Trapper Schoepp's lyrics are rooted in unbelievable circumstances. And most of them are true.
A small dining room table sits in the center of the kitchen in Trapper Schoepp’s East Side duplex unit. The tabletop is filled with names scratched and scrawled by friends, bands passing through town and – even though most are crossed out – ex-girlfriends. The “T” for Trapper is carved entirely through the inch-thick table. It’s at this table that Schoepp wrote the jovial, rambling, heartbreak tune “Talking Girlfriend Blues” for his new record due this fall, the Brendan Benson-produced Rangers & Valentines. With those scratched-out names staring back at him, Schoepp wrote each verse of the song to explore a past relationship. But he did so with an awareness of the well-trod, overly sentimental singer-songwriter territory. So he added an extra layer by poking fun at the mawkish form, with tongue-in-cheek meta-commentary to complement the infectious melody. (“I know how there’s already a million songs/ About how guys and girls can’t get along/ I’ve been seeing a girl I won’t name/ I sure hope it don’t end up the same/ She said she might study abroad, be independent/ Me too.”)
Schoepp and brother Tanner recorded the album in Nashville with a backing band, the Shades; an assortment of session musicians; and notable contributors like Steve Selvidge of the Hold Steady, John Davis of Superdrag, and gospel singers the McCrary Sisters. (Comedian Marc Maron even shows up on the record, singing a group vocal for “Talking Girlfriend Blues.”)
The wide-ranging cast strengthens and broadens the band’s loose, shuffling rock ’n’ roll sound. “This is a total genre-hopping album,” says Schoepp, who cites Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon and Harry Chapin as major inspirations. “[The album] goes wherever it wants. I didn’t want this record to be pigeonholed into a genre. It’s more a reflection of my record collection.”
It’s likely it also has something to do with the experience 25-year-old Schoepp gleaned from his busy touring schedule. His band has opened for seasoned veterans like the Wallflowers, the Jayhawks and the Old ’97s. “You become a product of the environment around you,” says Jon Phillip, the band’s once-full-time, now-occasional drummer. “Life gives you different influences, and I think that’s helped the music a lot.”
Schoepp credits two other musical mentors for his creative appetite: a rock ’n’ roll studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Martin Jack Rosenblum, who embodied an alter-ego, the Holy Ranger, as a renegade poet who romanticized riding motorcycles. Schoepp also cites his upstairs neighbor, George Valentine, with whom Schoepp would swap records and PBRs. Both men recently died, so Schoepp named the album for them. “These were mythical and mystical creatures to me,” he says.
On Rangers & Valentines, Schoepp continues to write narrative-driven songs, something he’s improved on from his first two albums, 2009’s Lived and Moved and 2011’s Run, Engine, Run. He drops his characters into adrenaline-filled situations – diseases, natural disasters, even war – to see how they endure in the face of danger. It may sound dramatic, but many of the dire situations come straight from Schoepp’s life.
“His whole personality revolves around telling people stories,” says the band’s former guitarist, Graham Hunt. “He’s the kind of guy that weird, funny situations follow him around, so he’s always got fuel for his stories.”
Back at his house, Schoepp walks downstairs and glances at a futon mattress in his rehearsal space. It prompts him to tell a story about salvaging the piece on a blind voyage to a cabin at Lake Winnebago. Next to the futon is a bass amp cabinet with the letters “G n R” duct-taped to its back. It was given to Tanner Schoepp by Tommy Stinson of Guns N’ Roses and the Replacements a few years ago. “Everything has a story in this house,” Trapper says.
Despite his collection of stories, Schoepp has only scratched the surface of his music career. But with Rangers & Valentines, his imprint has been pressed a little deeper.
Inside the Mind
Songwriting isn’t scientific, but Schoepp has a system of sorts.
There are three tried-and-true methods that Trapper Schoepp says he uses to write songs: “You dream ’em, you scheme ’em, or you be ’em.”
[mark]Dream ’em[/mark] | “Ogallala”
“We’re driving home from California and there’s this terrible blizzard approaching us,” Schoepp says. “A semi jackknifes and goes on the other side of the interstate. We pulled off into the first town we could see, a town called Ogallala. We’re stuck there for three days. I was really sick, so I was taking NyQuil. You know how that goes. I woke up and this song dropped into my head.”
[mark]Scheme ’em[/mark] | “Don’t Go”
“This song took five years to write,” Schoepp says. A soldier in uniform approached him after a show and recommended Schoepp write a song about a service member. “You keep doing your thing; I’ll keep doing mine,” Schoepp remembers responding. But he ended up taking the man’s advice and worked fervently with his brother on a narrative surrounding 9/11. “It’s heavy stuff, and with a song like this, you have to do your homework because you have to get it right,” Schoepp says.
[mark]Be ’em[/mark] | “Mono Part II”
“Is this an episode of ‘House’ or what?” Schoepp’s doctor said before a misdiagnosed nasal infection turned out to be his second case of mononucleosis. “They prescribed me penicillin,” Schoepp says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and I was covered in hives. I couldn’t breathe.
“They found out that penicillin has an interaction with people who have the mono virus. That’s what they concluded. And as I sing in the song: ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do for mono/ So they just gave me Vicodin and sent me home.’”
GO: Trapper Schoepp & The Shades (July 4). Summerfest. KNE New Music Stage. 200 N. Harbor Dr., 414-273-2680, summerfest.com.