Full ‘Seattle Magazine’ interview with Shane Tutmarc and Eric Johnson
Seattle Magazine recently interviewed Eric Johnson and I about our collaboration on the documentary Demon at the Door: Our Heroin Crisis which aired a couple times earlier this month on Seattle’s KOMO News. Johnson is a longtime anchor at KOMO, and he and I have collaborated a couple times now with me composing the score for his documentaries. Other than ambient soundtrack work, this is the first time he’s also asked for an original song to close the film. I wrote Solar Twin‘s new single, The Big Sleep for the end credits, and Seattle Magazine asked us a number of questions about the process. Once the article went live, it was in a very truncated presentation. You can see the article here. And now I’d like to present the full unedited interview that Eric and I had with Seattle Magazine writer, Victoria Uhl.
Name of Band: Solar Twin
Name of Track: The Big Sleep
In three sentences or more, tell us the story of the band:
Tutmarc: Solar Twin is a bit of a 180 for me after nearly ten years down a path of American roots music, but it’s also a full circle for me if you go back to my early work with Seattle indie experimental pop bands Dolour and United State of Electronica. Over the last few years, I found myself drawn more and more to electronic, experimental and melodic music, further and further away from the bluesy-country-gospel sounds I had been focused for most of the previous decade. Of course, there are a few of these flourishes throughout my rootsy records… but suddenly I found myself wanting to go deeper and deeper down this path. Like my Dolour days, Solar Twin is essentially a solo project, that I occasionally bring collaborators in on. I released the first Solar Twin single, Slow Motion, last September, and a follow-up single Black Sky Revisited in December. The Big Sleep is the third single, and I’m busy finishing up more singles with a full-length on it’s way.
In three sentences or more, tell us the story of the track:
Tutmarc: This song would not exist without the film. Initially I was just working on atmospheric/ambient stuff for the soundtrack, but then Eric requested a song for the end credits. Although, I’ve had a number of film and TV placements over the years, I’ve never written something specifically for a film before. Between some of the dialog he had emailed me, and a few clips of video, I had a pretty good sense of the project, and I even found a few lines to make reference to in the lyrics. The song came very fast, which is always a good sign. Unlike the first two singles, which were very auto-tune heavy and hip hop influenced, this song took a more ‘70s route with it’s production. That approach seemed to suit the song, and the film, better.
Tutmarc: Well, Solar Twin is not my only project. In addition to the occasional soundtrack work, I’m also an active producer. I’ve got a couple projects I’m working on right now with some Nashville artists. I’m also continuing to release music under my name as well. On June 30th I have a solo (“Shane Tutmarc”) full-length coming out on Portland, OR label, In Music We Trust. It collects my single-a-month series from 2015, with three bonus tracks, including the title-track, “Damaged Goods.” And I should have another Solar Twin single out this summer. After that, I’d like to see a Solar Twin full-length coming out by Fall.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you came to work with Eric Johnson?
Tutmarc: Eric and I go back a decade now. Although he was a familiar face from my TV screen, originally as the sports guy and then eventually as one of the lead anchors on Seattle’s KOMO News, I got to know him as a regular at Easy Street Records in Queen Anne where I was working. Every week on release day, he’d be there buying a stack of albums. His thirst for new music was impressive to me, even as a music obsessed twentysomething at the time. Our big connection came when we discovered our mutual love of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. He ended up picking up a few of my Dolour albums and solo records, and our friendship grew from there. We stayed in touch, even as I’ve been living in Nashville the last 7 years. This is the second soundtrack I’ve done for Eric. Our first collaboration was back in 2012, for a documentary called Touch the Wall. It had been a while since we’d worked together, and I was itching to do some more film work, so I was excited to hear from him early this year asking me to do the soundtrack for this new documentary.
What inspirations did you draw from for this particular track?
Tutmarc: Relating to the topic wasn’t very hard, as I’ve been through some heavy addictive/destructive periods in my life, and as anyone who’s been through stuff like that knows, it’s something that is part of your daily thought process whether you are still living that way or not. So my goal with the song was to try and write it from the perspective of the user. The challenge of trying to be the best version of yourself, while being a slave to the power of the substance. I think it’s a very similar power that music has always had on me as well. “Chasing highs” is something all songwriters or performers do, so it was relatable in that sense as well. And like most of the Solar Twin stuff, I played all the instruments and recorded it all myself, so it is something I’m very connected to. This song gave me a chance to dig into some early influences like Pink Floyd and The Flaming Lips to try and capture that dreamy, classic psychedelic vibe.
Any Seattle plans or shows coming up?
Tutmarc: For the last few months I’ve been trying to get out to Eastern Washington to produce a record for my great-grandma, the Northwest music icon, Bonnie Guitar. She recently turned 93, and I’m really hoping to get out there and record her soon. If I can make that happen, I’ll definitely take the opportunity to play in Seattle as well. Since living in Nashville the last 7 years, I’ve made it back to Seattle for shows usually twice a year. But I’m especially excited to do my first Solar Twin show in Seattle as soon as possible.
