Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship
The best is yet to come
by Robert Pally
He is the great-grandson of Paul Tutmarc who has been credited as the inventor of the electric bass. And his grandfather Bud Tutmarc was a well known Hawaiian steel guitar player. Shane Tutmarc, born in Seattle and now resident of Nashville, has inherited their passion for music. With his bands Dolour, Shane Tutmarc & The Traveling Mercies and as a solo artist, he released impressive albums showing influences from Power Pop, Grunge-pop, Indie-pop, Psychedelic, Gospel, Glamrock, Americana, Garage rock, Country, Rock and Blue Eyed Soul. In this interview, Shane talks about inspiration, his sabbatical, Seattle, his family band, his goal when he writes lyrics, his progression as a musician and about his favorite album, that is still waiting for a release.
PSF: You come out of a musical family. Who influenced you to make music yourself? Shane Tutmarc: Music was always a part of my life growing up. I was obsessed with the movie Amadeus when I was really young. Then I discovered Elvis when I was about 10, soon followed by the Beatles and Nirvana and those influences more directly influenced me starting bands and writing songs more than any family influence. It wasn't until around the time my grandpa Bud passed away in late 2006 that I really started digging into my family's musical history. t was around that time I got a hold of old recordings of the western swing/country band my great-grandfather Paul Tutmarc had with then-wife, Bonnie Guitar. And that directly lead to the change in direction between Dolour and the Traveling Mercies.
PSF: Are your parents also into music and did they support your wish to become a musician?
Shane Tutmarc: Both my parents are musical, but it wasn't the easiest sell when I was started to get really serious about music in high school, especially when I had no interest in college, and my grades were suffering. But they've become more and more supportive over the years, once they realized there was no going back for me.
PSF: What was the first instrument you picked up and why?
ST: My mom briefly gave me piano lessons when I was in elementary school, but I didn't get too far with that. My dad taught me a couple of chords on guitar when I was in 4th grade, and in 5th grade, I chose drums as my instrument in the school band. I would sit in the garage for hours, playing drums along with my "red" Beatles tape (which is the "best of" 1962-1966). And by 7th grade, I was making demos playing drums, bass and guitar. And it was around the time I was writing for the first Dolour album (Waiting for a World War, 2001) that I picked up the piano again, and had to pretty much teach myself from scratch.
PSF: You were 10 years old when Nirvana got big and the scene in Seattle exploded. How was it for you to live in Seattle at that time?
ST: Seattle was an amazing place to grow up at the time. Between Microsoft, Starbucks, Ken Griffey Jr/the Seattle Mariners, Amazon and Nintendo moving their headquarters to Seattle, Sleepless in Seattle and Singles, and of course GRUNGE. It really felt like living in the center of the universe. I probably didn't fully appreciate or understand how special that was until more recently in hindsight. Since moving to Nashville and seeing that "boom town" hype happening here now is a little deja vu.
PSF: What is the difference between living in Seattle and Nashville (Shane moved there in 2010)?
ST: Everything. From the cost of living, to the music community, to the weather, to the food - they are almost different planets. But I love both cities, and still get back to Seattle two or three times a year.
PSF: What inspired you to form your own band? (Dolour was your first band, right?)
ST: I was putting groups together as early as the 5th grade. My friends and I would write silly songs, just a bunch of rhyming words. Then in late 6th grade, around the time of Kurt Cobain's death, I put my first real band together. I was gonna be the drummer until I met a better drummer, so I switched to guitar. No one wanted to sing, so I ended up doing that too. The first band I recorded with was called Urban Crush. It was a two-piece band with myself and a drummer (and I overdubbed bass on the recording). We released an EP in late 1996/early '97. That project basically turned into the first incarnation of Dolour within a year.
PSF: You recorded 4 albums with Dolour. How did you come up with the band name and what good and not so good memories do you have of this time?
ST: I was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and I saw the word "dolorous," which seemed beautiful to me- the way the word looked and its meaning. But I didn't want an adjective name, so I went with Dolour... adding the European-style extra "u." I don't think back to Dolour very often, but there were many highlights. When I was writing "Suburbiac" and "New Old Friends," those songs were just pouring out of me. I got such a high when I was writing back then. I was writing about 100 a year during that period. The hardest thing was that it was a pretty lonely pursuit. Most people from the outside thought it was a "band," but it was pretty much just me and a rotating cast of players. So I wasn't able to share the good times as much as I'd like to have.
PSF: How would you describe the music of Dolour ?
