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."
Indeed, Foljahn's voice seems built for the bluer shades of crooning. His voice recalls Nick Cave's circa "Six Strings That Drew Blood," only permanently half a note flat, as if it were perpetually wilting. But his latest work with Two Dollar Guitar, made with Shelley and bassist Dave Motamed, formerly of Cell and Das Damen, does not drip with simple defeat. Many of the cuts on Burned--including "TV," which features the threatening purr of a chainsaw that grows increasingly proactive--ride the fine line between sad and sinister. Or, to put it another way, Foljahn has discovered that darkness lends itself to more than murder ballads.
According to Foljahn, the disc's Southern edge can be traced to Doug Easley's studio in Memphis, where Burned was recorded. "Doug and Davis McCain are all over that record playing keyboards and pedal steel. When you record at Easley, those two guys--their ears and their sensibilities--are really the selling point."
As for the country and blues references on the CD, they came to the fore because, Foljahn says, "at the time, that was just what I was listening to the most. And that's what I enjoyed the most--even the slightly schmaltzy versions of that, like by Lee Hazelwood. It's such an elaborate form, such a complete style. It's Sinatra-esque, but there's not a real orchestra; it's a band pretending to be an orchestra, with steel guitars and a string section. Now the band is moving into different genres that have the same concept, but we do it in different ways."
This variety of approaches is also influenced by the artists with whom Foljahn has collaborated. For example, "The Impromptu Ballad of a Male Slut" suggests the work of both Moore and Cat Power, whose "What Would the Community Think?" follows a similar musical progression (a tinkling piano dissolving into a dirge). "The guitar line is a perverse rendition of a Thurston thing from Psychic Hearts--sort of a ripoff of one of his guitar lines," Foljahn confesses. "As far as playing with Thurston and Chan, I steal anything I can from them, because I really enjoy what they do and I know that whatever my emulation would be would not be very exact, so I feel I can get away with that."
Mosquito's m.o. has also insinuated itself into Two Dollar Guitar's sound. "The stuff with Mosquito is generally very short, but there was sort of a roots/acoustic thing going on there that was groove-oriented," he points out. "And that is sort of the way Two Dollar Guitar is heading, only with a little bit more structure. Two Dollar Guitar got some studio time, and we went in and tried to operate on the same wavelength but do longer stuff--do soundtrack stuff. We literally recorded the soundtrack for a movie that really has never surfaced [the as-yet-unreleased Edie Was Here], and we started to operate even more in the Mosquito vein, where you just go in with a skeletal idea and go for it."
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Foljahn's lyrics are also showing signs of movement. Whereas they previously have been carved, painfully, from his own failures, they are not all as literal as they once were. "I think that the autobiographical material has become more veiled than it used to be," he confirms. "There are still some strictly made-up songs that are just storytelling for the sake of storytelling."
Whether Foljahn is drawing from fact or fiction, though, the climate is unwaveringly dismal. This unrelenting gloom makes one wonder if Foljahn is really such a disconsolate heap, or if he simply is in love with cursed characters. Foljahn rejects both suppositions. "The thing about a song is, even if it is truly how you are when you write that song, when you play it every night, it's just a performance," he contends. "You can sort of get in touch with whatever it was you felt when you wrote it. But that's why a lot of people have problems with doing emotional music; the idea of doing something confession-like and doing it night after night--it loses its sting. And as far as what I'm like in real life--people, if they know the music, are always saying, 'You're actually very happy-go-lucky!'"
Paradoxically, the fire may be responsible for the lightening of his mood. "It was pretty symbolic of my life changes," he maintains. "It was really like, 'Okay, let's get rid of all that stuff and start over.' I hit thirty, and everything totally caved in. I'm so much happier now."
Fuck, with Two Dollar Guitar and the Emirs. 9 p.m. Monday, August 4, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.