Jim "Schnitzel" O'Brien is a music fan. You can hear it in his songs, like "Broken Bottle," which seems to take half a record collection and distill it into a rousing 1:47. You can sense it in the way he talks about the folks who record with him, including Agents of Good Roots' Brian Jones, about whom O'Brien says, "There's not many people who can play with Mandy Moore one month and Jandek the next."
And you can read it in the liner notes and on the back cover of his CDs such as Southbound Freight, which credits Paul Westerberg and Jeff Tweedy and features a cut titled "Song for Tift Merritt to Sing."
O'Brien, who lives in the Cold Harbor area outside Richmond, Va., is also is a fan of places. That leads to his latest release, which takes its name from O'Brien's adopted home region. "I had only been writing about where I grew up in upstate New York, and I reached a point where I was done with it. Said what I had to say. Cold Harbor is about the people I know here and the places," he explains. "I wanted to say something that wasn't obvious. The places where people lived around the city but no one gave much thought to."
Cold Harbor's closer is "Truck Bedliner," a place-dropping tour de force that plays out as part nature documentary and part personal journey. In a recent e-mail exchange, after an ice-breaking music-fan question, O'Brien got down to discussing "Truck Bedliner."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Based on comments made in the liner notes of both Cold Harbor and Southbound Freight, you strike me as a big music fan. Who are some artists that you turn to for instant inspiration or provocation (to paraphrase some of the text on the cover of Cold Harbor)?
SCHNITZEL: Strange that the people I love listening to aren't the ones I think who influence me. I always wonder if the artists we're the biggest fans of are necessarily our biggest influences. Because I should sound a lot more like Paul Westerberg if that were so. And I should be more of a Steve Earle fan considering how much I steal from him. Scott Miller would be a good balance, someone who directly influences me and who I listen to regularly. And Wilco. Jay Bennett-era Wilco. Before they started sucking.
Sometimes the really great stuff can humble you though. Witnessing a particularly great performance by The Avett Brothers sapped my own confidence for a while. And after James McMurty's first record came out, I gave up trying to write because he had just said everything I wanted to say and I didn't even realize it yet. So to get really inspired, I listen to the radio. Not satellite radio or Internet radio or college radio or public radio. I mean good old American shitty corporate new-rock alternative radio. 'Cause it pisses me off. And when I hear it, I know I could write better songs.
With its combination of lovely images ("the moon in the trees/ and the honeysuckle filters the breeze") and first-person details, "Truck Bedliner" comes off rather cryptic. Care to unravel any of it for us, or would you prefer that we wrestle with it?
I hate to spoil the mystery, but since that's kind of the point of the song, here goes: My son went through a stage where he was really into the moon and spotting it out. So one night he said, Look at the moon in the trees. And while I was in the backyard later, the wind picked up and made a weird sound, and I thought that the wind is just air masses with different temperatures seeking equilibrium and that its sound and smell are all determined by what it flows through.
Sometimes we think the wind is creepy or sometimes it smells nice, but that has a lot to do with what we build and plant around ourselves. When I had that thought, some magic evaporated for me. And I had this new computer system at work that gave all this junk information, so I had to select filters every time I used it, which was constantly. And me and my wife were watching Foyle's War, which has an actress named Honeysuckle Weeks, and I had remarked it seems like a Southern name (she is British), but I never heard of anyone with that name.
So all that was going on in my head when I was looking around the backyard, and I realized that what is now my subdivision was probably the very front line in one of the many battles and skirmishes of Cold Harbor. It's not necessarily a bad thing to build over what once held history. I could be standing on a site where a Confederate or Union soldier died, but their ghosts are gone. We could do anything here: Build a strip mall or build more starter-home subdivisions. Plant more shrubbery.
The point is we have the power to do anything we want now on this land. You know, within zoning laws. And that's the depression and emptiness that sets in, when you realize it is you who has to create meaning, that it doesn't come elsewhere. Some people will tell you that it's liberating maybe, but I find it crushing.
