"We don't really count the number of people here," says Ulm by phone from his house. He's getting ready to host the rest of his band, bassist Dustin Daniels and drummer Michael Finn, together known as Old Age. The group is very much the product of its Pacific Northwest environment, incorporating bits of Built to Spill and Stephen Malkmus into a seething, explorative brand of folk rock.
Daniels and Ulm go back 12 years. The two live four miles apart—next-door neighbors by rural standards. Finn joined the band later, after 2012's quiet but gripping Ancestors, recorded entirely in Alsea. Ulm has guitars and plenty of old tape and recording gear strewn about his place, but he likes to think of Old Age as a Portland band. Many of the ideas start in this sleepy midvalley dot on the map, and then become fully realized in Portland.
Old Age will release its first full-length, Wildlife, this month, in the wake of four EPs dating back to 2011. The most recent of those, the five-track Rain Won't Ever Come, speaks to Old Age's heftier present incarnation. Finn's drumming is pronounced, and the trio as a whole sounds like a Beatles-adoring roots-rock act with a chip on its shoulder. The title track, featuring Ulm's gritty belting, his bandmates' tender vocal harmonies and a colossal classic-rock breakdown, would make Dr. Dog envious. Even Old Age's quieter stuff, of which there is plenty, sounds on the verge of falling apart. It's like the brilliant teetering barfly, loose and spilling wisdom after a handful of drinks, always one scotch away from breaking down.
Part folksy domesticated animal and part whiskey-fueled '70s-styled rock beast, Old Age is the volatile reckoning of two conflicting mindsets—which makes sense, considering the placid surroundings where Ulm writes the songs alone, and the raging jam sessions that follow to flesh things out.
"I like to do about 10 shows a year solo, just to get it out of my system," Ulm says. "But that's about long enough for me to start missing the band."
Indeed, as a trio, Old Age is at its strongest, playing well to its frontman's vocal energy. The band has played its share of shows in Portland, trekking into town at least three times a week. Sometimes, though, Ulm prefers staying at home: Most summers, his house in Alsea plays host to what he calls "The Thing," a gathering of friends and bands that play into the wee hours.
"We usually play," says Ulm, chuckling. "Unless things get a little too wild."
SEE IT: Old Age plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Paulo Zappoli & the Break and Nick Delffs, on Thursday, Feb. 20. 9 pm. $5. 21+.