I Am Trying to Repair Your Heart Trapper Schoepp, Wilco, Summerfest, and associated musings
MILWAUKEE, WI- Dorm rooms in NYC are the size of a postage stamp, so most of us kept our doors open when studying. After listening to me play Old 97’s Fight Songs on repeat one weekend, the guy across the hall walked in with a stack of Wilco albums. “How do you not know them?” he demanded while I studied the track listings, dismay evident in his furrowed brow. “They’re right up your alley,” he assured me, pulling A.M. out of the stack. “Start here.”
Do your memories come with their own soundtrack? I’m half-convinced that it works the other way around – that sometimes, the song conjures the moment. I remember putting “Box Full of Letters” on a mix CD for a guy before I left for a year abroad, hoping he’d be around when I returned. I remember sitting on the concrete floor of an empty apartment in D.C., “How To Fight Loneliness” popping up on the Pandora algorithm while I contemplated the prospect of making a new life in a new city. I remember a summer night in Chicago, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in my ears while I jogged to the Marina City complex. I wanted to replicate the album cover, mentally bookmarking this image as the last page of a chapter—my best friend and I would soon be living in different cities. I remember sitting in a nondescript pizza joint on the Lower East Side not long after moving back to NYC, talking to a new friend who was a bit frustrated that I hadn’t dug into Schmilco: “’If I Ever Was a Child,’” he said, without much elaboration. Song suggestions function as synecdoche—a short-hand for some more complicated message.
These are among the dense thicket of remembrances I associate with Wilco’s music. They’re all memories of trying to form connections across distances both geographic and relational. As Jeff Tweedy related to Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, people “find some way to communicate, even though more often than not it’s in a way that’s not what they intended. Because some communication is better than giving up or not communicating at all.”
On a recent night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I added to this accretion of music-memory. The clamoring of the Summerfest crowd nearly drowned out the opening lines of the first song of the set: “The ashtray says you were up all night.” Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm? Two years ago, the song title would make me think of a junkie, maybe. These days, I think of vaccines.
After a year-plus of isolation, whiplashed from streaming concerts through a laptop screen to shooting in a festival pit, I can’t decide if everything has changed or if nothing significant has changed at all. Concert photographers are on a strange quest to capture the idea of sound and motion in a still image. Live shows feel so much more vital and precious as we stumble toward the other side of this pandemic. But the significance of gathering again for music makes even wider the gulf between the experience and the re-telling of it. The more tightly I try to hold onto these moments, the more the feeling slips through the cracks. The more closely I scrutinize the lyrics, the less information I glean.
I want these photos to tell you that there are many years and many miles and many memories between these songs and me, between these songs and you, between these songs and the musicians who created them in studio and who bring them to life again and again, on stage. It’s hard to find the right combination of words and images to accomplish this. To borrow from a line in Wilco’s first album: “I just can’t find the time / To write my mind / The way I want it to read.”
I’ve started and deleted several drafts already, and I keep hearing Trapper Schoepp’s “River Called Disaster” in my head—the searing lines “Down here it tastеs like turpentine /I know I’m not likе the pastor / Who baptized me in a river called disaster.” If I can’t find absolution from the transgression of bad writing, maybe I should just light the laptop on fire.
Or maybe it’s easier to think of a show write-up and a gallery of photos not as a facsimile of the thing itself, but as a transmission beamed out to those who couldn’t be at the show. A digital letter in a bottle for my future self to find.
Seeing Wilco was a bonus, actually. My main reason for visiting Milwaukee was to hang out with and capture some moments of friends. I first met Trapper Schoepp at a benefit show in NYC organized by Stacy Dylan. I knew of him as someone who’d played with The Wallflowers, Jesse Malin, and Rhett Miller, and the Old 97’s, but I hadn’t yet dived deep into his music. Trapper’s set bowled me over—the lightning energy, the amalgam of folk and rock traditions, and his own storytelling style to make songs that both hook you instantly and linger in your brain.
