Urbana-based singer-songwriter Tommy Duggan recently released a one of the best, and pleasantly unexpected, Champaign-Urbana albums in the early part of 2016 in late January. The 15-track album stretches into sounds of bands like Guided by Voices, Rogue Wave, and Wilco, all while being written and recorded by Duggan. I recently talked with the Urbana musician about the songwriting process and his return to live music after spending a few years travelling.
Ghost Track: How often do you play shows around the area? Any coming up soon we could point people towards?
Ghost Track: How long did it take to write and record The Shadows and the Mud? How was that process?
Tommy Duggan: I read a few books about songwriting and experimented with object writing for the first time. I’m otherwise untrained. It helped me gain momentum, if anything. When they come to mind, I try to make sure to record snippets of melodies or write down a phrase that might end up in a song later. I try to constantly be paying attention to those effortless yet ephermeral blips of creativity, but ultimately it came down to about four months of disciplined writing and recording. I don’t have room in my house for a band to rehearse, much less a drum kit for recording, so I program the bulkier instruments and DI the guitars. As far as studio equipment, I’ve stuck with what works: a vintage Mac Mini, a $30 mic, and a pop filter made from pantyhose.
Tommy Duggan: I was in a dead-end job right after college and became anxious that maybe I was sleepwalking through the start of my adult life. Not coincidentally, the band wasn’t coming up with anything fresh either. Here was an opportunity to challenge myself and scratch a travel itch, so I saved up some cash, packed my car, and drove to Portland, Ore. Granted, this was pre-recession — and pre-Portlandia era — a time when that seemed like a good idea. In fact, I was distracted by all the opportunities. I left Portland and worked the summer in the Tetons as a park ranger, and returned to Illinois when the season ended.
Ghost Track: You said you were distracted by all the opportunity up in Portland, then you eventually came back to Illinois. Did you regret the move after you left or were you happy you experienced it?
Tommy Duggan: Oh, what I meant by “distracted” was that I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work at a national park in Wyoming, even though I had just recently shown up in Portland. To be completely frank, I returned to Illinois because my dad had gotten terminally ill while I was away. No regrets there. Experiences back then colored the writing process for Lest We Succumb, with themes of lonesomeness, personal tragedy, and political grumpiness. I’ve been living in Illinois ever since. I learned to record my own music, bought a house, and met my wife. Things are good these days. Being away gave me some perspective. It’s so easy to take things for granted. Urbana-Champaign is a cool city and I’m proud to be from here. I hope this positive outlook comes across in The Shadows and the Mud. Every day is an opportunity to get better at life, and to make art, to find meaning and fulfillment. Still there’s some anxiety about the passage of time, or missed opportunities to be my best self.
Tommy Duggan: I played open mics out West and wrote material for the first full-length Patriot Patrol album, Lest We Succumb. A little adventure is good for the imagination. The only thing I left behind, really, was playing in an established live band with other musicians, but only by circumstance. Aaron (Blyth) and Dave (Willis) are both talented and gracious gentleman. They’ve moved on to other projects as well.
Ghost Track: Is “The Shadows and the Mud” a reference to something from your traveling?
Ghost Track: You mentioned Guided by Voices as one of your main influences, and I think that really shows in moments on this record, how do you approach songwriting? Do you have something in mind you’d like to replicate in your own way, or are influences more naturally there and not on your mind during that process? I know it’s usually different for each musician.
Tommy Duggan: If there’s one thing Guided By Voices has proven, it’s that repeating a hook more times does not make it more memorable. If it’s good, it’s monolithic no matter how many times you will it to appear. I’d rather write forgettable music than skip-able music. As a fan of music with a short attention span myself, I try to be aware of when I might be wasting a listener’s time. The extra chorus can get chopped. You shouldn’t expect to blow minds in the pop-rock genre, so maybe struggling to craft a third verse is unnecessary too. I think it’s healthy to keep moving and not get bogged down in the process. Writing music can turn into a slog before you know it, and listeners definitely don’t need that burden either. Don’t get me wrong though, it always takes a lot of effort and discipline, for me anyway.
The “90’s alt rock vibe,” which I get a lot, is never a conscious goal. I’m just steeped in it from growing up. I love listening to records and deconstructing how they were recorded. Like double-tracked vocal, or a weird guitar sound, recording everything as dryly as possible, or panning the entire rhythm section to the right speaker. I like to see if I can make big studio sounds in my spartan home studio. With The Shadows and the Mud, I was fully aware of where I drew inspiration from, be it classic rock and country, 80s pop rock, 90s indie guitar rock. But I think it all ends up sounding more cohesive than I intended, which is probably a good thing.
Tommy Duggan: You’re right. When I first started recording my own music, I did it literally for myself. There’s a back catalog that will never see the light of day. I liked listening to Patriot Patrol and that was good enough for me. Cathartic is about right. I’m an introvert and I don’t keep a journal, so songwriting suffices as a method of reporting the state of the soul, the conscious and the subconscious. You can safely examine your own fears and confusions, and hopefully make some sense of them. In a song, you can articulate yourself to another human — real or imaginary — in ways you can’t in any other medium. But it’s also an escape, like any hobby, and it’s also a relaxing challenge like putting together a crossword or jigsaw puzzle Songwriting and recording is all those things for me. It’s rewarding at every phase. When you’re done, you’ve got something to show for it. You can start to appreciate it more objectively, as a thing that exists outside one’s self, and it’s out there floating in the ether forever. That’s pretty cool.