The line that first jumped out at me was "I wish you would dance like that for me." I know that some, if not most, of Cold Harbor's details are autobiographical, so at the risk of overstepping bounds, I'm curious as to the circumstances surrounding that line.
There was a dancer at a strip club (I'd like to say years ago but probably not) who kept all her attention on this one guy and ignored me. I threw a lot of ones away and thought I should get at least something out of that night. I wondered if everything came that easy for that guy. Did he have these same questions about life that I did, or did he get the answers that easily? And I can't believe how horribly sexist I sound after listening to my own response.
The line that gives the song its name is "North Carolina/ absorbs a storm like a truck bedliner." You don't often hear someone being metaphorical and meteorological in the same line. Do you remember when that image came into your head?
I've heard it said that "cellar door" is the most beautiful phrase in the English language. I know it was in Donnie Darko, but I've heard it elsewhere too. I was eating a 7-11 Big Bite one day in Sandston, and I saw a sign for truck bedliner specials and thought, "Now that's a more beautiful phrase." As for the other part, everyone in Richmond goes to the Outer Banks for vacation. If you don't, it's because you've gone so many years in a row you want to try something new. We were headed to there one year when Ophelia hit, but it kinda turned away. We were really looking forward to it, so we were grateful. Virginia owes North Carolina a lot for hurricane protection. Lord knows Maryland hasn't done shit for us in years.
But I guess the key line in "Truck Bedliner" is "a Cold Harbor is neither."
That is an old, old quote, and I have honestly tried to figure out where I first read it or heard it. It means Cold Harbor is neither cold nor a harbor. In fact, it's hotter than most of the other places in the region because of where it's geographically located, and there's no water around. It originated as a tavern for folks on their way to Richmond. Plus, my wife keeps telling me she wants to move, so I feel like I shouldn't settle in. We actually live in Mechanicsville, which I think you'd have to agree is the most generic-sounding name. And it really doesn't have much character. So I wonder, with so much history, why did the people here decide to opt for a name like Mechanicsville? And it's really not even a town; it's a confederation of subdivisions. I'm not saying that was the wrong choice. But I get the feeling if this place was a person, it got in trouble a long time ago and has been trying its hardest to live as simple life as possible to avoid detection. Like Kathleen Soliah.
Admit it, with "the sunshine on the northern hills look lovely from Chapel Hill/ And from Carrboro better still," you're just sucking up and trying to get a show at Cat's Cradle, aren't you?
It worked for Sonic Youth, didn't it? That line is about Smith Level Road.
One thing that really impresses me about the song is that it somehow feels both free-flowing and painstakingly put together, right down to the repetition at the center of each of the verses ("I never set my heart on it because I didn't know what I'd get out of it" and "you know that you've been searching for whatever it is you've been searching for"). As a songwriter, do you find yourself reworking and re-reworking a song to get it just right, or do you tend to be pretty comfortable with a song as soon as it hits paper?
I wanted the song to sum up everything, so I did labor over the meanings and different meanings each line has. I kept whistling the riff to [guitarist] Dickie Wood until he could play it. That song came together in the studio at the last minute. Usually everything is written beforehand. And I like to play it out to test in front of an audience, but this one worked differently.
The best writing advice I ever heard was from Henry Rollins. He said to write the best possible thing you could possibly write, pour your heart into it, etc., rewrite and rewrite it, and then once it's done, throw it away. Don't ever come back to it. It's supposed to prove something—I forget what—but this song is like coming back to all the other songs I threw away and grabbing one line from each of them. But if it's not catchy it doesn't matter anyways. In the end, if you can't hum it or whistle it, it becomes forgotten. Like everyone of us will be one day. After our children's children pass away.
Schnitzel has the early shift at the Cave Thursday, Aug. 23, which means the music starts at 7:30 p.m.