Interview: David Lerner of Trummors!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing the David Lerner of Trummors, a talented duo formed by he and songwriter Anne Cunningham. According to a bio sent to us by the band, they begun in 2010 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in New York City. The two multi-instrumentalists focus on acoustic instrumentation, incorporating harmonium, fingerstyle guitar, and close-harmony dual vocals into their warm sound. Early on in the group’s existence, David and Anne moved from Brooklyn to the considerably calmer surroundings of Woodstock in upstate New York.

Trummors’ debut album, Over and Around the Clove, was released in 2012 and reflected their recent change of scenery with its lushly earthy songs and slightly psychedelic filter on a ’70s pop sound. Moorish Highway, just released on 6/17/14, is the follow-up to their first LP, and significantly expands on the country-folk duo format of their debut.

Calling on a expanded cast of talented backing players including drummer Otto Hauser (Vetiver), guitarist Kevin Barker (Johanna Newsom), bassist James Preston (Zachary Cale), and pedal steel guitarist Marc Orleans (D. Charles Speer and the Helix), Moorish Highway was recorded at The Drawing Room in Kingston, NY by Justin Rice (Bishop Allen), and mixed by Eli Walker at Isokon in Woodstock, NY.

While Trummors’ signature harmonium drones and close vocal harmonies remain, the duo visit new sonic territory as well: “Bogus Bruce” chugs along with a metronomic groove, while “Strangers From Now On” nods to classic Merseybeat. A spare version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, long a staple of the duo’s live set, rounds out a dynamic sophomore effort inspired by the singer-songwriter era, but from a point of view that is all Trummors’ own.

David is also known to some folks for his years of work with Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Before reading David’s reflections to our questions that follow (and some music as well!), check out their video for the song, “Vigil.”

trummors.desert

How did you decide to form “Trummors” and how was the name of the band chosen?

Anne and I both wrote songs when we met, and sometimes we’d sing them together, though usually only late-night and after drinking way too much whiskey. A few years ago, we were house sitting for some friends in Ithaca, NY and recorded some demos on a reel to reel 4 track, with me on guitar and Anne keeping time on a kick drum made from a suitcase and snare. We liked how those stripped down recordings sounded, so Trummors evolved from there as we continued to write, record, and bring in other friends to accompany us. The name is the Swedish word for drummers. I saw it a while ago on the back of an LP by a 60s Swedish band called The Tages and thought it would make a good band name at some point. It seemed to suit us, given the diminutive drum set (aka “trum-set”) that we started out using.

I enjoy the way your voices harmonize especially on the song, “Hearts for the Trump.” How do you work together to create music?

“Hearts for the Trump” was an anomaly in that Anne wrote the verse and I wrote the chorus separately, and they happened to fit together with some minor changes. Usually, one of us writes an entire song and then we’ll get together and play it a few different ways until we arrive at a key, tempo and arrangement that feels right. If we’re lucky, the vocal harmonies come intuitively, if not, we’ll go over each of our vocal parts note for note, which can easily end in fits of frustration. On the new record we wrote a lot of the songs with specific musicians in mind, but didn’t actually hear the songs that way until the recording was happening. In the future we’d like to write with a band present because imagining full arrangements while writing as a duo created a bit of a disconnect on this last record.

In what ways is your music feminist?

We’re invested in feminist theory and art as critique for sure, but a lot of the music we dig is not always the most politically progressive. Country music and feminist politics make for strange bedfellows! We are feminists, but our lyrics are not feminist in an overt way—our songs don’t reflect a conventional feminist identity politics, for example. We don’t participate in the typical guy-girl mode of songwriting that takes cliché gender divisions for granted either—and that’s a big part of what I think is feminist about our music—we’re opposed to reinforcing stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.

Who and what have been your most significant creative influences?

