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As a longtime fan of power pop veterans Shoes, I was delighted to interview them this past summer when they released Ignition, their first proper album in 18 years. And what an album it is, full of sparkling pop gems and sunny harmonies, but also colored by grief (“Out of Round”, about the loss of a close friend). It is the Shoes gone full spectrum, interspersing their life experiences expertly into an always carefully crafted sonic mix. Read on to learn more about this venerable power pop group.
Ignition is a wonderful album, which sounds fresh, and well worth the wait. But why wait 18 years? Was it the state of the music industry or something else?
JEFF: We sold our commercial recording studio (Short Order Recorder) in 2004, as the home/digital recording trend became more widespread and really started to affect our client base. We became weary of the music industry and CD distribution continued to shrink, so we scaled back to mail order only for the Black Vinyl Records catalog. We each became more absorbed in our personal lives and work schedules, despite the fact that we remained friends and in contact virtually weekly, if not daily. We did a few live shows, including a brief tour in Japan in 2009, and recorded a cover of a Cheap Trick song for a tribute CD and started to warm to the idea of doing more recording. In 2009, Gary bought a new house, and in July of 2010, I had written a song (“Out Of Round”) that I gave copies of the demo to John and Gary and asked for their input. Gary had secretly built a new recording set-up into his new home, and invited us over to see it. By November of 2010, he and John had done some rather radical surgery to my demo, and that went really well. We just kept writing and recording from there.
GARY: With the emergence of cheaper multi-track digital recording studios, most of the analog studios like ours were doomed. To make matters worse, independent record distribution in general was decimated in the mid 90s due to a number of factors. So there we were trying to operate a studio with no clientele, and a record label with no distribution. We eventually got out of both businesses. By this time, I think the whole experience left us war-torn, bitter, and unable to imagine recording as a band again. We still remained friends, but without a studio and distribution, everything seemed futile.
I think that three factors led us in gaining optimism and momentum again. First, an author by the name of Mary Donnelly began writing a book on the history of Shoes (Boys Don’t Lie). Secondly, I completed construction of a recording studio in my basement. And thirdly…well, it just felt like it was time.
JOHN: Well, I don’t think it was so much a matter of waiting or holding out for all those years, there was no grand plan. Knowing that we needed to sell our studio dampened the enthusiasm to produce any new music at the time. We did do the sporadic gig here and there, and released a double CD of early demos, and Jeff produced a solo CD (Cantilever) at his home studio. But the clubhouse was gone, and recording our way in other studios would have been costly, and maybe not as effective as having the freedom of our own place. That being said, independent distribution had also tanked by the mid-90’s. The Internet was all shiny new, and had yet to evolve into what it is now, as far as social networking and a viable way of selling stuff. Once Gary carved out a space in his basement and set up shop, it at least solved the problem of where to record.
Running your own label, do you have distribution deals set up, and will you release the album overseas?
JEFF: We’ve already done a deal for the release of Ignition in Japan (on Air Mail Recordings), and we’re looking forward to expanding the release into Europe, as well as partnering with another label to do a vinyl version of the album. The majority of our distribution is still mail-order and online sites like Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, and so forth. We’re not really tooled up for wholesale distribution.
JOHN: We hope to strike more deals in Europe and beyond. Even Mars, if there’s interest.
I am very keen to hear how it was to record in Gary’s Kenosha studio. Can you describe the creative process, and how Ignition came together (with the help of your studio cats)?
JEFF: Gary and I are the gear heads in the band, and we’ve both maintained our respective recording set-ups at home. I recorded my solo CD, Cantilever, at home in 2007. I also did a fair amount of recording at my home studio for Ignition and then would bring the tracks over to Gary’s studio, which is much more advanced than what I have, and we’d fly the tracks in and sweeten and mix things there.
GARY: As a band, the adjustment to digital recording took a little time. Once we got the hang of it, it became clear that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
The three of us write our songs individually, and in private. We usually record demos of the songs in advance to present to the others. In the case of the collaborations, one person takes the lead by making a rough demo, which includes a drum machine beat along with a scratch guitar, and possible some fragments of vocal melodies.
In regard to my cats (Buzz and Psycho), we included them in backing vocals and percussion in the beginning. It wasn’t long before they started getting big heads and became downright belligerent. And to be honest, the cost of supporting their catnip habit just became too much for us to afford. Thankfully, after a month of rehab, everything went back to normal where they would just sleep all day on top of our studio equipment racks. It was a phase that we’d all like to forget.
