I Just Love Writing Songs: An Interview with Corey Saathoff of the Trophy Mules

Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Corey Saathoff of The Trophy Mules has been making a name for himself as both a performer and songwriter. Riverfront Times has described his music as “Exceptionally well-played, pleasant country/Americana,” adding that “Corey Saathoff doesn’t write predictable alt-country fare – if there are booze and broken hearts in his songs, they’re part of his stories. His style is impressionistic in the best sense, as evocative of the songs of R.E.M. as those of Jay Farrar.” Similarly, radio station KDXH 88.1 FM in St. Louis has noted, “One of St. Louis’ more underrated songwriters, Corey Saathoff combines front porch twang and thoughtful, prescient lyrics, sung with plainspoken honesty.” The Trophy Mules released a full-length album of original material titled No Sooner the Moon in November.

You’ve been making music for a while. The first Trophy Mules album, Sorry Motel, came out a decade ago. What keeps you in the game?

I just love writing songs and putting music to the thoughts, feelings and words going on in my head. I also enjoy the creative process with my bandmates.

Has the lineup of The Trophy Mules remained the same over that time? Along similar lines, how do you keep a band together over the long haul as you have?

There have been several lineup changes over the years… three drummers, three bassists and a couple different guitarists/multi-instrumentalists. Our longest-tenured active member other than myself is pedal steel wizard Scott Swartz. I think the quality of our material over the years has made it easier to find bandmates and I consider myself lucky to make music in the company of such talented guys.

How has your music evolved over the last 10 years?

I think the band’s sound basically adapts as the members bring their respective talents and styles to the table. As for my songwriting, I feel like I’ve honed the craft over the years and developed new styles. My goal is to keep from essentially writing the same song twice – although I’m sure a few of mine may sound pretty similar to the listener.

The first song on your new album is called “Full Speed Lobotomy.” It’s hard to hear the word “lobotomy” and not think of the Ramones (at least for me), but it’s not a punk song. What’s the idea behind that one?

Yeah, I never thought of the Ramones connection until well after I wrote “Full Speed.” There were a lot of things in life all hitting me at the same time when I wrote it, so that probably explains the pace. The rest was just me using unique wordplay to capture an overall theme.

That one’s followed by “Blood Red Cardinal,” which you’ve described as “a haunting song about looking back on lost love later in life.” With that in mind, I’m wondering if it’s the kind of song a younger version of yourself would have been able to write. How has growing older – for lack of a better phrase – informed your lyrics?

“Blood Red Cardinal” is an emotional tune about a relative that I definitely could not have written earlier in life. For me, life experiences shape a lot of the material I write about, so the more I live, the more experiences I have to connect together and set to music.

One last song-related question: What’s the story behind “Chupacabra Valentine?”

Very similar to “Full Speed Lobotomy” and other songs I’ve written, I pretty much try to convey an emotion or theme with unique wordplay that matches the chord structure and set an overall mood. When I was strumming the chords to this one on my acoustic and mumbling vocal sounds as part of the lyric process, for whatever reason the words “Chupacabra Valentine” came to me in the chorus. I connected the dots from there and am really happy with how this one turned out.

Your latest album is called No Sooner the Moon. What’s the significance of that title for you?

Well, “No Sooner Than the Moon” is a line from the song “Guess That’s the Way You Say Goodbye” and fit the overall theme of this project, I think. We incorporated some cosmic, spacey kind of musicianship throughout the project that lends itself to a lunar vibe – plus this album took us six years to complete after lineup changes, COVID and some health issues!

Is there in any way in which being from St. Louis informs your identity as a musician and songwriter? Does it come through in any of your songs?

I definitely think my surroundings – the St. Louis region and rural southwestern Illinois – have shaped my songwriting. I feel our music is very representative of this area as a whole and probably even the American Midwest in general. One of our most streamed tunes is “Valmeyer” off the 2016 EP titled Sunset Collapse. It’s about a small town in this area that moved to higher ground following a devastating flood. A song on our new album is “Pierron,” which is about the small Illinois town I grew up in.

What does it take to be a Trophy Mule?

Good question. We’re all stubborn about making good music, I guess. We like to have fun, but are serious about creating something we’re proud of and work hard to put on a good show. How’s that?

What’s next in terms of your musical journey?

I have some new tunes ready to work out, as does bandmate Josh Kean. Hopefully we’ll get to work on a new recording project very soon. This one is leaning more toward country music in style.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Thank you for the opportunity. Much appreciated.

Bursts of Creativity: Catching Up with Mikey J

I first interviewed Mikey J back in July after his song “My Little Dragon Girl” was named Best Single in the Lights and Lines Album Writing Workshop. Since then, he’s been busy working on the accompanying album, Wondering, which will be released on the Lights and Lines label as both a digital download and a CD on April 21. So I figured it was the perfect opportunity to drop Mikey a line to catch up.

How have you been these past few months? Anything new going on?

Hey Marc! I’ve been good! Very busy with the day job, but still finding time for all things music related!

I think I mentioned on the #Tweetcore Radio Hour that “My Little Dragon Girl” is my mom’s favorite Tweetcore tune. How does the rest of the album compare in terms of style to that one?

