Hey Man! Records Artist-on-Artist: Tommi Zender and Peter Zeldow

Peter Zeldow recently sat down with fellow Hey Man! Records artist Tommi Zender to discuss his new album, “More Songs About Time”.

April 22, 2019

Peter Zeldow: I know you have spent time in Chicago, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Has living in such different milieus influenced your music?

Tommi Zender: Absolutely. I grew up in a melting pot of cultures around the Chicago/Evanston border in the 70s and was exposed to a tremendous variety of music, especially R&B/soul music. Later, living in LA, I got further into rock and progressive music. And what I did in the southwest informs what I do as an improvising musician to this day.

As a teenager, my friends and I would take guitars and percussion toys and head out to the mountains, river bottoms, lakes, caves, and cabins and would log inordinate hours playing improvised music. The southwestern and desert climates seem to affect musicians who have spent considerable time there. It’s perhaps most noticeable in my ambient guitar work even though that was not created in the southwest. I’ll probably never live in the southwest again, but its influence during my formative years will always be a strong tie to whatever my “sound” is.

PZ: Your last album of songs came out in 2005. What have you been doing in the interim? How has your playing and writing evolved? How would you contrast the new album (“More Songs About Time”) with “Will Work for Harmony”?

TZ: That’s a long gap of time to cover. I started working at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2011. It’s a vibrant, magical community, and I have learned so much from my students and fellow teaching musicians. I have also spent a lot of time helping friends with their music, unintentionally (but willingly) de-prioritizing my own recorded work. I like not always being the guy in charge; I like wearing different hats. I have a residency at Wishbone here in Chicago which is good for me creatively and allows me to play solo and collaborate in duo and trio formats. A lot of the songs on the new record were debuted there. I also play a couple of hours a month at a downtown hotel.

In terms of contrasting the two records, I hope the songwriting is better. I’d like to think I play drums with a deeper feel now, more sensitively and intuitively, for the good of the songs. It’s the same for guitar. It’s not competitive for me as it was when I was first learning to play. I just want what makes the songs feel good. I think the new record has benefitted from this. I no longer feel I have a ton to prove.

A couple of themes that connect the two albums are transcendence and forgiveness, give or take a song or two. One of the biggest contrasts is that I’m unquestionably in a much better place in my life. I’ve also been performing most of the songs on “More Songs About Time” live for a few years. That wasn’t the case with the songs on WWFH. I’ve had 15 years to pick the cream of the crop to include on this record. I think the balance between craft and mystery has tipped favorably to the latter. And the new record is arguably more relaxed, less clinical. It’s a full album listening experience that I hope isn’t too demanding of the listener. I hope it’s worthy of repeat listens. I’m proud of the work.

PZ: Can you describe the new record in terms of where it fits amidst the categories that music writers and programmers use these days? Are you working in a particular genre?

TZ: No! I guess it’s a rock-pop record. It’s music. I like a lot of different things. I don’t think it’s in danger of being categorized as “genre-hopping.” It feels honest and authentic. I’m definitely not trying to be something I’m not. I’m glad I’m not tasked with fitting it into some programming box. I don’t have that level of ambition with regard to it. I hope some folks I don’t know will discover it and find it to be something they like.

PZ: The new album is largely a solo effort. Would you describe the production process? The decision to play nearly all the parts yourself?

TZ: Preproduction started by playing scratch versions of the songs into a portable recorder on January 2, 2018. Twelve songs in one inspired 120 minute burst. I used an in-ear metronome so that my guitar would drive the feel of the songs and there would be no click track distraction. So it wasn’t a cut and paste affair in the slightest…the songs were fully formed, though the instrumentation wasn’t pre-defined.

The record was mostly made by me and my engineer/co-producer Justin James. Justin is really talented and intuitive. He has great ears and could swiftly provide context for what was going to come next, even when I did not specifically know what I was going to do. We left quite a bit to chance and spontaneity. He was always prepared for just about anything. I like to work fast, not always even listening back to things. He would sometimes ask, “are you sure?” which might or might not prompt us to investigate more. He enabled me to jump from instrument to instrument in a stream-of-consciousness manner, letting me stay “in the zone” when I was in it. The performances took precedence over the sonics. I don’t need to test drive multiple microphones, you know, better to capture the music and the moment!