In an effort to not bore the reader name checking dudes like Bob Dylan and The Flying Burrito Brothers I’ll just list a few highlights from the past year: P.G. Six’s rendition of “Ashokan Farewell.” Bill Keith playing banjo every Thursday night in Woodstock, NY. Doug Paisley performing for roughly six people in Hudson, NY when there should have been many more. William Tyler’s set at St. Pancras Old Church in London, and Leonard Cohen’s show in Brighton, UK was pretty incredible too. Steve Gunn’s latest record “Time Off” was on repeat, and Zachary Cale’s ”Blue Rider” is his best yet —this winter we listened to a lot of Bridget St. John, particularly her record “Jumble Queen”, and also got alarmingly deep into Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira.”

What inspired your move from Greenpoint in Brooklyn, NY to Woodstock, NY? How are those places similar and different creatively?

Greenpoint is a fine neighborhood and still feels like home in many ways, but after living there for many years we were ready for a change. We found a great place upstate at a time when it seemed like a good idea to leave the city, so we did it spontaneously, and for the most part we’re happy that we did. Creatively there are some trade-offs: with the exception of the exceptional drummer Otto Hauser, the musicians we play with all live in New York City, so that introduces some inconvenience. But we’ve found the speed here to be way more conducive to making music, and we’ve been fortunate to get recording help from friends we’ve met since moving—we’re thankful that we have such talented & generous friends around!

On especially your debut album, “Over and Around The Clove” you write and sing about places (e.g., Knoxville and Salinas). How does a sense of geography affect your work?

Both of the songs you mention reference geography but they’re more about people situated in specific contexts than the physical qualities of a place itself like the landscape or climate, for example. Establishing the right setting lends a song mood and dimension, and hopefully makes it memorable. Our songs draw on some personal experiences of travel, but they’re not meant to be an exact account.

Your style has been termed country folk. How do you characterize the music that you make?

We’re influenced by a lot of country and folk bands and singer-songwriters, so country folk is an apt characterization of our sound. But in spirit I think we have more in common with our friends and peers in the rock, psych-folk, drone, and experimental worlds than we do with the affected country, new folk and Americana that’s become so popular in the past few years.

Which song would you most of all wish to cover?

Good question, there are so many! Right now, it would probably be “She Don’t Care About Time” by The Byrds. Anne and I are both major Gene Clark fans, and that song is an early example of his phenomenally great songwriting. Lately, we’ve also been performing a song called “Hearts” by Ian Matthews off his 1971 record “If You Saw Thro My Eyes.” Ian Matthews is best known as a skillful interpreter of other people’s material, but he also wrote a handful of beautiful songs of his own, so it’d be nice to call attention to his original work by recording a version of it.

You have a great way of telling stories and portraying people in songs. What is the narrative behind “Tilden?”

Fort Tilden is a popular New York City beach, but the song “Tilden” was inspired by a solo trip out that way for work, not pleasure. The character the narrator encounters in that song was based on a real guy I met who was selling his record collection to the store I worked for, and chose that occasion to become wistful and reflective about his life to a total stranger, that stranger being me. He told me he had always dreamed of living the real “big city” life, being a famous DJ, having a loft in SoHo (which should give some indication of how dated his reference points were), but ended up spending most of his time in basement apartment in Gravesend, Brooklyn, fixing junk. Somehow selling his records was his way of letting go of that dream and squaring with reality, which sounds depressing, but in reality was more matter of fact. Come to think of it, “Bogus Bruce” was inspired by another junk store dweller, so I guess I’m drawn to writing about solitary people living amongst old objects. There’s some kind of pathos and humor amidst the bleakness there.

On what projects are you working on currently?

We’re about to spend a few months in Taos, New Mexico, where we are psyched to write another record, among other things. So our current project is preparing for that move.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

Anne recently finished a long writing project on the topic of failure, so I’m tempted to quote Samuel Beckett’s oft-repeated injunction “fail again, fail better.” Yet, I’d ultimately rather see aspiring musicians succeed on their own terms than fail on anyone else’s. Unless I hate them-ha!

-Sem

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