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Shivering Timbers: The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes

Sarah and Jayson Benn of Shivering Timbers
4 May 2011

There’s something in the water in Akron, Ohio. Maybe it traces back to the old Erie Canal, or runoff from the abandoned tire factories that once made this town a key Cold War target of the KGB. Whatever it is, Akron produces personalities—a bizarre pedigree of blue collar but thoroughly non-traditional musical types: from Chrissie Hynde and David Allan Coe to Devo, The Waitresses, and the Black Keys. And the well hasn’t run dry yet.

Late last year, the Akron-based husband/wife duo Shivering Timbers self-released their debut album We All Started in the Same Place—produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Ostensibly, this was a “children’s album,” with bandmembers Jayson and Sarah Benn finding direct inspiration from their newborn daughter Suzi. Within their adaptations of classic nursery rhymes and folk tunes, however, the Benns couldn’t help but gravitate toward the more macabre end of the spectrum, twisting an almost Nick Cave-ish, lo-fi spookiness out of tracks like “Crooked Old Man” and “Noble Duke of York.” In other words, it might be kids music, but is sure as hell ain’t VeggieTales.

The Big Takeover recently caught up with Sarah Benn (vocals, upright bass, banjo) and Jayson Benn (guitar, banjo, misc.) to talk about adult-appropriate kids music, kid-appropriate adult music, and of course, Akron.

ANDREW CLAYMAN: I know you and Jayson have both played in other bands over the years. What’s the basic background on how you two met and the role music played in the relationship?

SARAH BENN: I think Jayson fell in love with me while he was watching me sing.

JAYSON BENN: Yeah. I went to see one of her bands called the Rhondas [in 2006]. And I was pretty mesmerized the whole time. I think she was actually a little creeped out by me staring at her.

SARAH BENN: Maybe a little.

AC: Being creeped out is often the first step toward marriage.

JAYSON: Ha, in this case, anyway.

AC: But your musical collaboration actually came much later in the relationship?

SARAH: Well, when we got married the idea of having a band together was in the back of both of our minds. But we weren't sure when that would happen and what it would sound like because we were both busy with other bands at the time. Then, after Suzi was born [in November of 2007], we just started writing these songs to keep our sanity intact and our newborn entertained—the songs that would make up the Shivering Timbers album. But it was a while before we even thought of it as a more serious project.

AC: When did it start to become clear the music you were making for Suzi could have a much wider appeal as it clearly has?

SARAH: Probably not until the album was actually completed and people started listening to it. We let people listen to it and started performing out, and people actually liked it. So that’s when it really dawned on us that, hey, people actually like this stuff!

JAYSON: Up until that point, we’d only played these songs for ourselves, and Suzi, and my family. So there was a lot of positive reinforcement from that audience.

SARAH: Yeah, can’t just listen to the parents. …Our first real show wasn’t even until 2009-- on the day Michael Jackson died [June 25]—at a bar in Akron called Annabell’s. At the time it was just the two of us rotating instrumentation-- toy drums, banjo, upright and electric bass, guitar, and trumpet. Things didn’t really solidify until last summer when [drummer] Brad [Thorla] joined us.

AC: In both the live show and in the studio with Dan [Auerbach], how important was it for you to maintain the sort of genuine, uncalculated vibe of the original family recordings you’d done?

SARAH: Well when we went into the studio, we’d only played two shows, and one was just a house show. We still didn’t really take it seriously. So we went into the studio with the songs kind of half written. We didn’t have a drummer yet, either. It was just me and Jayson rotating instruments for each song. So we brought all of our gear in, and Dan had a lot of stuff in there for us to play with, as well. He basically said, ‘use anything you want.’ So we would play the pieces of songs we had for him, he’d listen to it, and we’d all just start brainstorming what we wanted to do with each track from there.

JAYSON: It wasn’t even really brainstorming. We’d lay down the basic stuff and then build on it.

SARAH: Yeah, we didn’t really strategize in the studio. It was more like, ‘hey, what’s that thing over there? What does it sound like?’ While I was laying down my bass track, Jayson would be sitting in the control booth fiddling with some cool guitar or something, and Dan would hear that and say, ‘hey, go in there and play that.’ For instance, I had a trumpet line on “Noble Duke,” and it was Dan’s idea to put all these other melodicas on top of it to kind of fill our the horn section sound. For the most part, though, the main thing was just that we got to go in there and basically play with whatever we saw and build the songs that way—a lot of spontaneity and a lot of first cuts, since we only had like three and half days to work with.

AC: There’s obviously tons of horrible music for kids out there. What’s the secret to making music that a three year-old and a 30 year-old can enjoy equally?

