Swinging Modern Sounds #68: A Way of Life

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Souled American, the Chicago-based indie-roots band from the 90s, was famous for obscurity. The people who loved them loved them fervently, and I was one, but there was no overstating the obscurity, the cultish reputation. Obscurity, verging on unsustainable neglect, was essential to understanding Souled American’s music. They were so unknown that the writer Camden Joy once wheatpasted posters about Souled American around New York City in an attempt to remediate the problem. This project became the somewhat legendary “Fifty Posters About Souled American.” As Souled American went on, its albums became more and more minimal, more and more despairing, as if they were informed, somehow, by a Beckettian stripping away. Souled American became like a slow-motion demolition version of the high and lonesome, often without any rhythm section at all, calling out devastatingly into the wilderness of independent music, about loss and estrangement and unsustainable neglect. It was incredibly important work, it now appears.

Scott Tuma, a guitarist in the band, was not only shaped by this Souled American adventure, he was an essential piece of it (though he engages in the modesty trope when pressed on the point). When the band came so close to silence as to be indistinguishable from silence (they have released two songs since 1997), Tuma stayed in Chicago, on his own, and started making solo records. There have been four of these since, Hard Again, The River 1 2 3 4, Not for Nobody, and Dandelion (which came out in 2010), as well as a few collaborative projects. As with Souled American, the Tuma solo projects have achieved their indelible cast by whittling away at what constitutes the popular song until there’s almost nothing left. A guitar, or a few guitars layered, most often acoustic, maybe a harmonium, scraping away at some leftover scrap of folk melodic material, in some fogbank of lonely reverb. You can sometimes hear household stuff in the background. Is that “My Darling Clementine,” or just something that would have sounded like “My Darling Clementine” if someone were inclined to finish the song? Is than an ambulance? Nope, they did not finish the song.

For me, Souled American was somewhat sedimented over by time, or they were flickering away in the dwindling matchlight, when a writer friend from Montana told me I had to listen to Scott Tuma’s Not for Nobody in 2008, in which even the title feels related to the euphonious repetitions of Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Ever tried./ever failed./Never mind./Fail Again./Fail better.” The thing about Scott Tuma is: the immense pathos of the recordings. Not for Nobody has to be the purest expression of the lamentation that anyone has recorded in a generation. Almost no one, frankly, is allowed to sound this sad and continue to have a musical career. And the trick of the Scott Tuma thing is that it’s almost all instrumental. Souled American did it with vocals, and with dwindling band arrangements. Here, it’s mostly solo instrumental music. Tuma’s guitar parts make John Fahey and Leo Kottke sound like showoffy blowhards. Not for Nobody is about the minimum ration of folk music that could still be regarded as folk- or country-inflected music, and it’s about making music that anyone, in some sense, could make, music that could happen on anyone’s porch, anywhere, if only people still wanted to play music on their porches.

These days, there is the belief that all music is perfectable digitally, on your laptop, and that it is your obligation to avail yourself of this opportunity, this contemporary perfection. But Tuma is having none of it. And the result, this minimal and ancient gesture in the arid urban landscape, this refusal of machined perfection, is just very, very moving. More lonesome than almost anything short of Ralph Stanley singing “O Death” a cappella in the eighth decade of his life. The equivalent can be found in indigenous music abroad, but very rarely in our own permafrost of streaming services.

In the absence of adequate or reasonable support for his brave journey, Tuma is nonetheless releasing two recordings this year, one a cassette called Eyrie, the other a double album called No Greener Grass, the label being Immune Recordings, in each case (for more information go here). These recordings do not break new ground in any overwhelming way. They sound like the other work, only there is a little less of them in terms of sonic layers. That is, they sound a lot like the guy who made Not for Nobody and Dandelion, and they are comprised of home recordings mostly made on guitar and pump organ, but in their methodical craftsmanship (according to the Scott Tuma way of life) Tuma has made repetition and lack of intervention a profound strength, an ongoing and quietly heroic investigation of what Camden Joy was talking about when he wheatpasted up the posters about Souled American. And so this interview with Scott Tuma took place in the same spirit, with a man who apparently has never really talked about his music in public before. It’s an intrusion as well as an interview, and it happened on the phone in June, in the hopes, yet again, that a few more ears can be brought to the work, and if not, well then, try again, fail better.

