Continuing our build-up to Best Kept Secret Festival we spoke with Utrecht-based musician Thijs Kuijken, who plays under the moniker of I Am Oak. Following on from his debut album in 2010, he has released almost an album a year ever since, along with numerous singles, EPs, and a split mini-album with The Black Atlantic. In 2011, I Am Oak won the prestigious 3VOOR12 Best Album Award for Oasem.
2012 was a busy year; after playing at South by Southwest in Austin, I Am Oak performed three shows at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton and were selected as Band of the Day. That year also saw the release of Nowhere Or Tammensaari. It was the band's first album to be released in the UK and Ireland, via Heist or Hit Records. I am Oak’s latest album, Our Blood, was released in February and can be streamed/ downloaded here.
MG: Your new album has come out. How was the recording process?
TK: I started a couple years ago recording demo versions of new songs on the acoustic guitar and synth. I intended to flesh them out a bit over time and then bring them in to rehearsal with the band so we could make them into finished songs together. Over time however, I was putting more and more time and effort into these demos and actually lifting them up to their final versions by myself. This happened quite gradually. A lot of the album’s content ended up revolving around the passing of my father and it felt only natural to fully dive into this one by myself, because it was such a personal journey, so I ended up doing all of it. I worked at home and took all the free time I had for it, to work on it. Slowly arranging everything to where I wanted it to be. We then later, as a band, found a way to translate these recordings to suitable live versions. Having the songs remain pliable and organic that way and letting them change a little bit over time is an important aspect of making music, I think.
MG: Comparisons have been drawn between you and Jose Gonzalez as well as Sufjan Stevens. Are you happy with those?
TK: I’d like to think that I Am Oak has something to offer in its own right. I don’t mind these particular comparisons that much though. I guess people need a frame of reference when they are introduced to something they don’t know yet. I Am Oak evolved a little bit over the years and I don’t know how accurate these references still are, but there might still be some resonance with those acts in its essence.
MG: You played Best Kept Secret in 2014. That must have been a great way to start the day in that beautiful setting. Will you have a similar slot this time round?
TK: Yes, it was! We played pretty early in the day, I guess we were the opener for the day. We were a bit worried that no one would be awake and up for it yet, haha, but it turned out to be an amazing show with a packed tent! I think this time around we’re playing a bit later in the day, hope that works out well too!
MG: You sound like you could be an Irish band. You're not well known here yet but I think you could do well here. Will you be doing some Irish shows in the future?
TK: Haha, an Irish band? I’ve never thought of I Am Oak sounding Irish, I don’t know what that means, but I’m guessing it’s a good thing! We’ve never played in Ireland before and we don’t have anything planned there yet, but it would be lovely to play some shows there in the future, it’s a beautiful country!
MG: You played The Great Escape in Brighton in 2012 and were selected as Band of the Day. How did that come about?
TK: Cool! I don’t remember that actually! So, I have no idea how that came about, someone in the organization must have liked us! The Great Escape is a great festival. There’s one particular show that sticks out and which is still a fond memory. It was our show at the Unitarian Church, where both the sound and location were amazing. It’s really nice that they provide this kind of platform for unknown bands to have a chance to be seen by lots of people interested in music.
MG: You're a prolific writer. You've done five albums since 2010 and some other projects too. Are you constantly writing? And can you keep up that pace?
TK: The reason I’ve made so many albums and EP’s over the years is that I simply love doing it. I love playing live too, but the best thing about making music might just be creating stuff, I think. It’s such a wonderful thing to create something that wasn’t there before. That gives me so much pleasure.
The writing usually comes in waves, sometimes I’m coming up with new ideas every day and sometimes there’s a period of time in which I’m barely able to write anything. I’ve been very busy with releases and playing a lot of shows the last couple months, so I haven’t had much time to really sit down to gather ideas and write songs, which sucks, because I miss it. Maybe I need to start planning in writing days or something, which is something I’ve never had to do in the past.
MG: Who has been the biggest influence on you musically?
TK: That’s always a difficult question, because there are a lot of different bands in all sorts of different genres that I’ve enjoyed over the years that have left a mark on me in a certain way.
I’m always dropping the same names when I’m interviewed about this, but I always forget to mention Songs: Ohia / Magnolia Electric Co. I was listening to a Magnolia Electric Co. record the other day and I was thinking about how deeply that music resonates with me and how much of it has seeped into my music. Sometimes you don’t realize how important some bands have been to you until you listen to them again after not having listened to them for a while.
MG: Is music a full time occupation for you? Or is that the long term plan?
TK: Yes, it is a full time thing for me, and has been for a while now. I’m busy with I Am Oak and other music projects every day. I’m very grateful that it’s possible for me to do this full time right now and I hope to be able to do this for many, many years to come.
MG: A lot of your songs are short, under three minutes. Is that something you aim for?
TK: It’s something that just happens. I guess I try to make everything as to-the-point as possible. I tend to let the songs be as long (or short) as they need to be and cut away everything that seems unnecessary to me. Sometimes the songs want to be a little bit longer. On the latest album, Our Blood, there are a few songs that are longer than on most I Am Oak albums before that one. The track ‘Your Blood’ almost reaches the seven-minute mark. I was actually aiming for a long song with that one. I don’t know if this is a trend that’s developing in my songwriting, but I’m definitely open for longer songs. We play a live version of the song ‘Palpable’ that evolved into a 10-minute song over time.