Music of the moment

Electro-acoustic introspection with Portland’s Cars & Trains

Tom Filepp is Cars & Trains.

Tom Filepp is Cars & Trains.

Photo courtesy of Tom Filepp

Cars & Trains performs with tourmates CURTA Sunday, March 4, 8 p.m. Pervert and Scout open.
Cost: $7
Maltese Bar & Tap Room1600 Park Ave.

Tom Filepp is thoughtful and soft-spoken as he sits at a coffee shop talking about his longtime electronic-folk project, Cars & Trains. It’s partly his demeanor, but the Portland, Ore., songwriter and electronic musician loves what he does, perhaps more for what the music does for his own well-being.

It’s unsurprising, given the cerebral and emotional scope of his music. What’s interesting, however, is Filepp’s ability to combine the two facets seamlessly—within the layers (upon layers) of ear candy lie sharp melodies and lyrics that bounce between personal and topical. He’s essentially left to his own devices, figuratively and literally.

“I have a thing where I need to pick everything apart—how do they sync things up to work together?” Filepp said.

Cars & Trains has been a part of Filepp’s life now for nearly 15 years, beginning in earnest while attending art school in Boston, and progressing after he and his wife moved to Portland in 2007. In that time, he’s released a number of EPs and five full-lengths, including his latest, Fictions, released last October on the independent hip-hop label Fake Four Inc. The new record zeros in on the day-to-day as it exists within our new modern chaos, with the music and Filepp’s lyrics painting pictures both bleak and hopeful. Acoustic guitars are strummed over soft electronic beats as well as a wall of loops and oddball instrumentation—it’s soothing, but there’s a lot going on.

While Cars & Trains began as a “bedroom project,” Filepp continues to perform in Portland, as well as tour parts of the States and even Europe (by himself, of course), which has helped him to more emphatically embrace his moody and melodic electronic music. Filepp is keen to the fact that this type of music doesn’t always translate live, though he’s made a concerted effort over the years to keep both himself and the audience engaged.

“The process is the biggest part,” said Filepp, who builds his songs (some of which include 90 to 100 tracks) with loops during the performance, while also singing and playing guitar. “I find it interesting to build up textures and make it interesting to others.” He adds with a smile, “In the old days I may as well have been up there doing my taxes.”

Talking to Filepp, it’s difficult to imagine him being part of the hardcore and metal scenes in his formative years in New York. He ticks off the names of thrash gods like Metallica and Death Angel as early influences. Those gave way to more electronic-minded artists like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, as well as Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis.

During that time he played in a number of bands, although those days are long behind him. Filepp sometimes misses playing with other musicians, but says he owes Cars & Trains’ longevity to the fact he’s remained a solo artist—no personality clashes, no conflicting schedules, and no responsibility to others when things go awry on the road.

“I’ve taken some tourmates through the ringer,” Filepp said. “Also, having been in a bunch of bands, it’s nice to be more self-sufficient.”

A decade and a half in, and you could say Filepp has perfected touring and performing by himself. You can tell he relishes the unexpected, though, too. Like at a show in Europe, where an equipment malfunction led him to walk through the crowd strumming a guitar that wasn’t working, his voice the only thing audible to those in attendance.

“You have to force yourself to be in the moment,” Filepp said. “At the end of the day, that’s what music is about—being in the moment.”