5 Questions: Thomas Comerford

Thomas_Comerford_PhotobyJimNewberry Thomas Comerford Photo credit: Jim Newberry

After moving to Chicago with a bunch of songs and 4-track recordings in 1999, Thomas Comerford founded and led the indie rock outfit Kaspar Hauser over a series of lineups and LP releases in the 2000s. By 2010, he was also playing ‘solo’ shows with a number of backing musicians and releasing solo LPs, including Archive + Spiral in 2011 and II in 2014. On these solo LPs, his music, songs and singing have been described as a cross between Willie Nelson and Lou Reed. Recently, he completed his third solo LP, Blood Moon, which will see release in spring of 2018. The new songs mix his familiar baritone and roots-and-folk-inflected songwriting with largely acoustic instrumentation, multi-part backing vocals and a live-y band interplay, at times recalling Veedon Fleece-era Van Morrison and other singer-songwriters like Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and Leonard Cohen. Comerford is also a part-time teacher of 16mm film, video and audio production at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago; a part-time stay-at-home dad; and he has also made some films. 

1. What’s been keeping you up at night?
Despite the anxieties that crop up for me over the course of a day — the more abstract ones relate to the Trump election aftermath and the more concrete ones relate to the health and well-being of my family — by the time I hit the bed, I am usually too exhausted from work/childcare/music/anxieties to stay awake, so I fall asleep immediately, and then I wake up when my alarm goes off at 6:30.*

But there are nights where I am up quite late — I started playing a monthly show at Berwyn’s Friendly Tap this fall, so once a month on a Thursday night, I am often up til 2 or 3am. And like other shows, if it’s a good show, that is, if I feel I’ve played well, having really done something with at least some of the songs in that moment, and there were some people in the room who felt the same, then it usually takes a while to come down, so I can’t go to sleep right away, even though I still have to get up at 6:30 and start the next day. I also try to keep up with my friends’ shows, too, so I do stay out far too late sometimes watching them play (or perform or show movies) and hanging out afterwards. Also, when I do practice at night solo or with other players, that usually keeps me up late, but not usually as late as shows.

I also try to keep up with my friends’ shows, too, so I do stay out far too late sometimes watching them play

Then there are other nights when our 4-year-old will come into our room between 4 and 6 am to wake us up and tell us ‘Doggie is missing’ (his little security half-dog/half-blanket) or ‘Spider-man blanket is missing.’ In this case, my wife or I will stumble around trying to locate whatever is missing, hopefully finding it and then crashing again for as long as possible before the alarm goes off.

On a side note, there are many nights as I’m about to go to bed where I think ‘I can’t wait to wake up in the morning, so I can drink coffee!’

* My morning routine is waking up, making coffee, drinking coffee, waking up 11 y.o. to get ready for school, making his lunch, showering (on a teaching day) and walking him to school. If it’s a teaching day, I keep walking and take the train to SAIC. If not, I go back home and do any number of tasks that need doing, including being at home with my 4 y.o.

2. What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen or heard lately?
I try to keep up with a lot of different things. Since one of the things I teach at SAIC is a course on contemporary documentary, I am always trying to view a lot of recent or current movies/shows/photos in that area for the class. So the long answer to this question might be to include the list of works and visiting artists I’ve presented to the class.

A few highlights here, though. Brett Story, a NY-based Canadian filmmaker, made an amazing film last year called The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. Her movie looks at ways in which the U.S. prison and law-enforcement industries (and related industries) shape and impact people and places outside the prison walls. Also, Milwaukee-based artist Sky Hopinka presented his videos, some of which examine Native-American identity and language and culture across generations of his family. Oli Rodriguez presented the Papi Project, a photography/new media piece which examines growing up within the Chicago queer community in the 80s/90s, and the AIDS pandemic’s impact on his family/that community — it’s a moving project that is intentionally messy and very beautiful.

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes Trailer from Brett Story on Vimeo.

As to music I’ve heard recently, there’s just so much, including that last Tribe Called Quest LP and the Neil Young Hitchhiker LP, both of which I’ve played a ton (and my kids are always asking for Tribe Called Quest!). On the live front, something that really jumped out at me was when I brought my whole family to the ‘Sputnik Birthday Party’ at the Hideout Block Party in September. While I love all the bands who played that day, the set by Antietam had me tearing up a little bit. That era of late-80s/early 90s indie rock is such an important touchstone for me since I kinda came of age at that time, and it helped me figure out how to be a creative person. To hear that band charging relentlessly forward musically, sometimes heavily and sometimes delicately, with Tara Key’s guitar leading the way, was something I won’t forget anytime soon.

3. What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?
I feel like it takes me a long time to get my projects done, partly because I have a lot of things to do, but also because I change my mind a lot as I work.

