From his hardcore days, Two Dollar Guitar, Male Slut and Psychic Hearts with Thurston Moore to I Dreamed A Dream, the Hoboken lifer trudges onward
Yo La Tengo might have high tailed it out of Hoboken, New Jersey several years back for Manhattan, beloved record store Pier Platters closed up shop decades ago and legendary club Maxwell’s shuttered its doors nearly ten years ago now.
But Hoboken lifers still remain in the face of all the changes. Former Das Damen member and current Royal Arctic Institute drummer Lyle Hysen and celebrated indie label Bar/None Records have stuck it out and thrived.
Tim Foljahn is another one in it for the long haul.
Best known as the smoky-throated, dark indie blues tunesmith and outsider troubadour behind 1990’s and early aughts-era underground rock stalwarts Two Dollar Guitar and trusty guitarist in Thurston Moore’s Psychic Hearts-period trio Male Slut, Foljahn arrived in Jerz in 1991 and has been a scene cornerstone ever since.
Taking his downer blues cues from singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Nikki Sudden, Foljahn cast an indelible mark in underground rock as the mastermind behind Two Dollar Guitar. Captaining a shuffling lineup that counted Sonic Youth drummer and childhood pal Steve Shelley, Das Damen and Cell bassist David Motamed and Come guitarist Chris Brokaw, amongst many other luminaries, Foljahn churned out stone cold country-fried classics on Smells Like Records (Shelley’s label) like Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes (2000) and Let Me Bring You Down (1995).
Sometime thereafter, Foljhan retired the Two Dollar Guitar moniker and a string of records under his own name followed, a handful released by his friend and collaborator Jennifer O’Connor on her Kiam label. After the Neil Youngian choogle of Fucking Love Songs (2015), Foljahn put music on hold for a bit to focus on pursuing his masters in psychoanalysis.
Now he’s back with, arguably, his best batch of fully realized and sublimely arranged songs. On I Dreamed A Dream (Cart/Horse Records), his first album in six years, Foljahn mixes up his trademark bleak and dark humored balladry and seedy blues chug with exquisite strings-driven tunes like “Once” and “I Dreamed.” With aces production by oft-cohort Tom Beaujour and orchestral arrangements put into place by bassist Jeremy Wilms and played to perfection by drummer Brian Kantor, vocalist Christina Rosenvinge, violinist and violist Megan Gould, double bassist Danton Boller, I Dreamed A Dream shows Foljhan as heir to the Cohen throne, particularly on the standout “In My Dreams.” Meanwhile, “Lowdown Day,” “Ghost Ripper” and “Wake Up!” get gloriously down and dirty in the bluesy riffage gutter.
The Globe caught up with Foljahn at home in Hoboken to talk about the new record, his chemistry with the players on I Dreamed A Dream, his Michigan hardcore beginnings with Steve Shelley, playing with Thurston Moore in Male Slut and on his 1995 solo classic, Psychic Hearts, and more.
VIDEO: Tim Foljahn “I Can’t Decide”
You’ve been churning out records both as a solo artist and Two Dollar Guitar and various side projects regularly for the last twenty, twenty-five years.
Well, pretty irregularly.
Well, it has been six years since your last record, Fucking Love Songs. What took so long to release I Dreamed A Dream?
Well, this one started to get written about five years ago, really, but it got waylaid by a lot of things. I started school around that time, getting a masters in psychoanalysis. Sometimes it just takes a while. It’s amazing to me that it took that long (laughing). The tracking went pretty quick but that was two years ago. It still took a while to finish it.
The production on I Dreamed A Dream is stellar. It sounds really great, especially the strings arrangements, plus you share an exceptional dynamic and chemistry with the musicians who played on it since you’ve been playing with them for years.
Yeah. It was pretty natural. It was nice that I would ask people (to play on the record) and they’d be, like, “Sure, of course.”
Are you still in Hoboken?
I’ve been in Hoboken since ’91—a long time.
You’re a lifer.
Apparently so. It’s funny because when I first moved here, I thought, “Well, one of these days I’ll get in the city.” But then I just got accustomed to it out here and I dig it.
So you’ve seen Hoboken go through dramatic changes in the last few decades.
It’s funny because I still have the new kid feeling, even though, because when I got here, people were like, “Oh, the eighties were when it really changed.” Then I’ve got friends now that lived here in the seventies and stories are really crazy, like there weren’t any lights on the on the street and everything was covered with dust.
