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Trapper Schoepp’s ‘May Day’ Q&A: Singer/Songwriter Talks New Album, Collaborating with Bob Dylan & More
Trapper Schoepp came to international prominence, not surprisingly, when he collaborated with Bob Dylan.
The song, “On, Wisconsin,” paired a discarded Dylan lyric from 1961 with Schoepp’s music and killer chorus for what ended up garnering the Wisconsin-born musician a co-write with one of his heroes.
“I was scooping couscous in Whole Foods when I found out,” Schoepp says when he recalls the fateful call from his manager, telling him that his name would be paired with Dylan’s for eternity.
It might certainly have felt like the peak of an already decade-long career, but Schoepp had made a clutch of fantastic albums, including 2016’s Rangers & Valentines, produced by the Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson, and Primetime Illusion, the 2019 release produced by Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansome that included “On, Wisconsin,” and was full of the sort of piano and guitar interplay, gorgeous vocal harmonies and top-notch songs associated with the classic singer-songwriter albums of the 1970’s.
This month, Schoepp is back with May Day, a remarkable new album recorded with his longtime collaborator Ian Olvera during lockdown. The album, recorded near Schoepp’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, amidst the pandemic and citywide protests for racial equity, explores reckoning with the past while remaining hopeful about the future across its 10-song cycle, in classic-sounding, old school pop songs that pack a bigger punch than just about anything currently on the charts.
Schoepp spoke to Rock Cellar from his home, about his unlikely origin story, how he discovered Dylan, and why he set a piano on fire for his latest music video.
Happy 'May Day' day! Get it now everywhere music is sold and streamed. Big love to all the collaborators who made it happen under hellish circumstances, especially my co-pilot and producer @LanWilbury. Onward!
— Trapper Schoepp (@trapperschoepp) May 21, 2021
Rock Cellar: For starters, tell me a bit about where you grew up and how you came to be making albums at such a young age, when most kids are just finding their way.
Trapper Schoepp: Well, I grew up along the Mississippi River, in the Mississippi River Valley, in a town called Ellsworth, Wisconsin, which is a town of 3,000 people, a postage stamp-sized town, if you will. And it is the cheese curd capital of the world, which is fitting, because Dylan mentions cheese, of course, in “On, Wisconsin.”
Rock Cellar: Which we will get to.
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah. So, I grew up in Ellsworth, but I was born in Red Wing, Minnesota, home of the boots, and that’s a famous a famous Dylan song as well, about the juvenile detention center there.
Rock Cellar: Your brother plays with you. Did you grow up in a musical family? Were you surrounded by music? Was music a big part of your childhood, of your early existence?
Trapper Schoepp: Not really. I will say though, my dad had five CDs in his car that were always in rotation, and those were — let me try not to mess it up — Tom Petty Full Moon Fever, Rumors by Fleetwood Mac, Harry Chapin’s Greatest Stories Live, R.E.M.’s Out of Time and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh. So, my dad’s rusted out Suburban is my origin story. That was the music that became ingrained within me, I think.
Rock Cellar: I never would’ve picked out any of those records in your sound, and yet, now that you say it, I hear those records in the music you play. You must, too.
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah, man, of course. Actually, I think those five records, of course, define not only my music, but also who I am in many senses. I mean, there’s sort of the romanticism in Fleetwood Mac, there’s the humor and storytelling in Harry Chapin, there’s the rock and roll, larger-than-life sound of Full Moon Fever. There’s a lot to be said about those records.
But it wasn’t until I slipped a disc in my back BMX biking when I was 15 years old that I was driven to play music. I mean, what’s more fun as a kid than building dirt jumps and then being propelled into the sky via bicycle? Maybe writing songs is the next best thing.
So, my mom signed me up for guitar lessons, but it didn’t take right away. I was just going through the motions. Then one day, I was sitting in my parents basement watching a BMX bike movie and the song “Hurricane” came on in the movie. It was what people might consider a more amateur filmmaking effort, but Dylan had licensed his song to this young BMX filmmaker. “Hurricane” came on, and it just shook to me to my core. That A minor chord and the rawness and roughness, and the conviction and grittiness in his voice, for whatever reason, just knocked me out. And then I did a little digging on the song and, then, who Dylan was as a person.
