Jailhouse rock

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.

"As I grow more comfortable with the [songwriting] process, I can put more of my honest, true feelings into the songs--not so much of the machismo," he says. "I still have some of those ornery songs, but now I'm dealing with a departure from the Christian church. That's influencing my work."

And it's influencing his personal life as well. Thompson has visited his parents, now stationed in Virginia, only once since 1992. He explains that his burgeoning viewpoint--that "religion is a contrived control trip; it started out with simple scared minds and exploded into this massive political control machine"--is driving a bigger wedge into that cracked relationship. "I want no part of religion," he insists. "So it's really hard to call my mom and talk about the weather, when I know in the back of my head that she's negatively judging me, that she's thinking, 'You need to get right with the Lord.'" That's to say nothing of his father, a staunch Christian and Missionary Alliance preacher. He is not a man who wants to hear about his son's more extreme deviations from Protestant doctrines...and his yearlong stint riding the horse.

When asked point-blank if he's had much experience with drugs or alcohol, Thompson unexpectedly and obligingly rolls up his sleeves to offer a bit of unnerving proof. The scars are faint, proof that his habit was just that and not an addiction. He's not ashamed of the track marks; maybe a little plaintive. They come with a story that begins in Canada, moves to Mexico, and ends in Carrollton.

"Me and my girlfriend had just come off a long road trip, and everything seemed so anticlimactic after that," Thompson explains. "So we started on the needle. And coke." He says that they used insurance money they'd made off a car wreck to support their daily habit, and that they only gave it up when his girlfriend's parents kicked them out of their Carrollton home. "We had to make our own way. Get jobs, get a life, pay rent." That was only a few years ago. Oddly, he smiles. "The needle saps all your creative energy. I didn't get anything done that year. It's the closest I've come to regretting anything."

Now living in Denton and going to school part time, Thompson says he's used this past year to hone his newest songs and solo performances. A semi-regular onstage at Dan's Bar and Rubber Gloves, Thompson shares songwriter-night bills with his fans, among them Brent Best of Slobberbone and Will Johnson of Centro-matic. By now, Thompson is one of Denton's newer music fixtures--the more eccentric kind that breeds like mad in that sleepy college town.

"I'm saving up the capital to make an album," he says, and he ticks off the musicians who have committed to the upcoming recording sessions at Dave Willingham's 70 Hurtz Studio: Brian Lane of Slobberbone, Jason Wortham and David Douglas of Mandarin, among others. It'll be his first time to work with other players, which conjures up an interesting picture in terms of how this soft-spoken, deliberate loner will go about organizing the project. "I'm finally interested in collaboration," he says. "I have tremendous respect for these guys as musicians."

His goal is to strike a balance between his visual and aural art. When he's not playing his guitar, he's painting color fields on big canvases, though he has not formally shown his artwork and has another few years before he graduates.

"If I graduate," he interjects. "That's not really the point, you know? I'm just enjoying the training, the facilities, the structure of art school."

Thompson is asked whether graduation will change his locale or direction. He sighs with the kind of relief that comes from people who feel lucky to still be breathing.

"I doubt it," he says. "Everything that I want, I'm doing right now. And what I want to do is touch other people's senses.

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