PM: So I really like your most recent record, called These Friends of Mine. That's a really good disc. And naturally, because of the title and because of how I know now how you are, I want to talk about some of your friends. I assume that the two guys drawn into the back cover are Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens.
RT: Uh-huh, correct.
PM: Can you tell me what each of those guys are like? I know they're very important friends to you.
RT: What they're like...
Denison is very passionate. He's very organized. He's been playing music for years, and the drive he has blows my mind. He tours mostly by himself a lot of time, or he did for years. He helped me get through a summer before I even met him. I got a record of his, when I just moved to Seattle. I went through my first breakup. I was here, and I was just so sad. And I thought, what am I doing living here? I'm so far from home. And someone brought me back his record, one of the guys from Pedro the Lion that played a show with Denison. He said, "I think you'd really like this." And I just fell in love with his music.
And somehow or other we became friends. We emailed each other. We ended up playing a show together in Seattle a month later. And I picked him up from the airport. We'd never met face-to-face. And then I lost my car--poor guy, he had two guitars, and was like--I got so nervous and excited to meet him that I couldn't remember where I parked, and that was devastating.
PM: That's such a classic start. Oh, my God. I can't remember where I parked.
RT: Isn't that great? But he's a very passionate human being. When we befriended each other it was just instantaneous. We still talk for hours on the phone. And one of the greatest things I remember Denison told me when I first--God, it was years ago. He was in town, we were doing a short tour together, it was my first record. And we were laying on this pull-out bed, we were all--there was three of us having to sleep on it, because we were all sort of crashing at someone's house. I remember he said to me--it was late at night, and the person next to us was sleeping and we were just gabbing, talking like schoolgirls. And he said, "You know what Rosie? If I weren't playing music I think I would just be a social worker of some sort." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because it's no different to me. I mean, isn't that why you do it? To help others, right?" I said, "Yeah, you're right."
RT: He said, "So if this all stopped tomorrow, I bet that's what I would do next, because to me it would be the same." And I remember thinking I loved that about him. I believed it. I really bought it. Like he really is dedicated to this for the sake of being available for people to feel something from it, to be changed from it. He's just one of the most sincere, hilarious--he's hilarious. He's like a little kid. He's neurotic, as all of us are, in his own way. But he's been playing, writing and playing, making records since he was a teenager.
PM: Now, he's a currently a Philly guy. Was he always?
RT: I believe he grew up in Lancaster. Yeah, I think he grew up in Lancaster. Gosh, he went to school for--where did he go--he grew up Mennonite.
RT: Yeah, he grew up Mennonite. And I think his parents are still in Lancaster. And then at some point, maybe--I know he's lived in Philadelphia for a long time. He just bought a house there for the first time, but he's been there for quite some time. And he's very loyal to Philadelphia. But he thought of moving to Seattle. He came out and visited, didn't know what he was going to do. And he just can't seem to leave that city, he really has such a love for it.
PM: My brother has his entertainment office in Philly and I go there a lot. He does a lot of TV in China and stuff. Next time I go to Philly maybe I could hook up with Denison.
RT: Oh, yeah. He's a Philly dude, you guys should hang out. [laughs]
PM: So what about Sufjan Stevens, where did you run into him, and what's he like?
RT: Sufjan, we both grew up in Michigan. I'd heard of him through friends. I played a show in Grand Rapids once, and a good friend of mine had given me a record of his. And I took it home and listened to and I thought, wow, how unusual, I really like this. And I can't remember the title of this record, it may have just been self-titled. It was his face on the cover of it. And somehow or other I was trying to think, how am I ever going to put a record out? Will I ever be able to share this music? I'm playing all these shows at these coffee shops. Will I ever have something to give to people? And a friend of mine said, "You know what? You should call Sufjan's stepdad, he runs Asthmatic Kitty--they don't have a ton of distribution, but still, it would be chance, if they wanted to take you on, to maybe get some records made." So I did, I had a phone conversation with his stepdad.
He said, "I'm very interested in hearing your stuff." And somehow I got the ball rolling and decided to move to Seattle and I just kind of didn't keep up, didn't really look into it. A couple of years later I decided I was going to go to New York, because I thought maybe I should move there. I went out to play a show and Sufjan showed up, and we finally met face-to-face, and I just thought he was so adorable and hilarious and eccentric. And I ended up going out to New York for a couple of months to feel it out, I took a couple months off. And we hung out quite a bit and just really befriended each other. Shortly after that we went on tour together in Europe, where I was headlining, which is hilarious.
PM: Wow, you were headlining in Europe.
RT: Can you believe that? And then, of course, he just blew up.
PM: He did, didn't he?
RT: Ah, he sure did, man. I keep reminding him of that, "There was a time, there was one week I did headline for you, you bastard." He goes, "Whatever, dude."
RT: But so we went to Europe, and we toured it together, just the two of us, and just became friends. And we've been friends ever since. That was before everything took off for him, and one of his first tours on Seven Swans Records. He was very nervous about it. He thought, "I don't know if I'm going to really like touring." Like Denison, he'd been playing music and making records for years, never with the intent it would ever go anywhere. On that European tour, though, I could tell then and there that something was about to happen for him, because every show just seemed to get more and more people wanting to buy his record, and more and more people were freaking out about it.
PM: You could feel the momentum.
RT: Absolutely. And I could see why. He was that captivating, and his lyrics were that moving, and his performance, too--he just had such a presence about him. It was on that tour that I think we just talked about making a map for Michigan because he was talking about the Michigan record that he was doing, I believe.
It's really neat to see how that developed and just the whole performance of it, and how much it changed, after making that record, from seeing him as a solo artist to seeing him with this huge band; it's really neat to watch that development. But I cherish that time I had with him. I always do. Those moments you have with people before things really take off. You just look back and you realize that your friendship really did begin when you were more simple people. And there's more trust in it, because you know you were friends for no other reason than because you liked each other, liked who you each really were. continue