[9 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Woodstock-based neo-folkies Trummors came out with their sophomore album Moorish Highway (Ernest Jenning Record Co.) in June. PopMatters caught up with David Lerner, half of the Trummors songwriting core, to find out more about the making of Moorish Highway upon its release. Trummors’ new single “Strangers from Now On” premieres on PopMatters; the group plays a live date this week on 11 July at the Levon Helm Barn & Studio in Woodstock, NY.
PopMatters: Moorish Highway seems to expand on the sound from your debut record, Over and Around the Clove. How was the writing and/or recording process different for this record?
David Lerner: With the first record, we wrote most of the songs together and built simple arrangements around acoustic guitar and percussion, then added steel guitar, harmonica and other touches. By the time we were writing this record, Anne [Cunningham] from drums to harmonium, and we wanted to feature that instrument more prominently. We were also writing songs that called for a full backing band, so we enlisted the help of some friends and favorite musicians—Kevin Barker, Otto Hauser, James Preston—and knocked out the basic tracking very quickly. We tracked seven songs live in one long day, which was fun, but exhausting! From there we took more time getting the guitars, vocals, and drone textures right. Marc Orleans contributed some excellent pedal steel playing—we had fun convincing him to only play a single, sustained G note repeatedly for one song. It wasn’t always a seamless, easy process—at times we probably tested engineer (and cameo drummer) Justin Rice’s patience, but we’re all happy with the results.
PopMatters: Like many great records before it, Moorish Highway seems fascinated with travel, with the road. Were there particular experiences travelling that contributed to this record? What about the road, about different places, inspires you as a musician and songwriter?
David Lerner: Anne moved around often growing up due to her dad’s military career, and I spent a lot of time touring in bands, so that’s a formative part of us as writers. In general, the road is always going to signify certain things: freedom, anticipation of the new, a fresh start, etc. We fully embrace those meanings. But the road is also where you end up due to displacement or necessity, and in that sense it can be an anxious place too. We used the road theme to explore some of these ambiguities—the title track “Moorish Highway” was loosely inspired by the life and work of Frederic Church. He was a leading Hudson River School painter who became an early art star by traveling to these exotic, far away locales and painting hugely ambitious, grand scale works. They’re wonderful pieces, but his work also raises questions for the viewer about the privilege and freedom to pursue an aesthetic vision that far.
PopMatters: One of the interesting tensions on the record is the contrast between the intimate sound of the songs and the people in them, who are often separated or distanced—people are waiting for people who aren’t there, people are staring through the barrier of a window, people are leaving or have already left. Was this an intentional pattern that developed in the album? What thematic goals did you have or what patterns do you see coming out of the songs on this record?
David Lerner: Yes, lyrical themes of isolation, transition, the wish to flee situations that threaten to turn sour, and a purgatorial sort of waiting crop up in almost every song. While our melodies and arrangements sound easygoing, we often purposefully undercut them with darker lyrical content—on “Branches Divide” for example, we played around with temporality and lyrical details to create a tension between a pastoral, peaceful mood against foreboding apocalyptic circumstances. Generally, our writing favors ambiguous, minor feelings, and we try to avoid obvious emoting.
PopMatters: There are clear folk and country traditions at play here, but there are moments—on the title track and “Hearts for the Trump"especially—where other, more subtle influences seem to surface? What influences do you see as inspiring this record? Were there new influences that have come into the band’s sound since Over and Around the Clove?
David Lerner: Because we worked with a full band on many of these songs we had the ability to incorporate a few dormant influences that wouldn’t have fit in on the first record. Some of the influences on this record are not so subtle—I mean there is a Gordon Lightfoot cover! But, as you pointed out, “Hearts for the Trump” is different from anything we’ve recorded before. It has an unusual structure, tempo shifts, and chords we’d associate with Gerry Rafferty or “Can’t Buy a Thrill”-era Steely Dan, back when they’d use pedal steel as often as saxophone. “Moorish Highway” maybe brings to mind “Wharf Rat” by the Dead or some other longer tunes of that sort. We wrote it with room for an extended jam, and with Kevin Barker’s guitar playing in mind. Allowing for that expansive space in songs is something we’d like to push further on future recordings.
PopMatters: Early in Trummors’ history, you and Anne Cunningham moved from Brooklyn to Woodstock. How do you see that move as shaping the band’s sound?
David Lerner: The move was huge in terms of shaping both our sound and development as a band. Lyrically, songs like “Platte Clove Road” from our first record drew directly on the geography, and we found our new digs to be way more conducive to making music than a cramped railroad apartment. Like many people, we were attracted to the Hudson Valley because it’s a beautiful area with a small but strong musical community. The first month we moved here, our buddy and songwriter Hans Chew introduced us to his friend Tom Newton, who generously lent his time and space in Byrdcliffe, a turn of the century art colony, to record the songs that became our first record Over and Around the Clove.
Shortly thereafter, we met Justin and Darbie from Bishop Allen at one of their shows and became fast friends. Justin suggested we finish the record at his house in Kingston NY, and we recorded all of Moorish Highway there too. When it came time to mix and master this last record, having talented engineers like Eli Walker and D. James Goodwin nearby was a big plus. And of course so much great music has come out of here in the past too. There’s Dylan and the Band naturally, but also lesser-known musicians like John and Beverly Martyn and Bobby Charles came to the area briefly to live and make records. We’re stoked to be part of that ongoing musical history.
PopMatters: With the release of Moorish Highway, what’s next up for Trummors?
David Lerner: Our friend Jason Meagher invited us down to his studio Black Dirt to test some of his new microphones, so we’re looking forward to that as a chance to sketch out some new songs. In August, we’re leaving the Hudson Valley temporarily to write our next record in Taos, New Mexico, where Anne will also be teaching at the University—so there may be yet another travel-themed record in our future!