Swinging Modern Sounds #95: Omnidirectional


In the ’80s I lived in the Mile Square City of Hoboken, New Jersey, during or just after its heyday as a cauldron of independent music. I used to go to Maxwell’s, famed local nightclub and epicenter of the scene, several times a week, got a Bob Mould autograph there once, and I used to see Chris Stamey of the dB’s on the bus a lot, on his way (I was subsequently told) to his job as a copyeditor at Random House; for some time, I lived just a couple of blocks from Ira and Georgia of Yo La Tengo. It was a really thrilling time to be a music fan in that part of the world. Every holiday weekend was liable to have a performance by one of the excellent local bands (who also included, e.g., The Cucumbers, Antietam, Gut Bank, Rage to Live, and many others). As befitted my obsession with the music of my city, I became, for some time, completely preoccupied with Yo La Tengo, and this extended back to their earliest releases, even their first album, Ride the Tiger. I loved that record and I especially loved the guitar playing on that album, for example the soaring and melodic solos of the member of the band Dave Schramm, who left after the first album (though he came back for two very great later YLT albums, Fakebook and Stuff Like That There).  

My interest in the Schramm contributions to Yo La Tengo led to a sort of a Dave Schramm preoccupation—with his plangent, slightly twangy singing voice, and his astoundingly good guitar playing, which can be found on many other albums of note, including some by Freedy Johnston, Richard Buckner, The Replacements, and Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, to name just a few. But Dave Schramm also has a sort of a stealth career as a bandleader of a band called The Schramms (though he is the only Schramm in the band), which band has now released a great many albums since their first, Walk to Delphi, in 1989. The Schramms, for a while, resembled an indie rock band, of a kind that was not unknown in Hoboken, but as they grew, and as Dave Schramm matured as a songwriter, the band sprouted much more ambitious concerns. Calling them a rock band, or an alt-country band, or a folk rock band, or however you might have put it once, no longer seemed the right approach, least of all in the complex musical present.

And then again, just as they were reaching some pretty exalted results, results that you might expect of a Randy Newman or a Van Dyke Parks, songwriters of the most sophisticated order, the Schramms fell silent for a while. I still watched for Schramm’s presence in other related projects, but for a time his most considerable energy went to a remarkable podcast called Radio Free Song Club, where in real time you got to listen to some really eminent NYC-area songwriters (and their friends and colleagues) compose for a monthly deadline. Schramm both contributed as a writer and served in the band that was convened to play all of these contributions. The show was hosted by Nicholas Hill and Kate Jacobs, and ran for many years, until, under the collective weight of the effort, it went on hiatus for a while.

Outrageously, a day came to pass whereon Dave Schramm invited me to be on Radio Free Song Club, as a guest, and I got not only to play with a player I really admired, but to be in the collective hothouse of Radio Free Song Club, which was among the more thrilling group endeavors I’ve had the pleasure to participate in. There was a lot to learn about playing with all the seasoned veterans who were regulars on Radio Free Song Club, and spending the day with them (they recorded live in one afternoon and evening) was to see up close many of the admirable music-world norms, the rules of politeness and collaboration among musicians, and Dave Schramm, it seemed to me, was among the keenest exemplars of these. He conducted himself with scrupulous gentleness, always deferred where deferral was gracious and expedient, and managed to keep other players engaged and absorbed with a kind of electrifying and inspiring humility. I could see, in this juncture, why he was a sought after and esteemed session player.

In the aftermath of Radio Free Song Club, I threw caution to the wind and asked Dave Schramm if we could write together a little bit, and I think we then wrote four or five songs together over a period of several years, in a process that was a laboratory, for me, in the craft of the songwriter. There was no aspect of writing at which Schramm was not ridiculously accomplished. I would give him a lyric, and he would disappear for several weeks, and then send back something tremendously beautiful, usually recorded in demo form in his living room, and without fail including some of the best guitar playing I had ever heard.

Two or three years ago, in the midst of this collaboration, Schramm also sent me a finished track and said, more or less, “I’m also doing this!” It was an all-but-mastered studio track from a new Schramms album. The particular song was “Faith Is a Dusty Word,” from the forthcoming album Omnidirectional, out from Bar/None Records on June 21, and it was an astoundingly ambitious and beautiful piece of songwriting. It was to the early Schramms albums sort of what later Beatles albums were to that brace of songs that the Beatles recorded with Tony Sheridan. Whisps of Carole King and Brian Wilson floated through another one of those beautifully wistful Dave Schramm melodies, with hints of harmony that burst into a multiple-part round on the out-chorus at the song’s end. I couldn’t wait to hear more. And now there is more, a truly arresting album of songs, all of it as thoughtful and powerful and tuneful and illuminated as the first song he sent me. It is easily already one of most impressive albums of the year.

