I first met Tony Scherr, as many of his Canadian acquaintances have, through Chris Brown and Kate Fenner (more on them later; an interview with Fenner will run tomorrow). He was playing bass with them at the time, and later guitar.
The first thing you notice about Scherr is his face: it's a rugged, square-jawed visage that from a distance gives off the impression of a boxer or a Brooklyn Dodger; up close, he's all teddy bear eyes and sly grins, and as soon as he opens his mouth you discover he's one of the warmest, friendliest guys you're likely to encounter on stage or off. Similarly, his guitar playing--particularly his slide work--can appear jagged at first, and it's because he steers away from most linear guitar solo conventions; on closer glance, you can hear Scherr pushing at edges and mistakes until they sound like they were supposed to be part of the master plan all along.
That approach extends to his songwriting, which draws from the jazz standards that he cut his teeth playing, though the songs rarely sound conventional--for better and occasionally worse; as seasoned a performer as he is, he's still young as a songwriter. As the New York Times put it in a live review, "Some of Mr. Scherr’s songs started as if in the middle, suggested by a few chords and a scrap of a lyric; some seemed chopped off after a chorus or two. Singer-songwriters usually don’t treat their babies this way."
And yet his biggest success to date has come via someone else's cover of sorts: his friend Leslie Feist adapted his song "Sacramento" with new lyrics and titled it "Lonely Lonely," which appears on Let It Die. You don't have to search too hard on the web to find a lovely live duo recording of Scherr and Feist at the Rivoli circa 1999. But neither that recording nor Scherr's own recordings help the fact that his work is best enjoyed in the moment, on stage.
Some other famous names with Scherr connections: he played in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards in the mid-90s [he also plays on the Fishing With John soundtrack], and continues to play with some of those players in SexMob. In the late 90s he met a songwriter named Jesse Harris and a performer named Norah Jones at NYC's Living Room, and has played on albums by both of them. He produced an album of country music by SCTV's Rick Moranis. He plays with Teddy Thompson and some other guy named Willie Nelson. And to top it all off, he plays bass behind one of his biggest guitar heroes, a man whose albums he always bought on the day they came out, and a man of whom Scherr does a hilarious impersonation: Bill Frisell.
Scherr's second solo album is called Twist in the Wind, and it's out this month on Smells Like Records (run by Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, home to Lee Hazlewood reissues and early Cat Power albums). He's playing the Dakota in Toronto this Thursday, March 20 with Chris Brown and the Citizens' Band (where he plays bass alongside drummer Anton Fier); and March 25 at Joe's Pub in NYC.
We spoke for an hour about a variety of topics; a clipped cell phone signal and a faulty minidisc player conspired to make most of our conversation more ephemeral than I had intended. Scherr spoke of how lucky he was to connect with the people he has in Canada: Leslie Feist, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith, Martin Tielli--artists he finds very brave in their approach in ways that he believes many American singer/songwriters are not. He told stories about not only what a thrill it is to play with Willie Nelson, but what it's like to sit on the tour bus with him and trade new songs. He spoke about the freedom he's found since befriending Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, who egged him on to be more than just a sideman. And he went into great detail about living in the musical moment with Bill Frisell: no rehearsal, no set list, pure intuition.
Here, however, we mostly get the scoop on his beginnings and his development.
March 12, 2008
Locale: cell phone in New York City, driving to the Abrams Brothers' CD release show at the Living Room so he can lend them an upright bass
It seems that for you, music is as much of a social thing as it is a professional one.
I don’t play with anyone I don’t love. Everybody that I’m involved with in my life, musically at this point, is someone I’m really close to. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the music when you’re on the road. Chris and Kate really changed my life. They introduced me to all the people in Toronto that I’m close with. They shot me off into another direction when it comes to writing songs. They were mainly responsible for that.
That was in 1997? When they moved there?
Yeah, they had just moved to New York. We met right away. I played every week in a band called SexMob, and they kept coming and listening to the band. Chris kept sitting in on clavinet, and Kate would be in the corner writing in her book—writing and writing. She struck up a conversation once, she really liked the music. We became close friends. For several months I had no idea they knew each other! Which is inconceivable now. They’re still very close to me.
You grew up in Connecticut and went to school in Texas. When did you move to New York from Texas?
In the late 80s, around 1987.
When did you fall in with the Lounge Lizards’ crowd?
That would have been probably about 95 or 96. Before that I was playing a lot of jazz gigs, very straight-ahead stuff. The Lounge Lizards was a good, healthy change. That’s what really led me to SexMob and discovering how I really wanted to play the bass. I enjoyed playing bass all my life, but I realized at that point that I wasn’t meant to be a straight-ahead jazz musician.
How would you describe what you did in Lounge Lizards?
That was a band that taught me the value of repetition. It was interesting music because my job in that band was to play just a simple bass line over and over, but have it feel like it was moving towards the horizon some way, and lead the band gently in a direction without ever playing any fills. It was about having a voice on the instrument without playing a lot of wanky stuff.
That’s not unlike any classic soul or funk music.
Yeah, it’s present more in terms of the feeling and the sound rather than someone trying to show off. Then SexMob was similar in the sense that it was all about the more social end of music. If you go see hotshot jazz guys play, a lot of times there are only guys in the audience, you know? SexMob would play and for some reason there would be all these girls in the audience. Somehow, that music was sexy and fun. The joy of it and the irreverence—people caught on to that feeling and celebrated it. I realized that that had been missing for me for a while. That continued when I started singing more and playing guitar.
Was rock music—for lack of a better term, but as something that can loosely describe what the Citizens’ Band do—was that on your radar in the 80s and early 90s?
Fundamentally, I’m a rock musician. I come from playing in garage bands. I grew up playing guitar in bands with my brother Pete, who plays bass. This was when I was 12, 13, 14. All my early experience playing with people was playing rock music. We were nuts about Jimi Hendrix, and then we got into Miles Davis. I still love all that, but I’ve come full circle through meeting Chris and Kate and a lot of other folks. Before I met them, I never conceived of having my own band—or if I did, I couldn’t conceive of what it could be. Now I’m convinced that playing guitar and singing is my music. I play bass happily with a couple of bands still—Bill Frisell, SexMob, Chris and Kate—but records that have my name on them are going to be vocal records with slide guitar on them.
Were you writing songs at all before you met them?
Not at all. It was their support and the fact that my life was changing and the fact that I had been a sideman long enough. I was realizing that there was something missing. They encouraged me in a very personal way. I was going through a lot of things, and they got me writing about it. It wasn’t directly about it, but it was about how I felt at the time. We’d be sitting around and Chris would say, ‘Come on, I just wrote one verse. Whaddya got?’ They were very kind and patient. They still are. They’re my best friends.
Did you meet them at a low point in your life?
It was a challenging point in my life. I had a lot of responsibility. Basically, I was playing a lot less at that point and doing other things. They were the first new friends that I had met in quite a while. They took me in somehow. They were safe to be around.
Other than their altruism and generous spirit, what was it about their music and writing that attracted you?
The funny thing was that originally, my friendship with them developed considerably before I ever thought I’d play in their band—or before there was a band to play in. They were doing duo gigs at the time … It’s amazing to think of what we were all doing 10-12 years ago and what we’re doing now—and why. The purpose is getting clearer and clearer.