Roots rock band Schnitzel energizes audiences in its hometown of Richmond, Va., with raw, catchy Americana and evocative lyrics. Bandleader and songwriter Jim O’Brien relies on a lineup of notable central Virginia musicians to back his quirky folk tunes that are occasionally augmented by edgy soundscapes in the vein of Wilco. Earlier this year his tune “Sandston Girl” off the band’s latest album Cold Harbor took third place at Merlefest’s venerable Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. Among other things, O’Brien told BRO how his German grandmother’s cooking led to the band’s formation.
How did the band first get together?
The band started with the name. I thought it would be a great band name someday.
I was working at the University of Richmond’s radio station, and we were noticing that UNC-Chapel Hill’s playlist was extremely esoteric. We had this theory they were making up bands (they weren’t). So we decided to prank them and say we were music promoters and berate them for not playing any Schnitzel. They called us on our bluff and asked us to send a track. So we had to write and produce a song and the band was formed.
Do all of your songs take place in this area?
Geography is everything. The newest record, Cold Harbor, was all about Richmond, its surrounding suburbs, and North Carolina. The last one, Southbound Freight, was a concept album about upstate New York and 19th century France. The next one will probably be about everything west of the Blue Ridge. I heard somewhere that life exists there.
Are the songs about people you’ve observed, or are they complete works of fiction?
In telling a story, it makes more sense to merge fact and fiction. My song “The Smiling I Do” is not exactly true, but I am guilty of all those horrible things I mention. I wouldn’t sing something if it weren’t true. You can tell when someone does.
Do you produce your own albums?
I write and play on the records, but bassist Stewart Myers is really the one who produces them. He and drummer Brian Jones played in Agents of Good Roots and do a lot of session work together today. Stewart is the one who makes my ideas better. He epitomizes what I appreciate in producers. They do the work and you take the credit.
What inspired you to include found sounds in the flow of the albums?
We’re heavily influenced by Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We stole from the same place as they did—The Conet Project—for Southbound Freight.
Aside from obvious musical influences, who do you listen to that might surprise us?
I try to pay attention to Top 40—Rhianna, Britney Spears. Even today, a good song should still bubble up through the system. I also enjoy Thin Lizzy and early 80s hardcore.
Your albums are part of the iTunes library. Do you get the sense that your fan base is expanding to places you never dreamed of?
Expanding is an ambitious word. I make one fan at a time. Apparently there’s a decent Americana fan base in Europe. Or maybe it’s just that the dollar has been so weak, but they appear to like us more over there.