11 Questions with… Tod Weidner

Tod Weidner is an institution in his home town of Dayton, Ohio. Tod is a visionary songwriter making music that drives a listener to tap their toes without realizing the impactful lyric until one has been hooked. Tod has led the incredible band Shrug for decades. The admiration for Tod’s music has been well earned from a songcraft that brims with a direct and honest rock and roll that veers across rock, indie, folk and more. Tod’s gift for writing catchy songs that open an honest dialogue is one of the most important characteristics of his music! While Tod has relocated to the Bay Area, his music continues the sonic journeys he started in Dayton.

Dr. J: What can you share with us about when and how you started writing music?

Lyrically speaking, I’ve been hugely influenced by my dad. He was a high school English and Literature teacher for over 30 years, and he passed on to me a love of words and how to put them together.

Musically Speaking, I started playing guitar in my sophomore year of high school, in January of 1986. I grew up in a rural area of Ohio, about 25 miles geographically and a thousand light years philosophically from Dayton. Underground rock (“college rock” as it was known then) was a thing, but it hadn’t really reached our sheltered little school to any real extent. We just had the radio – AOR or Top 40. If I had been more familiar with punk and DIY indie bands of the day, it may have occurred to me that I could write my own music as soon as I had a couple chords under my belt but, as it was, those radio formats instilled a feeling that these artists were untouchable superhuman beings descended down from Mt. Olympus, so the best we mortals could do was to learn how to play their music and- maybe, if we were good enough- join a cover band. 

At some point around 1990, I began to realize that I didn’t have to play covers of other people’s music. The early “gateway drug” bands that lured me from the flashy ‘80s hard rock into more organic, underground stuff were Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, Masters of Reality, Faith No More, and bands like that. I started coming up with riffs and developing them into truly dreadful early attempts at songs. Those bands led me to early R.E.M., Robin Hitchcock & The Egyptians, and other groups that had a little more “jangle” to their sound, and that was a turning point in my sense of songcraft. In 1993 I joined a short-lived Dayton band called Tim, which is where I first started contributing my own songs. After a year or so, I left Tim and started Shrug, and that’s where I really shifted into a higher gear. I was a sponge- I was devouring music as fast as I could find it, and learning about songwriting along the way.

Dr. J: What first led to your recording music? How do you approach production?

TW: When I was just starting out writing songs, my bandmate and I found this huge monstrosity of a stereo called a Sinclair Studio 100 at a close-out furniture store in Columbus. It was about the size of a window unit air conditioner, with a turntable, a tuner, and a dual cassette deck. The thing was, though, that it also had a setting where you could use it as a four-track recorder- the EQ sliders turned into faders, and you could record multitrack demos on it. My buddy and I each bought one, and I developed some extremely rudimentary recording chops, by trial and error. I haven’t listened to any of those cassettes I made for years and years; it would be somewhere between amusing and horrifying to hear them again.

How do I approach production? That’s a complicated question. It’s always evolving. My favorite way to do it is to get everyone in a room together and just play live. Let some happy accidents and mistakes happen- that’s where the good stuff lives. That’s not always doable, though. Sometimes space or noise limitations force you to build songs one or two instruments at a time, which gives you more control over the finished product and opens up the song to some interesting possibilities for experimentation. 

There’s a time and a place for both approaches. Ideally, I like to let the song dictate the method. Having said that, I’ve been writing and recording demos alone on GarageBand lately, so building the song piece by piece is kind of the default mode for me at the moment, at least as far as pre-production goes. 

The solo singles I’ve released so far and the ones in the immediate pipeline- aside from “The Boys of Summer” (which was done by myself at home) have been mostly recorded in a beautiful, big, spacious studio in Los Angeles, and I’ve been blessed to have some monster musicians on the sessions, so the lion’s share of the music gets tracked live, with vocals and some extra guitar overdubs added later. It’s a good mix of the two methods.  

Dr. J: Boys of Summer is your most recent music, what led to the making of that song? What was the main influence on your recording this cover?

TW: It was serendipity- pure happenstance. I’ve always adored the original version, written by Mike Campbell and Don Henley. It’s such an evocative song about nostalgia, and it resonates with me more and more the older I get. I always thought it would be cool to cover it at some point.