In terms of multi-tracking, the first thing was drums. Then I set about replacing scratch guitars and vocals and added bass. Eventually I added piano and other oddball instruments like harmonium, dulcimer, and random percussion toys. There’s not a single guitar solo on the record. I tried, but the songs just weren’t having it. One day my friend Jack Whitney brought a Nashville-strung Martin guitar to the studio. It had a beautiful sound that sits much better in the mix than a 12-string. Justin and I heard it, and I said “we are going to have to try REALLY hard not to put this on EVERYTHING?”

Recording and mixing took us about three weeks across 2018. Mixing was a bit more detail-oriented, often playing with the idea of addition by subtraction. “Is it serving the music? Is it serving the song? Sometimes, when I didn‘t feel like making a decision, I’d look at Justin and say “you decide.” Roland Alvarez, who designed and built the studio, fittingly ended up mastering the record. He’s a genius in my book.

When I first thought of making this record, I thought “I’ll get so-and-so to play on this song” and another pal on another one. But the truth is I knew the songs intimately and just did not have the patience to teach other musicians their parts. Especially all the parts I didn’t even know until I was discovering them in the studio. It was important to me to get the feel of the music just right, and what I played seemed right enough.

The sole exceptions were the lap-steel guitar textures on four songs performed by Christine Bougie from Toronto-based pop group Bahamas. Getting Christine to lend her talent to the project (on an instrument I am arguably still struggling to learn) was a thrill and lent a fresh perspective to the recording.

Photo credit: Eric James Welsh

PZ: Is there a particular song that was influenced by current events that you would like to call to the attention of listeners? Other songs with different sources of inspiration?

TZ: The song “Echo Chambers in the Hall of Mirror” drives into media, especially social media, with my narrator’s view from the proverbial anthropological bucket seat. The song “Getting Personal” is fairly obviously about dating. While I cannot say it’s autobiographical, I also cannot say it’s totally not. Again there always seems to be some degree of anthropological license at play.

“Everything There Is to Know” is co-written with my friend Dave Sills. It’s a true co-write, meaning that we batted it back and forth, both contributing music and lyrics. About three drafts and we were done. Dave is putting the song on his next record as well. Neither of us has heard what the other has done with it, recording-wise. I find that exciting!

“Strangers and Passersby” may be my favorite thing on the record. It’s a really “big” song with a coda AND a reprise. We gave it the kitchen-sink approach. It’s the reason folks will have to turn up the vinyl a bit. During mastering, we left dynamic contrast rather than squash it all across the board.

PZ: I once had an art teacher who liked to claim that “all art is insincere.” She meant that artists don’t create primarily for their own pleasure. Rather they create with an imagined or hoped for audience in mind. Agree or disagree? (If you agree, care to elaborate?)

TZ: When I was in my mid-20s, a friend’s dad posed a similar question. At the time I swore I would still make music even if no one else could hear it, even though I also wanted to play what I made up for friends and family.

My mind has changed, and how I interact musically in the world has also changed. I believe in the power of music to save lives on a regular basis. I believe absolutely that it should be shared with others. I have faith in music to connect people and to heal. As a teacher, I feel music is for everyone. That is certainly the mission of the school where I work.

I don’t try to imagine an audience specifically when it comes to my recorded work, but I do endeavor to make music that I would like to hear. Would I buy this? Does it have elements of things I like? I know enough people with similar musical taste that I can assume some of those people are going to dig what I make. Not just because they’re friends, I hope. I am not sure I can agree that “all art is insincere” as a literal, face-value statement. Quite the contrary, despite what the art teacher said it means.

Click here to learn more about Tommi and to get your copy of his new album, More Songs About Time. Be sure to catch Tommi’s album release show at SPACE in Evanston on June 2: get your tickets here.