Several years ago, local indie singer-songwriter Max Sollisch, who tours and records under the moniker Dolfish, toured with Southeast Engine, the indie folk band out of Athens, Ohio.
The two acts played living rooms, and, as the bands bonded, Southeast Engine singer-guitarist Adam Remnant talked about the inspiration for Canary
, the band's 2011 album about a family living in Appalachia in the 1930s during the Great Depression.
“He’s a bit of a historian and [Canary] was based around the house he lived in that had been built during the Great Depression out of cinder blocks by the family,” explains Sollisch one recent evening from the back porch of the Collinwood home he shares with his wife and two rambunctious dogs who prowl the yard like a couple of wound-up kids as we sit on his back porch. “The father and his two boys built the house during the winter. He imagined what the family was like. It’s an incredible record. It has the best line on any record. It’s on the culminating track. It goes, ‘What’s so goddamn great about the Great Depression?’”
Using that album as an inspiration, Sollisch wrote his own concept album, Foreclosure American Dreams
“The album is about my experience purchasing a foreclosure in the neighborhood and falling in love with all of its gritty, unassuming charm,” he says in the press release he sent out about its release. “The characters on the record all live within the community and are tied together by the dreams on which they've each defaulted.”
Currently available at New Noise Magazine
, which will host a full album stream of the record, the album’s melancholy first single, “A Girl Named Ted,” features intricate guitar work and Sollisch’s high-pitched vocals.
“I was reading a lot about transgender individuals and how their suicide rates and homicide rates are higher than any other group,” he says when asked about the song. “I knew a couple of people who identify as transgender, and I was listening to the song ‘Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash. I thought it would be interesting to write a reinterpretation. The Cash song was about how him having that name made him harder and tougher. It’s becoming a more prevalent thing in our culture now. It’s about a person who feels trapped in the wrong body.”
A native of Cleveland Heights (he played his first show at the Barking Spider when he was 15 years old), Sollisch formed his first band, Our Cat Philip, while he lived in Columbus.
“That band started when I was 18 and had just got to college,” he says. “It was an orchestral folk band.”
When the guys in the indie band Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin found Our Cat Phillip’s cover of their track “House Fire” in 2007, they posted it on their website and sought the group out for a nation-wide tour. While that tour didn’t materialize, Our Cat Philip did play a few dates with the group.
“They mentored us and gave us a taste of touring,” Sollisch says. “Plus, they were making 50 to 60 grand a year, and that made me realize that it could be a career. That’s when it dawned on me that there was something between starving artists and mainstream artists. They were on a Mastercard commercial and had a song on the OC soundtrack but couldn’t sell out the Grog Shop. And yet they had enough money to buy houses in their hometown. That was an eye opener.”
After Sollisch’s next band, Arlo & the Otter dissolved, he started Dolfish in 2010. He took a batch of songs he had written for that group and turned them into songs for a solo project.
“I didn’t want to record under my name because they try to make you play coffeeshops,” he says. “I wanted to fit in with rock clubs.”
He sent his first Dolfish album, Your Love is Bumming Me Out
, to Indiecater Records in Ireland.
“They loved it,” he says. “They put it out digitally and on cassette. That wound up getting lots of press because they sent it to various media outlets.”
Afternoon Records, a Warner Bros. subsidiary, then signed him to a deal for a full-length. They also reissued Your Love is Bumming Me Out
as a 7-inch. The full-length debut, 2012’s I'd Rather Disappear Than Stay the Same
, brought acclaim from SPIN, Timeout London, KEXP, and other national outlets. He recorded the album in Des Moines with a team of musicians he’d never met.
“I showed up there and knew the one guy who was producing the record but just recorded it with whatever friends he had in the studio,” he says. “It was really wild. I had the songs demoed. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had sent the songs to some of his friends and asked them to play on the recording sessions. I was happy with the end results, however. It only worked because the guys were so talented. I showed up on and on Day One, I ran them through the songs and then we did a rehearsal and we recorded everything live after that.”
He played close to 100 dates a year in 2012 and 2013.
“I went all over the U.S. and would circle around and hit the same cities after four months,” he explains.
While still living in Columbus but contemplating a move back home to Cleveland, he started writing the songs for Foreclosure American Dreams
“They followed a theme of moving back to Cleveland or featured characters that were outlier in Columbus but they would fit right in in Collinwood,” he says, “so I decided to write the rest of the record about people in Collinwood or businesses in Collinwood. I also imagine characters based on a palm reader on 185th and there are references to the bar, the Boardwalk.”
He recorded the disc at a home studio in Toledo run by Little Elephant, a collective of sorts that films videos and records out of a refurbished home. They’ve done video session with indie acts such as Pedro the Lion's David Bazan and Cursive.
“They do amazing live sessions,” says Sollisch. “They bought a foreclosure but for the sake of starting their own studio. It’s a legit studio but in their basement.”
Sollisch’s distinctive voice, which recalls the great indie troubadour Daniel Johnston, takes some getting used to.
“I’ve always sung like that,” he says when asked about his vocals. “My pitch isn’t very good when I sing low. It’s more natural for me to sing in a higher register. It’s not a falsetto. Every once in a while, I go into a falsetto, but I have better control in a high register and being in bands, it cuts through the mix really well.”
But the songs on Foreclosure American Dreams
, which often resemble short stories with their narrative structure, instantly endear themselves. And the references to specific places in Collinwood make it come off as something like the equivalent of Illinois
, indie rocker Sufjan Stevens’ terrific tribute to the state. The album’s already received its fair share of national attention, even if it’s a true DIY affair. Each vinyl copy of the album, which is currently for sale online
, will be hand-pressed and the first run will be limited to 100 copies.
“There are several national press pieces in the works,” he says when asked about the publicity campaign behind the album. “I’ve come to the point where I don’t want to tour the way I did. That’s why I self-released this record. I can do this on my own terms and I can do it based on what is justified. If you’re on a label, you have to tour a certain number of dates just to sell records. When it doesn’t do well, you’re playing to ten to 50 people and breaking even.”
While he says he's ultimately ambivalent about hitting the road like he has in the past, he's just as passionate as ever about connecting with fans.
“My aspirations are just that I hope it gets heard more than the last record," he says. "I want to pick and choose the shows I play. Instead of taking an offer to play a bar for $250 where 30 people will be listening and 70 will be talking, I can be like, ‘No. I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll play an art space down the street where everyone will be sitting in a circle listening.’”
Dolfish, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, Praxis Fiber Arts Studio, 15301 Waterloo Rd., 216-644-8661. Tickets: $5 to $10 suggested donation, praxisfiberworkshop.com.