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The Rumpus: What were the challenges and the new ideas orbiting around these two albums that you’re releasing this summer?

Scott Tuma: I can’t say I put much thought in new ideas; it’s more of a continuation of work. I just keep going and recording stuff; it’s not really the process of sitting down and making a record. The one that’ll come out first (the cassette, Eyrie) was done after the other (the double LP). In that case (the LP), I’d accumulated a lot of stuff and made some attempts to go back and go through it and it was just too much work to do. After a couple of times trying, I would just start and give up.Eyrie It was just a mass of stuff but I put my mind to it and finally went through it all and started to put the stuff together. Sometimes I really liked the material but I didn’t think the recordings were that great; some of them were pretty old. So I’d figure out what I’d done and kind of re-record them. Most often, the way I do stuff is with a mass of recordings: I go through them and put stuff together that sounds like a record to me. But with this recording, I wanted to use stuff I’d done really recently. Most of the stuff I would listen to for quite a long time before I decided to use it or not.

Then there’s a certain style of playing that I’ve been doing for a really, really long time to make some of the faster sounding stuff on the record. I’ve open-tuned and I have a guitarist who mainly plays high strung (I think they call it a “Nashville” tuning). It just took a long enough time for me to feel like I could do it proficiently and, actually, lately I’ve felt proficient enough to play some of it live for the first time.

Rumpus: So are you saying that the fast pieces on the LP are a sort of separate set of approaches you’ve been doing on the side?

Tuma: With that stringing of the guitar, that’s what I spend most of my time doing. The slower melodies that are done with a conventional tuning; those are things I wish to do, too. The things I’ve been working on I’ve played in that style for quite a long time. But it takes me a long time to feel like I can do it very well.

Rumpus: One of the fast tunes on No Greener Grass sounds like it has a cello track or something. Some bowing of some kind. Is that possible, or am I imagining that?

Tuma: Jason Ajemian—I think he’s doing multiple things on the bass: bowing and plucking. Not at the same time!

Rumpus: How many songs have collaborators versus songs that are just you playing on them? How much collaboration is going on?

Tuma: I’m trying to think. I know Jason Ajemian is on a lot of it; he plays bass (that might be the only track he plays bass on). He plays a lot of the American pump organ; I’d have to check if there’s anyone else on the record. (Ed. note: Matthew DeGennaro also plays on one track on Eyrie)

Rumpus: There’s a field recording vibe to the whole project. You can hear birds at one point; I think there’s maybe a siren I hear somewhere. It doesn’t at all feel like, “We went into the recording studio and we had a long week of twenty-four hour days where we stayed up all night and banged this shit out.” The vibe is much more like, “Scott went up to the attic with his twelve-string and turned on the tape recorder. Is that an illusion that you’re trying to foster in the recording or is that actually how they get done?

Tuma: That’s how they get done, for sure. You know, I do it every day. We live in the city and you go crazy trying to keep the sounds out—I like sounds and I have the window open as much as I can. I’ve always wanted it to be like that, to represent where I am and the rhythm of how I do it. I don’t go 9 to 5 doing it but it revolves around the rhythm of our home and our family. I’m sitting in the room where I record and it’s the front room of our house on the second floor and the room off it is like a control room where I do it all. I like the birds when recording and the chimes; there’s a hospital at the end of the street and there’s another hospital a little further north. They closed their emergency room. You don’t want to have ambulances on every track (laughs).

Rumpus: To what extent are you improvising or using melodic themes that you’ve sketched out before and just sort of embellishing on them, versus writing these pieces out?

Tuma: I wouldn’t say I write them out. With me, I just kind of collect melodies and songs and things like that and play them over and over so much that they tend to turn into something else and then sometimes they get combined and it can be a straight-up song but I’ve played it so much in so many different ways that I don’t even recognize it anymore and I don’t know that too many people would even if I told them, even if they were familiar with the song. I don’t know how many versions of “Soldier’s Joy” I’ve done. Probably almost every record has some sort of version of it on there. It’s the song I learned from Souled American and I always wonder, would they even recognize this song? I kind of don’t think so! I’m not much of an improviser at all and most of the people I play with are. With Jason, we just end up playing songs and my stuff is always out; I just have to hit record. It’s really easy with someone like that; while we’re here we’ll make some music.

