By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 10, 2008 at 5:28 AM

If Tom Vollman's name doesn't ring a bell, the voice on his debut solo disc, "The Betty Violet," just may ring a bell.

A singer, songwriter and guitarist, Vollman -- a Cincinnati native -- fronts the alt.country rock and roll band Moonshine Sway, based in Milwaukee.

On its 11 songs, "The Betty Violet" conjures Vollman's band -- and features its drummer, too -- but, Vollman says, the disc is the result of a set of material that didn't seem appropriate to Moonshine Sway. So, he began recording the songs himself and the result is a disc that is dark, raw and focused on places that have affected Vollman.

We asked him about making the record and about the future of Moonshine Sway.

OMC: Tell us a bit about the new record? How come it's your first solo record instead of the next Moonshine Sway disc?

TV: The idea for a solo record came from a number of angles. Over the past two years, I've done quite a bit of touring as solo act, working and crafting a new set of songs with sparse arrangements. By the late summer of last year, I had a handful of songs that didn't quite fit the full band format and a number of others that had been finished with the band, but that sounded quite a bit different -- in tempo, arrangement and style -- when I played them solo.

I've always been a big fan of Greg Dulli's work -- The Afghan Whigs were a hometown favorite, growing up in Cincinnati. When they folded and Dulli began his Twilight Singers project, I was really intrigued by the notion that a series of songs could have one life when performed by a full band and quite another when played solo. On my way back from SXSW, while driving through a particularly flat stretch of Mississippi, an idea struck me that I couldn't shake -- I'd record a "solo" record offering different arrangements of "band songs", sprinkling in a number of new tunes to add some zest.

In 2007, I went into the studio, by myself, for the very first time. I really didn't have a plan, but I was fortunate enough to have a patient and very understanding engineer who was willing to let me experiment and felt comfortable enough to offer some useful feedback. Over the next few months, I laid down a number of tracks, ultimately yielding the 11 that comprise "The Betty Violet."

The process was definitely interesting -- I began to think about the songs in a way I never had before. The whole project seemed to have a life of its own -- I began with only an acoustic guitar and vocals, eventually adding drums -- played by Ted Fleming of Moonshine Sway -- electric guitar and e-bow. The result was very surprising and simultaneously exciting for me. I learned a lot about the process of writing and recording and I was afforded opportunity to experience things that I wouldn't have had I not begun this project.

As it happens, we're currently working on a new full-band record, which should be out later in the year/early next year. "The Betty Violet" is a solo record in name -- I played on it, Ted played on it, but the concept is much deeper. Chris Dorch and Bob Berry -- the other two members of Moonshine Sway -- might not have recorded, but their stamp and influence is there; the songs wouldn't exist in their present form without their help and input.

Along those lines, I think the band record will be a bit supercharged with many of these current songs appearing in their fully arranged style. It should be cool, though, because I think it will give a nod to the writing process -- shedding light on how things originate and then morph into something larger.

OMC: The record has an anguished, pensive kind of vibe that I equate with "Straightaways" by Son Volt which had that same kind of simmer and wasn't really country and wasn't really rock, but some kind of in between. Was that something you aimed for or did the sound and the vibe just happen?

TV: It was really strange for me to see how the record was taking shape as the sessions wore on. In one sense, it was exactly what I had in mind, but in another sense, it was something I hadn't ever imagined. It kind of took on a life of its own. The songs are dark, to an extent, but that wasn't necessarily planned, it was just what came out.

The recording process -- engineered and mixed by Caleb Willitz at Chicago's Rattlesnake Studios -- added a significant bit of flavor to the overall feel of the disc. Once the recording and mixing was done, I was fortunate enough to have Matt Pence -- the drummer for Centro-Matic -- master the record at his studio --The Echo Lab -- in Denton, Texas. He brought a third, and maybe most importantly, fresh, set of ears to the project. His stamp is definitely present and for that, I'm grateful. Both he and Caleb contributed to the overall feel of the recording in subtle, yet very resonate ways.

That said, I appreciate the "Straightaways" reference, which has always been one of my favorite records. It has a certain sense of legitimacy in that it feels very organic and uncensored. There's a distinct lack of clear continuity to the record, but at the same time, there's a very solid theme -- the idea of unfettered creativity. For me, that's what's exciting about rock n roll. It's a bit dangerous, really, but in the end the product feels like it has legs.

I've always loved a record that really speaks to me because it's packed with some of the author's heart and soul. There was great deal of care put into the record, but at the same time, there was a great deal of spontaneity. The biggest challenge, often times, was to turn off my inner critic/censor and let the record be the record.

OMC: The songs on the record have a very strong sense of place and are often named after streets ("Bedford," "Delancey"), towns ("Lincoln NE") and neighborhoods ("Day Heights"). Are you a very place-oriented person?

TV: I do tend to be a place-oriented person. I find that certain places conjure certain feelings, memories and emotions. Often times, the feelings are tied directly to the place. More often, though, I find that an indirect, sometimes after-the-fact relation tends to take root during the writing process. Still, the experience of the place -- the sights, the sounds, the smells -- are so vivid that they serve as the spark that powers the entire process.

Most of these songs were written in the four or so months before I started recording with one of them coming 12 hours before a session. In that sense, they were relatively new and, as a result, they held a fresh sense of urgency. For me, the most easily accessible ideas and emotions are those that are tied to my sense of place -- a fleeting moment wrapped-up in something concrete and physical. Some of them are real, others are imagined, but they all have a vibrancy that made the writing and the recording very easy.

OMC: With "The Betty Violet" and the likes of Bon Iver, is Wisconsin going to become known as a dark singer / songwriter's paradise?

TV: I like the idea of Wisconsin being a songwriter's paradise. There are so many talented performers and writers in Milwaukee alone, not to mention the full state. There's a great deal of exciting work being produced. I think Bon Iver's record, having struck a well-deserved critical chord, has done a lot to expose the breadth of talent within Wisconsin.

There must be something about our long, cold winters that makes folks grow kind of dark and introspective. In all seriousness, I think that the process of writing is quite analogous to the passing of winter as it gives way to the spring. An artist grooms and arranges a series of songs, often times alone (much like the dead of winter), then records and releases them, creating a natural sort of birth (the spring), which fuels further creation. It's a promising and rewarding cycle.

OMC: What's next?

TV: There's quite a bit on the horizon, which is exciting, to say the least. I'll be touring a bit off the record -- heading east for a few stretches and then to the southwest. I'm looking forward to a bit more touring in the new year, but for now, we're going to work to support the record on the radio, between the stretches of shows.

The band is still together and we're working on a new record, as well, which is quickly nearing completion. We're pretty excited about the recordings, as a full band offering has been fairly long overdue.

On the 'solo' front, I'm planning to head back into the studio in December to begin work on a follow-up to "The Betty Violet." I'm really excited to see where this batch leads, as I think my writing has grown a significant bit as a result of 'The Betty Violet' recording process. There's definitely and opportunity to build and expand upon the previous experience and hopefully concoct something new and exciting in the process.

 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.