JOHN: As far as the creative process, usually the writer empties his head first, and the other two contribute as ideas strike them. Whoever writes it generally steers that particular tune. Speaking for myself, I bring in my chord progression and vocal melody in order to add a drum pattern and start a demo. Once you have the order of parts figured out (should we add a fourth verse, is it too predictable, and do we need a solo section?), we would bring John Richardson in at a very early stage so that his drumming style could be incorporated into the track while it was still being written. In other words, you might want to fill up a space with some kind of overdub, but if John does a cool roll there, you might just let the drums do the heavy lifting. We’ll pass the tune around then, for arrangement thoughts or a specific part that the writer asked for, like a solo or maybe to pepper guitar fills throughout a section. We usually gather around a single mic when it’s time to add backing vocals or harmony lines, and just hash it out between us, trying to keep true to what the writer has in mind. Getting the right tone or effect can also be really helpful in inspiring a part. Gary and Jeff got quite a variety of guitar sounds fairly quickly, and I’d attribute that to hard-earned experience.
Did any one person influence Ignition the most, or were you, Gary, and John all equally involved in writing and singing?
JEFF: Shoes has always been a democratic institution, and we strive to maintain equal representation for all members. Whenever one member starts to become the focus, we do what we can to spread the attention out to the other 2 members. We each have different areas of expertise, yet we’re very aware of keeping the other members involved as possible at all stages. No one wants to get too far ahead, or too far behind. That’s part of how we’re survived and remained friends for over 40 years. No one leads and no one follows. It’s a 3-man sack race!
GARY: I think the key strength of Shoes is having three strong songwriters. Whatever weaknesses we may have as singers or musicians are countered by consistent songwriting from song to song and album to album. There has always been an unconscious, friendly competition that keeps any of us from slacking off…kind of like three sprinters that train together.
JOHN: After the first few songs, you start to get a feel for where things are going, so I’m sure that has an influence on what else comes out of us. I’ve always thought of my songs as filling the cracks between Jeff’s and Gary’s stuff. I like the idea of not being able to easily categorize a song, but we tried to generally keep things upbeat on Ignition.
I hear the Beatles influence (obvious), the Rolling Stones on “Hot Mess”, and even Fountains of Wayne in the vocals. What else have you been listening to that may have influenced this release?
JEFF: While we have certainly been hugely influenced by The Beatles, the entire British Invasion was what gave us our musical foundation. Over the years bands like Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, Fountains of Wayne, Snow Patrol, Gomez, Cheap Trick, Jet, Green Day, and just about anyone with melodic rock songs has been influential on us.
GARY: I’ve felt for a long time that each of us is influenced mostly by the other two guys in the band. I could mention a lot of artists that I admire, but it’s not to say they specifically influenced what we wrote and recorded.
JOHN: Lately I’ve been listening to NPR’s All Songs Considered, and get my fix for new tunes that way. I like the simplicity, directness and emphasis on melody in a lot of alternative or indie stuff that I hear. The three of us have basically the same musical influences (Brit Invasion, T. Rex, Badfinger, Big Star, Dwight Twilley Band), and that’s rooted so deeply in us that there never seems to be a problem with a unified direction. So when we’re recording, those influences come back in various ways, like the choice of guitar sounds, or vocal arrangements or lyric approach.
How do you think your music has evolved over the years? Your power pop is as sprightly as ever, but there appears to be an angular backbone driving things along. Can you comment more on this?
JEFF: The experience of life is a great teacher. All of the ups and downs, sorrows and joys, and everyday experiences have an effect on us and shapes our demeanor and outlook. Sometimes we’ll hear a word or a phrase that inspires a song. Sometimes it’s how we feel at the time. We tend not to write songs just to throw them away. As a result, we only write for a clear purpose. We don’t have a lot of extra, unreleased songs lying around. We write with a particular goal or project in mind. We still love the 3 minute blast of guitar rock with melody and harmonies. That can be a wide palate to draw from!
GARY: I think there is an unmistakable parallel between our music and our life situations at the time it was recorded. Our early music reflects our innocence of the time. When music became our livelihood, everything was more serious, and the fate of our lives was placed in the hands of other forces. You can hear it in the music.
In some ways, we may have gone full circle. Over the years, we learned a ton about writing and recording. Knowledge is usually a good thing, but sometimes it can result in a palette of too many colors and too many options for making spontaneous decisions. In the early days, we had fewer tracks, fewer chords, and less songwriting ability. Our limitations forced us to focus on what little we had. At the time, having a smaller palette was probably an advantage.
Now, maybe due to the long gap since our last record, we’ve gained a better appreciation and perspective of everything we’ve ever done, going back to our earliest efforts. Ignition is delicate balance of old and new, hopefully the best of both.
JOHN: I believe it’s a combination of things: John Richardson’s drumming, the microphones that Gary had acquired over the years, the new space we were working in. Recording digitally kept the momentum going as far as speed, i.e., no more waiting for the reel of tape to spool back. Plus I think you respond to production values of the moment and, with technology, can capture or enhance sounds more easily. For instance, the bottom end (bass) on this record is richer and more consistent from track to track and we recorded vocals, drums and guitars a lot dryer (less effects) which adds clarity and more definition overall, I think. We’ve been accused of writing mopey lyrics in the past, but we’re really just trying to show the complex emotional stuff that comes with any boy/girl or man/woman relationship. It might be black and white sometimes, but usually there’s a whole lot of gray there.