How’s Nashville these days?
Tutmarc: Nashville has definitely been experiencing a major boom over the last few years, and it’s really changed a lot from the small town I moved to 7 years ago. I recently re-located to Hendersonville, about 30 minutes away from East Nashville where I had been living the whole time since I left Seattle. Most of my regular haunts in East Nashville have changed so much, and there’s so many new people in town, it really isn’t the same place I moved to and fell in love with originally. But these are all sentiments that I’m sure are familiar to Seattleites. It definitely felt like a Seattle deja vue when the boom started to hit Nashville a few years ago.
-end of interview with Tutmarc, beginning of interview with Johnson-
How did working relationship start?
Johnson: It started at Easy Street Records on Queen Anne. I was buying a special 40th anniversary release of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. I’m a huge Brian Wilson fan. And the guy behind the counter said, “You like Brian Wilson? I went to see the premier of SMiLE in London!” Right then I thought, “Here’s a guy with exceptional musical taste!” I’d gone to see the same show at Carnegie Hall. Shane and I talked about Brian and Pet Sounds and what his music meant to us. From there, it just evolved. I loved his work with Dolour. Fantastic stuff. And, as it turned out, he’s a really cool guy. I went to a couple of his shows, and admired the passion with which he attacks his career in music. The guy is legit.
Fast forward a few years, and I was working on a documentary about a local swimmer named Marin Morrison. It was called, “Touch the Wall”, and I needed music. I also had zero budget for music. I talked to Shane about it, and he said he’d love to try doing some soundtrack stuff. He worked up several different “moods” and sent them to me. I paid him a couple hundred dollars out of my own pocket.
We developed this little system where I would describe the feeling I wanted during a particular scene in very vague terms. “I want it to be sad, but not syrupy. It should be slow, and feel like you’re remembering a friend that is gone,”… stuff like that. And then, in a day or two he’d send me something, and it would be perfect. As if he’d already seen the piece (which he hadn’t). And so we were off and running.
What’s the best and worst things about working with him?
Johnson: Well, the worst thing is the distance. He’s in Nashville, or else touring with a band, or going to visit John Lennon’s birthplace or something. And I’m here in Seattle. It’s hard to bring him into the equation and show him something as it’s being built. But we work around it.
The other thing is, he’s very much an artist, and he’s very protective of the integrity of his work. He had a song called “Across the River” that we used in “Touch the Wall.” I figured that since it was about a swimmer, maybe he could change it to “Across the WATER”… since she swam in a pool, not a river. But Shane nipped that in the bud right away. He said something about how being too literal can kill the universality of the message.. something artsy like that. And I knew right then and there that the lyric would not be changed. I respect that. The man’s an artist.
The best thing is that when I have an idea for a musical texture in my head, and I describe it to Shane… almost 100% of the time, what he delivers is better than what I imagined in my mind. In other words, the REALITY of his musicianship is better than the FANTASY of my own!
Case in point, the song, “The Big Sleep.” I said, “Shane, I’d like to have a song for the end credits of the special I’m doing about heroin in Seattle. I sent him some raw interviews with heroin addicts talking about what their lives are like… the downward spiral they inevitably take, and what the drug steals away from them in the process. It was gritty, desperate soul crushing stuff. “Can we do something from their point of view?” I asked.
A couple weeks later he sent me this beautiful, fully produced song. I was stunned. He had listened to those interviews and pulled out little details and stuck them into the lyrics. And if you listen to that song, you’ll hear the optimism and euphoria of heroin, followed by the sense of loss that always follows. It sounds like a lost Beatles song, eerie and hypnotic. I jokingly called it, “Lucy in the Sky With Heroin.” It couldn’t be more perfect.
How did the idea for the documentary hatch?
Johnson: The show is called, “Demon at the Door: Heroin in Seattle”. A year ago I did a 1-hour program called, “There But For The Grace of God…”. It was about homelessness, and it consisted of me just talking to homeless people and having them tell their stories. Pure and simple. And the reaction was overwhelming. I had people from all over the country reaching out and telling me that it changed the way they think. The reaction was unlike anything I’ve seen in my career as a broadcaster. In any case, I realized while working on that show just how intertwined homelessness and drug use is. In particular, heroin.
So, I decided to do an hour documentary about the stuff. It’s the raw and personal stories of addicts, some alive, some now departed. It’s also through the eyes of police officers on the streets, trying to get a handle on the epidemic. It features addiction experts, and politicians and parents. I’m trying to look at this thing from every angle… to get a no holds barred look at the immense toll that heroin is exacting from our city, our youth, our families. It is devastating, heart-breaking stuff. I also think it is incredibly important to learn about. I’ve been working on it for about 8-months.
When/where can we see it?
Johnson: It airs for the first time June 1st, right after Game-1 of the NBA Finals. 10pm. It will air again Sunday, June 11th at 3pm.