Ah, the whiff of possibility.
For most, March’s annual South By Southwest Music Festival is a mid-Lent, nigh-St. Patrick’s Day orgy that descends upon Austin like a biblical plague. Shards of the remaining, traditional music industry gather there to wax nostalgic about olden times when they could max-out their corporate AMEX cards on gluttonous dinners and lure talent into over-priced hotel rooms with promises of weed, blow and/or getting signed. For many independent artists, attracted to the festival by lingering Horatio Alger-like stories of “making it” (whatever that means anymore), it’s an opportunity to spend hundreds of dollars learning the definitions of “vast” and “desolate” while traversing Texas’ landscape en route to play a little-heard, off-the-strip club to a crowd of three.
Mainstream acts have long-since dethroned true showcases by using the festival as an “underplay” opportunity at major venues each night, which are usually sold-out and off limits to the festival’s badge and wristband holders. In recent years, blogs hosting daytime parties have succeeded in maintaining the original spirit of SXSW by booking the latest up-and-coming acts, which of course has led to an increasing amount of corporations sponsoring afternoon events in an attempt to manufacture some sort of cultural legitimacy by overpaying bands to play for them instead. Texas’ capitol welcomes all of this each year with open arms; for every dream unrealized or disappointment that SXSW births, there’s a hotel owner, club operator or BBQ joint made the better for it.
And then there’s Tom Schraeder.
When the Chicago-based singer-songwriter was stranded in Austin after SXSW 2008, he made the best of it by recording an album and finding his way back to the Midwest several months later. That in and of itself is not unusual for the peripatetic and prolific Schraeder, who, as you’ll read below, is just as likely to write a song at a movie theatre, record it on a hovercraft and perform it later that same day in some far-flung corner of the country.
True to that nature, Schraeder is putting out not one, not two, but three albums this year — and it’s only March. For Schraeder then, who was scheduled to perform nearly a dozen times with his band at or around this year’s SXSW, the festival itself is not the potential career-making denouement many make it out to be, but rather just part of the process. Similarly, when he performed in 2007 at Lollapalooza, winning accolades from mainstream critics and rewards of cherry gig offerings, Schraeder promptly went the other direction and very nearly disappeared instead.
To say that all of this has raised Music Zeitgeist’s eyebrow with intrigue is a fair statement, which is why we set about picking Schraeder’s head late last year when he had a cassette-only(!) release party for the then-new When Death Found St. Thomas (Schraeder has since completed and readied for release another album, Dear Brooklyn, I’m Sorry…). Below then, nearly six months in the making, is an interview with one of the most compelling and consistently excellent independent artists around. Pigeonholed early on as sounding like Ryan Adams-meets-Gram Parsons-by-way-of-Wilco, a now-far-more developed Schraeder explains his aggressive output, releasing a cassette in the digital age, channeling a love song from a deceased relative, why he sold his TV and — not insignificantly, how and why he’ll send you his latest records for free.
MZ: How has SXSW been to you this year? You did a lot of “un-official” events…
TS: SXSW has been too kind to me this year. The band worked very hard and the numbers just kept growing. I’m very pleased with it.
Did you already purchase a ticket home so you don’t get stranded again and wind up with another record?
I don’t have a ticket yet and am looking into going to NY in a few hours.
Let’s talk about your cassette-only EP, When Death Found St. Thomas. It’s your third release in three years, which even by post-internet bedroom studio standards is still pretty brisk output. Your previous release occurred organically as the result of being stranded in Texas. What was the creative impetus behind writing this set of songs and what made you want to get them out so quickly?
I went through a break up, the death of my grandmother, and a very close uncle all within 5 weeks. After this my roommate (and drummer) and I sold [our] TV to replace it with a 1940’s upright piano. My marketing company gave me a Mac computer to use and I wrote/recorded 10 of the songs in three weeks. It’s a lofi record that focuses on the natural life sounds and surroundings more than the music itself. It was recorded/mixed by me on 9 planes, 2 CTA trains (blue line), 1 NJ train (Newark), 1 NYC Train (L), 5 CTA buses (Clark, Irving, Broadway, Chicago, Damen), 6 cities (Chicago, NYC, Nashville, Columbia, St.Louis, Austin), 6 states, 5 airports (LGA, ORD, AUS, STL, Newark), 3 bars (Highdive, Lillys, Blue Fugue), 1 basement, 1 beach (Lake Michigan), 1 Garage, 1 restaurant (Grand Lux Cafe), 7 apts (4 Chicago, 1 Austin, 2 Brooklyn), a Zoo (Lincoln Park Zoo), and not 1 studio…When Death Found St. Thomas is the first of the three records. I wanted to show all the sides of my work and [when] WDFST was completed I knew that it was the right record to start the three off.
You’ve characterized your first release as your college boozing record and your second as your Austin record, how would you best sum up When Death Found St. Thomas?