Well first of all, please say thanks to your mum! As with most of my albums, Wondering is quite eclectic! “Dragon Girl” is the only ska track, but I do have some pop-punk, dirty blues, 60s retro pop rock and some dreamy, yet gritty rock tracks too!

In addition to “My Little Dragon Girl,” a track called “Wonder” is also available. That one has a cool Pink Floyd vibe. Are they – or music from their era – an influence? What draws you to that style of music?

I do love a lot of music from the late 60s/early 70s, but not necessarily Pink Floyd specifically. I mean you’d be crazy as a guitarist not to enjoy them, but they wouldn’t necessarily be in my top 5 artists! I think what draws me to that kind of style is the richness of sounds you can get with the “traditional” rock instruments. The progression on “Wonder” is a pretty simple one, but it leaves a lot of room to add texture with guitar solos, bass runs, organ splashes and the like!

Looking at the track listing, I see that you collaborate with our mutual friend Scoopski on one of the tracks. What’s the song, and how did the collaboration come about?

That’s a pretty cool story actually. This track (“When We’re Old”) is actually a cover of a track off my previous album, By Your Side. That album was a full acoustic album and that track was an attempt to write a bit of a Simon and Garfunkel track. Now, during the 90s there were a number of rock/punk groups that did dirty, rocky covers of Simon and Garfunkel (“Mrs Robinson” from the Lemon Heads and “Hazy Shade of Winter” from Bodyjar being a couple) so I thought it would be fun to try and do that for my S&G song! Really, Scoopski was the natural choice as the king of power-pop!

I also collaborated with a couple of other people on this album too. @shippa63 has lent his drumming skills to Push and Pull, and an old mate of mine, Danny Davis (@dicktogman on instagram) provided the wonderful horn section on “Dragon Girl.”

What’s it like to make music with Scoopski?

So, so easy! He’s a great musician and given it was a pretty simple song, he worked quickly. In addition to providing the Garfunkel vocal, he added some cool guitar riffs and licks throughout as well!

You’ve been working on the album for a while now. What was the process building an album like for you – as opposed to recording a single, for example?

My processes are always pretty similar. I never start out looking to write a single or an album, but rather have bursts of creativity where I’ll get a bunch of songs going. Once I feel that the well’s run dry, I start working on different instrumentation, then writing lyrics, recording vocals and then mixing!

This album was a little different though as it was written (or arranged), recorded and produced (but not mastered) in a month as part of the Lights and Lines Album Writing Club. So for this one, I had a few little ideas bouncing around the old noggin so quickly got to putting them down and generally speeding up the process. As it was picked up by Lights and Lines, I then had @grim17 do a magic job on the mastering.

I also have a couple of songs on here that were songs I had “written” as a much much younger man. “Wonder” and “The Way She Moves” are two examples of this. For the competition, I completely re-wrote the instrumental parts for both tracks, wrote lyrics for the originally instrumental “Wonder” (originally “Ballad in Am,” which can also be found on my Bandcamp), and wrote a new verse for “The Way She Moves.”

I’m sure you’re a busy guy outside of music. How did you find the time to work on the album?

I guess I’m lucky in that I’m a teacher so I do get a good amount of holidays throughout the year (here in Australia we have at least a 2 week holiday every 9-10 weeks of the school year). I also have a wonderful wife who doesn’t seem to mind too much that I spend a couple hours each weekend noodling away!

With this particular album, I said to the family that I’m taking part in this challenge so will be busy during the time and to leave me alone!

I know that the album will be released as a CD, which got me thinking about all of the musical formats I’ve listened to music on over the years—LP, cassette, CD, download, streaming. Do you have any preferences when it comes to format as both a listener and an artist?

I don’t actually own a CD player myself outside of the car, so my go-to listening these days is usually streaming (including streaming purchased music through Bandcamp) as it is the most convenient. I do love a vinyl and have a little collection of Beatles vinyls and was once an avid CD collector.

The album cover depicts a person falling through the sky into an outstretched hand. What does that image mean to you, and how does it relate to the music on the album?

Pretty early on in the process, I had decided that “Wonder” was going to be one of the main “singles” from the album, so the name Wondering came from that song. The artwork itself then hopefully makes people wonder why is the man falling? Is he going to be caught? That and I really like the image and colour scheme – it really gave the feeling of Wonder so went with it!

Now that the album is coming out, what’s next?

Well, I’ve already got album seven recorded and basically mixed. Just waiting on some vocals from Kelly Kintner to finish it off. That album will be called Muffet Way and is 14 tracks of rock, blues, reggae, indie and funk. It also has a few more collaborations on it with people like the La La Lettes, CosmicBos and the Future Us. I’m really excited about that one as I think it has some of my best songs on it.

I’ve also just started on recording tracks for album 8 – but only the bare bones of 6 new tracks for that so far…

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Any time!

