We caught up with Boyce Thompson, Jr., on the eve of the release of his new album, Old Trains/Fast Tracks, to ask the reclusive “artist” a few questions about the forthcoming record, which has received faint praise, at best, from critics who dared to listen to preview copies. This is about the 20th album of original material produced by the erstwhile songwriter, none of which has ever passed the lips of anyone except Thompson himself. It’s a fair question to ask why he continues to write music that no one ever records or listens to. The name of his last album, Songs No One Will Ever Hear, seems supremely appropriate in this regard, even if it did include the beguiling lyric:
Here I sit
Alone at last
With time to contemplate
And a harmony
And think about our fate
We talked with the myopic songwriter while he was looking into his glass at the Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, Mo., where he was hiding out from his wife and family. The winery is located on the shores of the Missouri River, which is on its last legs at this point, its energy spent after battling countless damns and locks, with only about 150 miles to go before its rendezvous with the Mississippi River. The setting seems appropriate given the would-be pop star’s advanced age. Dressed in a WalMart shirt, with a Missouri Tigers hat, Thompson was picking insects out of his second glass of cheap claret when we caught up with him. A saxophonist was channeling Indian moans on stage.
Why do you continue to produce albums, and how many is this?
Well, from the tone of your question, it’s clearly too many. My wife asks me the same question. She thinks the whole thing is very selfish. This is probably about my 20th album. I’ve been writing songs since I first learned to play the guitar, at about 14. My last album, Songs No One Will Hear, was never played outside my car and house. The album before that, Boyce Sings Barks, didn’t sell many copies either. Most recording artists, when they cover songs by other writers, pick famous ones, like Jobim or Lightfoot. Joe Barks isn’t really known outside of industrial distribution circles. I guess there are some people in the convenience store business who know him.
There were a few choice cuts on that album. I especially liked the one we co-wrote about the freight dispatcher who tries to make a return on his girlfriend, along with all her emotional baggage, but is frustrated because he didn’t get a bill of lading. A better distribution love song will probably never be written. Several of the tracks on this new album I laid down for my son, Ethan, who refused to sing them, because they didn’t exactly coincide with whatever musical phase he’s going through now. In my mind, songs like “The Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Building Blues” are timeless.
Why the title, Old Trains, New Tracks? That sounds rather narcissistic. I guess we should expect that from you.
You definitely have a point there. After I recorded the songs on this album, I realized that they had a common denominator. Most of them I either wrote or listened to in my 20s, the same age my sons are now. The concept Old Trains, New Tracks works on several levels. These are, of course, new tracks by an old train. And old trains, of course, can’t make fast tracks; there’s going to be an accident, like the one I had earlier today. Some people may read read drug inferences into the title. That would be silly. I’m no Keith Richards.
When did you write the song. Old Trains Can’t Make Fast Tracks?
I wrote that song with David Holder, when I was living in my parent’s basement during a year off from college. Originally it was going to be called, “Too Hung for Horseshit,” but we didn’t think we could have a hit with a name like that. We were probably right. It took me several years to finish that song. I used to sing it in the bars when I performed with Cannon LaBrie while I was at Northwestern. We had a regular gig at a coffee shop on campus, and we’d play open mics in downtown Chicago. I don’t know who we were foolin’. The song was about Holder, who was an under-aged bartender at Koines, a joint that I played with Scott Shaw one summer during college. We mostly covered Jimmy Buffet and Jerry Jeff Walker tunes. No one in the bar had ever heard any of them.
Where did you find the time to record your new album? I know that you keep pretty busy, working as a journalist and raising a family?
That’s a good question. I endured a lot of hardship during the recording of this project. You know, there were leaves that didn’t get raked, groceries that weren’t bought, rooms that weren’t cleaned. I was sitting in the basement with freakin’ headphones over my ears, oblivious to pressing family needs. There were a lot of important television shows that didn’t get watched, too. The other major challenge I had was blocking out the noise from the laundry room, which is right next to my “recording studio.” You may notice that there’s more electronic piano on this album than previous ones. That’s because I can do the whole thing under headphones; I don’t need microphones.