It’s the soundtrack to my life just as much as it is for my death.
What brought about the decision to issue the new EP on cassette instead of vinyl, cd or a digital format? Was it just conceptually appealing, in terms of the lo-fi aesthetic?
The record deserved something more personal from me rather than just burning the cd’s and calling it a day. So, I decided to record each tape and hand it out to my fans who wanted one. I had people from other countries asking me for one and it went over so well that I’m going to give one cassette away to the person who inspires me the most on the road in each city.
In an age where cds are ripped moments after purchase and vinyl ripping is becoming more prevalent, most people don’t own cassette players. To that end, blogs, which have supplanted traditional media in terms of providing vetted exposure for independent artists to mass audiences, rely so heavily on free downloads to generate traffic to their sites. Was there any thought on your end that you might minimize the impact of your new release by using cassette, in that it would be less attractive/more difficult for blogs to cover?
Well, I never intended on making money from the cassette release and was aware of it not being the most succesful financial decision but I felt I had to do it for all of the people who support my music. If it wasn’t for music this year, I really am not sure I would have made it through.
What was the inspiration behind the video for the cassette release party? How did you arrive at using Song #92 as the song you play in the video?http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw_mhJ5a04E
About a year ago, I did a video with the band Pool of Frogs for “Needle Will Bite” and loved working with them. They have made quite the name around Chicago and I decided to work with them again for “Letters to Douglaston (#92)” back in September for the video. I wanted a “ghostly” sounding song that would entice the listeners to have a second listen. The next video we are going to do is for my latest song I wrote yesterday, entitled “Don’t Wake My Woman.”
I’m curious about genesis of WDFST. Listening to it gives me the sense that you sat down at your newly acquired piano and most of these songs sort of sprang from your hands like Athena from the head of Zeus. It comes across as very informal and feels more like a document of that period of time than the result of a concerted studio effort. You’ve already said the goal was to sort of focus on the surroundings/context of the record versus the actual music, but I’m wondering whether or not you set out to make a record or did you sort of wake up one day and realize you had all these new songs as a result of traveling around and/or playing with your new toy, so to speak?
Actually, it’s a random story. I knew I wanted to record a lofi record and checked out numerous studios. One morning I woke up and wrote exactly word for word what my late grandpa told me in a dream and it was a love song to my grandma from him. Everytime I spoke to my gram for the last two years she would ask me to write a song for her before she passed away. So, when I wrote it I decided to fly out to Austin and record it with my friend Jesse Woods. We recorded in his garage for days and I came back home with three songs, “Pat Baby,” “Josie,” and an unreleased song titled “Once Lace Now Cotton.”
The response to the song was overwhelmingly positive and I didn’t know what to do. The day finally came when my gram was to hear it and she did. We sat, we drank, we cried, and we talked until about 2am. [Then] She went to bed and was rushed to the emergency room where she passed away. After her passing, I wasn’t sure what to do with any of those songs. I was torn between taking those songs and building a record from them or just giving up on them completely. After the break up and recieving the computer, I knew I was meant to continue with recording. The passings of my Uncle Gush and Grandma caused me to question my legacy and what I had accomplished. After questioning, I realized I wasn’t content with what I had released before that and wanted to leave something behind for when I pass. With no prior experience to the piano it came very easily to me and I then knew that I was meant to make this record.
Many of the songs on WDFST come across as these lovely little sketches that were captured in the moment. Will any of the songs from this release see life on a future record in a more realized or polished version? Or is this the definitive statement for these songs?
[A] few of the songs will be re-recorded but most of them won’t be. I have too many songs in the back burner to keep releasing the same material. However, some of the songs deserve a new arrangement.
It seemed like 2008 was a year of considerable upward momentum for you; on the heels of playing Lollapalooza in 2007, you released Lying Through Dinner, landed a coveted residency at Schuba’s, were profiled by Jim DeRogatis and were tapped by a number of other outlets as an emerging artist of note, including The Onion’s A.V. Club, Chicago Magazine and more. Yet you’ve commented that your sudden arrival was a bit much and that you wanted to scale back from playing large headlining shows and so forth. Whereas most artists would kill for that kind of attention and opportunity, you indicated you were in this for the long haul by going the opposite direction. A year and a half later, where do you find yourself in relation to that path?
The reviews were very kind and much appreciated but I wasn’t ready as an artist for that amount of attention yet. It got to the point where I just continued to turn down interviews because I was so insecure with the direction I was headed in. Finally, I’m ready as a human, musician, and songwriter to do this and that is why I’m releasing three records in 2010.
