Schooner frontman Reid Johnson is sitting in a Carrboro diner, eating an early dinner, nudging his French fries to the side of his plate and looking at his food: "I'm kind of a song-writing hypochondriac," he says. "I wondered if I would ever write a good song again after You Forget About Your Heart came out."
That's Johnson, all right—a worrier. The band's first full-length,You Forget About Your Heart, was lauded by GQ as "one of 2004's listening pleasures." But Schooner sort of stalled, not as a working band, but certainly as a band trying to capitalize on young critical success. Scheduling conflicts slowed follow-up plans: Matching the band's schedule with longtime supporter and producer Zeno Gill's was getting more difficult, and the band needed to keep stretching its market by touring.
"It wasn't like the first LP, where we went into the studio and churned it out over a couple of weekends," says Johnson. "We couldn't get it together to record and that caused a lot of frustration. We pretty much already had all the songs. We just couldn't find a time to put them down."
But the band kept working. Schooner had songs, dozens of them. Between releasing the debut and recording its full-length follow-up, Hold On Too Tight, Schooner contributued to a four-way split album, 3x4, with three other North Carolina bands, and recorded their own limited-edition EP, Rocky.
"We got impatient with our own production schedule and wanted to put something out," Johnson says.
Still, according to Johnson, the band continued to play, grow and evolve, even as the record was put on the backburner for self-booked tours. Megan Culton, second guitarist and singer, joined the band for a spell.
Johnson understates things. He is a bit of an introvert, warm but quiet, sheepish but smiling. He seems humbled by his work, a young musician searching for answers in melodies and harmonies. There's a photo on the disc of Hold On Too Tight where Reid is sitting beside his sister, Kathryn, who plays keyboards and sings in Schooner. Profound differences separate the two: Beneath his brown hair, his eyes are shut tight against the world. Her eyes, though, are wide, taking everything in above the hint of a smile and below her bright blonde hair. Kathryn is playful and charming, opening up the night's conversation to talk about Schooner's fuzz-pop sound and its origin.
Hold On Too Tight, then, is an arrival, a perfect marriage of these extroverted and introverted sensibilities, simultaneously manifested in reverb-laden lullabies, sugary sweet 1960s-inspired pop, steel-pedal filled country and splendid fuzz-pop. When Michigan-based indie label 54'40' or Fight! Records (Ticonderoga, 31knots) signed Schooner early this year, the band focused on finishing the 16 tracks that shape Hold On Too Tight. Sure, Schooner struggled to record and release it for three years, but—in its quiet but bubbly harmonies and gentle, cooing moans—the conflict finds a bright stage.
Reid says, "I really wanted the album to be a blues album."
A blues album? That's an odd assertion, especially considering its broad range: "Carrboro" and "They Always Do" are evocative of prime '60s pop psychedelia, while the country-ish hummers "Married" and "Leaving Your Room" are grounded with the intensity of a Gram Parsons-style parched croon. "Strange Alibis," though, sounds almost like a punk anthem.
But Johnson isn't referring to sounds as much as he is the attitudes and emotional anxieties carried by the best of the blues: The album, hedged by a childlike hum of "do do do da do do do" choruses in its opening and close, offers an often brutally honest look at life—love, heartbreak, marriage and slight undercurrents of political turmoil.
"I'm mostly singing about getting through stuff in life," he says. "Like whatever existential stuff in life you're going through, you can use music as your therapeutic muse. That's how I patch things up emotionally."
Schooner releases Hold On Too Tight at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Aug. 25, with Erie Choir, The Strugglers, North Elementary and Wes Phillips of Ticonderoga. The free shows begins at 8 p.m. Phillips and Nathan White of the band Nathan Oliver will join Schooner onstage. It will also be the last performance of Tripp Cox for several months, as he's traveling to Europe.