I was excited, therefore, to try to help spread the word a little bit, with the interview that follows. Schramm and I talked by email over the months of July and August of last year, with later amendments. If you love this album as much as I think you’re going to, make sure to tell a friend.


The Rumpus: Why ten years to make this record?

Dave Schramm: I could cite all the usual reasons that I have told myself this past decade. Parenthood or laziness or being partially swallowed up by the day job (despite its having its own rewards), or maybe a constant rethinking of what was valid in the music we were creating. All of these things played a part in stretching the timeline. However I would say it was mostly two things. One, a realization that my relationship to the culture of music had changed. Gone was the rock band archetype. Write, record, release an album, tour, write, record, release an album, tour. That cycle didn’t work for me anymore, for whatever reasons, only one of which was a varied amount of success. So there was no rush. Unfortunately I took that to heart. Two, I was absorbing new styles of playing and writing previously unexplored. I was learning things. And that’s why the album is called Omnidirectional. Picking up sound from all around. Although it’s a bit of an exaggeration. We only touch a few more bases than previous albums, but it’s a start.

And I could also mention two endeavors that sucked some forward motion from completing the album sooner. Those would be Radio Free Song Club and Yo La Tengo. But hell, no regrets.

Rumpus: Were these distractors influential in the recording process as regards the ambition and scale of the results? I’m interested in how the experience of Radio Free Song Club affected what you have done here. And reuniting and playing again with YLT.

Schramm: Well, yes, there was definitely an evolution in how we approached the music. Certainly in scale and method. And it may be more ambitious. I had done some demos and experimented quite a bit with them, and I brought that to the studio—that intention to experiment. In the end we proceeded completely opposite to the original design of the sessions. We had talked about minimizing overdubs and attempting to have all the instruments on a given tune played together in the room at the same time, bringing in other musicians to fill these roles. Get the whole album wrapped up in a few weeks. Ha! Once we decided to do a few basic tracks to get a feel for things, that was the end of that. And perhaps this is where Radio Free Song Club enters the picture and creates a number of waves. The show’s house band, the Radio Free All-Stars, developed into this session mentality, whereby songwriters brought new tunes in for each show which then received instant arrangements. New styles to absorb and interpret. Much that was familiar but much to learn as well. I used to abhor a major 7th chord. I now embrace it. And the Song Club was also time-consuming. After the first few fairly simple shows it eventually became the equivalent of making a new album every two months or so. Inevitably it slowed down some, but there was a lot to do. So that show taught me things but also was a huge derailment for the record. But this didn’t bother me. It was one of the most joyous things I’ve ever done. So much fun. As for Yo La Tengo—again, that took me away from focusing on finishing my own record, but was totally worth it. Just to play “Ohm” or “Today Is the Day” every night for a few months was worth it. Indeed.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about some of the specific new directions that have sprouted with this record. Idiomatically, how would you describe what’s new? And is it new because your range as a player expanded or because your range as a listener expanded, or both?

Schramm: I think a song like “Not Falling” wanders away from our accustomed forms. And not just because it’s our first song with strings on it. It’s certainly not alt-country Americana, a label affixed to us early on. There’s a bit of vintage urbane pop to it. So the writing and the arrangement both sound new to me. Then with songs like “Honestly Now” and “Spent,” and probably others, (which may or may not sound like other songs I’ve written, I can’t tell) there is a different approach to the arrangement. Sounds drop in and out and it’s less a band and more a landscape. It’s not so much about trying to wildly push the boundaries out, but more about not letting old borders constrain. I guess I don’t think that my range as a listener has expanded. I’ve always listened to a wide variety, but maybe I let it sink in more, taken it to heart, and that necessarily affects how one plays, don’t you think?

Rumpus: As a passionate Schramms fan, I feel pretty amazed and excited by the arrangements on Omnidirectional. The range and confidence in the arrangements, which are definitely less indie rock and more chamber pop, are unmistakable. (Isn’t there a mellotron patch on one track?) This album has bits of baroque ’60s pop (like Gene Clark, let’s say, or the Left Banke), high psychedelic period of the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and so on. The arrangements, as well as the album as a whole, seem fully occupied with delivering greatness in songcraft. Is it possible that the intention to make really great songs just takes as long as you took?