We chatted for a bit afterward, comparing favorite Old 97’s albums. Trapper talks to strangers with an enviable ease and familiarity, though I suppose we were only half-strangers, given all our mutual friends. On the spot, he sent me a Soundcloud link to his then-unreleased album, Primetime Illusion. I could sense the pride in his voice when he told me Wilco’s Pat Sansone produced it. “Ah!” I replied, equally excited—“Sansone played mellotron on Joe Pug’s last album” (I was referring to Windfall).
Connections at shows are often ephemeral—it comes with the territory of photographing touring musicians who live elsewhere. But it’s also possible to connect the dots into a constellation, and so it was that night. We stepped out of Highline Ballroom, blinking in the bright fluorescent lights of the Western Beef supermarket next door. I pulled up my sweatshirt hood against the chill of the rain before we took a photo to send to our friend. I remember thinking that in all the isolating anxiety of being a gig photographer in this labyrinthian industry, amidst the imposter complex in both my day job and the night hustle, that nights like these were worth it all. Not just the moments onstage, but the connections quietly formed offstage.
I don’t exaggerate when I say I listened to Primetime Illusion on repeat for weeks. The co-write with Bob Dylan, “On, Wisconsin,” is the headline grabber, but I love the whole album. These are vignettes of postmodern discontent and dreams, of TV screens and a Vegas drive-through wedding (followed by an equally hasty annulment), of characters asleep at the wheel and ones existentially lost. It’s a set of compelling stories set over shimmering keys and reverby guitars, and it’s one of my favorite albums of 2019.
When the pandemic shut down touring last year, some friends in the Old 97’s fan family started a livestream concert series as a way to support our favorite artists. Trapper played the inaugural show as a duo with his brother, Tanner, on bass. It was a fun, free-wheeling night that felt very connected even though we were peering at each other across cyberspace. The first show, scheduled for 90 minutes, stretched into a three-hour hang, complete with cocktail-making and covers of Tom Petty, Warren Zevon, Old 97’s, and Mountain Goats. At one point, Trapper paused to show us his new pasta machine, prompting a Zoom name change to Trapper Chef.
Trapper was a frequent guest on this little livestream series (dubbed the Pandemic Pretzel Social Club, because many in the group baked pretzels before the Saturday night shows). We got to hear some songs that would become part of the new album, May Day, released this spring. We took in the lonesome, wistful “Paris Syndrome,” so appropriate for pandemic times. Trapper would move his laptop to the piano so we could hear and watch him play “Solo Quarantine.”
This spring, as vaccines became widely available in the States and venues and restaurants started to re-open, it felt like we were finally turning the corner. That sense of a thaw and rebirth is captured in May Day—a ten-song album made with multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Ian Olvera. It’s a remarkable follow-up to Primetime Illusion, with Trapper’s characteristic attentiveness to granular details in storytelling, exploring themes of loss and renewal. From the rollicking “River Called Disaster” (he literally set a piano on fire for the music video) to the ghosts of “Hotel Astor,” the deliciously ominous “Little Drop of Medicine,” and the steadfastness of “I Am a Rider,” the album as a whole balances dark and light and resolves in a mood of gently insistent hopefulness.
Trapper was slated to play Summerfest in September, and in early June, we texted about my coming out to Milwaukee for it. The delta variant threw us all for a loop, and it ended up being a last-minute decision. I suppose we’re all haunted by different ghosts, though, and the regret I carry of saying “next time” some years ago to a friend whose time then ran out, prompted me not to let this special opportunity slip past me. And it truly was special.
When I arrive at Trapper’s house, Ollie, his four-legged friend, greets me with aggressive enthusiasm. I couldn’t be more in love with this dog. The Boston terrier has his own Instagram account that showcases his impeccable music taste.
Ollie and I join Trapper and his bandmates—Tanner, Matt Smith and Quinn Scharber (guitars), and Jacob Bicknase (drums), in the basement for rehearsal. Ollie plops down next to the guitar case and rests his head on his paws. Trapper talks through the songs—“we’ll do the outro twice here”—and Jake jots down notes. Referring to “If All My Nines Were X’s”, Quinn quips: “That’s the song about bowling, right?” I step carefully around the array of pedalboards and wires, mask on and earplugs in, shooting a few frames. When I look back over at Ollie, the dog is somehow sleeping through rehearsal.