I heard Randy Newman perform at the Strathmore last year. In the intro to one song he mentioned that it was better received on the road than at home. That’s the thing; no one wants to hear you play at home. I remember when I was young my father approached me while I was composing a song on the piano and asked me if I could play, “Quietly.” I thought it was a song at first. It took me a while to understand that he didn’t want me to interrupt the precious television show he was watching.
How’s the claret?
You know it’s not bad for a Missouri wine. The grapes taste like they were grown in the backyard.
Your vocals sound better on this album than previous ones. How come?
That’s because I was sick when I recorded the vocals to most of the songs. I don’t like to make excuses, but I’m asthmatic. I have to breathe deeply before I sing each verse. Maybe normal vocalists do that anyway. When I have a cold, my throat opens up and I sound better. It happens once or twice a year and I go back into the files and re-record all my vocals. I try not to get flu shots in the hope that I’ll get sick and may sound like Perry Como. Fat chance.
Who is playing on this album besides yourself?
I couldn’t get anyone else, besides Wilson Harwood, to play on the album, so I had to record most of the instruments myself. I taught myself the mandolin and bass within the last five years, so that made things easier. I’m a megalomaniac anyway. Wilson, who is a professional musician in Denver, laid down a few of banjo tracks. I used to babysit for him when he was still in diapers. One time he walked over to me with a sly grin on a his face and said, “Peenie.” It was one of his first words, and a profound one. He’s turned out to be quite a banjo player. He plays the banjo on the song, “Buttoxen In the Corn.”
That’s an intriguing title. What does it refer to?
There’s an interesting story to that one. I wrote that song on the way back from a family vacation. I was sitting in the backseat with my son, Chris, who was about seven at the time. As a youth, he thought that buttoxen was the plural form of buttocks, which makes perfect sense considering that oxen is the plural form of ox. I asked him, What happens when the buttoxen is in the corn, is everything in reverse? He said, “Yes,” and the lyric just started flowing from there.
It’s a might strange situation
When a man is moved to verse
By everything that’s in reverse
Buttoxen in the corn
Yes, that’s quite inventive lyric. But I must ask, Why do you keep writing and recording these songs that, as you say, no will ever hear?
Well, that’s a good question. James Taylor once said that he really didn’t have any choice but write songs; they were going to come to him anyway. I feel the same way. Songs come to me anyway, so I put them down. My father built train sets. My uncle paints toy soldiers.My grandfather on my mother’s side played the piano by ear. I write and record songs that no one will hear. Joe Barks will listen to my songs, as long as they rock. But that’s because I’m the only one who has ever put music to his lyric. My hope is that one day I write a really good song that’s played at my funeral. And maybe everyone who attends will shed a tear and say, “You know, he wasn’t half-bad.”
Do You Ever Perform Live?
Last summer, I performed with my son, Ethan, Max Harwood, and John Beck in a friend’s backyard. We covered some old jazzy rock songs. Ethan sang. It was nearly 100 degrees that night. My friend, Gil, and I built a stage with lumber from The Home Depot. Gil built this incredible air conditioning system. He put dry ice under tables, then draped the tables with towels. He put big fans at the far end of the tables and blew it under the tables, over the dry ice. Then he built misters, of sorts–he strung hoses on posts and ran the air through the mist. It must have been 10 degrees cooler playing on the bandstand. The air handling system was the highlight of that night, to be sure.
I’m also the bass player in the band, Lew Harwood and the Hangovers, or is it the Hemeroids?. We played at his wife Ruth’s 60th birthday party. It was quite an affair. Lew got his wife quite a gift; he rented a bandstand and put it in the living room. We were very well received by the aging baby boomers who attended. We received requests to play again when Ruth turns 70. We’re already practicing, just in case we’re still alive.
I also have a semi-regular gig with my band, Partial Recall. We play what we can remember, which often isn’t much. A friend used to admire me because I could remember the third verse to popular songs. Not so much anymore. Donald Fagen has the same problem. I saw Steely Dan perform a couple years ago, and he kept repeating the same verse over and over again.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on another solo project, “Me, Myself, and I.” I will be playing everything on it again, to be sure. I’m negotiating a contract with Meglamaniac Records. After that I want to record an entire album of songs that sound like they were written in the 1860 to 1890 period. Each will be written from the perspective of a long-dead relative. I’m planning a seance at the release party.
Thanks for the interview.
Sure, anytime. I love talking about myself.