Rumpus: I’m really interested in the finishing touches of the recording process. There are definitely—at least to my ears—songs where there are multiple tracks of guitar that are just slightly de-synchronized in really interesting ways. I’m wondering how much you do after the original recording.

Tuma: It’s something I’m working on but I don’t think I’ve ever done just a solo guitar track. I don’t think of myself as a guitar player; I think of myself as someone who just makes these recordings. I make something rather than it being any kind of showcase for musicianship or something like that. I’m always looking to add another part to it; we’ll just play the song through a few times and play different parts. Sometimes I’ll come up with a different part, like a different pitched guitar or something like that; it might just be doubling the guitar or, I don’t know, I just let things pile up and sound good. Then the idiosyncrasies of proper intonation and rhythm complement each other a little bit. I don’t go around tweaking stuff.

After it’s done, I don’t have an editing program. I just make mixes. Another thing I do a lot is try to put something in sonically. Sometimes all I have is a pump organ (I have a few of them but they’re all basically the same). I may want it to sound high so I’ll pitch the recording down so I can play high on it. So, it’ll be really high, almost like a tin whistle. But then when I go back I’ll have all this stuff and I just go back and listen to it. You may hear something that’s a different pitch than it’s supposed to be. Sometimes it’ll sound good and I end up steering it that way. It can go either way, too. Sometimes if I change the pitch I might forget and record something else and then realize it and then when the pitch is off, you hear all different kinds of configurations. I could be hearing something and, if it strikes me, I immediately make a copy of it. If something strikes my ear then I’m not going to mess with it. I’m going to make a copy of it like that and that happens actually kind of a lot. I don’t sit there and do mixes; I might occasionally do something like that but hardly ever. The more unusual the better.

Rumpus: That’s a fairly radical idea. Especially the way the rhythms work, on your recordings, it’s unusual because the melodic idiom that you’re working in is nearly traditional, almost old-timey in a way, but the way the rhythms work feels almost experimentalNo Greener Grass to me because you could never plot the way the rhythms work in your recordings on a grid. It’s not even a matter of “there’s an extra measure here” or something; the rhythms are very impulsive and unusual and I love that about the recordings. What makes you think you’re allowed to do that?

Tuma: (Laughs) I think I get it from not being very good. I think that people who are, say, like a jazz improviser or someone who’s really learned in their instruments, I think they would say they don’t really have to practice their instrument anymore. They just play it and I’m not like that and I don’t think I ever will be so a lot of what I do is just playing. I play the stuff a lot, you know. I like to hear mistakes and making mistakes. And if it sounds like it’s not a mistake then I’ll incorporate that but, like I say, I’ve been playing those songs for years and years to the point that I think, when I’m playing it, I’m hearing more than I actually have to play. When you hear the song, there’s a lot of space and different ways to phrase some of the notes. In the past, some of the people I’ve come across that wanted to play with me heard the stuff and thought, “Oh, you just gotta sit this stuff out…”

Rumpus: And wait for you to come back to the one.

Tuma: Yeah.

Rumpus: That’s awesome.

Tuma: Like I say, I practice this stuff a lot and if it doesn’t sound like it, well, that’s probably pretty good. There were people, once upon a time, who would start to lead the songs. I don’t have that predicament anymore. All the people I play with now are fantastic. Did I answer your question?

Rumpus: The very slow tempos are a feature going all the way back to your first solo album, as well as on the last two Souled American albums. How did you arrive at that kind of glacial tempo? What’s attractive about it and why is it something you’ve pursued with so much conviction?

Tuma: Like you say, at the end, when I was recording with Souled American, that’s pretty much how we played music. We all felt it that way. It just started getting more minimal. The tempos: they feel good; it just felt right. Towards the end of that, there were pretty much just three of us: the two that are remaining and myself. They’ve become very minimal and I was a small part of that. I was just playing guitar to these songs; my parts would be really, really spare. I really had no real direction except that I wanted to come up with my own stuff.

When I left the band I had to figure out what I was going to do. Recording the last few things with them, with whatever parts I would put together, I wanted them to be able to function as a standalone piece if it had to. So, afterward, that’s how I approached it. I kind of got a little bit more minimal. When I would come up with melodies for their songs, well that would be the new song. Does that make sense?

