“Tobias” by Jack Hotel | Song Premiere



words by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

For three minutes, Tobias talks about himself. He more or less tells you where he lives (in Lincoln) and then how he lives. With his lover Kathleen. As a drug user of some dependence and severity. The end of his rope is fraying. He has very likely committed a murder.

He talks about himself all the way up until the moment he talks to you.

“This is my confession, but it also is my plea …”

This is the instant in the Jack Hotel song “Tobias” when the simple critical phraseology “character song” is rendered somewhat undignified of the message Tobias brings to you via the voice of Günter Voelker.

If Kathleen seeks him, we listeners are to steer her away from the doomed man. In the last gasps of “Tobias,” Voelker leaves us with the onus of interpretation, perhaps judgement and finally with the song’s unwritten future. But it starts with menace in the form of a D minor chord (in drop D tuning), strummed long and low. The table is set for the narrator who is, in a way, undertaking his own eulogy.

“I think I instinctively let [the chord] ring out the first time I ever recorded the song, which was maybe around 2 a.m. after a long run,” Voelker remembers. “When I wrote ‘Tobias,’ my windows were open, and there was a near-constant rumble of thunder. That sounds impossibly theatrical, but you can hear it on that first recording.”

“Tobias” is the seventh track and the second release from Jack Hotel’s forthcoming debut LP Good Sons and Daughters, which is set to drop on May 23 on Sower Records. Jack Hotel includes Voelker on vocals and guitar, Marty Steinhausen on upright bass, Joe Salvati on dobro and Josh Rector on fiddle. Max Morrissey and Casey Hollingsworth of Bud Heavy & the High Lifes — on banjo and piano respectively — also contributed to "Tobias." Matty Sanders of Fuse Recording, who engineered Good Sons and Daughters, can be heard on cymbals.

The gas station Tobias attempts to rob on 13th and South streets is close to where Voelker imagines his narrator living. For as life-like and locally as the song is anchored, Voelker doesn’t think of his songwriting process as particularly documentarian. Because while he combats some of the over-romanticized notions of songwriting, he says most of ideas that are “keepers” come from, sometimes unconscious, imagination.

“Material is rarely given to me,” Voelker says, “I think I always have to start over and invent everything.”

Listen to the premiere of “Tobias” here:

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. Reach him at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.