Nevermind that critics and the man himself express doubts as to his vocal abilities. A stunning and literary songsmith, invoking of the listener to “fill your heart with words I know,” with quiet yet swift surety Dave Schramm shepherds us under the bruised yet inviting wing of Hammer And Nails.
Having made the jump from Checkered Past Records with label head Eric Babcock to the newly formed Catamount Company, Schramm’s second solo effort insidiously weaves a chord-by-chord chronicle the shape and size of ten importantly small and interrelated lives. In the space it takes him to nasally intone “Sunday the night came early again,” Schramm precisely communicates the lonely urgent desperation of that day’s darkest and most frightening moment.
An early member of Yo La Tengo and frontman of country-folk rockers the Schramms, the Hoboken, New Jersey, resident has rather humbly and consistently cut such undervalued jewels as his band’s 1990 debut, Walk To Delphi, and been a session guitarist for acts ranging from Freedy Johnston to Soul Asylum. With Hammer And Nails, the unsung poet laureate of indie roots-rock is sowing seeds of sorrow, reaping fields of blues, then plucking them up into bittersweet nosegays that impress with their simple yet particular beauty. Nearly 30 years after trundling through “Child Of The Moon” on his first guitar, there is a deep-seated womanly energy threading through Schramm’s work, a maternalism borne of one well in possession of his masculinity, at ease with both the receptive quality of silence and the rhythm of slow breath.
I. WORKING WITH WOOD IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL
No Depression: Hammer And Nails is such a lovely and ruminative record — kind of broken and sad and blue, but also sort of sweet and hopeful still, and not willing to discard the softness of being human. Can you talk a little about the process of putting its pieces together?
Dave Schramm: I like your description. I guess it’s a real personal record; it was fun and liberating to record, since it was just me and some instruments and some gear, just like the first one — but maybe it’s also a bit lonely for that reason. Some of the tunes I wrote in the studio and just threw them right on tape. And there was some new territory for me here, especially vocally, which has never been my forte. After I had everything sitting where I wanted it on the tape, I was almost afraid to let anyone hear it, because it was so gentle. I’m very wary of “Schramms Lite.” But I ain’t afraid of “sweet and hopeful.”
ND: What made you decide to make solo records?
DS: Well, I had these songs which didn’t make sense with the big noisy band thing. And I also wanted to show the other side of some tunes the band had already recorded, or was about to record. For instance, “The Way Some People Die” was really a folk song when it was born. I think it’s a great thing to mess around with different approaches. I suppose I also wanted to create a different mood than we do in the band.
ND: Is the writing process different when you write for just yourself as opposed to a band?
DS: The songs are often different, so the process is probably different, too, but I don’t like to analyze it too much. I’d like it to remain a mystery to me.
ND: What’s the most fulfilling thing about making and playing music?
DS: The rush of live performance, hearing a song coming to life in the studio, stuff like that.
ND: And what might be the least desirable aspect?
DS: Business crap. Anything having the unfortunate aspect of undignified striving.
ND: Can you describe a typical day? Which parts do you embrace and which do you find difficult or distasteful but necessary?
DS: Luckily I don’t have too many totally typical days. When I do, it’s just that commuter-9-to-5-get-home-watch-TV thing. That’s distasteful. I embrace that first cup of coffee each morning.
ND: You’re also a teacher at a school in Brooklyn, right? How do you find that it informs your life as a musician?
DS: I teach very rarely, and then only as a substitute in History and English. My main gig at the school is as a carpenter, locksmith and electrician. I also work on the school website. I will say that it’s great to be around kids (usually) and in a scholarly environment. And working with wood is good for the soul.
II. THE ROLLING STONES AND DONKEY FARMS, AND NOTHING AT ALL, REALLY
ND: Your images both lyrically and musically are very poetic, specific, visual. Do songs come to you in a way that you “see” them first?
DS: In a way, yes. The emotional posture of a song usually has to be there from the start, or it doesn’t turn into anything.
ND: On this record, Emily Dickinson’s poetry forms the lyrics to “Funeral Song”, and Philip K. Dick’s Ragle Gumm appears as well. What other books, writers, characters have stood out to you in time, and what role does readership play in writing?
DS: [German novelist] Thomas Mann is big in my world right now. That’s got to mean something, I guess. “The Way Some People Die” is the title of a book by Ross MacDonald, one of my favorite hard-boiled writers, though the song has nothing to do with the plot of the novel. Beyond that, unless you set poetry to music, or some similar activity, there’s no direct interaction between literature and music. But everything you read, see, hear, feel, blah blah blah, has got to affect you, or you’re dead. Comatose. Oblivious.