A Fun Ride: Chatting with Voodoo Planet

An Interview with Voodoo Planet. I think it was my good friend Scoopski who initially alerted me to the rocking goodness of Voodoo Planet. Hailing from Desoto, Missouri, they’ve been making music since 2010, blending intelligent lyrics with a rootsy sensibility that strikes me as landing somewhere between the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds and the fuzzy garage rock some of my favorite #Tweetcore bands like Magic Cobra and Thee Rakevines. I’m also struck by the historic sensibility of their lyrics. Their latest offering, “Bewitched,” is about Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in the Salem witch trials, and their song “Radium Girls” is about women who suffered radiation poisoning after working in factories where they painted watch dials with luminous paint. Curious to learn more, I dropped them a line.

You’ve been making music since 2010. How have you managed to keep the band going for so long?

It’s been a fun ride; we’re all good friends and have the willingness to change / grow. It helps that Voodoo Planet doesn’t have a singular style, we’ve always embraced an “anything goes” philosophy as far as the music we create. We spent a significant time in the beginning as an all-instrumental band and gradually branched out into vocals. 

What’s the scene like in Desoto? Do you get to play out much?

There are a significant variety of original bands in nearby towns, and we’re outside St. Louis, which has a healthy music scene. KDHX FM, the independent station, supports independent music, as does the Lindenwood University station, 89.1 The Wood. We haven’t played out since the pandemic, but are getting an itch to do so, possibly this summer.

Your Twitter bio includes a quotation from Brian Eno: “Every collaboration helps you grow.”How does collaboration fit into the way you make music?

A band is a fantastic collaboration when everyone supports one another. We love the idea of guest musicians and vocalists and would welcome it. Often, it takes the music in a direction that never would have occurred to you.

Is Brian Eno an influence?

For me, very much so. His attitude toward creativity and making music, that “inspired-amateur” approach, went against the grain of the “virtuoso rock musician” that was so prevalent in the early ’70s. Technically, many trained musicians may have turned up their noses at his lack of chops, but he created/popularized an entire genre of music – ambient. I find his Oblique Strategies approach inspiring, at times embracing chance can take a dead-end and turn it into something entirely new. 

Who are some of your other influences?

Each band member has varied tastes, with some overlap. For me, there are those influences that stick around permanently more or less, and then things you embrace for a bit, absorb and then move on. Your comparisons to the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and fuzzed-out garage rock are appreciated, that’s a favorite album of mine and garage rock is in our DNA. 

Songwriting-wise, definitely Beatles, Neil Finn, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Jeff Tweedy, and it’d be silly to not include Bob Dylan. I’ve had plenty of flirtations with older blues (pre-1960s), surf music, Garage Rock, West African guitar music (Ali Farka Toure, etc), and roots / Americana styles. 

You recorded your 2017 EP Bookstore Sessions In a bookstore. What’s the story there? 

Up until the end of 2022, my wife and I owned an indie bookstore for 25 years. Books make great sound absorbing/baffling, and coves in the sections are like little sound booths. We were able to spread out and make as much noise as needed. Also plenty of reading for bathroom breaks!

I’ve mentioned your 2020 album Ripsnorters to a few people, and before they even hear the music, they love the title. What’s a ripsnorter, and how did you settle on that title for your album?

Pretty sure I came up with that one. It’s one of those great old-timey words that are very evocative, especially when combined with the album cover (created by my son and youngest daughter). Ripsnorters sounds funny and maybe a little mysterious, I guess the variety of songs on the record and the idea that they could all result in a Ripsnorting-good listening session appeals to me!

Some of your songs touch on some of the otherwise unsung figures of history. What draws you to them? You’ve written specifically about women in history. In addition to songs about Bridget Bishop and the radium girls, there’s also “Lizzie Didn’t Do It,” which is about Lizzie Borden. Why are these stories in particular worth passing down in the form of a song? Why do they matter?

Most of our songs tend to be “about something” in particular, as opposed to abstractions like love, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with that type of songwriting, but thus far we don’t feel like we would bring anything new to the table in that mode. 

We got a book at the store about Lizzie Borden. It fascinated me that even back in those days, she had supporters that protested that she was innocent, to the point of wearing buttons with “Lizzie Didn’t Do It!” on them, but she was pretty much found guilty in the court of public opinion, which still occurs today, and living in a small town, people can be judgemental of other folks without knowing the whole story. Same with Radium Girls, that a company could be so cavalier with the health and safety of their employees to sell a product with a dangerous component – still happens today. 

Unfortunately, these horrible events often harm those without a voice, economic means, or power to defend themselves. If a song can bring attention to a historical event, that’s all the better.

Patrick (Myers, VP drummer) wrote “The Ship,” about a once modern and mighty battleship that was found abandoned and thought it was a perfect metaphor for the way some folks are treated, and “Bewitched” about Bridget Bishop, a real person persecuted by her peers. 

Any plans for a follow-up to“Bewitched”?

No immediate plans for a follow-up, that story ended rather unpleasantly! 

Fair point.

In closing, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to respond to your thoughtful questions. Before last year, Twitter was unknown to me, but Brian (The Brian Jin) got me interested, and I’m blown away at all the encouragement offered by so many unsigned artists, including you, Marc! Many indie artists produce such a high caliber of work, and it elevates all of us to support one another.

I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!