Jeff Tobias has been a part of two of the most consistently great outfits making music these days, Sunwatchers and Modern Nature. But Tobias’s own skills as a songwriter are also considerable, and his new solo album Recurring Dream makes that very clear. It abounds with eminently catchy pop that grapples with sophisticated and complex themes, and it further reinforces Tobias as one of the most interesting musicians working today. I talked with Tobias about the album’s genesis, technology, and what’s next for him.
To a listener who knows you through your work in Sunwatchers or Modern Nature, Recurring Dream comes from a very different place, musically speaking. For how long have you been working on these songs?
I came up with the first idea for a song that would wind up on this album on Memorial Day 2017 – what would eventually become “The Hanging Man.” I had the day off from work, so I just recorded some chords on a synthesizer, then overdubbed bass guitar and clarinets – just grabbing the instruments that were on hand in my bedroom. Once I realized that ideas like that one and others like it were becoming my first solo album, I decided that I wanted to express ideas and explore styles that weren’t present in Sunwatchers or Modern Nature. And I wanted to start singing again. I spent the next year and a half slowly collecting miniature ideas in that same way, and at the beginning of 2019 I began fleshing out, demoing, and editing those ideas in earnest. I started rehearsing with Nick Podgurski on drums in fall ’19, and we tracked his parts the day after Christmas. I recorded the rest of it in fits and starts throughout 2020.
Do you find that your work in other groups has influenced your solo work in specific ways?
Every single group I’ve ever played in has taught me something. Sunwatchers is a group where I learned a lot about how to be comfortable with chaos and how to listen; Modern Nature’s been a masterclass in leaving space and making big statements with small gestures.
I guess the biggest thing I can think of is this: while writing Recurring Dream, I was thinking of myself less as a songwriter and more as a composer who was writing in the song format and was planning on singing. I wrote words and vocal melodies for these songs in advance of recording them, but I hardly, if ever, actually sang them aloud to see what they would sound like coming out of my mouth. While performing with Modern Nature, I was asked by Jack Cooper (the band’s songwriter/frontman) to do some backing vocals, and in doing so, I needed to match his quiet dynamic and soft enunciation. On March 11th 2020 (two years ago as of this week), we were playing what we knew would be the final show of the tour, which was about to completely fall apart because of covid cancellations. We encored with some new, unreleased songs, and Jack encouraged me to sing lead on one song. Working on my voice in that context definitely geared me towards the vocal style I would adopt when the time finally came for me to sing my own songs.
I was struck by the arrangements heard throughout the album. “We’re Here to Help” manages to feel both ornate and very stark in places. How much of these arrangements came about intuitively and how much was via trial and error?
Thank you! I think a lot of the initial ideas were developed by something closer to trial and error, especially in terms of the materials I had at hand, and how I interacted with those materials. By that I mean – I put a lot of bass guitar, synthesizers, and reeds on the album because those were the instruments I had in the rooms I was working in. And I emphasized the ones that I can actually play and de-emphasized the ones I couldn’t. (Or found someone who could, in the case of someone like Maxx Katz, who saved the album from my underdeveloped flute chops.) That being said, once the very early ideas were established, I quickly started to hear full arrangements in my head, and I crafted everything based around those arrangements. So I guess you could say they were intuitive at first, and then highly deliberate and arranged thereafter.
How did you get the synth sound heard on “Venezuela”?
That’s from a sample pack called Samples from Mars. “Venezuela” was written on acoustic guitar and was originally going to be an unaccompanied solo ballad, but I booked a solo set to try these songs out and didn’t feel like bringing too many instruments, so I learned it on synth, and then it became a synth jam. When I tried recording it, I wasn’t nailing the take, so I programmed it in MIDI. The sound is meant to replicate a MS10 with a sawtooth waveform running through some kinda Marshall amp modeler.
How have you gone about playing these songs live?
Very carefully. I’ve done a few shows playing them on acoustic guitar, and one where I’m just playing a synthesizer. Last week I had the privilege of putting on a big album release gig at Roulette, where I subjected a bunch of my extremely talented friends to my fascist vision of exactly replicating the album live. That group — Jeff Tobias Recurring Dream Band — will also play at Bang on a Can’s Long Play Festival on April 29th, and anywhere else we get invited to play.
Your Twitter account riffs on SPACs, so I’m curious — how do you feel about the current ways music and technology overlap?
Man, I hope SPACs stay the fuck out of music. I think technology itself is neutral; I think the owners of technology are the problem. I love that I can make music using my computer, and I hate that my computer is constructed using dubiously sourced materials and exploited labor. These demonic contradictions will continue until technology is under democratic control.
Do you think there’s space for things to improve?
Totally. I think it’s obvious that the way we live now isn’t working. So by definition, it can’t continue to work. My philosophy is one of short term pessimism (it’s absolutely going to get worse) and long term optimism (nowhere to go but up from there).
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a few shows booked playing solo and with Recurring Dream Band, and I have a solo sopranino saxophone cassette I’m working on getting out into the world. Modern Nature is going on tour in May, and Sunwatchers have some dates we’re going to do in June.
Photo: Peter Kerlin