So it happened that, this past New Year’s Day, 2022, I was at home, in my music room, with a few hours to kill, so I just started messing around with the song, kind of flying by the seat of my pants. I didn’t want to do a copy of the original; I never understand it when artists do that. What’s the point? I had an idea to keep it sparse- dark and skeletal, kind of turning the upbeat mood of the original into something that delivers the same sentiment in a more brooding way. Don Henley’s version is, in my eyes, sung by a successful alpha-type guy who’s reminiscing about an old flame. But he never really gets close to owning up to taking any blame in why the relationship ended. The narrator of my version of the song is a loser. He let the best thing that ever happened to him drift away, and he knows it. 

I had no intention of doing anything with my version- it was just sort of something to do for a few hours. I sent it to my manager on a whim, because I knew he liked the original as much as I did. He really liked my version, and convinced me that we should release it. I have a song coming out soon that we really want all the pieces in place for, so releasing a version of a song that people are already familiar with makes a certain amount of sense from a business standpoint. We figured a cover would reach a few new ears to give us that much bigger of an audience when the “real next course” gets served up. How that goes remains to be seen, but the response to “The Boys of Summer” has been really great so far, so I’m already considering it a win.

I’m actually glad I recorded the song with no lofty goals for it to be released, because there’s a vulnerability in the vocal performance that probably wouldn’t have survived all the overthinking I would have done had I been trying for “a single”. “Quick, dirty, and instinctive” is the way to go sometimes.  

Dr. J: The song ‘City of San Jose’ captures a remarkable constellation of musical influences. The song seems to have an almost 1970s feel. Is that a correct interpretation? If that is correct, did you intend to create a song that connects to that time period? If that is not correct, how would you describe the feeling of the song?

TW: No, I’d say that’s a very accurate assessment. Most of what I do is rooted in the music of the 60s and 70s, either directly or one generation removed, and most of my favorite artists were doing their best work back then.

Dr. J: How did the song ‘City of San Jose’ come together musically for you?

TW: The song is kind of a love letter to a section of the San Francisco Bay Trail near where I live. During the peak of Lockdown, it was a great place to get some exercise away from a lot of other people. I also came up with a lot of lyrics for this current batch of songs out there. 

I used an alternate tuning on my guitar for that one- DADGAD, a tuning that a lot of British artists gravitated towards in the late 60s and 70s; people like Bert Jansch, John Martyn, and Nick Drake. Jimmy Page used DADGAD on a lot of Led Zeppelin tracks, as well. My original demo for the song was very much in the British Folk vein- a bit quieter, more pastoral. When we got in the studio to record the actual version it became much more upbeat, but I’m not mad about that at all. I like both approaches a lot, and the final version we did in the studio served as a good introduction to the world of “Tod Weidner as a solo artist.”

Dr. J: Where do you often derive inspiration to make music?

TW: Well, it’s a compulsion, really. Playing guitar is really the one thing in my life that never fails to make me feel better. If I’m depressed, anxious, or out of sorts, there’s nothing I like better than to just pick up the guitar and lose myself for an hour or two. It’s my form of meditation. More often than not, a kernel of an idea will pop up somewhere in the course of my aimless noodling. The “voice memos” app on my phone is overflowing with minute-long ideas that either eventually will or already have become full-fledged songs.

Lyrically, I’ve been really making an effort over the past few years to simplify. In the beginning, I delighted in using big flowery words in my songs just for their own sake. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, per se, I’ve been fascinated lately with the songcraft of people like John Prine, Johnny Cash, or Tom Petty: songwriters who can lay down a simple truth that everyone can relate to, but with a clever little spin on it that just makes it land like a bomb. There’s a deceptively fine art to that, and I’m always trying to get better at it. Fewer words, more impact.

Dr. J: How would you describe the music that you typically create? How has that process evolved or changed over time (especially as you think about your journey in the last few years)?

TW: My standard line about my music is “songs about Love, Loss, The Loss of Love, and The Love of Loss”. There tends to be a touch of yearning, or wistfulness, a bit of melancholy in most of my music- “Sad Bastard Music”, as some people call it. It’s not dark all the time, but I think most artists have a tendency to ruminate about things, at least the ones I gravitate to. 

Moving to California from Ohio was already a big new chapter in my life in and of itself, but the prospect of starting a solo career with a new tribe of people also definitely represents a turning of the page. Dayton will always be home, and I thank my lucky stars that I got to learn how to be a musician and writer in such an amazingly fertile music scene as Dayton’s, but there comes a time when a nurturing, close-knit environment runs the risk of becoming an insular echo chamber-type situation. In all honesty, that’s what Dayton started feeling like toward the end of my time there. It was time to get somewhere new and try my stuff out on people who hadn’t known me for decades. It’s a healthy thing to do. 