Are the musicians who played on I Dreamed A Dream all New Jerseyites, too?
Brian Kantor, the drummer, and Tom Beaujour. the producer, they have both been Jersey people at one time. Brian’s now living upstate and Tom’s upstate a lot now, too. (Bassist and arranger) Jeremy (Wilms) was a Brooklyn guy but he’s in Atlanta now, and of course, (vocalist) Christina (Rosenvinge) is from Spain so she’s the outlier. I don’t know how this all happens that it’s a small world but they all seem kind of local to me, even though none of them really were by the time this record got made.
You and Tom Beaujour seem to have a special kind of rapport, both on the new record and previous ones.
I don’t know, we’re good friends. He just had a book on The New York Times bestseller list called ‘Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion,’ which is an oral history of the rise and fall of hair metal. When he was a kid, they dipped him in that stuff, hair metal, like if you cut him, that’s what he bleeds. So, he couldn’t be from a more different background than me in a lot of ways. There’s something about that I think that works, even that, but it’s more his personality. He’s just really good at what he does—and there’s a lot of what he does that I don’t understand. He’s very good at crafting sounds. I think there’s something about that, the attention to, I don’t know if it’s detail, or attention to something that he’s got that really helps. It evens out some of the crudeness of my thing (laughing). The reason it works is it’s definitely a personality thing, probably more than anything else. He’s really funny, he’s a good hang.
How did you and Tom cross paths originally, you being from the indie underground and him from hair metal, if that’s where he came from?
He was more from a power-pop punk thing that he was doing at the time but he started the studio and he’d been working there for a while. I met him at guitar store I was working at. He was friends of friends. I then got called in on another project of Jennifer O’Connor’s and I think I just started hanging out really. I started showing up and he’d needs somebody to maybe help out just a little bit, move a mike or something. I think that’s what it grew into and we started hanging. I got to assist on a couple of things, just helping him out in the studio so that was an interesting thing. I think I had a fantasy of learning that and being a full-time engineer. I don’t think I had the head for it.
Did Tom hook you up with the sideman work you’ve done?
Well, I’ve been doing that for a while with Christina and Chan (Marshall) from Cat Power and Thurston’s band. There were others. We were writing songs when I was in Half Japanese but the songs that I was playing live were largely old songs that other people had played. Learning other people’s music is freeing compared to doing your own stuff.
I Dreamed A Dream seems like it comes from conceptual place. There are many references to dreams, in the album title, song titles and lyrics.
Oh, yeah. The title comes from the song, “Wake Up.” That song and the song “In My Dreams,” both of those songs grew out of the same dream, like literally. There was a dream that those referred to. I’ve just been thinking about dreams a lot lately and through its relation to songwriting and life in general and relationships.
The album has a great mix of gritty bluesy tunes and these orchestral tunes with really beautiful string arrangements.
I think it’s sort of more turned out that way with the songs I had at the time. But that’s what it turned into, to see if you can get away with that really. I think there are other records that have been that way. It was opportunistic, there were a few of these songs that had sort of a steady, solid enough groove that they could support those kinds of arrangements and you start to stretch out.
I’m just so happy with a lot of what happened on it. The playing on it by everybody that showed up—it just so far exceeded my expectations. Jeremy’s arrangements, likewise, exceeded my expectations, the production on it and the stuff that Tom managed to do. It was a lot of stuff that he could find a place for all that is quite amazing. I was even happy with the mastering this time—that’s never really happened. I’ve had mastering come back and be like, that’s fine. This came back and I was like, “Wow, that’s sounds really good. It’s taken forever but this record has been a real pleasure.
AUDIO: Two Dollar Guitar Train Songs (1998)
With Two Dollar Guitar, you explored songwriting that is dark and bluesy and cut from a Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave kind of cloth.
I definitely gravitated towards that stuff. I think there was something earlier that always had me into that kind of thing. I remember when my mom and her friends listening to Country & Western stuff and I liked the darker, slower Johnny Cash songs. Stuff like that: that sort of lower thing. I never really thought of it too much as depressing, necessarily.
How do you think your songwriting has evolved from the Two Dollar Guitar era to I Dreamed A Dream?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I had to compile some older songs for somebody and, it’s funny, because I’ve been working this record for a little bit, talking to people about it and having to listen to it a lot and I’m still pretty happy with it which usually by this point, I’m sick of it. I’m still pretty happy with this record. I think that’s good.