ST: I would say Dolour was a melodic pop band with occasional forays into electronic and psychedelia. That would easily describe the first 3 albums. With the last album, The Years in the Wilderness (which actually combined two separate albums), I was reaching for new directions and that record probably suffered because I was trying to make it work within the "Dolour" perimeter's which were beginning to feel very restricting.
PSF: Why did you stop the band?
ST: I was ready to try different types of music. I felt I'd fully explored the world of "Dolour" and had new worlds to discover.
PSF: After Dolour, you took a sabbatical from music. Why?
ST: My relationship with music was not always very healthy, especially by the end of the Dolour era. I was relying so heavily on music and songwriting as my identity and my main source of happiness that it became like a drug addiction. I quit playing music for about a year, got into meditation, took a normal job, and tried putting music in my past. But meditation actually brought me back to music, in a purer, less ego-driven way. Taking a more stripped down approach with the Traveling Mercies was a new challenge and it felt very fresh after spending years making very layered albums with Dolour.
PSF: Your next band was Shane Tutmarc & The Traveling Mercies with your brother Brandon and cousin Ryan. How came this band together?
ST: This came directly after our grandpa Bud's passing. I wanted to explore roots, gospel and blues music and putting a family band together was a way to honor my grandfather and connect with our family's musical history. My cousin and brother hadn't played music before this project, so it was like School of Rock with me teaching them how to play. We recorded 2 full-length albums within 6 months. It was a really creative, productive time.
PSF: What was different or better with Shane Tutmarc & The Traveling Mercies compared to Dolour?
ST: With Dolour everything took forever... every album took months, years. And trying to perform the songs live was impossible. I had so much instrumentation and production tricks on those records, the live show always fell short. With The Traveling Mercies, the albums were recorded live to tape, including the vocals. So it was really refreshing to be able to do everything so stripped down for a change. When we were really on, our live shows were really powerful.
PSF: Why split the band after just 2 albums?
ST: Well, going into the project, I knew it wasn't gonna last forever. It wasn't my cousin's and brother's dream to be in a band. It started innocently with us jamming for fun at my grandpa's after he passed, and then I taught them a few songs, and the next thing they know, I have them in a studio recording an album... and then another one. But after the 2nd album (Hey Lazarus!, 2008), my cousin and brother went back to their regular lives. But knowing from the get-go that the band wouldn't last forever, I really made a point of appreciating every moment of it, in a way I never had with Dolour.
PSF: What triggered the decision the go solo afterwards?
ST: I had songs I wanted to record. With the Traveling Mercies, I kept the chord progression really simple, just 3 or 4 chords (sometimes only 2 chords!) so that my brother and cousin could keep up. But with Shouting at a Silent Sky, I had written songs that were a little more complicated... more sophisticated progressions, and more interesting tempo changes, etc. So, with my brother and cousin moving on, it made sense to get some players that could be sensitive to that. And after already doing the "solo project with a band name thing" with Dolour, I opted to just use my name.
PSF: I read in an article about your first solo album Shouting At A Silent Sky (2009): "It was written as he was exploring his soul," Looking back on it now, how much truth is in this?
ST: Well, to a degree every album of mine could be described that way. After dealing with my grandpa's passing with a lot of the Traveling Mercies material, I was ready to dig deeper with Shouting At A Silent Sky. The themes of almost every song were mortality, aging, and darker sides of life. This record was written very fast, right on the heels of the Traveling Mercies albums... but it felt like a new, deeper, heavier chapter...
PSF: Some of your solo songs were used in films and documentaries. How did that come about?
ST: Yes, I've been fortunate with a number of film and television placements over the years - dating all the way back to the first Dolour album. I've always felt my music has a cinematic quality to it, maybe that's helped. There's been a number of people in and out of my career that have helped with the placements. And I've continued relationships with a number of the people involved with that world, and hope to continue placing songs into feature films and quality television programs.
PSF: What is the most important goal when you write lyrics?
ST: The goal changes with every song, but I try to be clear with what I am saying. Not cloud the message with too many metaphors or obscure references. For my money Hank Williams and John Lennon's solo years are some of my favorite lyrics. Very concise and not too flowery.
PSF: Do you see a progression from your start as Dolour to your solo albums now.
ST: When I started out, I wanted everything and the kitchen sink in the song... but over the years my writing and production have gotten a lot more focused and chiseled down. I see a similar evolution with a lot of songwriters/bands I admire. The music gets more refined, and their messages get clearer as they develop. I still like interesting arrangements or strange sounds now and then, but I don't like as much clutter as I did when I was younger. Less is more.