I know you guys are a bit old school, so what do you think of the iTunes generation and how the music industry has changed so dramatically?
JEFF: The whole digital download technology has really changed the way people listen and access music, which is a double-edged sword! On the one hand, it’s great that folks now have unprecedented ways to find and listen to music, both new releases and old standards. But it seems to have cheapened the value or perceived worth of music, as it affects our lives. Music is everywhere, in everything and can easily be taken for granted. But it still can be a vital part of our lives. The best music ingrains itself into your being and helps get us through our lives, marking milestones and watershed moments in our lives. It certainly is great to have music so easy to get out to the public, but it would be nice if folks could find the time to absorb it and just sit down and listen. Such are the lives we lead nowadays.
GARY: We, as do many recording artists, prefer the sound of analog tape recording, but we have always dreaded the process of converting our precious tape recordings to vinyl. It always took a lot of tweaking and subjectivity by the mastering engineer to make vinyl sound like the original source. To us, the final vinyl master never sounded as good as the original tape recording.
Digital is a mixed bag, and frustrating in a different way. When the CD format was first introduced, everyone assumed that eventually a higher quality digital format would evolve, but the reverse happened. Although the quality of digital recording technology has improved by leaps and bounds, the quality of the final format for consumers has taken a step backward. MP3’s are the new standard, but the sound quality is inferior to their CD and vinyl predecessors.
JOHN: When we were kids, the 45 is what was heavily promoted and an album was simply a collection of hits. Around the mid-60’s, the emphasis shifted to Sgt. Pepper and like-minded concept albums that had elaborate, gate-fold packaging with lyrics and inserts, but they didn’t even bother to release singles. 45’s were still their own entity, but only released in the interim between albums. These days, with people being able to cherry-pick what songs they want, it’s back to a ‘singles’ mentality. Albums as a whole have become sort of a thing of the past. I think it’s great for the consumer, because he or she is no longer forced to buy a whole LP or CD for 1, 2 or 3 tunes. And I think it keeps the artist on his/her toes, knowing they can’t just pad their albums with filler.
Will you do any local shows to support this album, or is it too difficult and costly?
JEFF: It is very expensive for us to gear up for any live shows. If we’re going to take the time to rehearse and coordinate schedules with our drummer to do some shows, we might as well do a bunch to make it worthwhile. But at this moment, we don’t have anything definite planned.
I’d love to hear how Mary Donnelly came to write a book about the band.
JEFF: She contacted us, and we gave her as much access as we could to photos, interviews and any press or article we had. It’s very in depth, and provides insight, not only to our career, but to the entire music industry as it morphed and mutated around us over that 35 year period.
JOHN: She’s been a Shoes fan since her older brother played Present Tense for her when she was 12 or so. She said it influenced her taste in music and many years later, she contacted Jeff through email. Mary’s a professor at a college out East, and she’s written a book on an Irish author before, so she got the idea of doing one on our story. The deeper she got into it, the more she saw how she could weave events that were happening in the music industry at the time throughout our 35-plus year career. It ends up reading like a non-fiction parable, regardless of who it’s about.
Out of all your releases, which one do you like the best?
JEFF: That would be like trying to name your favorite child. But I can speak to which ones were the most fun to record, and Ignition is definitely one of, if not the most fun, album we’ve worked on. No pressure, and back in our home environments. But the hours were grueling and long. We just really enjoy the recording process!
GARY: Do you mean which one of our children do we like the best? No good parent would answer that.
JOHN: Well, it’s a well-known cliché that the artist usually likes his last thing best, maybe because it’s the freshest. I suppose the writer looks at his own contributions to each record and judges it that way; if he feels good about his songs, that’s his favorite album. Ignition really does feel good to us now. Before this I might’ve said Stolen Wishes, as far as song consistency.
Fans can only hope for more releases of the caliber of Ignition. Where do Shoes go from here?
JEFF: We’ll play it by ear. We’re just happy to have finished it and able to get it out for people to hear. Will they like it? Will they hate it? The reception of the album will help dictate what we do in the future. We will always want to write and record new music, because we love doing it. But whether or not people still want to hear it will determine to what extent we get things out there.
GARY: Ignition could be the first of many albums to come, or our last. Don’t expect another, but never count us out.
JOHN: It’s no longer necessary to sequester yourselves for a year and a half or 2 years while you work on a dozen or so tunes. The web has made releasing material a lot more immediate; a band or artist can post songs as they finish them so I think we should at least address that issue. Making a song or two available for download might not have the impact of an entire CD, but if the goal is to be more timely, you can’t beat the speed of the Internet.
Photo by Sara Townsend.
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