For Nana Grizol bandleader and songwriter Theo Hilton, songwriting is an introspective self-help mechanism. “It’s like I’m writing something on my hand reminding me not to get too worked up,” he says. At the same time, Hilton and his friends in Athens, Ga.—who run Orange Twin Records from a self-sustaineding nature conservation community where they grow their own food—are helping others too, redefining what it means to make far-reaching statements about local consumption of both art and food.
Nana Grizol’s second album, Ruth (released on Orange Twin in December) combines Hilton’s rough-edged folk background (he also plays in the acoustic-punk band Defiance, Ohio) with a pristine horn section that once belonged to Neutral Milk Hotel, plus friends from Elf Power and the Music Tapes, making for a record of soft, catchy melodies ready for sing-a-longs amongst small groups of friends in intimate settings. Paste recently spoke with Hilton about living in Athens, making music with friends and working on the Orange Twin homestead.
Paste: How would you describe Nana Grizol to someone who has never heard your music? Specifically, how would you describe the new album?
Theo Hilton: Nana Grizol is a band of six people who all have been playing music together for a long time. I would say our new record is largely about the way things change in your lifetime, and things and people you miss. It’s sentimental.
Paste: How does the record sound?
Hilton: It sounds close to our live show. The line up is like a rock band. Most of the songs have two drummers, guitar, bass, keyboard, horns. It goes from being spare and only guitar for a while, to fully orchestrated. In comparison to last record, it’s a lot more polar—where I feel the last record was a consistent feeling, the new one has highs and lows, thematically and musically.
Paste: What were some of your major influences while writing this record—musically or otherwise?
Hilton: Musically, I always think of The Kinks and Otis Redding. I have also been listening to old Motown-y stuff. And I would say friends. We’re really fortunate to know a lot of people who are making great music and art. In Athens we have so many friends who are in great bands who we’ve gone on tour with and played shows with. It’s awesome when you see really awesome art and you know what influenced it. That influences me to want to make more.
Paste: What is it like to live and play music in Athens? What makes it such a great place?
Hilton: Well, I definitely have a bias for Athens because I’ve lived here my entire life and my parents are here and I love them, so that helps. I feel there’s a really positive energy here—or, I mean, I think that energy can be anywhere if you’re looking for it—but there is also this sense of community that I feel, and this sense of people being really relaxed. I feel like here I perceive other people as being a lot more open to letting their guard down and being able to be really open up and interact.
Paste: A friend of mine once described your music to me as like “finding a diary you never knew you wrote.” What are your goals in songwriting?
Hilton: For me, I tend to write songs almost like I’m writing a little piece of self-help literature for myself. It’s like I’m writing something on my hand reminding me not to get too worked up—“You gotta remember this Theo!” A lot of the new songs on the new record are direct like this, like I say, “Don’t do this! Don’t live this way!” Which could be perceived as me being preachy. But at the time when I’m writing, I’m always saying “Theo, you need to chill the fuck out,” or I’m thinking, “People should not be like this, but I recognize that I am, and I shouldn’t be.” I end up playing and liking songs the most when I can see how they could apply to someone else’s life. I also tend to write songs when I’m massively bummed, to make myself feel better, so I guess it’s that too.
Paste: Can you tell me about Orange Twin Records and how the record label and the conservation community are connected?
Hilton: The record label initially started because of the conservation community. That was a little over 10 years ago. The record label started 10 years ago as a website. It was a place where people who were involved could raise awareness of the project, and sell their artwork to help fund the project, and then it just progressed from that into a label that benefits the conservation community. We put money from the label into funding projects on the land.
Paste: What exactly is the conservation community? Who lives there?
Hilton: My friends Laura [Carter, of Neutral Milk Hotel, who leads Nana Grizol’s horn section] and Andrew [Rieger, of Elf Power] and I run the label and are part of the conservation community. The conservation community is a plot of 155 acres of land on the outskirts of Athens. One hundred of the acres will always remain largely untouched. On the other 55 acres, we have this one house that used to be in downtown Athens, but four years ago when the city threatened to destroy in because of new building projects, the Orange Twin community had it moved to the plot of land outside of Athens. That’s also where the record label office is. We have a bunch of chickens and bees. Our next new project is going to be building a barn—with goats, donkey, horses, and a really big garden. The farm vibe is kinda increasing all of the time, which is cool. It’s neat to see your self-sustainability increase.
Paste: What would you say the long term goals of the conservation community are? Do you think a lot more people will move onto the property?
Hilton: Somewhere down the road, everybody who is a member or shareholder intends to live out here in a community. People are interested in building little cabins and stuff on the two areas of the land at different village sites, but in order to do that we’d have to put in roads. I will be very expensive and it’s still a super long term thought. I think to me, the most important goals are keeping those 100 acres conserved and untouched. So much of our town is turning into a big business strip mall, so the fact that its protected is great. And also, to grow more food and just raise awareness about how much better food is when it comes from your immediate surroundings. It makes a humongous difference for the world at large.
Paste: How do you think these goals about farming and eating locally translate to the music and art being produced by the community? Are your reasons for eating locally and supporting music and art locally intertwined?
Hilton: Yeah, for sure. Food is so much better when it comes from your immediate surroundings. From a garden you have yourself, or from a local farmer. And then with music, even just in terms of what the songs are about, it’s cool when you have music that is local or regional, made by people who know about the same specific things you know bout or are into things that you’re experiencing, more than whatever mainstream big music does. And I guess also I think like anything—I don’t typically think very much or talk about where you’re putting your money-but we do live in a capitalist system, and individuals have a lot of power to help people who are immediately relevant by going to see shows, buying records from local musicians, just like how buying food from local farmers will help someone out who is more in tune to your needs than say, Kroger’s.