“Do you want to absorb the musical equivalent of a York Peppermint Patty? A rich, chocolatey yet also refreshingly minty sensation that filters through your nervous system like a blast of Arctic air to every forgotten corner of your body and soul?” The press release from local musician Tom Sturm read, “Of course you do.”
He intrigued me before even listening to the album with that peppermint patty reference. I sat there all day craving the candy before my ears could sense the refreshing feeling he so eagerly teased.
I loaded my Bandcamp app for my car ride home and my first thought — about 30 seconds into opening track “Kennel” — was that it sounded like a “Happy Nirvana.” Sturm has that Kurt Cobain-esque raspy twang reminiscent of the late grunge lord, just not as distraught.
Each song has a different story, a different sound and altogether a different vibe. But there is one thing they all have in common, Sturm’s lyrical poetry.
Originally from Philadelphia, Sturm has made a name for himself in the Valley for the last couple of decades that he has lived here thanks to his role in a number of musical projects such as Yanni Difranco, Antihero, Tag Sale, Darth Mordor, SsasS, Attila & The Mongol Horde and his most recent, Snackbeard. This latest project has taken him over two decades to complete.
I stopped into Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton for a chitchat with Sturm about his album. The last time I saw him there he was performing his Snackbeard project. I was in attendance with a mix of ages, including my then 7-year-old son watching Sturm on stage, singing Pirate tunes while he was adorned with an actual beard made out of snacks.
But on this day, we are on the opposite side, the bar side which is a must-go-to for any beer or guitar snob. The walls are lined with guitars of all makes and models and you can catch yourself zoning out to their aura, alone.
“Vagus Nerve Reset” is the first part of a two-part project that consists of songs Sturm wrote about 25 years ago. He started recording 25-30 of those songs about 12 years ago with just an acoustic guitar and vocals on the tracks at Mark Miller’s Slaughterhouse Studios, which at the time was in Westhampton.
Miller eventually teamed up with Justin Pizzoferrato at Sonelab Studios in Easthampton, and conveniently enough for Sturm, that studio is only a couple blocks from his home.
“I’ve been working on basically taking these recordings that are 12 years old and for the last year I’ve just been walking over there and fleshing them out with more guitars, and drums and keyboards and bass and extra vocals and percussion, and strings,” he explained.
The added instruments were all played by Sturm, and Miller lent his help with ideas for the album. “He knows how to make stuff sound good,” Sturm said of Miller. Being in the recording studio he described as being in his happy place.
“This is quite an experiment for me and I have another album’s worth that I will do the same thing on,” he said.
Once he brought the songs back into the studio and added the extra layers, they all became more animated and even took on different genres, here and there.
“The way that it evolved in the studio wasn’t always the way that I expected it to,” Sturm said.
The track “Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing” wasn’t expected to come out with a reggae vibe, but Sturm went with it and felt it worked. It was inspired by The Police (the band, not the law enforcement.) “That’s Not Real” was also inspired by that band with the sound.
“All these songs are pretty much about a girl,” Sturm explained, “there are a few songs that aren’t about a girl, but most of them are about a girl.”
“Carolyn” is about a girl he went to high school with who died of a drug overdose. It’s a delicate-sounding song, but you can feel the heavy emotions. “Too many friends lie around you / Slipped and fell off the end of their ropes / Too many questions that drowned you / Too much reality crushing your hopes / But deep inside yourself you’re stayin’ clean”
“Crocodile Tears” gives me Tom Petty vibes with a hint of Weezer. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s about an experience you may have with someone who broke up with you who later comes back and wants you to empathize with them because someone broke up with them and you’re like, “nah, I’m good.”
Pop culture icon, Jackie O was the star in the track “Hairdo of Steel,” a conspiracy anthem about her aquanett hairdo that morphed into the larger issue of women that wound up dead in the proximity of royal and prominent men.
“That’s just my weird brain, I don’t know why I wrote that song, I have absolutely no idea,” Sturm laughed. “I must have watched something on TV, I really don’t know, it just evolved into a conspiracy theory.”
That track is one of the popular songs he sings at the open mic nights at JJ’s Tavern in Florence on Wednesday nights that he sometimes pops into.
Sturm has no plans to take this album out for live shows, but he said if anyone expressed interest in learning the 15 songs to play out live, he’d be happy to do it. The second part of this album will take about a year to finalize, like this first one. He plans to release it sometime next year.
Music has always been his outlet. The finalizing of the project was and is a therapeutic process for him.
As the namesake of the album, the vagus nerve goes through your entire body. “The name came from me going down an internet rabbit hole and me going ‘oh that sounds kinda cool, maybe that’s what I need right now,’” Sturm said. “It was definitely connected to me also needing a personal reset which hopefully was sort of achieved with releasing this record.”
You can check out the album for yourself at vagusnervereset.bandcamp.com.