Anyhow, I started recording my third solo ‘album’ a few years ago, and when I started up, I said to myself, I’m just going to write and then record at any opportunity that comes my way, with whomever it makes sense to do that at any given moment. Which was great! I was just going with the flow and not worrying about what this all had to add up to.

Eventually though, I saw this mountain of material (for me anyway, about 20-some songs) and I felt that it might not all fit together for a release. About half of it I’ve worked on a lot with my regular live group — Kriss Bataille, Matthew Cummings, Tom McGettrick, Beth Yates and John Roeser — plus some guests, recording with Robbie Hamilton who co-produced my last LP with me.

We took a very studio-oriented approach to recording and arranging all the tunes, building instrument by instrument. And that stuff is still in-progress. But, by this summer, I also had accumulated about 8 songs that had been made with a more live-in-the-studio approach at a few places (Nick Broste’s Shape Shoppe; Curtis Ruptash/Patrick Pritchett’s Wayback Machine), and that stuff is now pretty much finished.

I have a lot of things to do, but also because I change my mind a lot as I work.

For that, I got to work with some people that I admire very much, including those engineers, my friends Eddy Crouse, Crystal Hartford, Angela James, John Lennox, Randy Mollner, Seth Vanek and Beth Yates; bass player Tatsu Aoki, whom I teach with at SAIC; cellist Jamie Kempkers; singer Lea Tshilds; and singer-pianist Azita Youssefi — plus our old friend, (guitar ace!) Gregg Ostrom (Editor’s note: Gregg and EL’s editor Dave Roth used to play in a band together).

I like how the material turned out — the live-y feel gives it an immediacy, and it’s largely acoustic in nature. I think it references some music I really love by mid-60s singer-songwriters like Tim Hardin and Fred Neil, maybe even Leonard Cohen here or there. So those 8 songs are tentatively slated for release this spring under the title Blood Moon. I’ll be premiering the songs live with a special group I’ve put together for the occasion — Saturday 12/2 at the Hungry Brain. And I’ve got some friends, Lisa Barcy and Christopher Harris, working up some music vids for the songs, too. so I hope to be able to share those in the winter ahead of the record release.

4. If you could add anyone, alive or dead to your team, who would it be?
Tough question! I feel like I could use a lot of advice — I generally don’t feel like I know what I’m doing but manage to charge ahead anyway.

I haven’t really had a mentor for how to do what I’m doing in quite some time — I mean, I rely a lot on my friends for feedback and advice, especially those here in Chicago — I learn a lot from my friends, many of whom I’ve mentioned in the answer to the previous question. But I don’t know that I’ve really had someone to look to on a regular basis that I would think of as a ‘teacher’ whom I could learn from.

Perhaps the closest to that is my friend Tatsu Aoki, whom I mentioned before as playing bass on some of my new songs. He leads the Miyumi Project among a number of other groups and taiko drum ensembles — the list goes on and on, he’s one of the busiest people I know! He and I both teach part-time at SAIC and we both do music and film and have families — and he’s been at all of that longer than I.

So I like it when I get to talk with him about what we’re working on and how to keep things going. I should say, too, that Jon Langford has been very generous in asking me to play shows or in joining a show of mine when I ask — been very cool to connect to him here in Chicago, as he’s someone I’ve admired from afar since I first heard the Mekons’ music in the late ’80s. Of all the people who’ve inspired me that I never got to meet, though, I feel like I should get someone like Neil Diamond or Carole King or Jimmy Webb or even Willie Nelson on board — people that, unlike me, are experts at their craft and have such a broad understanding of songs and the history of songs and songwriting — and are well-connected and good at getting songs out into the world. Another choice would be Iggy Pop — who was really the first rock show I attended as a teenager (touring Instinct in 1988) — I don’t feel like my music, especially of late, is like his, but attitude, yes. Would love to just have him tell stories about all the stuff he’s done — kind of my own private version of that Jim Jarmusch doc, Gimme Danger.

I feel like I should get someone like Neil Diamond or Carole King or Jimmy Webb or even Willie Nelson on board — people that, unlike me, are experts at their craft and have such a broad understanding of songs and the history of songs and songwriting

5. When the movie of your life is made, what will it be called?
I’ve tried to come up with an answer for this one 2-3 times — started typing something out, and then it felt all wrong. In general, I feel like I’m really bad at ‘seeing’ myself — I usually am pretty clueless about how I’m coming off to people. Yeah, I can’t figure this out. Also, I can’t imagine that a movie about me would happen in my lifetime, so I will just kick the can down the road and let someone else come up with a good idea. And I’ll be dead anyway, so I won’t really be able to care one way or another what the movie is called, so it’s a win-win situation now and forever.


You can find more of Thomas Comerford’s work at Bandcamp here, and on Soundcloud here.