Schramm: Sure. Time and any other constraints were not in the equation. Remember—no deadline, no expectations, no goad. We certainly had the desire to make it as good as it could be. Here we were with nothing to worry about but making the music sound the way we wanted. And so we did, partly by the addition of some of the sounds and gestures that had made the demos work, and then with continued experimentation in the studio. But the process wasn’t aimless or indecisive. When we were in the studio we knew where we wanted to go. We were just not in the studio that much. Two or three days at a time, then nothing for six months. Not the normal way records are made

One result is that I had some perspective on the music while we were making it, and did not have to wait until years later. [Laughter] There is one song which illustrates how even the songwriting was altered by this timeline. “Hearts and Diamonds” was written in a rush and then recorded at the first session. Soon after this I came to dislike the chorus, but loved the rest of the track we had laid down. Six months later, armed with the refrain I had failed to produce the first time, we wiped all but the drum track on the chorus, added a few beats where needed and re-recorded the other instruments with the new chorus. So time was our friend there. Then take the song “Faith Is a Dusty Word,” unashamedly written and arranged in the language of Brian Wilson. I had some of the arrangement worked out on the demo, but it simmered for a while. Eventually the backing vocals and other ornaments worked themselves out. The icing on the cake was Doug Wieselman’s faux baritone sax line, actually a bass clarinet. When we heard that we knew we were done, but it had taken about a week of work—scattered over maybe five years. Kind of nuts. Incidentally, that’s the song with the mellotron. I wanted to play it on Andy Taub’s real mellotron, but the instrument was feeling a bit off that day, as they sometimes do, so we used this modern mellotron simulacrum that he had. The end result is exactly the same of course, since the mellotron is already twice removed from the flutes they represent.

Rumpus: You’re using a generous amount of first person plural here, so I’ve always wanted to ask you how much, at this point, is The Schramms a group project and how much a Dave Schramm solo project? I think you’ve made some German-only solo recordings (which I haven’t heard!). Does it really make a difference for you at this point to call it a recording by The Schramms? And how, exactly? Also, I’m interested in whether you went into an actual recording studio, or if some of this stuff was done at your place. Do you still use a “real” recording studio?

Schramm: This was a group effort, a Schramms record, even though there is definitely a lot of “I” in that “we.” Despite having made demos of many of the songs, it’s different when a band gets a hold of them. Ron (Metz, drums) and Al (Greller, bass) and I did a lot of wood-shedding hammering out the arrangements before we started recording. And there were some retakes, like “In Error,” which got a major rethink after a year or so. I heard the sounds in my head, but they needed translating. And then after we moved into the second stage, recording vocals and more instruments, the “we” became JD Foster, Andy, and I. Those solo records were just me playing everything, which can yield a charming intimacy, but I would rather make music with other people, “generating some heat,” as Peter Blegvad would say. Still, the songs and singing of them are my creation, and I guard their presentation jealously, if you can understand that. Early on, while recording the demos, I made this laundry list of principles in my lyrics book. The first one read “Nothing gets in the way of the song.” Farther down the list one read something like “Guitar solos only relevant as regards first principle.” As for the how, it was all recorded in Andy Taub’s fabulously real and amazing Brooklyn Recording studio, except for “Two a.m. Slant” and the original tracks for “New England,” both of which I recorded in my living room. “New England” subsequently received much augmentation at Andy’s studio.

Rumpus: I really respect the “nothing gets in the way of the song” methodology a great deal. I spent most of last fall curating a really long group appreciation of Tom Petty’s work, and one of the threads of that piece concerned the astounding excellence of Mike Campbell’s guitar playing in the Petty context. He’s a true Zen master of your principle. One thing I wanted to talk about was how great the guitar playing is on Omnidirectional. We could start by talking about “Two a.m. Slant,” which is a truly gorgeous piece. Did you know you were going to have a piece like this on the record? Or did it simply propose itself as is?

Schramm: No, “Two a.m. Slant” wasn’t planned for the record or for anything in particular. It just popped out along the way and eventually proclaimed itself a fitting closer for the album. Shows I’m a sucker for a sentimental melody I suppose. As soon as it seemed complete I recorded it and added that second guitar right away, which has a few missteps here and there. But I liked the way the two parts interacted so left well enough alone. Glad you like it, thanks. (And I’m a big fan of the Petty/Campbell collaboration as well. Perfectly complimentary.)

