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After a 30-year career fronting bands like Shiner and The Life and Times, singer Allen Epley has just released his first solo album, Everything. While Epley used the music he heard on AM radio as a kid for inspiration, the songs on the album are what fans of Epley’s bands have come to expect, dreamy slowburns that gently glide through the atmosphere.
Epley killed some time on a drive from Chicago to Kansas City where Shiner was scheduled to play by giving me a call from the road. We talked about Shiner, his two day jobs, being a podcast host, and how Everything came together.
Shiner is known as a Kansas band but you’ve been in Chicago for 12 years now. How did that happen?
ALLEN: My wife had finished her doctorate at K.U. in 2009, right as the housing bubble had burst. We had to sell our house that we had owned for 13 years right in the middle of the bubble. She found a job in Chicago. She knows I know the United States from touring. I gave her a few cities that we could move to – Minneapolis; Louisville, my hometown, is awesome; I like Champaign; Atlanta’s great – and she was like, “Well, I got a job in Chicago.” I was like, “I don’t want to move to Chicago.” She said, “It’s not up to you.” I took that as a sign that I should shut my mouth and go with it. It’s been a great move. I didn’t have a job when we moved there but then I landed one about 6 months after and kept getting jobs as I went along. Now I work at Blue Man Group and I work at a venue called Fitzgerald’s. I started at Longman & Eagle, in Logan Square, a really great, Michelin star, whiskey bar.
Did you take those jobs because you were burned out from playing music for so long?
ALLEN: No. I was always working at bars. As far as being an indie rock musician, you always have to have a job. You’re not going to rely on your income from music, that’s just not a thing for 95% of the musicians in this world. I was in the middle of a record. My band, The Life and Times, had just released a record called Tragic Boogie, our second full length. The band, for different reasons, had to move apart so, for 3 years, our bass player Eric [Abert] lived in New York and Chris [Metcalf] stayed in Kansas City and I was in Chicago. We just made it work like that. We’d get together for tours but I was definitely not on a creative ebb. I, very luckily, have always had a certain kind of drive and stayed busy. If I have a block writing, it doesn’t last too long.
Was your Third Gear Scratch podcast inspired or influenced by the pandemic and used as a chance to keep creating things when you couldn’t get together with others to record music or tour?
ALLEN: It did get to flourish during the pandemic. I was probably more creative during the pandemic than I had probably ever been. I was having a hard time. I was 49, getting ready to turn 50, a few years ago, and I was having a question, like many other people, kind of the existential crisis going, “What the hell am I doing? How is this even existing? Aren’t I supposed to be teaching in a classroom by now?” Everyone should have a therapist, I certainly do and did, and she was like, “What are other people doing?” I said, “That’s a really great question.” I was explaining my quandary to her and I’m like, “I’m tired of having two part-time jobs. Is this what everybody does?” So I started the podcast. I realized I have a lot of creative and very successful friends on many different levels. Some guys are huge movie actors in A-list movies, and some are guys playing in bars. I know a lot of comedians and stand-up comics. I started to talk to them, asking how they made it work and asking, “Do you ever wake up in the night wondering what in the world you’ve done with your life?” and they said, “Absolutely.” I think that’s part of the journey. It’s really been very helpful for me to do the podcast and it’s totally worked through my crisis. Quite honestly, I’m content just being a working musician with a couple of cool jobs. I’m very happy with where I’m at. I’m being very productive and I feel very free to create and I’m not worried about who I am or what I’m doing.
Would you say Everything is a pandemic baby? I know you started in 2018 but did some down time during the pandemic give you time to work on it?
ALLEN: Totally. It definitely came to fruit over the pandemic. I had 6 or 7 tunes that were like, “Oh, this is really interesting. It turned out a lot cooler. It’s kind of funky.” It was probably 2019, I was just finding my voice in different ways. I had set up my drum kit at home and I was putting down some different drum tracks. I play better slow than fast, I’m a guitarist not a drummer. I was trying some different miking techniques, so I just needed a beat. I put together a little A-B-C-D section, some sort of arrangement of drum parts. And then I was like, “I should flesh these out.” I would listen to them and see what I needed to do to get them to crack. I started writing to them. I started with the bones, just the beat, then flesh out a few of the first ones.
One of the songs, “Spider Rico,” was the real inspiration for it. There was a song I was writing for a TV cue for my friend, Jeff Garber, who writes for all kinds of stuff. He had me writing some songs and one of the songs I thought, “I can use this. I like the vibe. I like where it’s at. It’s dreamy. It’s dark. It’s sad. It’s hopeful.” I fleshed that out and that was really exciting. It was a torch and it led me where to go, it told me where we were going. The rest of the songs fell in pretty easily.
I got to the point where I had done a cover. I did a cover of “Guitar Man” by Bread, and I needed those opening lap steel lines. There’s a slide guitar line at the very start of the song that’s the hook of the song. I asked my friend, Mike Burns – he plays with me at the Blue Man Group, he hired me; he also plays lap steel – “Are you bored?” “Yes.” “Want to do this?” “Yes.” It turned out awesome. I was like, “Do you have any interest in playing on some of these other ones?” “Yes.” “How about we start with this one?” It was a slam dunk every time. I had Mike put lap steel on every song. It just made every song better, more pro, and classic and heartbreaking. In fact, there are certain people you know who don’t do anything else. They have such a talent in playing. He’s one of those people. He could be playing with anyone in Nashville or LA. He’s found a great gig as a full-time Blue Man member and then he makes music on the side. He’s been in different bands, like Dub Trio, and he’s got his own band. He’s just touched by the hand of God.