SARAH: I guess just not singing about stuff that is inappropriate for children. I mean, as long as everything you’re singing is somewhat G rated but still inspires you personally as an adult. I don’t think there’s a secret to it. We just brought our own personal feelings into the songs even though they are technically children’s songs.

JAYSON: I think the key is just to have fun and not take yourself too seriously. Having a child really brings that out in you. Every day you’re coming home to this playland and you’re singing silly songs all the time. So that’s where it all began. There wasn’t really any strategy or thought put into it. Those are just the things we were singing.

AC: Still, even though it’s kid music, you kind of have that Lewis Carroll / Jim Henson knack for not shying away from the darkness.

SARAH: I like really dark stuff and Jayson was playing in kind of a metal sort of band at the time. And I’ve always really liked sort of dark and depressing music. That’s just kind of what naturally comes out of me. So I guess when you combine the darkness with the light, you meet somewhere in the middle, that can appeal to anybody.

AC: How much of Shivering Timbers evolved out of your efforts to avoid listening to the traditional VeggieTales and Barney CDs?

JAYSON: [laughs] That was like one of my main fears about becoming a parent—having to listen to bad music all the time.

SARAH: I don’t think we set out to avoid anything, honestly. But I suppose that was a happy consequence of writing our own music, sure.

AC: Does Suzi already have good taste in music? Is she going to be the cool girl with a record collection in 7th grade?

SARAH: I think she’s going to rebel against us eventually, because everybody rebels against their parents. And if they don’t, they have issues. It’s going to be sad when that happens, though, because I think we’re really cool parents. [laughs]

AC: For the next album, you’ll obviously be coming in as an established band now and you mentioned moving into more adult material. Are you starting to get a stronger sense of what that next record might sound like?

SARAH: I don’t want to veer too far away from the kind of material we’ve been doing, but I also don’t want to keep singing nursery rhymes-- although I like them. We’re playing a lot of shows right now, and new things are definitely emerging. I’m trying to write a few more happy, upbeat songs, but I don’t really know how [laughs]. I’m not good at that. You know, I write slow, depressing, slit-your-wrists music.

AC: You mentioned working with Chuck Auerbach [Dan’s father], as well, on some new material. How did that come about?

SARAH: I love hanging out with Chuck. Those conversations are always very stimulating. He challenges us to think about our music. He really likes us. He was one of our earliest, biggest supporters. He also has a lot of advice to give us, having raised a fairly successful musician himself. We’ve got three of his songs that we’re going to be doing.

AC: As far as touring goes, I know some artists will take their toddlers on the road with them, while others will just play sporadically and find babysitters. How do you guys plan to balance the parental life with the touring band life?

SARAH: On our last tour, we left Suzi behind with her grandparents. It was only a five or six day tour, but we don’t have a big enough car to bring her and all of our gear. And she’s just so young still. She just turned three. In the future, when she’s a little older, I do plan on taking her with us and teaching her how to hang out at mommy and daddy’s show—‘wear your earplugs and stay away from strangers.’ She might even end up sitting on the stage with us. Who knows how it will work. We might even have to get a minivan. Oh gosh. [laughs] I’ll have to trade in my Jetta for a minivan!

AC: With so many Akronites leaving town lately [Black Keys relocated to Nashville and New York, and Akron native LeBron James took his talents to South Beach], could you see yourself moving to a town with a bigger music scene or more culture in general?

JAYSON: Well we just bought a house in Akron, so we’ll be here for at least a little while. I like it. There’s family here, and I don’t really see any reason to go anywhere else-- unless that reason suddenly arrives and there’s no question about it.

SARAH: It would be easier if we were in a place with more venues. But then you’d just be stuck in that town playing those same venues.

JAYSON: There’s something to be said for sticking around. Do it in your community rather than going to another community where something is already established.

SARAH: Well if we got so big that we actually had to move to Nashville or L.A. or wherever, I guess we would do it. But we would really have to blow up. Right now, no way. I love my house. It’s beautiful, we have a happy home and a big backyard.

AC: Do you ever feel that strange tugging at the heartstrings known as “Akron Pride?”

SARAH: It’s developing for sure. We’re right on top of a hill in Goodyear Heights, and from the back windows of our house, you can look out and see the blimp hanger [Goodyear’s headquarters is in Akron]. And during the summer time, the Goodyear Blimp is literally always floating around in our backyard. I always get a sense of pride from that. I’m a true Akronite. I’ve got the blimp!

AC: Final question: simply stated. What are your realistic goals for Shivering Timbers in the next few years? How do you see things developing?

SARAH: I want a booking agent! Put that in big huge bold letters and put my phone number next to it. I am the booking agent right now, and it is hard. A label would be cool, too, of course, because then we’d have help with all those things. Mainly, though, I just want to get to the point where Jayson can quit his job and we can just play music and travel around. Pay the bills. Play music. Happy family.


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