The Phantom Listener: Tom Cram of Spiral Electric Talks Surviving Lockdown
2020 was hard — this isn’t news. From the pandemic to political unrest, wildfires and murder hornets, everyone has felt it in some way. And for musicians, performers and creators, it’s no different.
Enter Tom Cram.
First introduced to me years ago as a creative genius and the guy who single-handedly reinvented the DOD brand on his kitchen table, now he’s the force behind Spiral Electric FX.
But even as vaccines roll out across the U.S. and around the world, he’s still experiencing this year like the rest of us — and he misses playing in front of people.
“I used to think that audience feedback was a minor thing,” he says. “I used to think that the exercise of playing and songwriting was its own reward, but I’ve discovered that, for me, this is false — or at least not the whole story.”
Cram realizes that for many — musicians or otherwise — 2020 and COVID-19 has been exceptionally challenging, but he describes his desire to play with his band as an ache.
“This has been very surprising to me,” he continues. “While I tend to enjoy band practice, I never really craved it. In fact, I used to be able to find all kinds of reasons not to have practice. But right now, I just want to play with other people who like creating art out of thin air. It feels like a physical need.”
But he’s discovered ways to cope.
Practice Makes Passable
“This is a big one,” he says. “I have been practicing a lot — both on electric and acoustic. Playing guitar has been a therapeutic way to get through lockdowns and I have seen improvements in both the technical and theoretical aspects of my playing.”
Part of this, he admits, is a means of keeping his chops up, so that when he can play with other musicians again he’ll be able to hang — but he wants to excel if possible.
“One of the best things I’ve done to facilitate this is to have my resonator guitar out of its case in the front room. That way if an idea hits, or I just need to noodle, it is right there. Like a lot of other guitarists I also keep a small amp — a humble Vox AC4TV — in my front room, too. This allows me to plug-in whenever I want, but at reasonable volumes.”
Time in isolation has also offered Cram the chance to focus on writing new material. But while he’s had time to write more music, he says that the mood has shifted.
“I have noticed a strange urge to be positive, instead of dwelling on the darker aspects of our times. I don’t know if it is an urge to counter my own mental state, or some subconscious desire to find a way to lift the spirits of the ‘Phantom Listener’ — the mental audience in my head that will someday be real.”
Cram says he also had an epiphany a few months ago, that all of what he regarded as disparate musical projects weren't as disparate as he thought.
“I think I was compartmentalizing them mentally as an organizational tool. While helpful as mental housekeeping, I realized it wasn’t an artistic impulse. So I’ve been taking versions of electric songs and re-formatting and re-harmonizing them for acoustic, and vice-versa, as a way of breaking-down my mental barriers.”
Getting More Out of Social Media
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the like have their virtues, but plenty of vice as well. And for Cram, the ability to use those platforms as a means of connecting with fellow artists — and gaining inspiration — is something he’s found especially valuable.
“Every musical snippet and technique discussion has been like a lifeline to me,” he says. “I may not reply, but I am there — appreciating it. Not only does it help me understand my instrument better, it helps me feel connected to other musicians.”
Cram admits that, previously, he’d maintained a fairly jaundiced view of social media — mostly due to the heightened political angst.
“By and large though, my musician friends have risen above to promote unity rather than division.”
And for that, he’s grateful.
Keeping A Balanced Perspective
“During all of this I have been reminding myself that while 2020 and COVID has been terrible, it is an experience that everyone across the entire globe has shared,” he says. “The loss of life, the sacrifices, the frustration, the pulling together and the falling apart — I don’t know what this shared experience will lead to, but I do know that I feel a greater urgency to connect and communicate with people. I am incredibly grateful to my fellow musicians who have done their best to share their art and bring us together.”
Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy a welcome distraction.
“We all know that the gear industry has, in some ways, experienced a huge resurgence during lockdowns and social distancing,” he says. “For my part I’ve been getting gear that helps me play at home — small amps, headphone amps, amp sims, Pocket Operators, etc.”
"Like it or not, we are all bedroom guitarists now."
Cram believes that some, if not many have likely re-discovered the necessity of self-expression and art during a time of forced introspection, where they may have less time out in the world and more time to themselves.
“People aren’t buying record numbers of guitars because they think it is a good financial investment, I don’t think — they are buying them because they need to play, or at least feel the need to learn to play.”
And so, with his ‘Phantom Listener’ in mind, he’s also been planning his post-COVID pedalboard and live rig as a way to remain hopeful for the future.
“We will play live again,” he declares. “What form that will take — in let’s say late 2021 early 2022 — is still unknown, but our ‘Phantom Listeners’ will be actual people again someday — and I want to be ready.”