Preaching the Keller Gospel: An Interview with Dad Horse Ottn of The Dad Horse Experience
All Dad Horse Ottn wants to do is spread the word of spirituality to those who should hear it. He doesn’t want a major record deal or to the live the wild life of a rock star, just the humble life of a traveling musician. Performing with only a banjo (which he picked up at the age of 39) and foot-pedal synthesizer, Ottn has been touring the US and Europe extensively for the past five years, preaching what he calls the "Keller Gospel.” SLUG Magazine got the chance to talk with Ottn about the American Gospel music tradition, his most recent albums, spirituality in the U.S. and his experiences as a traveling musician.
SLUG: How did The Dad Horse Experience come to be? Were you involved in music prior the TDHE?
Ottn: I was not involved in music prior to The Dad Horse Experience. I began playing at the age of 39, a late bloomer musically, and I taught myself the banjo. I got with a few friends to play music together in Germany. After awhile I got annoyed by playing music with others, so I did it on my own as a solo project. After awhile I added the foot-pedal to my set up. People call it a one-man band, which is technically right. But no, there was no musical project before it.
SLUG: I heard your song “Kingdom It Will Come” on the compilation album, New Rides of The Furious Swampriders. How did you get involved with the Swamprider collective, and has it expanded your popularity as an artist?
Ottn: The Swamprider compilation is done by a guy Tom Redecker, who’s in some German band and they’ve been together for years. Anyways, because we’re from the same neighborhood, he wanted to bring bigger names with local bands for the compilation. He invited me to be there and even if I’m not attached to the local scene, I’m more of a traveling musician. I mean it brought me to this interview with you, so yes, it has increased my popularity.
SLUG: What is the "Keller Gospel?"
Ottn: Keller is the German word for “basement” or “cellar,” so it’s gospel music in a way. It’s easy to preach gospel in the church, where everybody has their torch burning, but the Keller Gospel is intended to be played in the darker places. I used to play in bars, which aren’t automatically attached to gospel music and I tried to put it in tunes and lyrics that would help people be interested in it.
SLUG: How has your tour of the US been going so far?
Ottn: Very well, very well. I play in the United State because of the appreciation for my kind of music, it’s very special here. In Europe, I can’t complain about having a following or appreciation, but I think the understanding is deeper here. What I’m doing with the gospel is a very specific attempt to do contemporary gospel music that is suitable for bars and everything. In Europe, they don’t get the clue always. It is because of language, also they don’t know about American gospel music and the people here naturally do. Its overwhelming for me as an artist who started so late, who is always dealing with feelings of doubt that this is really music and is it worth doing it. Coming to the United States, seeing people really understand what I want to do and love it—that is a value in itself.
SLUG: What drew you to American gospel music? Why not play folk versions of traditional German gospel songs?
Ottn: We don’t really have German gospel songs in a way. There’s church music and it’s not folk music—it was written by theologians. The public religion is much more different in Europe, especially Germany, where in the United States you have a lot of little churches and denominations. You go to the Appalachians and you find a lot of family churches, who have their own thing that is far away from everything, theologically, from what German theologists would say or think. Its very wild and anarchic in a way—maybe it’s not religion in a way that is a system of teaching spirituality. For me, religion is more of the problem than the solution. It’s all about spirituality and how people have the courage to connect themselves with what they consider to be a higher power or their God. This is more natural here, whereas in Germany, you are either with the Church or you’re against the Church. A lot of people in Europe are against religion and spirituality because they don’t like church. They throw out the baby with the bathwater. They deny the Church and at the same time deny spirituality, which is a pity.
SLUG: Your music has a dark and confessional quality to it that anyone can resonate with. Does your audience reach outside the Christian community when you tour?
Ottn: That’s a good question. I had this experience when I was playing in Circleville, Ohio—I was doing the sound check and there was this lady my age sitting at the bar and she said “Hey! What are you doing?” I said “I’m [playing] a mixture of country, gospel and punk music,” and she said, “You play gospel in the bar? My mother sang gospel in the choir and she would have never sang in a bar.” Once again, it’s a pity because that is where the Gospel should be heard. It’s not about religion, my songs they have Jesus inside, but that isn’t so much by choice. I grew up in the Christian culture where Jesus is a strong figure, more on an archetype for me, a dogma. I write these songs and pull from the things that wrought inside my head and those things [like Jesus] are there. I had no reason to expel him from my songs and it makes sense because it means something to me. It’s an energy that I feel, that I can relate to. All my songs are gospel, but they’re not missionary gospel preaching, more a surrealist shamanistic thing. I don’t know, sometimes they’re a riddle from myself that I have to solve during my life. So it is a surprise that Jesus is part of my songs, but I accept it. In Germany, people say, “Ugh, Jesus. Ugh, it’s Christian,” and if it’s Christian, it must be church, it must be bad. Here, people are much more relaxed about that and with exception of the lady from the bar, I haven’t experienced people who feel it is too Christian for them. What matters here is that you have spirituality and you practice it, usually by praying. I mean, in the South you heare people say, “God bless you,” and in Germany people will bite off their tongue before they say something like that.
SLUG: Any plans to follow up Dead Dog On The Highway?
Ottn: At the moment I feel that I have delivered. As a newcomer, I have made three albums since 2008. [In contrast with] Dead Dog on the High and the Melbourne album, there are tracks I felt I could do better live attached with banter because that is an essential part of my live show. I tell a lot stories in between the songs—the tie between the spoken word and music are at a ratio of 1:2 or 2:3. So, I am in no rush to make another album, but I’ll make one here sooner or later.
SLUG: I’ve heard people call your music dark roots, doom country and neo-Appalachian folk. How do you describe your music?
Ottn: I would say country, gospel and punk with a strong desire to get in touch with the audience. So, are Mormons okay with music like the Keller Gospel?
SLUG: Oh yeah, Utahns and Mormons love anything with a banjo in it.
Ottn: That makes me happy. You know, I play the banjo for the only reason that when I tried to learn guitar and I couldn’t come along with six strings, no way. I ended up with a tenor banjo because it only has four strings and was much easier to grab a chord on it. That’s the only reason why I play the banjo, but now I’m “the guy who plays the banjo,” so it’s funny, it could open a door to Utah for me. With The Dad Horse Experience, I try to take advantage of my language abilities. I can’t really sing, so I try to make the songs very straightforward and it makes a great result. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for my music as I get to travel so much country and meet so many people. It’s a miracle to me that I sat down, wrote a few songs and suddenly people wanted to listen to it and say, “Yeah, that’s the shit.” To make my living out of it is a great gift from life and I’m glad that Utah is now a part of that gift.
While Ottn is not coming to Utah this time around, you can pick up his album on his website, Amazon and iTunes. Here’s the video for "Kingdom It Will Come":