even though most of the audience has never heard the song before, almost all of them begin to sing along by the second chorus: “I’ve been lookin for a new kind of shoe / I been thinking about me and you“. The next night, running on less than five hours of sleep, Josh plays the song again, but the difference in the two versions is astounding. While the campfire version featured a large chorus of people singing along and various other guitarists and percussionists banging on anything they can get their hands on, Ol Silver Tongue’s version still feels infinitely more massive and energetic.
The melody and general structure of the song remain intact, but there is a distinct snarl in Josh’s voice that wasn’t present the night before, and Cairo’s thundering drums are positively volcanic. They also add in a sudden, uptempo instrumental breakdown in the middle of the song in which Josh headbands and whips his long hair around as if they were playing hair metal, before transitioning. By the end, in fact, towards the end of their set, a crowd member yells “Sing more songs about shoes!” and the rest of the crowd, including Sam Code, Josh’s personal friend and original author of the song, shout in agreement.
As Josh adjusts something on his guitar, Cairo begins telling bad jokes. Someone in the crowd boos, and he grins and tells another. Cairo is no doubt just as serious a musician as Josh, but the way he spends his time outside of the band is wildly different. He works for local pop-up Two Mamacitas Kitchen, which is known for “popping up” at various art and music events. Ol Silver Tounge played for their opening night, and helped draw in a sizable crowd.
“It was founded and funded by my girlfriend Perla Yasmeen Melendez in 2014. She brought me on as sioux chef”. The kitchen and the band both represent different aspects of the DIY creative scene in the Bay Area, of which Cairo has always felt passionate about. Growing up in Oakland, he recalls the unorthodox methods his first drum teacher used to instruct him.
“He told me to meet him at the neighborhood mailbox with a dollar bill every Saturday morning for a spell and he would teach me percussive patterns on the big blue box. I’d wander down to that box throughout the week to practice to be sure I was sharp for my Saturday lessons. One Saturday my teacher didn’t show up and I never saw him again.” But it didn’t discourage him from playing, as he is tapping on tables backstage pretty much every second there are drumsticks in his hand.
The release show goes incredibly well, as the duo plays every song off the new ep, and even preview a couple off their next one, all to great response from the crowd (which is especially noteworthy considering the fact that the acts playing before and after them are considerably more down-tempo and less aggressive). Although the EP was recorded in a professional studio and mastered professionally, the production was handled by the band itself.
“I don’t even know what a producer would do on this EP”, Cairo says laughing. “We wanted it to sound dirty”, says Josh. “Like really dirty. I was running this old Les Paul Univox into three different amps at the same time. The two that belonged to the studio were probably from the late ‘50s, same with the guitar”.
Unlike many other hipster-baiting garage rock acts these days, there is something remarkably unpretentious about the way that Ol Silver Tongue incorporate older sounds and technology into their music and live performances. Both band members refuse to pick a side when it comes to digital vs. analog, acknowledging that they both have their pros and cons. But what is so special about them is that even though they use modern technology, is that they don’t need to.
These guys have so much energy and hidden within them that they could probably play a show with zero electricity at all and still find a way to get a mosh pit going. Josh acknowledges that it would be fun to try and do some acoustic stuff with the band, but for now he’s focused purely on rocking as hard as possible at all times. “Who knows”, he says mischievously, “maybe one day we’ll have actual pyrotechnics on stage. Intentional pyrotechnics“.
Words by Nicholas Hart