Tim Foljahn’s Dream of Life
The indie-rock journeyman discusses his stirring new album and his many side gigs
Tim Foljahn has played in a lot of bands over the past 40 years, occasionally with some of the biggest names in indie rock, including Cat Power and Thurston Moore, and occasionally in more obscure outfits with names like Spastic Rhythm Tarts or Drop Ceiling. Foljahn grew up in Midland, Michigan, a small city 30 miles outside of Saginaw and also happens to be the same hometown as future Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. The two crossed paths in the local hardcore scene, playing together for the first time in Faith And Laurels, a band Foljahn describes as “kind of a Joy Division thing.”
Even when Foljahn worked as a singer-songwriter, he did under the moniker Two Dollar Guitar, which he says was a product of “that ‘90s thing where you didn’t wanna work under your own name.” But since 2012 he’s finally begun working primarily as a solo artist, and I Dreamed A Dream, released in May, is his third album under his own name.
“That was kind of an idea I’d had for a while,” Foljahn says of the album’s lush orchestration, over the phone from his home just outside of New York City. “This is the first time I think it would’ve actually worked because the songs were, I don’t wanna say plain enough, but clear enough, that they could survive that treatment.” Longtime collaborator Jeremy Wilms arranged the strings, which were played by Megan Gould and Danton Boller, giving a vivid new dimension to Foljahn’s usually guitar-driven songs that had previously sometimes been knocked out on a fuzzy four-track. “Jeremy had been doing all this composing that I was really interested in, so it just sort of was a natural progression.”
Foljahn, 59, has built an estimable catalog of songs, sometimes darkly funny and sometimes eerily moving, befitting influences like Townes Van Zandt, the legendary Texas singer-songwriter who Foljahn has covered and performed with briefly before his 1997 death. Foljahn began releasing Two Dollar Guitar records in the early ‘90s after a few years of moving around the country and settling down in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he reconnected with Shelley. Together, Foljahn and Shelley recorded a dizzying number of albums, playing with Chan Marshall on the first three Cat Power albums and recording classics like “Nude As The News,” backing Spanish singer Christina Rosenvinge, and teaming with Half Japanese’s Jad Fair as Mosquito. “Some of the outliers that I did with other people, I’ve been listening to some of that lately, like the Mosquito stuff, and I’m like ‘Woah, that’s really crazy.’”
Shelley’s Sonic Youth bandmate Moore drafted the drummer and Foljahn for a trio, initially dubbed Male Slut, that worked up the material that eventually became Moore’s most famous solo album, 1995’s Psychic Hearts.
“That was a really fun band, I had some of the weirdest live experiences with that band, and really great moments,” Foljahn remembers. One of those experiences was Hi Octane, Sofia Coppola’s short-lived 1994 Comedy Central series where the future Oscar-nominated director palled around with famous friends and rock stars. Male Slut made a cameo in an episode where Coppola got a bass guitar lesson from Mike Watt and then played a basement set with Moore, Shelly, and Foljahn.
In 2014, Foljahn made another unlikely venture into television: this time as an actor.
When Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black introduced a storyline with prison guard Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) playing in a bar band called Sideboob, Foljahn was cast as a bandmate, along with producer Tom Beaujour (Juliana Hatfield, Long Neck) and Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliott. Foljahn acted in three episodes and helped compose and perform music for songs like Sideboob’s popular favorite “Workers in the Mine. “They would send us lyrics, and then we would try to put that to music and figure out what kind of music would these guys do,” Foljahn says. “It was kind of fun, and the lyrics were really wacky, it was fun to sing these ridiculous lyrics.”
Folljahn’s lyrics have often seemed to explore dark corners of his personal life or imagination, and I Dreamed A Dream is no exception. “A lot of [the album] came from a time, there’d been a relationship that had become untenable, And there was, in particular, one dream that literally spawned a couple of those songs. ‘Wake Up’ and ‘See You In My Dreams,’ there’s literal imagery from that dream in those.” Christina Rosenvinge, a major pop star in Spain who Foljahn wrote songs for on her 2001 album Frozen Pool, recorded backing vocals for I Dreamed A Dream during a recent visit to America. “She happened to be here for something else and I corralled her into doing it, I was really lucky that she was willing to, it was fun,” he says.
A few years ago, Foljahn went back to school and got a Master’s in psychoanalysis, and is currently undergoing the licensing process to open his own practice, so he’d withdrawn from touring well before the COVID-19 shutdowns. But he’s been performing often at Issyra Gallery in Hoboken in recent years, and looks forward to returning now that he finally has a new album out. “I think it would be really interesting to [perform] the record and have the strings there,” Foljahn says, although some of the new guitar-free songs may leave him feeling a little naked onstage without an instrument. “When we would do those live, I would just be singing, I wouldn’t be playing guitar, which is very weird for me.”