Interview: John O'Hallaron of Chalk Dinosaur

John O'Hallaron is Chalk Dinosaur. But on his upcoming album, Chalk Dinosaur and Friends, he's anything but alone. O'Hallaron rallied musicians from the Pittsburgh scene to contribute their unique perspectives to his latest project. What resulted was unexpected, exciting and a testament to the positive power of collaboration.

We talked to John about how he was able to wrangle so many musical talents from around the 'Burgh, the process of working with people he barely knew and the importance of bringing people together for the sake of art. 

Found Sound: How did you get the idea to bring everyone together for a record like this?

John O'Hallaron: I got the idea after playing this event over the summer called FarmJammaLamma, which was this small camping festival. It was pretty much all Pittsburgh bands and I saw a lot of great players and bands that I didn't know about before. So, all the players that really I admired and inspired me I tried to get in touch with to see if they would want to capture that feeling from the weekend and collaborate on some music. 

FS: You were successful in nailing down the people you wanted to work with?

JO: Yeah! Everybody I contacted, most of them I hadn't even met yet in person. I'd only seen them play. Everybody agreed without hesitation and were into the idea. The only one I couldn't get was a saxophone player from that weekend. She was interested, but she's been traveling the globe. I was hoping to get her on the album, but she seems to be very, very busy.

FS: What do you think other musicians find so excited about a collaborative project like this. 'Cause it's a lot to take on.

JO: Yeah. I think it's most exciting just to kind of see what the blending of your influences and styles, what that produces. 'Cause it's almost always something completely different than anything either individual would make on their own. 

FS: It was really interesting listening to Dhruvasaur, 'cause I can definitely hear Dhruva in it, but it sounds like one of your songs, too. It was a really good blend.

JO: Thank you! That was really cool, 'cause I didn't know that he played, you know, everything. I just knew he was a drummer. And then he came over and we just wrote the whole thing from scratch. That one was a fully collaborative co-write. That was really cool. He's playing the drums and he plays some guitar. We made the structure and the chord progressions and everything together. 

FS: Do you find any challenge in doing that?

JO: Yeah. It's definitely different for every different song. This one came together pretty fast, at least the bones of it. It doesn't always work out, but for all of the sessions I had for this album worked out great. They weren't all from the ground up. Some of them were more kind of featuring the player and they would have a couple of solos or stuff like that. But for three of the tracks, they were written, you know, we started with nothing and then made the whole thing.

FS: Who and what is on the album?

JO: There's eight tracks. A couple of them are more electronic-based. Then there's some that are more traditional band instrumentation. There's Lucas Bowman. He was the first guy I got together with and he's the keyboard player for the Commonheart, which is a band from Pittsburgh that I really like. Then I got together with Dhruva. Then the third person I got together with the Michael Berger who's the bass player for a band called the Clock Reads. And then I made two tracks with a drummer, whose name is Julz Powell. He plays in a few bands. Then there was one song with this guitar player named Jason Caliguri and he played in a band called Jimbo and the Soup Bones. It's kind of like a soul rock band. And then there's two tracks with this guy I met whose name is Jeremy Colbert and he plays this instrument called a TerraPan, which is kind of like an inside out steel drum that you play with your hands. It's really interesting. There's two tracks with him.

FS: Do you think there's anything unique about the Pittsburgh music community that made this project possible?

JO: Everybody that I got in touch with without hesitation agreed to get together and make something without any monetary incentive to do it. They're just into the idea and, I mean, that's pretty big. I'm not sure how that would be in other cities, but I think the Pittsburgh music scene, at least within the kind of world that I'm in, it seems like it's pretty small and a lot of people know and support each other a lot. It's really cool and all that came to light over the past year for me, being able to see that.

FS: Has anything happened over the last year that sparked that? Anything special?

JO: About that time, maybe a little before, is when I started to play shows again. I played a lot of shows, like, five years ago and then I stopped for a while and just started again recently with kind of a new approach. So, it's all pretty new to me. A lot of these people have been doing it for a long time, but I'm just coming to realize this now. And definitely the Farm Jam experience was a really good gathering of a lot of these active and talented musicians. I feel like the scene around the Rex Theater and the shows and the people involved with that are really doing a good job cultivating a good music community. 

FS: Do you think that this kind of collaborative, community art is important?

JO: Yeah, I think it's important. I think it's sometimes just hard to be in that circumstance where you can be creating with like-minded people. But it definitely makes for more unique and more interesting music. Plus, I think it's definitely important when artists work together and help raise each other up and inspire each other and grow the scene. 

FS: Is there anything in particular you want listeners to get from this project?

JO: I want people to get good feelings from this music. I hope this album will help shed some light on the talent that exists here in Pittsburgh. I just want people to enjoy it. 


John, via email, added, "I'm grateful for the cooperation and enthusiasm I received from all the artists involved with this album. I'd like to thank them for their time, effort, and willingness to contribute a piece of themselves to this project. I encourage any listeners to check out the players on this album and the music they make."

Chalk Dinosaur and Friends will be released on Jan. 25. Check back for a review of the full album and be sure to see John in action at the Rex Theater on Jan. 26.