By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Not long after Tim Foljahn, guitarist, vocalist and principal creative force for the woeful, noirish outfit known as Two Dollar Guitar, relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey, much of his personal history went up in flames. "I had this storage space when I moved here because I had way too much stuff to put in the apartment, and the place burned down," he recounts. "I don't know what happened, but when we went to go check on our stuff--because we'd heard there was a fire--they said, 'Well, your space was right at the epicenter of where the fire started,' and they were looking at us like it was our fault. There was nothing left at all. Just ash. There was no floor left where our space had been." Among other things, the conflagration consumed bikes, musical equipment and Foljahn's artwork, including the bleak paintings that adorn the cover of Two Dollar Guitar's depressing yet engrossing second full-length CD. Its fitting moniker? Burned and Buried.
Still, the symbolically important possessions that Foljahn lost in the blaze pale in significance to the more important threads to his past--such as his friendship with Steve Shelley, who mans the traps for Two Dollar Guitar when he's not drumming for his main band, Sonic Youth. Both musicians grew up in Midland, Michigan, which Foljahn describes as "a one-company town--Dow Chemical, which is what everybody worked for. You either worked for that or for the city." Soon after high school, Foljahn and Shelley crossed paths. "He lived near some friends of mine, and I would see him at parties and we'd be trying to play the new-wave records," Foljahn recalls. "Trying to get those on the turntables." By 1980, the pair had graduated from quibbling with peers over record selections to making music of their own. "I was actually in several bands, and two of them were with Steve. There was a band called Spastic Rhythm Tarts, which was mostly a noise band, and another, which was, for all intents and purposes, like a Joy Division-type band," he admits sheepishly.
After this initial flurry of activity, Foljahn retired from group efforts and spent the next decade making bedroom tapes. However, he notes, "I stayed connected with Steve over the years. Wherever I lived he'd come and visit, and I'd visit here, and then I ended up moving here. But I guess, really, the Jad thing got us playing together again."
"The Jad thing" is a reference to Foljahn's spontaneous conscription into performer Jad Fair's main vehicle, the venerable cult act Half Japanese. "I hadn't really played with any bands for quite a while, and I just went to a show with Steve, who was playing with Jad Fair. They asked me to play for sound check, or maybe I was going to do one song. I didn't know any of the songs, and then they asked me to play the set, because Jad was just into making things up at the time. And then I got the Half Jap gig, and I played with them for two years." Foljahn's association with Half Japanese ended in 1991, which may come as a surprise to purchasers of the collective's latest release, Bonehead; after all, the liner lists him as a member. "In that band, it seems like people are in it for a little while and then the records come out with them on them for years afterwards," he explains.
The next item on Foljahn's impressive alt-rock resume is Mosquito, a side project involving both Fair and Shelley that squeezed out three CDs' worth of moody, free-form music for films and secured a second-stage slot at a few Lollapalooza dates. Among those to see Mosquito live was Sonic Youth guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, who subsequently drafted Foljahn to play in Male Slut, a band used by Moore when appearing live to play numbers from his 1995 solo album, Psychic Hearts. Foljahn also played with the Boredoms, a frenetic Japanese combo, during this period: "They needed a driver for a little tour, and I was like, 'Oh, yeah, I'll do that.' Then their guitar player accidentally/on purpose lost his passport because he was afraid of coming over here at that time, so with a day to go, I had to learn their songs." And more recently, Foljahn opened for Chan Marshall, who performs under the name Cat Power, during a European stint. "It was her and me, solo," he says about this exceedingly appropriate pairing, adding that she chose him to warm up crowds "because she was tired of playing after rock bands."
In the midst of this veritable whirlwind of collaborations, Foljahn continued to make tapes at home. He reports that "they varied a lot. There was a lot of sampling. If I listen to those now, some of them sound kind of goth--a lot more drum machine going on. But, in my mind, it all points in the same direction." He sums up this stylistic trajectory with a memorably concise phrase: "the not-happy." Let Me Bring You Down, Two Dollar Guitar's 1994 debut (issued on Shelley's Smells Like Records imprint) overflows with such sentiments, and Foljahn knows why. "Tragedy is very interesting to me," he confirms. "The sad songs are what I was attracted to in the beginning."