Trapper’s music influences are woven into the texture of his everyday life. A Springsteen-inspired jacket hangs in the front entranceway. There’s a stack of Dylan CDs in the room that serves as his home studio. Jeff Tweedy’s How To Write One Song sits on the table next to a copy of James P. Leary’s Folksongs of Another America. The leather jacket in the closet is a gift—it was once worn by a member of Tom Petty’s band.
The afternoon passes in a blur. A quick lunch break, another half hour of rehearsal, and it’s time to load up the vans and head to Summerfest.
A festival staffer checks our vaccine cards against our picture IDs and hands out a green backstage pass. Everyone is masked up, so it takes me a minute to register that Pat Sansone is helping Ian Olvera move his keyboards and stands onto the stage. When it’s time to check the center mic, Trapper launches into Dylan’s “Meet Me In the Morning.”
After soundcheck, the group strolls into the dressing room. I’m fascinated by Pat’s shoes (slippers?). They look comfy. I can’t quite hear his conversation with Trapper, Ian, and Matt, but my guess is that they’re recounting studio memories, trading inside jokes. The familiarity is apparent in the body language, the laughter visible in their eyes.
As we near show time, the band changes outfits. It’s not just the clothes—there’s such a fascinating transformation that takes place in the minutes before everyone takes the stage. I somehow manage to forget that my pals are rock ‘n roll musicians until they re-materialize in the cross-beams of the stage lights, all eyes on them.
On the rail are fans sporting Trapper T-shirts, including ones reading “This Isn’t Fun Anymore”—a line from “The Scat” (a song inspired by a ride at the Bay Beach Amusement Park), which has become the pandemic mood tee. The crowd is into it, and Trapper and his band play a barn-burner of a set. The set focuses on the new album with older favorites sprinkled in, ending on the blistering “Freight Train,” a song originally written and performed by San Francisco alt-rockers Sister Double Happiness, which chronicles the height of the AIDS epidemic. From across the stage, I see Pat sitting in the shadows, watching his friends perform.
I’m breathlessly shooting, trying to do this justice. At the end of the set, the lights are turned way up. As Trapper raises his guitar overhead, I can see the crowd for the first time, stretching all the way back to the far reaches of the lawn.
The band loads out and I swap in fresh camera batteries, clean the camera lenses, and make my way around to the photo pit for Wilco.
It feels like bands are making sure to play our favorite songs at these post-pandemic shows, or maybe there’s just so many great Wilco songs that any setlist is composed of our favorites. I notice two photographers singing along quietly while weaving to-and-fro in the pit.
Tweedy is in a great mood. He’s happy to be playing music live and happy to see that “people are kissing, dancing, singing, and … smoking weed. Is weed legal in Wisconsin?” Laughter follows. Later on in the set, he compliments a fan’s Nico shirt and asks if there are other cool shirts out there in the audience.
Wilco World’s citizens are a global network of fans, and Nels Cline’s guitar solos have their own sub-cult following. A quick Google search reveals an encyclopedia of recordings of his solos during “Impossible Germany.” On the subject of solos, I love what Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast) said about “At Least That’s What You Said”: “It feels like this sort of very quiet moment between two people that’s really stripped down for the first minute or two, and then Jeff Tweedy just says everything that’s not said between these people in his guitar solo.”
It’s a band of world-class musicians. John Stirratt and Glen Kotche hold down the low end, and the grin on the latter’s face every time Tweedy steps up to the drum kit, makes me grin—they’re having a blast, their musical voices in rapid-fire dialogue. There’s no substitute for this feeling. Trapper comments afterward about Kotchke’s utter coolness—all the experimental, jazzy stuff he does, a la Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” Mikael Jorgensen is situated behind Cline and not always visible, but those keys are a vital part of the architecture of these songs. As for Sansone, the unassuming fellow from soundcheck has been replaced by this wizard switching between keys and guitar, silver hair glinting under the stage lights, and gaze locked in on his bandmates. (I recently took the “Which Wilco Band Member Are You” quiz, and while there’s no wrong result, I’m quite pleased to be Pat.)