Rock Cellar: Did you want to know the story of the song, about Rubin Carter and his whole odyssey?
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah, that really interested me. The idea of a wrongly accused man being the subject of the song. Because I was a young kid. So, I think that was kind of the moment my life took a completely different path.
Rock Cellar: Unlike a lot of your contemporaries — or people in the Americana genre or just making the kinds of records that you make — you do seem to aspire to that Rumors, Full Moon Fever style of polished record making. The records you named, they’re proper records. They’re not rough around the edges. They’re really well-crafted, really well-made, there’s a lot of attention to the sonics and the arrangements. Even “Hurricane” is relatively polished for Dylan, although it’s obviously rough around the edges. Do you hear that? Are you striving to make Full Moon Fever or Rumors, in some ways?
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah, I feel like my records actually are relatively polished, I think.
But for me, in an otherwise chaotic existence, making records is where I can create order in my life. That’s the place where I try to piece everything together, while in the other parts of my life I am more of a Captain Chaos, unfortunately. So, I think that, yeah, my records are a bit more scripted than other aspects of my life. And I think this one in particular, the co-producer Ian Olvera and I really spent our time on every aspect of the record. I mean, I think we spent a whole night just getting the synth sound for the song “May Day,” because it’s the bed it all rests on and we were going for that Springsteen sort of synth sound, where it’s haunting and under everything.
Rock Cellar: And would any of that preproduction or any of that attention to detail have happened, do you think, if we hadn’t been in the middle of pandemic and a lockdown?
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah, I think there is an element of that. When there’s no outside distraction — I mean, there are plenty of outside distractions — but there was nowhere to go. And when there’s nowhere to go, you find a home and you find solace in your craft, in your songs, and in the music and production.
Rock Cellar: Before we get to the record, talk to me a little bit about the last record. It blew up and it became this other thing, and you were touring the world on the back of it. So, talk a little bit about that experience.
Trapper Schoepp: The last record was all driven by the press around the Bob Dylan quote on quote “co-write.” Even though it was 57 years apart, I think people thought — rightfully so — that it was this romantic, dream come true, feel-good story: Folk singer from the middle of nowhere writes a song with his hero about his home state. It’s understandably a feel-good piece. And yeah, it got shared a bunch, and we started filling certain rooms, and I started touring all over the world.
But in the midst of that, I definitely had other pieces of my life were out of order, you could say. I had a really bad housing crisis weeks before I left for a European tour, and I literally had to get rid of my 100-year-old baby grand piano that I’d just fallen in love with. Within a matter of a week, I’d had to get the thing out of the house I was staying at. I don’t want to refer to it as an eviction, but in essence that’s what it was. So I had a bit of a crisis right before my album came out. Then I left for a European tour. And so, my whole life kind of went into Captain Chaos mode, where my stuff was in friends’ basements, and I had everything important to me in one suitcase.
Rock Cellar: You were Tom Petty after the fire at his home and he hit the road in the immediate aftermath.
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah. It was really a not pleasant situation. And so, the first day I got to the UK, I was driving on the wrong side of the road and I hit a dumpster in my rental car. Things very quickly began unraveling, and that unraveling is what kind of created the new album, May Day. So, things sort of had to fall apart a bit after the feel-good romantic story of Primetime Illusion.
Rock Cellar: Is there one track for you that underscores the aesthetic of the record? Was “May Day,” the song, the jumping off point for you creatively and artistically, in telling that story? Or is there another song that’s the window into what put you on this particular path?
Trapper Schoepp: Actually, it would be the first song that I wrote on the album, which was “Yellow Moon.” That song is about – and I hate saying songs are about this or that – but I would say that the song details the feeling of being lost at sea and being pushed to change direction and find your way back to shore, as abstract as that sounds.
RCM: There are a lot of allusions to nature on the album, and as dark as some of it is, there’s a hopefulness to it. I hear early Warren Zevon, but also I hear late Warren Zevon, too. I hear Sentimental Hygiene and Mutineer. Were you drawing from that same well? Had you been listening to those records at all? Where was that emotion coming from, do you think? Or was it just your experience pre-pandemic plus being in lockdown?