Rumpus: Yeah, that makes sense. A lot of people who were Souled American fans, of which I was one, felt like you were really influential on the way those recordings sounded and there was no way that the band could exist without you, that your flavor was the flavor of how those recordings sounded. Is that an erroneous perception? Given what you’re saying, you just made guitar parts; you weren’t involved in the songwriting. It still feels like your guitar has a flavor that’s very powerful on those last records.

Tuma: Well, with the very last record, I don’t even know that I’m on there.

Rumpus: Really? Notes Campfire

Tuma: Yeah, Notes Campfire… Is it black?

Rumpus: Yeah.

Tuma: I don’t think I’m on there. We started making that and then I split. It was kind of an all or nothing prospect of being in that band. It’s their band; it wasn’t a band I had anything to do with forming; I asked them if I could be in it. So if I wanted to have a larger role in something, I’d have to go out and do it on my own. I don’t really know anything about them but they were always talking about wanting to go back to where they grew up and most of their emphasis was on their shared experiences which didn’t include me so I wanted to do something a little more personal to me. I think they’re great musicians and songwriters. I don’t know anything about them, though. I don’t know anybody who does!

Rumpus: So mysterious!

Tuma: Yeah.

Rumpus: I want to talk about you singing a little bit. It’s like you finally let your hair down and really sang. What’s happening there? How do you feel about singing now? How do you think about writing lyrics and that kind of thing?

Tuma: I don’t think I write too many lyrics. If I play live I sing a lot; I like singing. I had a problem with knowing how to record myself while singing and I think I’m getting better at it. I’m working on that a lot. The next thing I put out will have a lot more singing, just regular singing. Not the high-pitched singing.

Rumpus: Right.

Tuma: With that, the pitch-shifting, I just happened to be listening to something and I heard it pitched like that and I thought that sounded really good; I liked the way the voice sounded and it wasn’t an octave. It was something less than an octave. I had to really practice to sing it slowly enough so that it didn’t sound quite so chirpy. Some people think it sounds ridiculous and have told me so to my face. (Laughs) There’s one song (“My Darling Clementine”): I don’t really sing like that. I had some respiratory problems and that’s how I tried to sing it; that’s how my voice sounded at the time. I would try to do it before I got better.

Rumpus: That has a raggedy feeling to it that feels very Appalachian.

Tuma: I’ve written a few lyrics; that’s something I think I need to try to make myself do but I’ve never been much of a writer, you know, of words. I’m not good at writing letters and stuff like that.

Rumpus: I like the lyrics, where they turn up. How did you start doing all of this? I have no idea what your background is. Did you study music or anything? What did you study?

Tuma: Oh, no. I dug my way into Souled American! I had just gotten out of college and a friend of mine I’d grown up with knew Chris (Grigoroff). He was in a band when I was in college; he was older. They were in a band that lived in the town where I went to college so I knew who he was and their band was really popular. He moved up to Chicago and, like I said, I had a friend who grew up with him so I’d go hang out with him when he was in Chicago. He tried to start Souled American and I had just finished college and was so lonely so I bought a guitar and tried to play the guitar. I could barely play the thing but I kind of snuck my way in by hanging around with them so much, they let me be in their band!

Rumpus: What were your musical influences at that point? What else were you listening to?

Tuma: I like blues, any kind of rock… The Stones, Bruce Springsteen. And knowing those guys, I’d listen to a fair amount of country. I had friends in high school who liked real classic country, you know, George Jones and Merle Haggard, so I’d listen to all that. Those guys (Souled American) are really deep musicians and knew a lot about music. Chris had been in a string band when he was young and he knew all sorts of old tunes like “Cotton-Eye Joe” and was in country bands since he was a young teenager. His mom was a musician who wrote country songs; he knew a lot about country music. Knowing those guys, I learned a lot about a lot more music.

Rumpus: But I still don’t get where your radical experimentalism comes from. Where does that come from?

Tuma: I don’t really look at it like that. That’s just natural! I don’t think of myself as that and I wouldn’t put that label on Souled American necessarily.

