By. Jim DeRogatis
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."