Ever since I can remember music has been front and centre in my life and probably everyone who frequents our site would say the same thing. So you’ll probably understand when I explain how difficult it is to convey the feeling when you hear music that just hits home, something that just knocks you on your ass. So it was, the first time I heard the insanely talented one-man country-blues band of Thomas Schoeffler Jr.
It was just two songs that Laurent from the awesome Six Tonnes De Chair Records sent me, but the impact was immediate. The first song – Laurie Cheeck, is a bit of Billy Childish with some deep southern blues, in fact, Mr. Childish is a very fitting comparison for Mr. Schoeffler.
But it was the second track – Some Days, God He Knows My Name that left me speechless. It is an epic piece of fuzzy blues guitar, foot stompin’, harmonica madness that leaves you drenched in sweat. Proof that music knows no borders.
TSJ, a native of Strasbourg, France has also released three full length records – 2009’s Some Days (a bit hard to find), 2012’s Daddy’s Not Going Home and Jesus Shot Me Down released in 2014 (and featured here).
Part Johnny Cash, part Bob Dylan, part Jack White, and part Son House. Yet this ain’t no revivalist romp, TSJ is the real deal. It’s difficult to not simply write three paragraphs of superlatives about his music (I already did that in a previous post), so I am going to let the man and his music do the talking.
All you have to do is read and listen, you won’t be sorry.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself – where you grew up, some background on your life as a musician?
My name is Thomas Schoeffler, I was born the 23rd of September 1975 in Mulhouse, France. I’m the second of 4 children. My Dad passed away when I was 18, he loved western music (and specially harmonica players like Charlie McCoy), Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters. He (my Dad) was the first musician I ever met and even if he wasn’t a great performer (he worked in a bank and was only playing his harmonica on Saturday nights when he was a bit drunk ;-), he’d probably gave me the taste of country-blues music.
Personally, I started to play guitar around 18. For many years, I only played for myself, in my room, composing songs and songs, recording them on a tape-recorder. At that time I was very influenced by the Seattle scene and Lo-Fi stuff (I bought a lot of records from Sub Pop Records). Led Zeppelin and Neil Young were also very important to me. Around 25 years old, I started a band with friends of mine. I was composer and guitar player. No singing and no harmonica. We played some kind of grunge music. We played together maybe 3 or 4 years and then we split up…
I was thirty years old. I worked as a nurse in hospitals. No girlfriend. No idea of what to do with myself. Nothing to do but playing music. I started to play everyday, to practice guitar (and harmonica) for hours and I decided to be a one man band and to play some kind of country-blues music with the energy of rock and grunge music.
I started to play in small venues in Strasbourg (where I moved few years ago). Very nervous. Very bad musician, but very very very motivated 🙂 !
After few gigs I had enough money to record my first LP in 2009 : “Some Days”.
“Daddy’s Not Going Home”, my second album was recorded in 2012 and “Jesus Shot Me Down”, my last album, in 2014.
I quit my job a year ago when a small label and a booker decided to work with me and since that time I’m on the road to play my music !
Mulhouse is nicknamed “the French Manchester” because it is an industrial working town, does this factor into your music?
I’m not a militant but I always felt very concerned by proletarian issues.
A lot of my songs are about unemployed persons, homeless, prisoners, people who have been abandoned by society (or by someone).
I always felt a lot of empathy for people in need and singing is for me a way to make their voices heard.
When I think of French folk music I immediately hear the accordion or a hurdy-gurdy, there’s not a lot of information on a French Country & Western/ Folk scene. Can you tell us a bit about the scene?
Indeed, unfortunately there are not a lot of bands of western and country music in France
Here, this kind of music is not popular at all : in France, we like country-music to dance the Madison on Sunday dressed in cowboys and cowgirls…!
But there are some very good bands like Chapel Hill, Baptiste Hamon, Black Yaya…
I think that it is a very interesting challenge to try to change the point of view of people on this music !
It gives me a lot of motivation when someone comes to me after a show and says : “I thought that I didn’t like country music, but I was wrong : it rocks !!” 😉
Can you describe the path you took to get to your sound.
I used a Seagull folk guitar (a Canadian guitar ;-), an old Gibson ES 125 from 1951 (with a Fender Blues Junior amp) and harmonicas from the brand Lee Oskar.
My stomp-boxes are made with cigar boxes (with microphones inside).
I like when there is not a lot of effects (just a little bit of delay or distortion sometimes)
The sound has to be very simple : guitars + stomps + voices : you don’t need anything else, no loops, no machines !!
I came to that sound because I like the constraint of rough music !
When you have no effects, you have to be more inventive if you want to give reliefs or extra dimensions to your music…!
And the more it is simple, the better it will age !
Folk music is storytelling, how are you influenced lyrically?
I read a lot of american literature : Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Herskine Caldwell, Steinbeck, Fante, Bukowski, Louise Erdrich, Ernest J Gaines and many more.
And, when I was a child, I read a lot the Bible… my parents were not believers, but I was (like children can believe in Jesus or Santa Claus…!) But, still today, the old testament, the parables, old that religious stuff is very present in my songs.
Singers like Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, David Eugene Edwards, the murder ballads in general influence a lot my writing.
I like when there is a lot of symbolism, of romanticism.
But I also like blues lyrics : something simple, repeated several times, with a lot of secrets connotations.
Have you recorded in French?
Maybe if I play one day in a Cajun band !
Along with American blues and Johnny Cash, I actually hear a little bit of a Canadian spirit in your work – of course Stompin’ Tom Connors, and sometimes even early Gordon Lightfoot. Are you familiar with either artist, and have you ever been to Canada?
It’s a shame, I never heard of them 😉 !
Ok, I just checked on YouTube and of course I know Gordon for “If You Could Read My Mind”…
But I have to confess that I preferred Stompin Tom ! It is simple, efficient and a little bit more fun 😉
I was once in Quebec few years ago for holidays.
I loved that city : for me it was like New York with people talking a strange old french language in it ! That was awesome !
But I never went to (the rest of) Canada….maybe one day !
One of my dreams would be to be able to travel thanks to my music !
Your guitar and harmonica skills are impressive. Are you self-taught?
Thank you… yep, I’m totally self-taught.
I’ve never had much patience for music lessons…!
I progressed according to the needs for my compositions : at the beginning my songs were very simple and with the time they became a bit more complex.
Tell us what you are working on for 2015-2016.
I’ll be on the road in France, Switzerland and a bit in Germany for this summer and after that I’ll prepared the next album.
I hope to be able to record it this winter.
I’m also looking for doing gigs in North America (including of course Canada !!!) next summer and looking also for a label and/or a booker for this country !
Thanks again for your blog and your interest for my music !