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah, I think it’s the latter for sure, and a bit of both. But I think what’s great about Warren Zevon is that he can make you laugh and then he can make you cry. It’s that sort of juxtaposition in his voice where it’s tragedy and comedy, and I think I do that quite a bit on this album, and in particular, the song “Paris Syndrome.” I started it in Paris when I heard about this very real syndrome that happens to people who go to Paris hoping it will be one thing and realizing it is, in fact, a completely different thing.
I thought it was just so wild, because, at one point, there was a Paris syndrome hotline set up for people that were suffering a sort of culture shock. And that’s all it is, a culture shock, but people become delusional, or basically just go into a state culture shock, and become really delusional and dizzy. I thought it was a great metaphor for a relationship, but also a great metaphor for what we all ended up going through during the pandemic. And then there’s “Yellow Moon,” which is about the feeling of being isolated and lonely, but using nature and the moon as a compass and a guide.
Rock Cellar: Which comes up on the record quite a bit. I want to ask, too: None of these songs — one, maybe — breaks four minutes. They’re all very much back to the finely-crafted songs of the classic album period. Was that just how they were written? Or did you really chip away at them and craft them with Ian — or just by yourself — in a way that they had that short, sharp, shock thing?
Trapper Schoepp: I once heard Tom Petty say, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” and it’s really never left my psyche. And I will say, as a songwriter, it’s not the best habit to be so keen on the verse chorus verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-end format, but I think it is part of my strength as a songwriter that I definitely strive for that Tom Petty simplicity, maybe out of wanting that form in an otherwise chaotic existence. I do think that on my next album, though, the one that I’m writing right now, it seems to be falling in more of the traditional folk style, with open tunings and so forth, so I think that it will be a little less in that rock formula.
But yeah, I think that is a strength of this album, for sure.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about your recent video for the song “River Called Disaster.” During the making of it, everything went wrong, which is yet another metaphor for our times, of course. Tell me a little bit from your perspective about that video, where it came from, and how you made lemons out of lemonade.
Trapper Schoepp: Well, I kept hearing over the last four years of the Trump presidency and the pandemic referred to as a dumpster fire, and I think that was just sitting in my subconscious. We had this song called “River Called Disaster,” the first song that I played the piano on, on a record, and I thought, “Well, this is a bit literal — a bit on the nose — but how about we bring a piano into a river?” Like I said, a bit on the nose.
And then I thought, “Well, what if we bring a piano in the river and then we light it on fire?” I thought of that as being a bit Werner Herzog-esque, and then a bit of a nod as well to the dumpster fire of the last four years. So, we ended up getting a piano off Craigslist and got the piano in the river using a pickup truck and 2-x-4s, and we filmed all these shots of me playing the piano, singing the song. And then, by the time we got the thing on fire, the drone we were shooting the footage with actually flew into a tree and crashed and became submerged in the river. It was this art imitating art sort of vibe. But my friend who was shooting the video quickly grabbed an iPhone and actually filmed the rest of the video on that. It was a complete stroke of luck.
Rock Cellar: And yet, whatever you lost, it still looks great.
Trapper Schoepp: Yeah, it turned out great. The guy whose property we were shooting on had the new iPhone that you see all the bad commercials on. “Film your next video on an iPhone!” So, it ended up being a thing where we had to it. We’re actually finishing another music video, where we exploded apples, actually. We drove wires into apples and short circuited them so the apples explode, and they look like bombs going off when you play the footage in slow motion.
It was actually the idea of a brilliant director here named Carol Brandt, and she didn’t even know about “River Called Disaster.” The video is inspired by the song “Little Drop of Medicine,” which is inspired by a reimagined Garden of Eden. So, we thought it would be cool to explode all these apples. There’s an archer involved who’s going to be, going for me, too. It’s going to be really fun.
Rock Cellar: For people who aren’t familiar with your catalogue or are just getting into your music, was the experience of making this album your favorite thus far? I don’t want to dissuade people from going backward, because you’ve made some great records, and you’ve got the Dylan connection, of course. But if people just want to dip in, where do you put it on the continuum?
Trapper Schoepp: I think the real value in making music and art of any kind is that it’s not a competition, right? So, saying that, I think every artist, their latest work sort of represents where you’re at, at that particular time as an artist, and so you’re not necessarily trying to top where you were four years ago. Saying that, I think saying “it’s my worst album yet” would be a really funny way to end this.
September 23, 2021