The people who loved Paul Julian Cobb sometimes still speak in the present tense as they describe the various sides of his personality.
His parents remember the quiet kid who could spend hours alone, from the time he was a toddler, drawing in notebooks or fiddling with musical instruments. His bandmates speak of his prodigious musical skill and an irrepressible sense of adventure that entertained and inspired them.
"Paul was such a free spirit, in the truest sense of the phrase," says singer-songwriter Ben Bernthal, who drafted Cobb for his band Accordions. "He never did anything he didn't want to do, and if he wanted to do something, any effort to talk him out of it was in vain."
All agree that Cobb, best known as bassist and contributing songwriter for local psych-pop combo Amo Joy, was an artist deserving broader attention, though they had trouble convincing him of that fact.
"Paul was very quiet about his talent," says his mother, Jill Lindner of Nashville, Tenn. "He wasn't shy, but he wouldn't brag on himself."
Their hopes were dashed the night of Oct. 1-2, 2011, when Cobb evidently tried to hop a train and in the words of one friend "it took him further than he expected." The next morning, a CSX engineer reported seeing his body on the tracks off East St. Clair Street, not far from the Dorman Street pub. He was 24.
The loss had a nuclear impact on his family and friends.
"When I think about it, I'm shocked all over again," says Amo Joy guitarist-frontman Adam Gross, who cofounded the band with Cobb several years earlier. "I'd been all across the country with Paul and spent so many intimate personal and musical moments with him. We were like brothers. We were all so close. And then he was gone, so immediately and dramatically."
Gross had a hard time sleeping after hearing the news, but when he did, he awoke thinking of his friend and the trove of solo recordings and drawings he left behind.
"The first thing I thought was, 'Oh my God, he's been recording for the past six years, and nobody's ever heard it. We've got to put it out,'" Gross recalls. "I think it was like a defense mechanism. I needed something to do."
Thus was born a multimedia memorial project, spearheaded by the members of Amo Joy and Accordions, who met at Butler University and have often toured and recorded together. Along with another friend or two, they are collaborating on an album of Cobb's unreleased songs, which they hope to have available in time for an eight-man summer tour. They're determined to release the music on vinyl as well as digital download, in part so they can include reproductions of his drawings.
"The album artwork is basically going to be a collage of artworks by Paul," Gross says. "He was a really amazing artist, and just like his music, he talked about doing stuff with it and never followed through."
The project is dubbed Hammer Screwdriver, a phrase Cobb used as an email address. His friends didn't learn its origin until after his death, when they gathered with his family in Nashville and heard the story from his brother, Adrian, who was 4 when Paul was born.
Lindner remembers the original exchange from two decades past: "We were asking (Adrian) for input on some names for the baby," she says. "He said, 'If it's a boy, we should name him Hammer Screwdriver.'"
The members of Hammer Screwdriver face a challenge in the studio. They intend to add instruments, backing vocals and a sense of completion to lo-fi tracks that Cobb himself considered unfinished sketches.
"The plan is to not put on any new lead vocals," Gross says. "We want it to be very much so that Paul is leading the songs and Paul is talking, but it's going to be tough."
How tough? Some of the recordings are pulled from a four-track machine, others from a looping effects pedal, and still others from tapes made on Cobb's beloved Fisher-Price cassette recorder.
"That was Paul's go-to format for everything," Gross says. "He loved cassettes."
Fortunately, one of their collaborators is Paul's dad, Donald Cobb, who happens to be a mastering engineer in Music City with access to professional equipment.
"We can take noises out and some of the hiss out," Don Cobb says. "With the Fisher-Price stuff, there's a lot of distortion, and that's really hard to get out, but we're trying."
Needless to say, he doesn't mind making the effort.
"The sad part for us is, well, there are many things to be sad about, but it seemed like he was just coming into his own and starting to feel comfortable about sharing his music with people," Don says.
To fund the album and tour, the group has established a presence on indiegogo.com, a website that helps independent artists raise capital. As of last weekend, Hammer Screwdriver was nearly halfway to its $10,000 goal. Contributions are being accepted through next Wednesday, April 25. The site also features a compelling three-minute video in which the participants talk about their friend and their effort to preserve his memory.
The raw material is already available for listening and free download on bandcamp.com. The Anthology, as it is called, comprises 52 titles, ranging from electronic experiments to slightly more conventional tunes with guitar, organ and vocals. Some have an old-time music hall vibe, while others evoke the unhinged charm and poignancy of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett's solo work. The Hammer Screwdriver participants picked 30 pieces for further work and potential inclusion on the album.
As for the tour, they envision a showcase for Cobb's songs as well as those of the two bands left reeling by his departure.
Though initially he was just an occasional contributor to Accordions, he joined the orchestral-folk group in earnest a year or two ago, adding an electric punch to its live sound with his melodic, McCartney-esque bass lines. He took part in a short European tour last spring, and he was a prominent contributor to Accordions' impressive second album, The Moon at Half-Mast, which they completed just before his death. Cobb's passing took the wind out of their plans to promote the record.
Likewise with Amo Joy, which began recording its fifth album last summer. Dissatisfied with his original bass tracks, Cobb was in the process of redoing them when he died.
"We kind of shelved it for five months and just last month started working again," Gross said, noting that they're almost done mixing the album. "That's great, but we have no idea what we're going to do with it."
That sense of uncertainty is also felt by Cobb's parents, who have considered forming an advocacy group to warn about the dangers of train hopping. Parents have many worries, they say, but this one hadn't occurred to them.
"You never think, when they leave the house, to say, 'Don't go hopping trains,'" Don Cobb says.
Nonetheless, the Hammer Screwdriver project is a comfort to Paul's family, who have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of interest and financial support.
"These young people who are doing this project are just amazing," Lindner says. "We're so impressed with them as musicians and as human beings."