Getting to Know... Shellshag

Music Features Shellshag
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Getting to Know... Shellshag

“Those kids will go the distance, teach you about resistance,” sings Jen Shag on “1984,” the first track of Shellshag's third LP Rumors in Disguise (out now). It's the only song on the Brooklyn-via-San Francisco duo's new album written in the past year; the rest were penned sporadically in the decade-and-a-half since Shag and her partner-in-crime Johnny Shell, first met. “The song is a tribute to all of the young people who have inspired us, who I believe are going to save the world,” Shag explains. “1984” is a kind of passing-of-the-torch; among today's rough-edged landscape of makeshift show spaces, basement-based labels and a widespread recent shift towards do-it-yourselfness, Shell and Shag are seasoned veterans. Paste recently chatted with the couple about how the DIY world has changed over the years, their unusual stage setup (the two face each other, singing into a Y-shaped mic; he plays guitar, she drums standing up) and their recent cross-country move to Brooklyn.

Paste: How did you guys meet?
John Shell: About 15 years ago, my brother introduced me to Jennifer at Starcleaner, the warehouse that Jennifer and some of her friends were running in San Francisco, which eventually became the name of our label too. It was one of the only art warehouses around at the time. Jennifer always ran the door, and wore this gown, and every time I went I’d see her there at the door, saying "Five-dollar donation!” After we met, right away we were best friends. We spent a couple years fighting the urge to be a couple and demanding “We are young artistic single selves!” before we just gave up, and three years after we first met we started going out.

Paste: When did you start making music together?
Shell: We were playing music for a while before Shellshag. About a year into knowing each other we started sneaking away from our other bands and doing what’s now known as Shellshag—playing songs in my bedroom and Jennifer’s bedroom, teaching each other songs, writing new ones, recording these little swanky lo-fi tapes of our music, which are the tapes that are on the cover of our new album, Rumors in Disguise. We put in our bio that we started in 2005, because that’s when we started officially focusing on Shellshag, but really, the band started years before during those bedroom hang outs.

Paste: What bands were you guys in before Shellshag?
Shell: I played in 50 Million with my brother for about five years. We were a two-piece with a really similar style and approach to Shellshag. Jenn played drums in a psychedelic punk band, Static Faction, with our friend Jay, who is one of the guitarists on the new Shellshag record. The two bands played together all the time.
Jen Shag: We also played together in an acoustic band called Me, You, and the Boys with two of our good friends Matt Powell and Matty Luv. Matty Luv was also in an underground punk band called Hickey. The boys in the band wore these belts with keys and wallets hanging off them. I’d take all of the keys and wallets and put them around my legs, so I was sitting down playing drums but I had all this extra percussion on my legs.

Paste: Oh, so that’s how you started playing with the belt of bells around your waist? What about the Y-shaped microphone, how did that start?
Shag: Yeah, I always play with that belt now. Shell and I were hanging out one day, playing music, and we thought, “Let’s just do exactly what we feel like doing today,” and for me it was standing up while playing drums. There’s nothing like the freedom of standing while you’re playing drums. So Shell re-built our mic that day, in a way so that I could stand up and we could face each other when we played.

Paste: Were there any other bands or side projects?
Shag: Shell and I also had a band called Kung Fu USA, but I played sitting at a drum kit. With that band we played with Iggy Pop, and the Cramps. That was exciting for us. It’s always exciting when you get to play with bands you’re a fan of.

Paste: What was it like running a DIY public arts space in San Francisco in the '90s? When did you open Starcleaner?
Shag: We started Starcleaner in 1994. For me, it was the time of my life. It was the '90s, it was San Francisco, I’m from Jersey... It was paradise, you know? At the time, there weren’t a lot of spaces like that around. There are so many spaces like that around the country now, but in the 90s there really weren’t.
Shell: I’ve never seen another DIY space like Starcleaner. It wasn’t just a place to throw shows, with a spot for beer and a sound system. There were murals on the wall, poetry going on in the back corner somewhere, some guy’s building a giant bubble to fill up with smoke for his performance on the stage. Then there’d be some guy brewing tea that kind of smelled like a steam motor, and this girl with her friends in a gown at door. Not even pushing you a little bit for money, just reminding you to give what you want. Six years of unpoliced, drunken, crazy nights at this crazy art warehouse and there was never a fight. I was right out of college and it’s where I made all of my best friends that I have now, met the girl I fell in love with and I still think it was probably just as special for someone who was only there a couple times... It was easy to notice the difference between this and a space where a guy has just cleared some space in his basement and made a cool bar and putting on shows... this created a spirit, it wasn’t just a building.

Paste: How has touring changed for DIY bands from the 90s versus now?
Shag: We’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Back then, we were touring without cell phones, a GPS, or the internet. Modern DIY is really kind of privileged because you can find your people pretty quickly. Back then, you might walk into a venue only to find that it was totally different than you expected. It was scarier to tour.