I should stress, we are not Blue Men. Blue Men are actors, we are in the band. We hover above the stage. There are 3 of us in the band. There’s a drummer, there’s a bassist – that’s me – who also plays the Chapman stick, and there’s also the guitarist, and that’s Mike.
The press release says that the songs are inspired by the ’60s and ’70s music you heard through headphones when you were a kid. Having read that, I can hear it but, to me, it sounds like what I’d expect from the lead singer of Shiner. It’s not too outside of your comfort zone.
ALLEN: It’s not. I think it’s that AM Gold vibe. None of these songs truly wrap that up. It doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be a throwback records. There’s not too much plate reverb. It does have it’s eye on that but it’s channeled through me. For me, that’s a lot of Elliott Smith, a lot of Beck, particularly the Sea Change record was very influential for me. He was heartbroken and it really informed this record for me too. I think a lot of the lyrical content came around during the pandemic. There were a lot of sad times, hard stuff happening in my life. My mom passed a few years ago from complications of Alzheimer’s after a long battle. There was just a lot of heavy feelings. I just remember being very grateful for a lot of the time off and not having to deal for a while. There was a lot of worrying and stress about the future, a lot of sadness. The kids missing high school. There were just a lot of hard fucking times for everybody, certainly not just for me.
Did the pandemic make you miss playing live shows?
ALLEN: Sure. The Shiner record came out in May 2020. We had to scrap it. We were paying a lot of money for PR. The record was coming out either fucking way but there were no tours happening. We had great tours hooked up with insane guarantees. You cut ahead a year-and-a-half and we got to go out on tour and the guarantees were cut in half and the crowds were cut in half. They weren’t ready to come out as much. We powered through. We were really freaking bummed. Everybody aged. More grey hairs over the whole world from the stress. You lose those years. It was hard.
Was the Shiner album a surprise? I don’t remember hearing much about it leading up to the release.
ALLEN: It kind of was. The world was very preoccupied at the time. Shiner’s been pretty good with our social media. If you’re in that orbit, we were beating people over the head with it. We put it out ourselves because we didn’t have any great offers from labels we really wanted to be on. I stand by that. It did well. It paid itself off. That was really good. The first reunion was in 2012. We re-released our last record, The Egg, on vinyl, which we had not done 10 years earlier. It was way too expensive and prohibitive and the vinyl boom hadn’t happened. So, there were those 10 years for us where it was mainly CDs. We started re-releasing our records on vinyl. We did 5 shows in New York, LA, Kansas City and Chicago and they were all in theaters. The guarantees had a lot of zeroes. It was a different thing than we had experienced. We were slugging through, then we break up. Then I started The Life and Times and we were slugging though. Then we started doing the Shiner reunion shows and they were packed and amazing. I put a down payment on my current home from that. They have been consistently really great.
We re-released our third record, Starless, in 2014. We re-released our second record, Lulu Divinia, in 2017. It was all dovetailing with The Life and Times schedule. I put out our last Life and Times record in 2018 so there was a lot of touring between both bands. At a certain point, we said, “We need to do something or get off the pot.” People are tired of seeing us come back every few years and play the same songs. We’re still drawing well but it felt like it was time.
We started thinking about it. It was a little weird getting back in the writing mode. It was like, “What do we sound like? How do I write a Shiner song?” We found a couple of little cracks in the surface. I wrote a couple of things and Josh[Newton] was writing too. The advent of filesharing and sending things back and forth really enabled it to happen. We didn’t want to do it if it was just going to be okay.
We got back to it, had a few long writing sessions where we’d meet at Earth Analog, Matt Talbott’s studio, from Hum. It’s where we recorded The Egg. We weren’t there to track, we were just there for writing. We did that a few times and came out with 10 or 12 songs, whittled it down to 7, realized we needed to add 1 or 2 more. It was a lovely experience.
Are you aware of the influence you’ve had on other bands?
ALLEN: It’s probably hard not to be aware. Just like trying to hear your voice on a recording in a group of people, it’s always hard to find your own. “I hear everyone else but I don’t hear recognize my own voice.” I have a hard time hearing that in other bands. Someone will say, “These guys are Shiner rip-offs,” and I’ll go, “Really?” Sometimes it’s a band that I’m not really digging and that bums me out. Other times, it’s great. It’s flattery always. I don’t think anybody has ever really ripped us off. There’s no big money being made from our sound. But, I do know there’s a lot of bands who know who we are. There’s been a couple of nods here and there from really big fucking bands.
Are there plans to play some shows to promote the solo record?
ALLEN: Yeah. The band I’ve put together is really great. The record was made with several different drummers. My drum tracks were not kept on most of the record. As Dan Dixon started mixing it, we had several other people. I got Mike Meyers, he was the first drummer in Life and Times, to do a few songs. I got Chris Prescott, he’s from No Knife, he’s also been in Pinback for the last decade. And then a gentleman named Darren Dodd, from Atlanta, played on one. That’s the first time I’ve farmed out parts. This is like a pro record. A lot of it is me but Mike Burns is all over it. The band I had to put together here in town, I got some friends of mine. Mike Burns plays lap steel. I got Eric Gebow, who is actually a real Blue Man, he is also a really great drummer. And then I got Brandon Rios, who plays bass and keys. He’s the secret sauce for this. They’re not on the record. I’m so thankful for them to be willing to do this and they’re stoked. We are going to be playing shows. We’ll be doing some spot touring – 3 and 4 day weekends. I’m hoping to do some bigger shows in Chicago.
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