I came to the Shoes relatively late in the game, with 1994′s Propeller album, but that was nearly 20 years ago — and, as it so happens, the last time the band would release a collection of new recordings until just a couple of weeks ago, when they roared back to life with their latest excellent LP, Ignition.
Having long since given up hope of ever hearing a new Shoes record, I basically freaked out when I heard Ignition was on the release schedule — and when I heard the songs, which confidently distill the essence of the band’s power pop formula without stooping to self-conscious imitation or bending over backwards to make modern concessions, I was damn near overjoyed. The unlikeliest comeback of the year, Ignition proves it’s possible for a band to re-emerge from a couple decades’ worth of hibernation without missing a beat.
Popdose spoke with founding Shoes member John Murphy about the new music, where the band’s been, and the tricky process of creating a signature sound.
It’s nice to see the band back in action. I had given up hope of hearing a new Shoes record.
I think that’s true of a lot of people, including us. Even if you have people that follow you and like you, it isn’t always a smooth road. I mean, certainly I’ve followed bands that have gone through the same type of stuff, where you sit and wish you could hear a new album.
And often when it does happen, the new songs you hear aren’t the ones you hoped for.
That’s always the thing — we like to think we’re on the same course, and still making music that inspires us, but the shock often comes when an artist tries to be hip. You get Cat Stevens rapping or whatever. Even someone like Todd Rundgren, who I don’t necessarily follow now, but whose early albums were hugely influential for us — if he could come up with something that was even an echo of “I Saw the Light,” I’d be overjoyed.
Well, there are artists from that generation who have basically dared their listeners to follow along, like Rundgren or Van Morrison or Robert Palmer, and then there are bands like Shoes, who have an easily identifiable sound — and that can be its own pitfall.
Right. I think our goals are still the same — we still have our rootsy influences, the music from when we were boys in the ’60s. But with this new record, we benefited from new technology, at least insofar as it makes it easier to capture sound. I mean, there we are in Gary Klebe’s basement — and we’re a band that had the 24-track recorder, the two-inch tape, and all that stuff. But now, you don’t need the space to house all that gear. You can buy a program.
You’d be foolish not to use the technology. I know analog is hip, but I think there’s still a warmth you can achieve, and I think we did that on the new album. Our secret weapon is our drummer, John Richardson, who’s been drumming with us for 16 years, but this was the first batch of recordings he could really sink his teeth into.
Analog recording can be awfully appealing to people who have never had to pay for it.
And Shoes really got hosed, because for a lot of bands at your commercial level, the Internet was really a boon in terms of opening up more affordable methods of recording and distribution — but you had already done all that, by founding your own studio and establishing your own distribution, and then along came all this technology that removed a lot of the need for those things.
You’re right, and it all happened pretty quickly. I mean, there’s still a learning curve with the gear — like Jeff always says, you can buy dental equipment, but who do you want operating it? — but it was definitely a double whammy for us there. People always want to know what took so long with this record, and the truth is, we really got beat to hell — we lost tens of thousands of dollars. Distributors went belly up owing us money, sessions slowed down at the studio.
It’s a cliche to say that being in a band is like being married, but it’s true. All these things came to a head for us on a personal level, because we were frustrated and broke — more than that, actually; we were in big-time debt — with no way of getting out. We did get out eventually, but that meant selling the building. I think it was on the market for three years, incurring debt the whole time, and it all just left a bad taste in our mouths. It’s unfortunate that it would affect the music, but it did.
There was so much tension between us. It’s like, God, this is my brother, this is my friend — where have we gotten ourselves? The studio was on a main drag in Zion, and everyone would drive by it — it was a constant reminder. We had to weather all that.
It started when Gary moved, and he carved this area out of his house for recording — he’d been acquiring equipment and microphones — and we ended up getting together to work on new material. We didn’t know what it was going to turn into, and we actually didn’t even tell Mary Donnelly, who was working on a book about the band. It was like being first-time parents before the first trimester is over, you know? You don’t want to jinx it.
And yet even while you’re going through all this day-to-day financial struggle, Shoes remained power pop legends. It had to be frustrating at times that the band’s enduring cachet didn’t pave an easier road.
You’re hitting on a lot of the themes in Mary’s book. You know, you get caught up in your own existence, but in certain circles, people are still waiting for a new record. In the meantime, you’re just trying to paying your utility bill.
There was a period of maybe five years where we lived solely off the music and didn’t have day jobs — and when it ended, that was tough. I think we all initially thought it was a temporary thing until we got back on track. It does certainly deglamorize things, and hurt your confidence. It wears you down. But every so often, you run into someone who reminds you that there are people out there who really love what you do.
At the same time, I do understand how bitterness can creep in for artists in this situation. We all know those stories about Alex Chilton working as a dishwasher. You understand that people love the music, but they don’t — they can’t — understand what you have to go through to make it. There’s an investment, man. A commitment of time.
So keeping that in mind, how old are the songs on the new album?
Oh, it’s all really new stuff. In my case, there was one song in particular that I’d had the melody for some time, but all the other things were done in the last year or so.
With creative pursuits, if you set your craft down for awhile, I think you often need to flush the pipes when you start working again — do a few shitty things before you can regain your rhythm. Was that your experience?
[Chuckles] I know. But no, I don’t think that happened to us this time around. I understand the phenomenon we’re talking about here, and I’m thinking about the stories of, for example, McCartney going into the studio with 30 song ideas. And then you hear the album and you wonder which ones he left off. [Laughs] But in our case — and I’m notorious for this — I think we’re pretty good when it comes to editing our own stuff. Maybe we subconsciously worry about wasting the other guys’ time, I don’t know.
And even if you aren’t actively writing songs, you’re still living life, experiencing things. It’s a cliche, but you’re out there getting some living under your belt. You keep notebooks with phrases and things. You hear things — snatches of conversation. I mean, when it comes to melody, that’s when you need to get in there with a pickaxe and a shovel and really confront those inner doubts, those creative blocks. There’s always a certain amount of feeling your way in the dark.
One thing that helped me is my baritone guitar. When you strum a baritone, it almost sounds like a piano, and a chord sounds like it’s being played on a keyboard. You can still do the fingerings you know, but they sound different, because you’re tuned down — it makes me think differently.
The new album is definitely of a piece with the rest of your catalog, but it doesn’t sound rooted in the past, which is a really tricky thing to pull off for a lot of bands.
The Cars put out a new album a few years ago that I thought was really solid, but it sounded like it was recorded in the ’80s — like, right after Shake It Up. I think maybe it was the keyboards that did it. That’s a hurdle that any band faces — you work to get a recognizable sound, and then you have to work to get around it.
I keep going back to the fact that we had this dynamite drummer with us this time around, and we knew it going in. Gary was stockpiling these great mics and guitars over the years, and little by little, they added up; the other day, I was thinking about what a variety of sounds there are on the album. That kind of thing is so much easier to create now — you used to have to move the mic a little further away from the amp or whatever, and now you can achieve those effects much more quickly. You don’t have to waste time with mic placement and gear.
Well, here’s hoping that leads to another new album in less than 18 years.
[Laughs] My God, it does sound terrible when you put it that way, doesn’t it? We can kind of account for some of it.