Jailhouse rock

Erik Thompson is a one-man Lo-Fi Chorus, but looks are deceiving

At first glance, Erik Thompson is about as clean-cut and familiar as any God-fearing college student. You get the direct gaze, the low, articulate musings of a well-read thinker. He modestly sips his scotch and water; he sits up straight in a starched oxford shirt. On the surface, there's nothing about Thompson that would lead a stranger to believe that he wrote his first batch of songs in jail, that he sports track marks on his arms, that he's a lifetime devout Christian who only now, at age 26, is heart-wrenchingly tearing his own holes in that belief system. Talk about more than meets the eye.

As the sole member of Denton indie act Lo-Fi Chorus, Thompson has written the songs that may allude to his, well, colorful past, but he's a prime example of why you sometimes shouldn't separate the artist from his art. On their own, Thompson's rounded little tunes are simple exercises in rote structure, traditional chord progressions, and lyrical spareness--murder ballads and barrelhouse blues by a rookie. But weave this meditative young man's experiences into the picture, and you've got a whole new shebang: murder ballads and barrelhouse by an ex-junkie, ex-con. Ah, just sit back and listen to all those soulful reverberations that weren't quite so obvious before.

"I recorded that stuff 14 months ago, 20 days after I'd gotten out of jail," Thompson says, as though he needs to get that crucial piece of information on the table early in the conversation. He's not at all boastful, but rather confessional, much like a guy who has lived a life of Protestant-driven guilt. "I did it in a friend's living room, on a four-track machine. Three-quarters of the songs I actually wrote in jail."

The cassette tape of 11 tracks, none longer than four minutes and most clocking in closer to two, isn't for sale; Thompson gives away the tape at his shows or on request. "Lo-fi" serves as an apt description, but the production isn't nearly as stylized or precious as that self-conscious type of low-fidelity from the school run by Pavement or Guided by Voices. Thompson's dual guitars, harmonica, and vocals--the only instruments on the whole cassette, most all of it executed by the songwriter himself--come through loud, clear, and steady, as do his sentiments.

"I wrote them as words on paper. I did it therapeutically. I was paranoid and scared," Thompson says of his three-month residence in Denton's county jail, the result of his setting a big public dumpster on fire in a fit of jealous rage, just after spotting his (now ex-) girlfriend out with another guy. Stone-cold sober at the time, he casually lit the match, tossed it in, and sat on the curb to watch the Fry Street trash heap go up in flames. Soon after, the cops descended. When some of the jail's tougher offenders found out he was musical, they adopted him as rhythm man in their makeshift rap combo--an experience, Thompson says, that helped pass the time and save his ass.

"I didn't have a guitar in jail, so I made up the melodies in my head and wrote down the chord progressions," he says of his own songs. "Once I got out of jail, I figured the songs out on my guitar."

For a guy who claims his current CD changer holds everything from Etta James to Sonic Youth to Esquivel, his own songs are surprisingly consistent and low-key, at least musically. Part small catharsis, part lyrical parody (the black humor comes off like comic relief), and part self-taught lesson in old-school rock and country forms, Thompson uses words like a late Johnny Cash convert and his hollow-body guitar like Fats Domino's stride piano. Folkways bursts through on occasion, as well: Decca's amateur hour meets the Almanac Singers.

"The thing about my music is that I don't much think about it," Thompson says. "The progressions come, the melodies come, and I think it sounds so traditional only because of the instruments I use. But it doesn't come from any kind of conscious format or structure. I guess it all really comes from my head, but it feels like it comes from my heart."

Unlike the instrumentation, that heart is all over the map. "I've had my share of the bottle / I've had my share of the song / I've had my share of lovin', yeah / But that's all gonna end before long." This, from his jailhouse "Revolver," is typical of the giveaway tape--it's rife with familiar phrases of jealousy, rage, and regret. Then, from a sound-board recording of a more recent live set: "Well, I'm just writing home, Ma / I ain't gonna see you / Joinin' with the Army / It's my last night in the bayou," from "Writin' Home." His themes range from nuclear war to barn-raising to a melody set with a passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. All this makes far more sense when you find out that Thompson's dad is an Air Force chaplain, that his music training was done mostly on a tuba and euphonium, and that he now studies painting at the University of North Texas. His experiences and interests out-diversify his sonic grooming, and he's realizing that as he goes along. Simple prison blues don't fit quite right anymore.

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