Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Ego? What ego?

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Unassuming, a little bit awkward and slightly naive, “egotistical” is the last word that springs to mind when talking to 23-year-old singer and songwriter Tom Schraeder. “Ambitious” is much closer to the mark, followed closely by “wildly enthusiastic.”

With only one self-released, seven-song EP to his credit, Schraeder has not only been landing prestigious gigs at home in Chicago -- including last summer’s Lollapalooza festival -- he’s been regularly traveling to Los Angeles, New York and Austin. And he’s doing it with a nine-piece band that includes upright bass, drums, second guitar, keyboards, vibraphone, singing saw, banjo, cello and violin.

In fact, the spectacle of all these musicians tumbling out of the van is what gave Schraeder’s group its name. “I was getting a lot of guff from people saying, ‘Why do you need such a big band?’ and ‘Why do you have a singing saw? That’s just another mouth to feed on tour!’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah. But those songs aren’t the same without those instruments.’

“After a while, whenever anybody would question me about the size of the band, I’d say, ‘That’s just my ego.’ And then [bassist] Cornelius [Boon] said it as a joke in an interview, and it stuck. So now the name is officially Tom Schraeder & His Ego.”

Raised on Chicago’s Northwest side, Schraeder has been obsessed with music since the fifth grade, when Fred Papp, a friend of the family and a member of the local rock group the Renfields, kindled a spark by selling the budding musician a National guitar. “He was showing me Jimi Hendrix for the first time, and the Velvet Underground, and I was really into that music while all my friends were listening to the Butthole Surfers. So he brought over this guitar and made me pay him $10 a month -- I had to rake leaves and do whatever I could to pay him back -- and I started reading Guitar World magazine and all that.

“Somewhere along there, I learned how to play, and in going back and forth between classic rock and acoustic music and this college-rock stuff, I found Graham Parsons and Paul Westerberg and Wilco. And from then on I just wanted to get a little more edge to the music.”

The strength of tracks such as “The Whiskey Song,” “Porcelain Doll” and “An Easy Way to Cry” from “The Door, the Gutter, the Grave” is that they recall all of Schraeder’s varied influences without resorting to mere imitation, thanks to the sophisticated melodies and arrangements and the surprisingly insightful and world-weary lyrics. How does such a young songwriter come to be thinking about the weighty themes referenced in the disc’s title?

“That’s a fair question, but I think that for only being 23, I’ve experienced a lot -- or at least enough to have enough material for an EP,” Schraeder says, laughing. “This record sort of sums up a point in time up for me: I was in college and doing a lot of boozing, and I was trying to be that kind of songwriter who sings about boozing. For the first time, I was living with a girl, and there was all this anxiety: ‘Do I want to finish school? Do I want to be with this person? I want to do music, but I feel like I’m being held back…’

“I don’t want to be too dramatic and say I was in a depression, but I remember being locked inside the apartment for a month and a half and just feeling low, and that’s where a lot of those songs came from. Looking back, it wasn’t really that bad. Really, I was just growing up. Now, I suppose the next record will be much more about fearing what’s going to happen if music doesn’t work!”

Despite the unprecedented uncertainty in today’s music industry, Schraeder probably doesn’t have much cause for concern. Since its initial shows last summer, his group has been playing to bigger crowds whenever it’s taken the stage. And after selling out their record release party last November, Tom Schraeder & His Ego became the youngest band invited to play Schubas’ prestigious Monday-night “Practice Space” series.

Schraeder’s plans for the February residency are evidence of the many horizons he’d like to conquer, with strings-enhanced folk-rock set for this Monday; an acoustic hootenanny setting for Feb. 11; a preview of the songs he’s planning to record for his second release on Feb. 18 and a mixture of all of the above and more on Feb. 25.

“There are so many people trying to emulate Wilco these days that it’s hard to bring them up, and I don’t by any means want to be Wilco,” Schraeder says. “But more than anything, the thing I relate to in their music is the idea of taking a song in one direction one time, and then doing it in a completely different way the next -- just going into any style you can think of with the song until you find whatever it is that fits. If you’re talking about folk music or alternative country or whatever, I don’t think you should ever be afraid to do that and to try other styles.”

Tom Schraeder & His Ego
8 p.m. Monday (with Brent Pulse and Wild Sweet Orange)
8 p.m. Feb. 11 (with Bailiff and Wild Sweet Orange)
8 p.m. Feb. 18 (with Absent Star and Wild Sweet Orange)
8 p.m. Feb. 25 (with Darren Spitzer and Le Concorde)
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
$6 cover
(773) 525-2508

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Mr. DeRogatis:
Really enjoyed the article on Tom Schraeder (as I do articles on any up-and-coming musicians). However, one "journalistic" question for you (and no, I'm not a journalist) -- I had read in Chicago Magazine that Schraeder used to be a neighbor of yours (in fact, I got the impression you were somewhat of a mentor to him). Was this a fact that should have been disclosed in your article? Or did you view this as either (1) irrelevant or (2) injecting yourself into the story? Just curious. Thanks in advance.

Erich Buck


In this profile, I did not mention that Tom Schraeder had been a neighbor of mine because A.) I already wrote about that when I covered his performance at Lollapalooza 2007 (see below); B.) It's pretty much entirely irrelevant to the story of a Chicago musician getting national attention for a recording and landing prestigious gigs such as a month-long residency at Schubas, and C.) Living across the street from me is not necessarily a conflict of interest.

I never mentored Tom -- or perhaps I mentored him to the degree that I have mentored every enthusiastic journalistic aspirant who's ever approached me. That is to say that when he originally thought he wanted to be a music journalist, I happily answered his questions, and even loaned him a few CDs. When he began performing and focusing his attention on music, however, I stepped back; if you've seen "Almost Famous," the advice that Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gives the young Cameron Crowe (Patrick Fugit) is one of the truest things I've ever learned in music journalism: "Don't make friends with the musicians."

If Schraeder had not reached a level where he was suddenly performing at Lollapalooza and touring across the country, I would not have written about him. But he's making news -- and with no help from me!

In any event, here's the first time I wrote about him. (This column was the second.)

From next-door neighbor to Lolla performer

(Lollapalooza Blog, August 3, 2007

A few years ago, one of my next-door neighbors on the city’s Northwest Side was an earnest young guy gearing up for his first year at DePaul University and eager to make his mark as a musician. Every summer, he’d sit on his front stoop at night and play his acoustic guitar, singing surprisingly sophisticated originals, as well as covers by Pink Floyd and Dave Matthews.

Now, Tom Schraeder is preparing to release a debut EP, “The Door, The Gutter, The Grave,” and in the tough-sell slot of Friday at 12:30, he held forth on one of the smaller stages in the center of the park along Lake Shore Drive, winning over early arrivals at the fest (who had to endure an entry line three blocks long) and shining brightly as he delivered his tunes with the exquisite backing of a seven-piece band that included cello, violin, standup bass, drums, keyboards and, best of all, a singing saw.

“God damn all you women who are the same,” Schraeder sang in an endearingly gravelly voice and with a world-weary wisdom belying his age and experience. Combined with a moving sound equal parts alternative-country,cornfield psychedelia and Neil Young, tunes like this one marked him as a real talent — and no, that observation isn’t at all influenced by the fact that I can say I knew him when.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on January 30, 2008 8:28 AM.

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