My dear old friend, and now manager, Jack Piatt, has always championed my music, and through him, I’ve gotten to meet and work with people out here from very different backgrounds than mine. Which is also a healthy thing to do. Nomad, the gentleman who has produced my first five singles, has a resume that includes- among other things- a long stint as Babyface’s musical director. So he has a strong background in Soul and R&B, and that gives him a much different perspective than I have, coming from a more-or-less strict rock background. The “me” from 10 or 15 years ago would’ve been very skeptical of working with someone like that. But, as I said, this is a major new chapter of my life and career. I told myself, “Tod, you’ve been doing things a certain way for over 25 years. If you want to continue in the same bubble you’ve been operating in, you might as well just go back to Dayton and record the usual stuff with the same people at the same places.” If I want to get somewhere new, it’s a good idea to take some new outside advice, be open to change, and let go of some of my innate urges to control every aspect of the situation. I decided to start saying “yes”, instead of, “I dunno, that’s not how I usually do it.” And I have to say- it’s been working out really well so far. It’s refreshing, and exciting.  

Dr. J: What is next for you musically? How would you describe your thoughts at this point for your next project?

TW: The next single is coming out sometime in February, and I think it’s going to really surprise people who are familiar with my back catalog. I’m very excited about this track, and the people I recorded it with. That’s all I want to say about it for now.

The plan is to release a digital single at a rate of about one a month, and eventually end up with enough songs for a full, physical album. I’m still old school enough that I like to hold a record or a CD in my hand and read liner notes and whatnot.

I came out of Lockdown with about 20 new songs, and I’m as proud of them as any I’ve ever written; I really believe it’s some of my best work, and I am dying to get on the road and play them for people. 

Dr. J: What is your favorite song to perform live? What is your favorite song to perform in general? What makes that song a current favorite in your performances?

TW: I don’t know if I have a favorite song to perform. I have favorite types of songs, maybe. I love playing a song that lets me stretch out and go somewhere on the guitar because, at the end of the day, I still think of myself as a guitar player.

And I love a song that I can crawl inside and live in while I’m singing it. I just want to play something that moves people. That’s the objective: to play with sincerity and move people. There’s not much point in doing anything else. 

Dr. J: What is one message you would hope that listeners find in the unique nature of your latest music?

TW: Well, as I said earlier, I tend to lean toward the darker end of the emotional spectrum with my songs, but lately- with this latest batch of songs, especially- I’ve been making more of a concerted effort to include a little ray of sunlight here and there in the songs. With the last several years of trauma and uncertainty, I think Hope is a valuable, rare commodity, and people need as much of it as they can get. 

Music, and Art in general, serves multiple purposes: it can provide a feeling of escape for the listener, a chance to forget their troubles and go somewhere else for a few minutes. That’s a lovely thing.

But Music can also be a hand to hold in the dark. It can tell the listener, “You’re going through some painful times. I know how you feel, I feel that way, too. Let’s feel that way together.” That can be a beautiful thing, too- letting the listener know they’re not alone. I know Music has gotten me through some dark days and nights, and if my songs can help someone in that way, then I’ve done my part.  

Dr. J: As a musician, how are you adapting to the challenges of the Coronavirus?

TW: Same as everyone, I suppose. It depends on the day. I miss playing shows, I know that. I hope that, sooner than later, I can get back to playing a gig without worrying about people going home sick. I’m also very aware of the privileged position from which I’m speaking.; my wife has been working from home, and we’re getting by alright. A lot of folks don’t have that luxury.

The silver lining for me, as a musician, has been the enforced down time. As I mentioned, it’s allowed me to really buckle down and work and produce a lot of songs I’m proud of. I’m thankful that I have songwriting as a way to work out my fear, dread, and anxiety. Again, a lot of people don’t have an outlet like that. 

I guess it comes back to what I touched on in the previous question. As a singer/songwriter during this whole mess, I have a responsibility to reflect the times, relate to the listener, and provide them with some degree of solace. All things considered, it’s not a bad job to have.  

We want to extend our sincere gratitude to Tod for answering our questions and continuing to make some really excellent music! Click on the links throughout the article to visit his social media or to listen to various songs that were discussed! If any musicians or artists would like to participate in future ’11 Questions with…’ columns, please feel free to email us at drjytaa@gmail.com. All photos and images courtesy of Tod Weidner.

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