Wilco’s setlist alternates between high-energy rock and quieter, acoustic songs—a well-balanced cross-section from the band’s extensive catalog.
At festivals, sound bleed from other stages is inevitable. “Can’t we coordinate so everyone does ballads at the same time?” Tweedy jokes before offering up a friendly “they sound great!” and transitioning into “If I Ever Was A Child.”
In the years since my dorm-mate handed me his copy of A.M., I’ve realized how influential Wilco is to so much of what I love. American Aquarium’ name is drawn from a line in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Puss N Boots—the trio of Norah Jones, Cat Popper, and Sasha Dobson—has recorded a beautiful cover of “Jesus, Etc.” Everyone from Counting Crows to the Wallflowers to Bob Seger has covered “California Stars.” And that’s not even including the foundation laid by Tweedy and Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo (after they disbanded, Farrar went on to form Son Volt).
“California Stars” was the closing song of the night. Tweedy announces that it’s their encore, forgoing the ritual of leaving and returning to the stage. According to Spotify, this is the most well-known Wilco song. (For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that it’s a Wilco and Billy Bragg collaboration with roots in Woody Guthrie’s archives.) If you want to explore the meaning of that song, be prepared for not just an internet rabbit hole but a sprawling warren of carefully sourced articles and counter-articles. I like answers, but I’m also content to let some mysteries be. The audience is the quietest it’s been all evening, swaying blissfully to the outro—“So I’d give this world / Just to dream a dream with you / On our bed / Of California stars.”
Two days later, I’m at Atwater Beach along Lake Michigan. It’s overcast and windy. A little kid squeals in delight as the waves almost sweep him off his feet. Trapper and Ian are dots in the distance, swimming. I’m combing my fingers through the sand to find rocks worn smooth by the waves, thinking about the way time blurs in the isolation of quarantine and speeds by in the span of an afternoon with friends.
There are so many songs about heartbreak, and I’m not so foolish to think that musicians can simply metabolize very specific strains of loneliness and anxiety by writing a song and then emerging, scar-free. But I do know that these songs become the connective tissue for many of us, and in that way, sad songs help repair us.
On my last night in Milwaukee, a fierce lightning storm rolls in. Ollie, who had been snoozing in the living room, pads his way to the guest room. It feels like he’s checking up on me. Satisfied that I’m not scared, he hops into bed and starts snoring.
I’m still bleary-eyed when I pass through the TSA checkpoint a few hours later. My gaze lands on the sign hanging over a set of benches where another early-morning traveler is putting his shoes back on: “Recombobulation Area.”
That’s what a concert is, right? A recombobulation area.
I try so hard to make sense of it all—this world where loss is a certainty and joy is fragile, where discord comes in bulk and empathy is in short supply. The platitudes I repeat to myself (“hope is an act of resistance!”) only get me so far.
I’ve been listening to “Art of Almost” a lot since I returned to New York. Somewhere in the interstices of the electronic and analog, the fuzzy bass and the digital chirps, the cryptic and compelling vocals, this DMZ between chaos and melody, is a rest area for bruised souls. We’re moving in and out of each other’s orbits and communicating in imperfect ways, always almost, forever not quite there, perpetually uncertain, so many crossed wires and mixed signals. But songs can be ciphers. Maybe that’s in part what Tweedy was getting at when he talks about his fascination with the Conet Project, the collection of shortwave radio spy transmissions from which he drew the album title for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
The tingling warmth I experience at the orchestral sweep of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” that surge of adrenaline every time I hear Trapper’s “River Called Disaster”—maybe you feel it, too. Maybe this gets us a bit closer to decoding one another. And maybe that makes “almost,” enough.
Love and thanks to Trap and Natalie (and Ollie) for taking me in for the weekend. x