This record, in particular, is a departure but I think that I’ve gotten less wordy, which is good and I’ve also started writing stuff I can actually sing, which is kind of good. I think I was just writing stuff more before that was like where it sat on the guitar. I don’t know what it was but it wasn’t always in my wheelhouse to sing it. It would be nice to get somebody else to sing some of that stuff.
The Two Dollar Guitar output doesn’t seem that readily available in physical format. Is that something you’d be interested in seeing happen?
That would be fun, yeah, if people were interested in them. I would love that. I get a kick out of all those records. I’m proud of those records and I like listening to them. It’s funny now because it’s kind of like listening to somebody else’s records. I think a lot of people would get a kick out of having that on vinyl.
You mentioned playing in Thurston’s band earlier and you played on his record, Psychic Hearts. What do you recall about that period?
That was just a lot of fun because we were playing with a bunch of noise people at like at a Table of the Elements show or something like that and we would be the pop band or we’d be opening up for The Black Crowes and getting stuff thrown at us because we were so weird. That was a good show. That music was really fun to play. The recording (of Psychic Hearts) was a little weird because I had food poisoning but it went all right. My first major label recording session and I got some food poisoning.
You’d never know it. That record sounds pretty good.
It’s a great record. I really like it a lot. It’s all very Thurston.
What about this Black Crowes show that you opened?
We opened up for The Black Crowes, who played under an incognito name. I can’t remember what that was. They were playing at Irving Plaza and we rolled up and we could see the line around the block with lots of dudes with beards.
We get in there and their gear was on stage and it was all covered with tie-dyed sheets and stuff we played in front of that and Thurston was just on that night. He was just as funny as hell. He had a joint and he was, like, “Okay, I’m going to pass this joint around and it’s going to go all the way around through the balcony and I want it to come back here and I’m going to get the last toke!” He was talkin’ and singing snippets of Bob Seger songs and he was talking about putting acid in his eye with Chris Robinson. He just kept going and they were just eatin’ it up and it was just funny as hell. We did a few rockers and they were really into it and they were chanting Male Slut and stuff. Kept that going for a while. We were rocking pretty hard, it was nice to play a big place and the sound system was good. I know a couple of girls who were there but it was practically all dudes. Then we hit this song called “Super Christ,” which we never played the same twice and I was kind of forbidden to learn. It’s a real “machine with the wheels come off it,” you know? So we did that and by the end of that (laughing) the whole place was chanting, “Yooouuu suck!” There were full beers hitting the stage, a lot of ice and cans of beer and shit. Then we finished out and got out of there and did another show at The Cooler. It’s funny to go from one environment to the next but that was a really great show because it was all good and all bad all in one.
AUDIO: Male Slut at The Cooler NYC 4/7/01
You’ve played with Thurston, obviously, and Smokey Hormel and Chris Brokaw and others. What have you taken away from those players?
All three of those guys are guys that I can really enjoy watching play and there’s some similarities there. They’re very sort of deliberate. I’ve used that before as a description but there’s something very on purpose about what they’re doing. I could just watch them play forever. I’m just a big fan. Their sound and everything, is really cool. I would like to think some of it rubbed off on me but I know it did. I know there’s definitely been songs that I listen to now where I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m definitely thinking about that guy when I was playing that.” But I didn’t know it at the time. Playing with Smokey and Chris was just always interesting because they’re always sort of always exploring and it can be within really tight parameters in a way but it’s always something a little new. They’re both just weird players. Smokey has all these sort of traditional ways of playing but yet it’s very untraditional what he does with that. And then Brokaw is just kind of a weirdo (laughing). He does a lot of classic stuff, too, and strangely, Thurston’s all about the open tunings and everything but there’s something about his playing to me that is also very kind of classic in that it’s almost like a piano player playing guitar—these big sort of percussive moods and stuff. They’re all really interesting. As much as I’ve watched them and paid close attention to what they do, I hope I learned something.
I wanted to touch on your early hardcore days in Michigan, I listened to some of Spastic Rhythm Tarts that you have up on your website. So you played guitar and Steve Shelley was in that band?
Yeah, I’m the guitar player on that. It was a three-piece for a little while. I got Steve in and then it became a rock band—more or less (laughing).
So, you go way, way back with a pre-Sonic Youth Steve Shelley?