Rumpus: I would use that word to describe your solo albums. And Frozen is so minimal it feels experimental. Everybody was getting louder at a certain point and Souled American responded by getting markedly quieter. Like you were saying, you guys just felt it and you played that way and I respect and admire the emotional conviction of that but I feel like that understates the effect that that recording has on the audience. If you just say, “We felt it at that tempo so we played it that way,” that’s a beautiful thing to say but it doesn’t necessarily account for the fact that the record was stunningly sad. Like, not a little sad but very, very sad. You have to have a certain amount of courage to do that to an audience, right?

Tuma: I’d have to agree with your assessment of that record. I think, at the time, those feelings were for real. It wasn’t any kind of decision or anything. To us, it felt like the audience was kind of non-existent. That was part of the feeling but not all of it. Emotionally, that’s hard to do.

Rumpus: For Laurel, my wife, and me, Not For Nobody is an incredibly moving record. For me, even leaving aside the very unusual and, to me, profound, musical decisions that are involved in it, I feel from an emotional standpoint it’s brave and unflinching in a way and, on that basis, sort of unique. It doesn’t sound like what anybody else is doing.

Tuma: Yeah. That’s a lot to talk about there! I tell you, learning to play guitar while I was in Souled American and trying to come up with parts for songs and realizing very quickly that I wasn’t able to play guitar with any kind of conventional virtuosity, I had to find a way to make my skills work. And those guys would stress not copying something else and probably, thinking back, I spent a fair amount of time trying to copy them because they were right in front of me and were really good musicians! I think sometimes I would come up with parts it would be like “That’s what you’re going to play?” and then they’d be, like,cassette “Well, at least it doesn’t sound like anybody else! Go ahead!” So I was expected to do that and I think I got used to it and just kept doing it, you know, trying to sound like myself. Without patting myself on the back or anything, I do think that I sound like myself and not like anybody else.

Rumpus: In our household, we have conjectured why there are no Scott Tuma interviews, and here is our conjecture: because Scott Tuma thinks that if he talks too much about it, in some way, it’s going to ruin the mystery and the beauty of the gesture and the music should just be what it is and not necessarily have language associated with it or certainly not language of a descriptive variety. And maybe that’s right in a way, that part of what you do is so intuitive that it’s maybe not sensible really to try to smoke you out and get you to articulate all this stuff.

Tuma: That makes perfect sense. I couldn’t put it better myself.

By the same token, like I say, I haven’t turned down any interviews. I don’t feel like talking about it. I don’t think it’s going to harm it in any way; I’m talking about it now. What I’m doing is completely a way of life; there’s no real conscious decision-making about how to do stuff. I just got stuff set up all the time and either play or record pretty much every day.

Rumpus: Are you going to tour on all this stuff that’s coming out?

Tuma: I’m hoping to. I’m going to try. In the past, I’ve tried to do shows and just haven’t had any success in getting any. I don’t really understand it but I felt like I just had to accept it and put more focus into recording. I don’t have any plans to do anything expansive or anything like that but I’m hoping to be able to get out and at least do a few.

Rumpus: How often do you play in Chicago?

Tuma: I’d say a few times a year. I don’t ever pursue it. If somebody asks, I’ll usually do it. Sometimes I can’t or don’t want to. I’ve played a couple shows in the last six months. I’ve got something in September.

Rumpus: Might you come to New York?

Tuma: I would like to come to New York. A friend of mine is trying to put together a few shows between here and North Carolina in September so I might go do that and then the couple other CDs will come out and I’ll be able to do more at some point.

Rumpus: Do you feel like you cleaned out the desk drawer of all the old recordings and might launch off in some new direction now?

Tuma: I kind of do feel like I want to. I still have more stuff; I have stuff hidden. I started going through this mountain of stuff. Do you remember those minidiscs, when they were popular?

Rumpus: Oh yeah, those minidiscs!

Tuma: I found that I actually still have a minidisk player that works and I was looking for something specific so I started going through those and listening to those. It’s always been my idea to have these artifacts lying around that I can run across; it’s like finding a little buried treasure. I’ve got tons and tons of cassettes. I still listen to cassettes every day.

Rumpus: (Laughs) So are you releasing this new cassette then because you’re a person who uses and admires cassettes? I mean, it’s so strange: the cassette thing, right?

Tuma: I do like cassettes, mainly because this other one (No Greener Grass, the double LP) was taking so long and I was going to put it out myself but he said he’d put it out and he’d put it out right away! His version of right away isn’t the same as mine!


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →