Good Old War is fully aware their name may cause you to mistake them for a death metal band.
But over the last few years, the Philadelphia trio has gained acclaim and a devoted following with pretty, harmony-laced alt-folk more akin to Crosby, Still & Nash than Iron Maiden. “My Own Sinking Ship” — the sublime standout track from their breakout self-titled sophomore album — even sounds like a lost Top 10 single from 1972, when laid-back singer-songwriter pop still ruled radio.
Now, GOW — guitarists Keith Goodwin and Dan Schwartz and drummer Tim Arnold, all of whom share vocals — are promoting their third record, Come Back As Rain, bolstered by a clever single about arguing, “Calling Me Names.” And over the next few months, they’ll do what they’ve spent the last half-decade doing: courting new fans with their free-spirited live shows in cities across the U.S.
This weekend, though, they’ll be close to home — crossing the Delaware River to Camden for the XPonential Music Festival, the annual gathering of indie, folk, country and alt-rockers sponsored by influential Philly public radio station WXPN 88.5-FM. Also on the bill at the three-day fest: Dr. Dog, Dawes, Kaki King, The Avett Brothers, Dawes, Counting Crows, The Hold Steady, Wilco and more than a dozen others.
Culture Vultures’ Brent Johnson spoke with Arnold — Good Old War’s affable drummer — about the importance of XPN, the story behind their band name, and whom he’d book if his group could organize its own music festival.
Culture Vultures: We last interviewed you in 2009. How much has changed for you guys since then?
Tim Arnolds: [laughs] I guess a lot. It’s all been a nice change. Not a “Wow, this is crazy and things are totally different” change. We’ve gotten better as a band, writing and performing — the normal stuff that happens when you practice and do what you’re supposed to do in an artistic situation. We’ve evolved in a good way, a healthy way, a natural way.
CV: How nice is it to play a show so close to your hometown?
TA: It’s amazing actually. We love XPN. They’ve given us so much. They’re so nice to us. Anything we can do to repay them is awesome.
And playing your hometown is fun. We’re gone for so long, it’s nice to actually have a show where your friends and family can come.
CV: How important is a station like XPN, which plays independent music and caters to the kinds of artists who aren’t all over mainstream radio?
TA: For a band like us, you can’t really [overstate] how important it is. It’s helped us so much. We are so lucky. I feel like they help out a lot of bands from Philly — bands that are doing good stuff and might not have some huge monster label helping get them out there. They’re just good people and they have good taste and they know there are bands out there that are still good.
CV: You have an interesting meaning behind your band name — how it’s assembled out of pieces of all the members’ last names: Goodwin, Arnold and Schwartz. Many bands agonize over finding a name. How did you come up with this one?
TA: We didn’t have a name for a while. We even toured for a while without a name. We never really liked any of the names we chose. But Keith’s wife Jenny was driving back from South By Southwest, where she came to see us play. And she just took pieces of each of our names. For us, she pretty much figured it out. She called us up, and said, “What about Good Old War?” We were like, “I don’t know. What does that mean?” Then we sat with it for a while and thought, “Maybe that is pretty good.” It wasn’t that hard for us. Someone else came up with it.
CV: Do you ever get mistaken for a band that plays at Colonial festivals or Civil War re-enactments?
TA: [laughs] Maybe. I think most people think we’re some kind of heavy metal band. I kind of diffuse the situation by saying, “We’re not into war and this is how we got the name. Let me explain this to you before you walk away. “
CV: You said you spend a lot of time on the road. What do you listen to the most on the bus?
TA: It could be anything. I was just listing to Primus. We do long drives listening to podcasts and stuff. Any kind of music is possible in this group of people. I’m always looking for fresh stuff. Ted Hawkins, Clams Casino, instrumental mix tapes. It goes all over the place.
CV: Okay, so who would you have on the bill if you had your very own music festival?
TA: There’s a bunch of bands I’d have on the bill. Most are bands we already played with — we tend to make good friendships. Maps & Atlases, Philly boys Dr. Dog, Hezekiah Jones, Toy Soldiers, Chris Kasper, Hoots & Hellmouth, Family Of The Year, Yukon Blonde.
CV: Who are you looking forward to seeing at XPNonetial?
TA: I’ll probably be there all weekend. I’m looking forward to see the War On Drugs. And Dr. Dog because they’re amazing. We’re just going to hang out and see as many bands as possible.
CV: What do you like most about your latest record, Come Back As Rain?
TA: I like how it sounds really good. It has a package. It’s cohesive. It’s a good listen from cover to cover. I can’t pinpoint one thing. Obviously, the drumming is incredible. [laughs]
CV: What’s the song “Calling Me Names” about?
TA: That’s about people who get into an argument. It doesn’t work when it gets heated and things get out of control. It’s pointless. That just kind of gets the argument down to what you need to solve the problem. Pissing contests are never good.
CV: What’s next for you guys?
TA: A new record — we’ll probably start that maybe in the winter or early net year. More touring, more singing, more playing, more dancing. We’re just going to keep going.
CV: This is a strange time to try to make it as a musician. On one level, anyone can get their music online. On another level, there aren’t many record labels signing bands. Any advice for up-and-comers?
TA: I always say if you play shows, be really cool to other bands and plays shows outside of your town. Don’t saturate your city with shows. A lot of bands fall into that trap. Philly bands play a million Philly shows. It turns into, “I saw them last week. I won’t see them again now.” Talk to other bands and people who came to shows. Get your name out there. People will think it’s a special occasion when you come back to their town.
Use Twitter, use Facebook, use YouTube, use Tumblr. Keep working at it, keep doing it. We’re still learning how to do it. It’s not just social networking on the Internet. It’s social networking in real life. If you’re honest and true to your goal, I don’t see how it can fail.