With things like the cassette release, the Backyard BBQ videos [three videos of Schraeder playing at a casual get-together can be seen at vimeo.com, the first is viewable below] and playing an art gallery with the likes of [female dj duo] Rocktapussy, it’s almost as if you’re making it difficult for casual fans to stay engaged with you, but at the same time, you’re definitely communicating with true devotees via these decidedly non-mainstream avenues. Was that the intention – to sort of weed out people who might have been subscribing to whatever hype put you on their radar, in order to establish a truer fanbase that will be around as long as you are?
Sometimes, I just feel like creating my own enviroment to play where I’m most comfortable. Will it hurt my career? Perhaps, but it keeps me going.
How comfortable are you continuing forward as an independent artist along your current arc? At some point in the last two years, there must have been some interest from major labels or at least bigger indies…[note: part of the delay in publishing this interview was due to several tentative deals and release dates for Schraeder’s music in the last several months.]
We had quite a bit of interest but nothing ever seemed to offer something that we couldn’t do on our own. I’m very confident in the people who have been kind enough to work with me.
An early point of differentiation for you artistically was that you were playing with a huge and somewhat unorthodox backing band, including, but not limited to, a saw player, accordion, horns, etc. Revisiting the topic of scaling things back, do you now have a preference of performing solo on guitar or piano, or would you rather play with His Ego [Schraeder’s band] at all times, if it were logistically possible?
Every record I’d like to change things up and keep people interested. Where is the fun in recreating the same art? The best artists never cared about fucking up but more importantly cared about keeping people interested. The three records that I’m working on are entirely different than eachother. The first is a lofi full-length record, the second is a full band (along with a string and horn section, melatrons, saws, etc.) full-length record, and the third is an organically arranged and performed electronic record. I’m going to give the records [When Death Found St.Thomas, Dear Brooklyn, I’m Sorry... and bad things aren’t neccessarily not beautiful] away for free to anyone who emails me, and we are [officially] releasing one of the records on June 4th.
What’s behind the decision to give away your records to anyone who emails you?
These records are very personal and I feel wrong for charging people for the. Instead, I’m going to choose my favorites and release a vinyl with those tracks in June.
Is there a stepping-off point in the future where Tom Schraeder, as a musician, would like to delve outside the singer/songwriter milieu into collaborations or experiments in other genres?
I’ll always be open to trying different genres…I would like to start working more as a producer and a songwriter for other artists at some point and will always find interest in other genres.
Let’s talk influences: interviewers are as loathe to ask about musical influences as artists are to discuss them, so here at Music Zeitgeist, we instead prefer to ask about other influences. Whiskey seems like the obvious answer, but is there a preferred beverage, chemical compound or herbal substance that simply puts you in the right frame of mind to channel your muse? Anything particular to this collection of songs? Certainly, as a singer/songwriter, there’s an innate and substantive autobiographical component to your material. It must be somewhat difficult to tap into that spirit if your setting or mindset isn’t right…
Recent additions to my addictive personality in order are; Dark Haired/Blue Eyes Women, Black Jeans, Honey, Shark YouTube Videos, Photography, Doo Wop, Chocolate, and these musicians; Jesse Woods, Dana Falconberry, Pretty Good Dance Moves, Caravan, and The Flaming Groovies.
Following up on that, something like “The Whiskey Song,” no matter how personal it is, makes perfect sense as a sing-a-long romp, but “When You Were Young” seems like a very pointed message to a specific individual (particularly with a cryptic lyric like “all you wore was black ‘til zero found green”), which creates the risk of making the song less accessible. How do you determine within the framework of a song where to draw the line at making it too intimate vs. allowing it to have more universal appeal?
“When You Were Young” was written as the soundtrack to my ex girlfriend’s childhood home video. It’s a thank you to her and everything she ever did for me. Will she still enjoy the song? I’m not sure, but I enjoy playing it. I enjoy writing for others just as much as I enjoy writing for me. I just allow the songs to go in the direction they are supposed to. I can’t really describe where they come from.
Your music has been described as being the progeny of someone who possesses an old soul, yet you’re a pretty young guy. Do those kinds of critical statements, even as a positive, create an anxiety in your songwriting? In other words, do you feel like a Tom Schraeder song has to satisfy a certain accepted template that was created with your first and second releases?
Of course I keep others in mind while writing but I never let others influences take away from my release while writing the songs.
It’s been awhile since you’ve been in our neck of the woods. Will When Death Found St. Thomas see you tour the West Coast?
We are planning on over 150 dates this year so I’m sure we’ll be there a bit too much. Until then be sure to email, message, or myspace me and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted with new demos, tour information, videos, and of course my record releases.
Do you miss TV at all?
I just got a TV again and it’s nice. However, I should watch it more.
*Author’s note: About five minutes after this article was published, Tom Schraeder sent us a link to preview yet another album of his, this time a live performance from SXSW 2010. It’s entirely possible he has released yet something else while I was writing this sentence.
Truffle Jones filed this interview from the set of Hardcastle and McCormick: The Movie.