PSF: In 2013, you released a couple of covers in digital form. How did that come about?
ST: Well, I had a full-length album (the still-unreleased Borrowed Trouble) that was being held back from release, and so to kill time while waiting for that release, I decided to release some covers. Over my life I've recorded tons of covers, it's something I do for fun. I love picking apart other people's songs and seeing how they work. At the time, I was obsessed with Lana Del Rey's "Ride," and I felt like there was room to try my own take on it. I loved Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous album in my early 20's, and "Portions for Foxes" felt like it could lend itself to country-type arrangement. I don't remember how I chose Nirvana's "Aneurysm," I knew I wanted to try something by Nirvana, and I guess that one felt familiar enough but it wasn't a mega-hit or anything - so I hoped people might be more forgiving with me re-arranging it. I recorded that one completely with MIDI sounds... no real instruments. I had been watching a lot of Twin Peaks at the time, so that kind of crept into the arrangement as well. And they are available wherever digital downloads are sold - iTunes, Amazon, etc.
PSF: What elements must the "perfect song" have for you?
ST: Good lyrics, a good melody, and a feeling of honesty. That's about it, in general. But a good hook, whether musical or lyrical doesn't hurt. And a fresh or original feeling about the music or lyrics helps too, (and) an element of surprise.
PSF: At the beginning of 2015, you wanted to release a new album. Unfortunately, this will not be happening. Can you tell me the story of Borrowed Trouble?
ST: It should have probably come out in late 2013 or early 2014, actually. It was recorded between mid-2012 to mid-2013. I don't want to say too much, because who knows what the future brings... but long story short, the guy who financed the record decided to pull out of the project at the eleventh hour and left me with a finished record that I don't legally own. It's a lot more complicated than that, but that's the basic story. It'd be nice to see it released someday. I'm really happy with the album- it's probably my favorite album I've made.
PSF: At least you will release in 2015 a single-a-month series. Can you tell me more about it?
ST: Yes, a great label out of Portland, OR called In Music We Trust will be releasing a series of singles throughout 2015. The plan is to do a single-a-month. "Poison Apple" came out January 20th to all digital retail outlets, and "Tennessee Girl" followed on February 17th. These will be a wide variety of songs, all self-produced independently. And the idea is that by the end of the year, it'll be a full album's worth of songs. The hope is that releasing one song at a time might help the listener feel more connected to each song individually. I need to get back in the studio to keep up with this goal of one-a-month!
PSF: Is it possible to make a living as a not-so-well-known musician?
ST: It's not easy. I've just learned to not put all my eggs in one basket.
PSF: How do you pay your bills?
ST: I wear many hats. There have been brief spells over the last 15 years where I've been able to live off music alone, but for the most part, it's a combination of many sources. I've taught piano, worked as a doorman at bars, freelance graphic design work, produced other artists, DJ for radio and clubs, catering, cooking, worked in retail, record stores, telemarketing, banks, grocery stores, you name it.
PSF: Has the Internet made it easier or more difficult to be a musician?
ST: It's made it easier for an independent artist to distribute music worldwide. But that being said, there's a lot more artists all using the same tricks, trying to get heard, so you still have to be creative and talented to cut through all that.
PSF: What wish do you have for the future of the music business?
ST: As everyone knows, the music business has changed dramatically since I was first starting out in the late '90's. I witnessed the end of the old way, the last big signings of underground artists to major labels. But my way of working really hasn't changed much. I've always worked outside of the music business, whether I'm with a record label or not. I've always had a strong DIY approach to everything I've done. I made peace with being a "lifer" a long time ago, and I will always be involved in some fashion with music and art throughout my life, no matter what goes on with the business side of things. My only wish would be that the great artists of the future can get the support they need to continue bringing beautiful art to the world.
(not complete: a few odd 7"s, EPs and compilation tracks are missing):
Waiting for a World War (2001)
New Old Friends (2004) The Years in the Wilderness (2007)
With Shane Tutmarc & The Traveling Mercies:
I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing About In My Song (2007)
Hey Lazarus! (2008)
Shouting At A Silent Sky (2009)
So Hard To Make An Easy Getaway (EP) (2011)
"So Hard To Make An Easy Getaway" (Single) (2011)
"Ride" (Single) (2013)
"Portions for Foxes" (Single) (2013)
"Aneurysm" (Single) (2013)
Also see Tutmarc's website
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