Paste: Were there specific situations where you really met people on tour who just didn’t get it?
Shag: Constantly. That’s the irony of having fans and knowing people now. Back then, we would strike out constantly. This one time in Baton Rouge, the booker decided last minute to turn the show into a ladies night, fraternity-type party. They kept telling us to turn our amps down, until finally the amps were just turned off. And they didn’t want to pay us, and all of these jocks tried to beat us up. It would happen a lot.

Paste: It must have been hard to stay in touch with people you met on tour, too.
Shag: Oh yeah. In 1996, we met This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, and I didn’t think we’d ever see them again. We played a show with them in Pensacola, Florida, and we slept at their house, and then when we left, we were just like “Hey, thanks a lot, bye!” We didn’t cross paths for years. In the last few years we’ve started to run into them again. In 2008 we did a split 7” with them.

Paste: Why did you guys decide to move to New York?
Shell: We were in San Francisco for about 12 years, and by the end of our time there, we didn’t have the space anymore. There was a big gentrification going on, the city just became different. We’d had our heyday and it became obvious. More importantly, Jennifer’s family is here in New Jersey. I’m from Texas and I’d never lived out here, so I was excited. After we went on a one-year tour in 2004, we were sick of sleeping on floors and couch surfing, so we decided to move to Brooklyn. The place we live in now is great but we’re out of town six to seven months out of the year. We like to call the entire U.S. home.

Paste: How does living in New York compare to San Francisco in the 90s?
Shag: Coming to New York was fun because we met all of these new inspiring people. Bands like Stupid Party—Cory Frierman from Stupid Party, he sent me an email one day and said, “You guys are playing lame shows, come play our house!” So we went there and met all of these amazing people who were aware of our old bands, and aware of Shellshag. They had that exact spirit going on that we found at Starcleaner. Then we went on to meet Don Giovanni, and Screaming Females. These bands were all bringing us a lot of inspiration. After a while, we weren’t finding that so much in San Francisco. Sometimes when you stay somewhere for a while, that just happens.

Paste: Why did you release Rumors in Disguise on Don Giovanni rather than your own label, Starcleaner?
Shag: Have you ever met Joe, who runs Don Giovanni? Hang out with Joe Steinhardt or Zach Gajewski long enough and they can pretty much talk you into anything. It’s been fun for us as a band to have anyone as excited about our music as they are. They are more excited about us than we are. It’s fun hanging out with them, and we have a good time working with them, so I’m really glad we did it. We used to be the types that would only do-it-ourselves. Eventually you’ve just have to start mixing it up. With Don Giovanni we’ve reached new people who we couldn’t have reached ourselves. Plus I’m sentimental about New Jersey, and they’re New Jersey guys, so that’s been fun.
Shell: We always did our records ourselves, but once these guys had asked us two or three times, we thought about it more, and checked out what they were doing, and realized it was a perfect fit. I’m so psyched we did it. We didn’t just put the record out with them—they were involved while we were making it as well. We all kinda made this record together.

Paste: What is the album about? Do either of you have a favorite song on the new record?
Shell: All of the songs have their own very particular story, spread out over a very long historical time period. There are six songs on there that we wrote in the '90s, and the rest were written between now and then. There are only three on the record that are brand new. And the very first one, “1984,” is one that Jennifer wrote just early in the year in 2009, four or five months before we started recording. It’s my favorite song on there.
Shag: The album is kind of a collage. It’s kind of like our movie sound track, or the soundtrack to my life with Shell. There are old songs on there that we’re finally happy with, meshed with our new songs, that all together tell this story. I’m really proud of it, and I haven’t really ever said that in the 20 years I’ve been making music. I’ve always been happy with the things I’ve released but I think this is the most intimate, honest representation of who we are as people on this 15-year journey together.

Paste: What is “1984” about?
Shag: Every line of that song is about something different. The first line [“You can’t fix it with just one pill”] is about pharmaceutical companies. Then the second line [“you can’t fix it with just one kill”] is about wars. The third line [“that shot will make you ill”] is about vaccines. I’m pretty opposed to vaccinations. I used to work for Gary Null, who does a health advocacy radio show in New York, and I learned a lot from him. I noticed a lot of the older people talk about how younger kids are ruining the world, but I notice this generation gap that I find myself in the middle of, and I’m seeing the total opposite. I’m seeing all of these young kids who I think are going to save this planet. In 2005, while we were on tour with the Dirty Looks, Nate Stark [who is now in Stupid Party] was playing guitar with them. We were talking one day about the documentary 1991 The Year Punk Broke, and Nate, who was born in 1984, was like, “Yeah, well 1984 was the year punk was born!” I started realizing all of these people I really related to were born in the 80s. I was totally inspired by them and their energy. And then, oddly enough, Joe from Don Giovanni was also born in 1984. So this song is kind of a tribute to all of these new, young people that we’ve met, who inspire us, who I believe are going to save the world. It’s been this ongoing theme. It really means a lot to me. To me, it’s just this giant song of hope for the future.

Download "1984" and "Resiliant Bastard" from Rumors in Disguise.

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