Between playing drums for The Americans and Fell Runner, filming the upcoming documentary, American Epic, and prepping for the release of his first solo album, the gorgeous, folk-infused The Last Day Of Fighting (Dec. 16), 2016 has been a busy one for Tim Carr.
When we speak over the phone, he’s in Chicago, resting up after a lengthy tour, and he sounds more than relieved to be heading home to Los Angeles the next day. “I’m ready to hibernate,” he explains, “Next year is completely empty, which is actually really exciting. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me.”
Though only 27, Carr has already lived a full life in music. Growing up in Marin County with two musical parents, Carr and his older brother discovered instruments early on, an interest his folks encouraged by adding a very Partridge Family element to their childhood.
“We would sit around and play through the Beatles songbook together [laughs]. It was this little bubble where I was surrounded by music. My parents, they loved it so much, you could just feel that.”
Carr messed around with the piano and guitar before discovering his true love, the drums, which he pursued rigorously throughout high school and his years at CalArts. Private lessons, playing in prestigious jazz combos, learning about polyrhythms from renowned drum teacher Peter Magadini, he did it all. Before I can even finish asking if he ever felt like he was in the movie Whiplash, Carr is laughing.
“I mean obviously it’s a total exaggeration. There is one bit of truth that I think they blew up into absurdity. I enjoyed that movie but I was kind of laughing the whole time. It was never just me in a practice room playing until my hands were bleeding.”
Just because he didn’t have J.K. Simmons yelling “Tempo!” in his face doesn’t mean Carr never needed a break. To distract himself from the disciplined nature of studying the drums, Carr would fiddle around at home.
“I loved improvising on melodic instruments, because that’s what was missing from the drums. I think it was a relief from the academic world of music. I could explore on my own.”
In high school Carr started fooling around with recording equipment after a love affair with Radiohead piqued an interest in production. He learned to sing by playing back tapes he made of himself in his room, and was soon writing and recording songs, several of which were made during Carr’s time at CalArts, and appear on The Last Day Of Fighting.
That DIY philosophy has always been at the center of Carr’s approach. Besides self-producing and recording his album, he also played all the instruments, a decision he attributes to both his natural shyness, and his perfectionist tendencies.
“I had what I wanted in my head, so it was easier, instead of trying to communicate it to another musician, and then not get what I want. I’ve learned to resort to doing things myself. It’s just the easiest way. I’m also pretty shy, so I’m comfortable just learning to do things that I want to do.”
All of these elements have come together to make The Last Day Of Fighting a captivating representation of Carr’s musical journey. There’s the pop-folk harmonies and acoustic guitars of his youth, the polyrhythms of his private drum lessons, the African melodies from his studies at CalArts, the traditional roots music of The Americans, and the skillful production that’s the fruit of hours spent tinkering around in his dorm room.
Most of all, it’s done with a jazz cat’s musicality; that knack for taking something complex and unexpected, and making it so beautiful, it becomes accessible. It feels warm and familiar, while also being like nothing you’ve ever heard. The first time I listened to it, I was transfixed, getting misty-eyed as soon as Carr’s Rufus Wainwright-esque voice came in on the enchanting “Now Now.”
When I tell him this, I can practically hear him turning red on the other end of the line. “That’s very sweet, thank you,” he manages to respond through nervous laughter, subliminally begging me to move on to the next question. Throughout the interview, Carr is obviously bashful and polite, apologizing for things he really has no control over, like the loudness of the wind, some sirens on the street, and for his sniffling.
This endearing timidity carries over to Carr’s own feelings about striking out on his own. His solo music is a newer side to him, more protected and a far cry away from his comfy, well-worn seat behind the drum kit. The move from the back of the stage, to the center of it, is something Carr is still adjusting to.
“I feel out of my element. I’ve been playing drums live for a very long time, and it’s very free, a lot of improvisation. It’s like running freely in a field or something [laughs]. There’s no doubt. This side of me, I’ve only played a handful of shows in comparison. It’s in the early stages of what it’s going to be.”
Developing his live sound is one thing Carr is planning on filling up that empty 2017 with. He’s also planning to put out another solo album by spring, do more tours and possibly another album with Fell Runner, and start recording and producing other artists at his live-in studio in Eagle Rock. The new year will also see the release of American Epic, a documentary about field recordings of American folk music in the 1920’s, produced by Jack White, T Bone Burnett, and Robert Redford.
The last portion of the documentary features live performances by contemporary acts who owe a debt to the early folk recordings that American Epic focuses on. Some of the featured musicians include Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, The Avett Brothers, and Carr’s own Americans.
“It was super cool that they asked us. I just wanted to a good job, because I think it’s really important, zooming in on these musicians that were overlooked, who are essential to creating certain genres that we have today. I think it would be interesting to anyone, really. It’s such a major part of the American culture.”
Before the year is even over, 2017 is shaping up to be just as busy for Carr, whom I discover can rarely find time to sit down and actually listen to music, when I stump him with one of my last questions: What is his favorite album of 2016?
“That’s hard, because a lot of times I discover albums that were released a few years ago. They’re more newly released for me [laughs]. I listened to Frank Ocean’s album that he released in 2012 for the first time. Frank Ocean’s album from 2012 is my favorite album of 2016.”
He apologizes—again—for not being able to think of an appropriate answer to my question, joking that he needs all of 2017 to catch up on 2016, but the truth is, if he keeps creating music as timeless and rare as The Last Day Of Fighting, I hope he never slows down.
Stream The Last Day Of Fighting on Spotify and iTunes December 16th and click here for tour dates and to listen to “Now Now.”