Performing Tuesday night at Empty Bottle (the record release party for his latest album, Schraedest Hits), I spoke with local songwriter Tom Schraeder about tailoring his songs to fit someone else's art in his recent film and television work, growing as a songwriter, looking back at his expansive 22 album catalog, the influence of Paul Westerberg and what he hopes lies ahead in his next decade as a recording musician...
In only about ten years, local songwriter and recording artist Tom Schraeder has released 22 albums.
Dabbling in a variety of genres spanning rock to hip hop and folk to psychedelic rock, Schraeder's willingness to challenge himself, coupled with his constant desire to grow as an artist, have resulted in an output virtually unparalleled elsewhere in Chicago.
He's performed at Lollapalooza (2007) and both created and curated his own local festival ("Chicago, I Love You" in 2012 and 2013). Now he's taking a break from film and television work that brought him to Los Angeles to tackle something on record he never has - a look back.
Schraedest Hits (Township Records) looks back upon each of Schraeder's albums, seizing upon 23 tracks that offer fans a glimpse into his eclectic past. Celebrating that release with his backing band Tuesday night at Empty Bottle, Tom Schraeder & His Ego capitalize on the rare look back as an opportunity to show fans what could lie ahead as the songwriter gets set to begin his second decade.
I spoke with Tom Schraeder about punk rock, the meaning of "pop," Schraedest Hits and his next chapter. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. I believe the last time you and I talked was around the [second] “Chicago, I Love You” event that you created and curated. How long ago was that and what have you been up to since?
Tom Schraeder: Wow. I think [three] years ago. That was , I believe. I kind of stopped playing live for a while and have been doing a lot more with film and TV scoring. Mainly, I’ve just been trapped in the studio – if it’s not my own work, I’m making music for someone else.
So it’s been pretty nice. After all those years of touring, it’s been a nice change.
Q. Has that kind of allowed you to focus on music as a career – as a fulfilling, sustainable career?
TS: Absolutely, absolutely.
I enjoyed touring – it was a lot of fun – but there was a feeling of being lost sometimes. Mainly, I tour solo. So you don’t get the band camaraderie to bring you up – it’s just the world against you almost.
There’s something nice about it. Once you go from that life to the studio life, you could just see how it will become a career or how it could gradually become that.
Q. You spent significant time in Los Angeles when you were working on the film and television scores, right? How long were you out there?
TS: Yeah, it was off and on for about two years that I would just go out there for a few weeks at a time. And I’m actually gearing up to go out there again to work on a film in October for a few weeks.
So, yeah. L.A. has been very kind to me.
Q. What project are you working on in L.A. this time around?
So that’s one of the films I’m doing right now. I’m recording six songs for the movie.
Q. How is it different writing your own material versus crafting songs that need to fit within someone else’s body of work?
TS: As a writer, I really enjoy it. Because it takes away what I’m used to. I’ve only written for myself since I was 9 years old. When you write for a director’s vision or a screenwriter’s character, you can really get out of your own routine and your own comfort zone.
For example, I just did a punk song for a film. I’ve never performed punk music [so] I had to study punk and it came together.
As an artist I love being taken out of my comfort zone.
Q. When you say you studied punk, who wound up speaking to you as you kind of figured out how to ply that particular aspect of your songwriting craft?
TS: I would say, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. The Replacements. Paul Westerberg is usually the first person I go to in anything. I think he’s one of the most intelligent songwriters.
So it was a lot of Replacements, a little Ramones, a little Misfits. It was a good experience.
Q. Westerberg is really interesting. Because even in the earlier Replacements stuff that you just mentioned, where it is punk – almost hardcore with how fast it is – there’s still that element of pop in it. And, to me, the best punk stuff has that. The Ramones obviously had that, the Misfits certainly did… For you, approaching it anew, is that an element of punk that you recognized?
TS: Oh, absolutely.
I would say that would go for all of my songs. Recently I’ve just recognized, basically all of the records that I’ve done – and I’ve done folk to country to rock and dabbled in hip hop, all of that (because, again, it goes back to challenging myself). When I was looking at it, I was like, “I’m not any of these genres. I’m just pop.” If you have a pop melody, you can do any genre. And if you don’t have that, don’t write the song.
Sorry Ma – Every one of those songs, if you just slow it down a bit, it’s a pop song.
I think all of the great music really should just be called “pop.”
Q. You just used the words, “all of the records that I’ve done.” You’ve begun a pretty extensive look back at your catalog…
TS: From the years of not touring, I’ve just been recording a lot and going back to work I have released. So I just put together this thing with the label I’m with, Township Records, titled Schraedest Hits. It’s basically, through all the phases and all the records, the songs I still find tolerable.
It’s kind of a good introduction for people who haven’t heard my music. They don’t have to go through all the records. It’s 23 songs.
Q. How many albums were those 23 tracks culled from and is there any new music on Schraedest Hits?
TS: From 22 records.
That’s actually how this record came about: I’m working on another record [with my backing band] His Ego. It’s a follow-up to the record we put out a couple of years ago called Gush. That’s kind of what brought me to this. I’m ready to start this next decade of making music off with something fresh.
In a way, Schraedest Hits was a good way of just offering a hint of the last decade. Because the new stuff is really… I don’t know. I finally am trying to learn how to play music rather than just play it – trying to understand [music] theory.
Again, it goes back to, I guess, challenging myself. This record is my probably my most complex record yet.
Q. What was kind of the mindset or the style you were going for heading into this new record, especially if you were so heavily influenced by Gush?
TS: We keep joking about it being adult contemporary. Because I’m ready to do something as soft as I’ve ever done (but also some of the songs are louder than anything I’ve done). I like that we’re bringing strings and horns back in (kind of what I did between 2007 and 2009) – really large orchestrations rather than just psych rock guitars. Plus, there’s a lot of good collaborations.
Q. So you have the show coming up [Tuesday] at Empty Bottle – will you be backed by the full band there?
TS: Yes. Over these years, from just playing with the same guys, I kind of feel like I’ve found my E-Street Band.
For a while, whenever I’d play shows, whether it was in Chicago or L.A. or Portland, I would find musicians from each of the cities to back me as His Ego. So it’s been kind of nice to just have the final band and that’s what I’m really looking forward to at Empty Bottle: we’re going to start playing live again and it’s kind of symbolic of the next chapter.
Q. Who’s in the band now and how long have you been playing with them?
TS: Probably about four or five years now – since, I would say, around 2011.
Ryan Joseph Anderson – he’s a great songwriter and guitarist. He’s been in a lot of Chicago bands. Dan Moulder on keys. Dan Ingenthron on bass. Russ Mallord on drums. Kate Adams on vocals. I feel like I’m forgetting about someone because our band is usually so large!
Q. You keep referring to “the next chapter” – and obviously you’ve got a lot in the pipeline with Schraedest Hits and the upcoming film work in October – but when you look to that next chapter, if you were to flip a couple of pages ahead, what do you hope to see?
TS: I just hope that I can continue doing this, honestly.
Your 20s are fun. You try things out. You dabble. You get a little crazy here and there. You see what works.
Now, I feel a little older. I can look back. But I’m also at the point I can look forward and I see exactly what needs to happen.
I just hope to stay on this path of just making as much art as possible and spreading a positive message in a crazy ass world. That’s it.
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Tuesday's Tom Schraeder & His Ego concert below)
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Tom Schraeder & His Ego
(Schraedest Hits record release)
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
21 and over
Also performing: Will Courtney, The Glass Eyes
Click HERE to purchase tickets