Rumpus: I have a vivid memory of my night at Radio Free Song Club of leading the band through my song, and telling you that I was deliberately leaving a space at the end for you to perform a solo, because (without being too excessively complimentary, I hope) I just really wanted to be able to die having a Dave Schramm solo on a song I wrote, and then feeling like you really did not want to do a big solo, like a big solo was against your world view, and you managed, as you may recall, to cram a really beautiful, understated solo into something like four bars, after which the song very efficiently ended. It was a lesson in band dynamics for me (and there were a number of them that night). And totally consistent with what you’re saying about your album. I do notice, however, that the restraint is with regard to old-school guitar heroics, but that is not to say that sheer beauty on the guitar is somehow in short supply, and “Two a.m. Slant” is an example. There’s incredibly lovely playing throughout, but nothing flashy there, unless flash concerns melody and harmony and arrangements of parts. I was listening to Walk to Delphi yesterday to try to conceive of a way to talk about what sounds like major procedural evolution in your guitar playing. But maybe you want to try to talk about it? Do you notice evolution? How would you describe it?

Schramm: Gosh. Well. Where to start? I should put it out there that a big solo is not actually against my world view, far from it. Self-indulgence is (and I have been guilty of that). But do you know Captain Beefheart’s “Alice in Blunderland”? WINGED EEL FINGERLING! Glorious and not a bit self-indulgent. Contrast that with something like, say, “Freebird.” Just one case in point. But still, I do like “brief and to the point” as well. Depends on the setting. I think my approach to playing guitar has evolved, and certainly some part of technique. I play a great deal without a pick these days, even sometimes a solo, and I guess I am less compartmentalized. Like before it was Phrase 1, then Phrase 2, then Phrase 1, then Phrase 3, etc. I try not to think now. Dissolve the boundaries between phrases. Not sure how successfully. Still working on that. As for Radio Free Song Club, that was a special show that night. Thank you again for sharing “RVNSWY.” Beautiful. Did I spell it right?

Rumpus: Here’s a question that is tangentially related to the album, but one I have always wanted to ask. How was it integrating how you play now into latter-day Yo La Tengo on Stuff Like That There? When you were in the band at it’s beginning, it seemed like there were defined guitar player roles, but then in the intervening years, especially after Fakebook, Ira became a fully credible, even amazing, lead guitar player, with Stuff Like That, was it understood on the album and tour that you were a lead guitar player? And has that dynamic changed over the years? And what about incorporating a finger-picking style into the current YLT sound? Do you serve the song in this case as well?

Schramm: I don’t think anything was ever quite as cut and dried as it seemed, but it’s easy to understand why it seemed that way. We didn’t sit down and say “He’s playing rhythm and he’s playing lead,” though we may have thought it. We just started playing. But I did play much of the melodic and atmospheric riffery and solos on Ride the Tiger (to the point where Ira has suggested it sounds like a Dave Schramm album). Ira’s seminal guitar style is most evident on “The Evil That Men Do” and the earlier single “House Is Not a Motel.” If memory serves, during live shows he played more lead guitar than he did on the album, and I think that would have continued onto the recordings even if I hadn’t left. If my departure somehow jump-started his evolution to guitar wizard, I am happy to have helped, but he was heading that way already. For the record, later on, at the odd Hanukkah show, I loved joining in the full-on YLT noise-fest, with Ira unfettered. So I guess that’s a progression. When we did Fakebook, it was kind of more defined. Ira intentionally played only acoustic guitar and I played mostly electric and lap steel, so that set things up a certain way. And Stuff Like That There was a return to the same approach. I guess the best answer is, yes, I played a lot of lead guitar on the album and the tour, but also a great deal of supportive chordal and atmospheric stuff. I sometimes fell into old habits, but generally I think the electric is more understated than previously. I love the moments where our guitars play off each other, like “Ballad of Red Buckets” or “Before We Stopped to Think.” Of course Ira stepped out a bit more on the tour and that was good. But apart from all this talk about guitars, the most important thing on Stuff Like That There, as on Fakebook, is the singing, making the song work.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about words, if that’s okay. I feel like I know a little bit about this stuff, or at least I have an angle on this issue, because we have worked on words together occasionally. Part of what drew me to your work early on, on the first few Schramms albums, was the connoisseurship that was evident in how you thought about lyrics. You picked, e.g., a really splendidly good Lucinda Williams song to cover, by which I mean a song with really great lyrics, and then I think you set the occasional Dickinson poem, and that gesture to me seemed both tremendously ambitious and very successfully executed. There’s a lot of bunk about Dickinson being too much in tetrameter and thus sing-songy, but I think you traversed that problem, as you did with Williams, etc., meaning that you can sing things and never sound like you are appropriating them somehow. You very effectively inhabit a song. That’s a feat and not one that is entirely much pulled off in the indie rock world (though Ira and Georgia are really good at it: “Speeding Motorcycle,” e.g.), but you make it seem easy. And so: I was always interested to see how incredibly dark some of the lyrics were on various demos, and then happy to find things lighten up on finished songs. Do you want to talk about general approaches to lyric writing, and how you tackled this particular album?

