Interview: Cars & Trains

Cars & Trains - Photo courtesy of Cars & Trains

Cars & Trains – Photo courtesy of Cars & Trains

It’s been a couple years since Tom Filepp toured Europe last. As a matter of fact, it was exactly two years ago today that the Portland, Ore. musician—who performs “electronic-folk-live-loop-music under the name Cars & Trains— visited Berlin with Big Spider’s Back, on tour after the release of his third full-length, “We Are All On Fire.”

Now he’s back in town, this time with friend and fellow New York native and Portland resident Big Pauper, with whom he also toured the UK in 2008.

“I think I initially reached out to [Big Pauper] hearing about his work with his own label, Token Recluse, and also finding out we were both originally from New York,” Filepp shared. “When I hit him up, it became apparent that we had moved to Portland around the same time, and oddly enough were neighbors for about six months before we met up. The two of us ended up touring the UK in 2008, and eventually I put out his fantastic ‘Beyond My Means‘ album on my label, Circle Into Square.

The way Filepp talks about other musicians, it’s apparent that these kinds of connections are a large part of what drives his own music: touring with friends, releasing one another’s work, collaborating on songs with like-minded musicians.

In fact, “We Are All On Fire,” which came out on sister label, Fake Four Inc., features contributions from Filepp’s musical family and deals with that exact subject matter: of blood relatives, of adopted family, of close friends.

The most recent output from Cars & Trains, this year’s three-song releases, “History of the Night” and “Moon and the Earth,” extend that mentality, as both were mastered by Berlin musician Freddy Knop, who recently opened his studio, LSTNRS.

“I think that was another one of those friends-of-a-friend sort of things,” Filepp said, explaining how he first connected with Knop. “Freddy and I had also both been featured on a compilation by the beautifully curated Umor Rex Records from Mexico City, so we linked up ultimately through those folks. Eventually, [Circle Into Square] put out one of Freddy’s EPs. We had plans to release a full-length from him, but Circle Into Square is going to end up going on indefinite hiatus next year.”

In addition to his focus on ‘family,’ with a name like Cars & Trains, it only makes sense the Filepp is also inspired by locations, and travel.

“[Portland’s] proximity to the full gamut of landscapes kind of sets the mood [for my music],” he shared. “If you’ve ever been in the Columbia Gorge in the winter time when it’s all foggy and moody and beautiful, I think you’d see the connection. Likewise, with the more immediate urban connection in Portland; it’s an interesting dichotomy I try to evoke in my music.”

Filepp’s lack of a full-length this year stems from his decision to work on fine-tuning songs in smaller batches, though he does anticipate a new album in late spring of 2015.

“It’s a nice exercise to step back from the full albums and do shorter things, but I also like trying to build around a concept for longer releases,” he said. “My new record I’m working on is panning out to more or less be an instrumental record. It’s a challenge I’ve wanted to take on [2010’s] ‘The Roots, The Leaves.’ I’m excited to see it finally coming to fruition.”

Those who are familiar with Cars & Trains know that Filepp relies on a wide variety of instrumentation, both analog and digital, and is always looking for new ways of doing things, be it incorporating new sounds or putting out an instrumental album to get away from a formulaic approach.

“I’m kind of all over the place, but generally it all comes back to the computer and recording software. I try to not follow a single route or formula, so sometimes I’ll be using drum machine samples, others I’ll be banging pots and pans and throwing forks and spoons across the room and recording them. I always try to use analog synthesizers when I can, and I guess the bottom line is it doesn’t matter what I do so long as it’s fun, and something new comes of it,” he said. “Overall, I usually start with a guitar or banjo to put down the basic structure, possibly on my four-track recorder, then once I have that, anything goes. I’d love to have more strings and other orchestral elements. Some french horn, other lower brass instruments.”

Obviously, it would take a lot of work and manpower to translate all of those elements into a live show, but Filepp finds it’s enough of a challenge to keep his performances interesting for himself and for his audience without incorporating additional performers.

“I try to keep it constantly evolving; it’s all live-loop and improvisation based,” he said. “I try to make it a little different each time, taking cues from the original songs but giving them a sort of unique life in the live setting. They’re familiar but new at the same time.”

Cars & Trains plays tonight at  Madame Claude in Berlin. The show begins at 21.30.

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