Oh, yeah. We both went to the same high school but we didn’t really know each other then. But he was in the drum core of the band, like the marching band with my girlfriend. He was a little bit younger than I was and lived out in her neighborhood, just outside of town. Then later, I think, I met him at a party at the house behind his house, it was back in the woods and I think that it was kind of a stoner party, at the house of a couple of guys whose last name was Fry—the Fry brothers (laughing). Good dudes. It was a big house and then of course it was still the land of classic rock and we were trying to play…and I think he (Steve) had on a skinny tie or something and we had teamed up to try to get a Talking Heads record on the turntable or something like that. I think that’s how we met, although I can’t be sure.
Spastic Rhythm Tarts sounded very cool.
It’s funny because we were totally art damaged. The shows at the time were all hardcore shows so we would play with hardcore bands but we were more of a noise band. We were really into things like The Slits, The Birthday Party and The Pop Group and stuff like that.
Did you play with the Michigan hardcore bands of that era? Steve was in the Crucifucks.
Oh, yeah. The Crucifucks. That was a little later. I think after I left the band and it became Strange Fruit, I think there was a brief time when he was in the Crucifucks and in Strange Fruit but I’m not sure about that either. This wasn’t with Steve but once we opened for Circle Jerks. We used to play with the Necros and Violet Apathy. They were a Kalamazoo band that were good. I don’t think we ever played with Negative Approach but we saw them a lot. We would play with L-Seven, the band that had Marissa (Strickland) in it who was later in Laughing Hyenas.
At what point did you transition from hardcore and noise to writing tunes that would be Two Dollar Guitar-ish?
Well, I moved around a lot so I didn’t really have a band. I was just listening to records and, of course, when the Bad Seeds started, that was very influential and what is possible. We were already listening to Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazelwood and a lot of old blues stuff like John Lee Hooker. Then I moved down to Albuquerque and then to New Orleans and recording on four-track, it was originally very experimental sounds that I was doing and stuff like that and trying to do things like Danielle Dax. I remember thinking I’m going to do that English, spooky kind of thing.
The funny thing about the eighties is that really everything was gone. When I think about it now, whether it’s Sonic Youth, it’s all twangy, reverb’y and creepy and there’s like scarecrows…we didn’t think about it at the time but everything was kind of tainted with that spooky, reverby thing so that’s what I was (doing). But at some point, I think it just happened that I was like, “Oh, I could do a song with an acoustic guitar.” I think I was looking at people that were doing that, like the Rowland S. Howard & Nikki Sudden record. That was really impressive and These immortal Souls stuff was really impressive as well through all these options through The Birthday Party where people were thinking about more like song- songs as well as rock songs.
Do you feel like when you moved to Hoboken and reconnected with Steve Shelley and started Two Dollar Guitar that you realized your vision?
Yeah and you could blame it all on him—he encouraged it. I was writing songs and it was like the first single that he put out on his label is just like a dirge, you know, dead birds, really slow and creepy and I was smoking a lot then so my voice was really low. But that that was when I really started thinking I could write songs as opposed to just completely cobbling them together or putting poetry to a piece of music, or whatever it was before that, because I wrote lyrics for the Spastic Rhythm Tarts, some of those songs and stuff and I always liked that. But it was more or less writing a poem and then having the groove and then somebody fitting that to the groove.
Was Two Dollar Guitar essentially you but with a revolving door of your musician friends like Steve Shelley?
There were different versions. The original version for a couple of records was with Dave Motamed, who’s now playing with Lyle (Hysen) again. Lyle was in Das Damen and he’s playing with him again and that’s pretty cool. There was a version with Tim Prudhomme from Fuck and Janey Wygal, who’s a Hoboken legend. There was one with Steve, Chris Brokaw and I.
When did you decide to retire the Two Dollar Guitar name?
There was something about working under my own name that seemed a little bit more mature, like growing out of that thing in the nineties where nobody wanted to use their own name (laughing). So I did that and I think there was a shift in…I was making stuff at home again and the last Two Dollar Guitar record I made at home. It was moving into a more personal, sort of fascistic kind of thing (laughing). I think there was something about control in it, like I wanted control. I think that had something to do with it. I don’t really know. I look back on these things and I think like, “I don’t know. Was that a good idea?” I don’t know, I can’t really remember what the process was about with the decision making.
VIDEO: Tim Foljahn “Ghost Ripper”
VIDEO: Tim Foljahn “Lowdown”
VIDEO: Tim Foljahn “Once”
VIDEO: Tim Foljahn “Remember Me”