Organic electronics

“Maybe it has something to do with the romanticized traffic culture,” said Tom Filepp, the single composer behind Cars and Trains. “…what it means to be human.”

“Maybe it has something to do with the romanticized traffic culture,” said Tom Filepp, the single composer behind Cars and Trains. “…what it means to be human.”

Whether or not he admits it, Filepp’s art school training in conceptual communication has bled into his musical undertakings. Subconscious or not, the signature Cars and Trains sound is like motion—padded feet skipping down sunny sidewalks or hushed subway scuffling. His sound is drenched in melancholic viola and synthesizers, double vocals, a bit of tasteful static, random noises and electronic beats.

“I come from a very conceptual background where you had to put a lot of thought into everything you did,” said Filepp. “But after doing that for so long, I decided to come up with something more subjective—something that can mean something different to each person that’s listening.”

Born south of Manhattan and educated in Boston, Filepp says he is too laid back for the east coast. He found his way to Portland in March of 2007 after releasing his first EP, a self-release called 2 AM.  Tired of running into dead-end walls, he disguised himself as a label rather than a single musician in order to get the supplies to release his EP. In doing so, he gave birth to the local independent record label, Circle Into Square. Today, his label is a Portland-based home to over a dozen national musicians.

Filepp’s music has the ability to connect with almost anyone as he wrestles lyrically with universal questions of direction, love and home, and musically with creating a harmonious balance of old and new.

“I try to make a mixture,” said Filepp, “of acoustic elements with electronic ones and focus on how they sit together. I want to make the electronic parts sound not too inside-the-box, but more organic, creating a space you can kind of crawl into. “

“The Official Cars and Trains Theme Song,” found on 2 AM, sounds like someone strolling down a sunny sidewalk, maybe skipping or bouncing a ball. With a pleasant sophistication, Filepp adds a very simplistic string arrangement, both plucked and wavering, while it comes to a close with loose and sparse bell tinkerings and a steadily dramatic bass line.

His newest album released in 2008 has that same happy-go-lucky feel—definitely music for sunny days and bare feet—though more complex and honest with years of experience in both production and songwriting. On The Roots, The Leaves, the song “Intimidated by Silence” is one of his best. With a crazy stop-motion music video of flying letters and type writers, the song is so full of happy-sadness you want to dance and cry at the same time. He sets the stage with the lyrics “Out the window, I heard the sun, and I lost myself too…” for a heartbeat of a song.

His live shows are difficult because, after all, he is only one man. One man, melodica in hand, hiding behind a wall of wires, electronic knobs and pads, hands dancing quickly from computer to viola and back. His shows have a much more wall-of-sound kind of chaos than the tame beast that is his recorded material. Either way, Filepp creates an environment for internal reflection in this “horrifying and exciting time” in history we have embraced.