AFTER SEVERAL long weeks on the road, playing in the damp, smoky environs of Central Europe's cellar venues, Portlander Tom Filepp speaks in a whisper that bears almost no resemblance to the strong if occasionally glum tones on the albums he records as Cars & Trains. His whisper-voice does lend verisimilitude to the idea that it's a bedroom project. That isn't necessarily wrong—Filepp writes and records in his home, doing nearly everything himself—but Cars & Trains has grown far beyond one man's quirky experiment in electrofolk.
We Are All Fire, Cars & Trains third full-length album, conveys a sense of maturity from a musician who has come into his own. To say it's a headphones album is a preposterous understatement. Without the benefit of close listening, you miss the abundant layers of tiny percussive sounds, found noises, analog crackle, woodwinds, strings, and horns that mingle just beneath the surface of Filepp's voice.
The album was inspired by stories, both mythological and those of Filepp's family, and he weaves a strong current of history throughout. On "Nations," a song with chillwave beats, strings, and muffled handclaps, he sings: "To make up a story about ancients past/as if they were perfect, forever stood fast.../There will come a time when all that's left is a hint of a name/a few crumpled maps marking borders where nobody's been."
Filepp has long recreated his songs on stage with only loops and a few instruments. "Cars & Trains was a response to wanting to be as self-sufficient as possible," he says. "I used to have a project where I would pick up a new instrument every year."
But for the album, he enlisted friends, members of the musical family he's acquired since living in Portland. In fact, this week's Portland album release show will be the first time that Cars & Trains plays live with a band—made up of friends from the Ascetic Junkies, Alameda, and Future Historians.
"There are just some songs I can't do like they are on the record. After a while, it's nice to have other people involved. It makes things more organic."