Thomas Oliver – For the love of the lap

Thomas Oliver playing his slide guitar.

Thomas Oliver, front man of his popular eponymous bluesy rock band has been spending a lot of lap time with his slide guitar – a reproduction of an obscure 1920s-era instrument built in Los Angeles by Hermann Weissenborn. Oliver tells Amanda Witherell about his upcoming all-Weissenborn album and how he helped put a Weissenborn copy on Ben Harper’s lap. 
HARPER was the impetus for Oliver’s fascination with the lap slide guitar – a “what the hell is that thing he’s playing?” moment when he was about 17 years old, 10 years after he began messing around with the guitar. Oliver’s father, also a musician and acoustic guitar fan, introduced his son to Waikanae-based Tony Francis, who builds reproductions of Weissenborns.

“I checked out his workshop and we’ve become really good friends,” says the now 26 year old.

In love with the instrument and eager to share its wealth, a couple of weeks ago when Ben Harper was in town, Oliver went knocking on the doors of the Michael Fowler Centre, bearing a Weissenborn for him.

“I had to try and find someone. I tried all the doors on the day of the concert and spoke to a security guard who passed on a message to someone who said she would call me back. She worked out that she’d deliver the guitar to Ben so I dropped it off at 7:30 and she said I gotta get your number in case he doesn’t like it, to give it back.”

Francis was also at the show, though in a different seat, and the two texted back and forth, wondering if that was his Weissenborn they were seeing on stage among Harper’s 14 other guitars.

It was.

“On the second encore he said, ‘This turned up in the dressing room today.’” He told the audience he gets 40 guitars given to him every year, but this was one of the finest he’d ever seen, praising Francis before proceeding to play it.

Oliver and Francis ended up backstage, chatting with Harper, “mostly him buzzing out about this guitar made by this 26 year old kid he’d never heard of,” says Oliver. “In terms of connecting with people that takes it. I’m not a very good fanboy, but I’m happy to be the messenger.”

Weissenborn music is apparently catching – a YouTube video Oliver recorded of himself playing his song The Moment got more than 56,000 hits, plus 250 emails, making him think he might be on to something.

“The amount that people love this instrument compared to the amount that people play it doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “People don’t really know what it is or why they dig it.”

Fretless, with strings set high off the neck and played with a steel bar, Oliver says this creates some limits for the player.

“Logistically, you can’t just make it happen like a guitar, you have to work around it. One of the bigger skills of playing the instrument is thinking about how to outsmart its restrictions.”

This March, Oliver will release his own album – and the first-ever all Weissenborn, according to his research – called Weissenborn Instrumentals.

Fear not – he hasn’t dropped the other four members of his band. It’s been nine months since they played a gig in their hometown and over a year since the release of their album, Baby, I’ll Play, but in that time it was an Album of the Week selection by Australian Broadcasting Corporation and also got iTunes recognition as the Best New Zealand Blues and Roots album of 2011. Another album is in the hopper and they’ll be touring over the holidays with Jimmy Barnes and Gin Wigmore and looking to get back over to Australia after that.

“Our goal over the summer is to smash out heaps of new tunes and get into the studio as soon as we can,” says Oliver, explaining that their last album trickled together, with songs recorded here and there as they scraped up the cash. This time they’ve saved for it with the intention of getting this one – a bit rootsier and darker, he says – completed by winter 2013.

In the meantime, catch them this weekend and be prepared for some Weissenborn alongside new material.

“We’ve got lots of goodies we’ve been working on. It’s time to give the fans another fix because it’s been awhile.”

Originally published November 21, 2012 in Capital Times. 

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