Schramm: I agree about the Dickinson bunk. Who would she be without her rhythm? Still, I confess that on one song where I used her poem as lyric I added two syllables to the end of some lines to fit it to my rhythm. A bad idea; I should have solved that differently. Anyway, as far as dark is concerned, I suppose that’s a natural tendency which I usually try to temper a bit. But I do prefer bittersweet to sweet. Writing the words to what will become a song is never the same from one to the next for me. Some are Frankensteins, and I can see the stitches even years later. Either they never seem whole and cohesive and there’s just a few lines that still please me, or I just look away. And then there are the ones that just fall out of you and you think “where did that come from?” and you love it. Sometimes a stitched-together lyric will finally cohere and with a few new lines it all feels right. I guess this is partly because I write backwards, or it seems backwards—almost exclusively creating melody and chord before any syllables appear. The times I have started with some words or a poem have been revelatory. I prefer that but it never happens except with words from another source. Like Emily Dickinson, or yourself.

It’s more of the same with this collection of lyrics. Some, like “Honestly Now” and “Spent” and “Good Youth,” were quick and easy, and I did little or no revision. “New England” was a task, except for the coda, which was nearly ad libbed.

Rumpus: I added a couple of syllables to Whitman when I set a poem by him with the Wingdales a few years back, so I have been guilty of the same crime. I too atone. How has the process of lyrics changed for you over the years? Have the themes changed? The interests?

Schramm: I’m not sure if the end results show an evolution. Maybe, but that’s more perspective than I have at the moment. I do know that I now more readily abandon something that isn’t working instead of laboring over it. Perhaps that’s a lesson learned. And I think I unconsciously prefer what I would call a “snapshot,” something like that Lucinda Williams lyric you mentioned. A single moment in time captured with all its attitude and small detail. Which is not to say that’s what all the lyrics on the record are like. There are some broad strokes there, too.

Rumpus: Does Omnidirectional have a lyrical point of view for you, or does it remain simply a collection of crafted songs, whose themes may go where they may?

Schramm: There’s no intentional thread that runs through it all. It’s just a collection of songs of the moment. Of course that moment was ten years ago. Although the lyrics on all the songs were not complete until perhaps a year ago. So on second thought, not really songs of a particular moment, are they? I’ll just say the spark of each was from around the same time.

Rumpus: Considering the writing largely took place ten years ago, would the album have a different flavor if it were begun anew now?

Schramm: Probably it would be different, but not unrecognizable. If it had been completed speedily it would have been different as well. It might be less dense in places, though I do like how layered some of the tunes are, and I wouldn’t change that. It might have less of the typical rock band underpinning it. I’m actually thinking about all this stuff right now because I’m about ready to start the next one. Which will not take ten years.

Rumpus: How do you know it won’t take ten years?

Schramm: Just won’t.

Rumpus: And how much playing live are you going to do for this record?

Schramm: We’d like to tour a bit, at least play some shows in the East. Considering a short European tour. I don’t know yet what shape that might take.

Rumpus: I noticed a vigorous interest in reading being sketched out by you on a certain website, so I’m interested also in what you’ve been reading this summer. Summer reading lists can often be particularly revealing…

Schramm: In the midst of Sylvie Simmons’s Leonard Cohen tome, I’m Your Man. Also listening to the audiobook of A Higher Loyalty, read by Comey. Interesting to hear him read his own words. Most happy discovery has been Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing. My daughter read some of his stories in her English class. Until then I was unaware. Wonderful stuff.

Rumpus: And what are you listening to, these days, with enthusiasm?

Schramm: Serge Gainsbourg, early stuff and Melody Nelson; Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate; Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One; Buzzcocks, Singles Going Steady; Andy Taub turned me on to Mickey Newbury’s tune “Frisco Depot,” which is really great; awaiting delivery of Peter Holsapple’s new CD…


Photographs of The Schramms by Ellie Kitman.

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 →