Sometimes it is just good to get away; away from the city, away from work, away from the hustle and bustle lifestyle, in order to discover things about the world, and yourself, that sometimes just get buried in distractions and stimulation. What better way to assist this journey of isolation and self unearthing than an old style, country blues with a modern rock twist? Well, one not need to tread too far outside of their Bay Area mecca to find such a entity. Skip Allums, Sam Tokheim, Carver Cordes, and Adam Burstein are The Shants, a band of such talents out of Oakland that embodies that discovery in their folksy musical style and Rabbitsblack got a chance to talk with them about their latest creation and upcoming release ceremony at the Viracocha SF for the new album, Beautiful Was the Night. Find out what they had to say after the transport…
Rabbitsblack: Tell me about the origins of The Shants. Where and when did you guys meet and what inspired the name of the band?
Skip (guitar, vocals, harmonica): Sam (pedal steel) and I were friends for 2 years or so before we started playing music together. We had talked about our love for music, country & folk music in particular. We’d both been “retired” from music for a spell, for many reasons. One Sunday afternoon we get together in Sam’s beach-side apartment in Alameda and hashed together a few songs I had written while I was camping alone in Yosemite. One of them was So Strange, These Days – which is near the end of the new record. Its funny – you don’t know what kind of sound is gonna come out when you start playing with someone. You may have a vague idea, but we had no idea it would be this spectral, rough-hewn but kinda sweet sound. I met Carver (bass) from booking shows at the House of Shields in downtown SF, where I had booked his band Dedications, and asked him to come along for the ride. Adam (drums) turned up through Craigslist, and he was the only drummer we’d talked to who had an intuitive sense of dynamics. He also had a sweet beard. That was fall of 2009.
Shants is a reference to the British slang for a drink “a shant” or getting drunk, “get shanted”. I played a solo show in Brixton last month opening for Little Scream, and the folks there were highly amused.
Rabbitsblack: I love the solemn bluesy aura of your musical tone and style. How have your roots as individuals and musical influences been incorporated into your creations?
Skip: I grew up in South Louisiana; moved to California in 2002. I was around a lot of Cajun music, bluegrass, etc. My dad had a few Leadbelly records that I listened to endlessly as a child – I thought they fit right alongside the Disney 45s. I had no idea of the history and oral tradition that country blues came from. I couldn’t understand a lick of Cajun French I heard at fais-do-do’s, but I could hear the joyful or sad sentiments. All of those sounds, plus a few Merle Haggard records,
permeated my mind. I rebelled in college and went more in the indie rock direction, but you know how it is… you always come back home.
Adam (drums): All of us are rooted in the styles of American blues, country and R&B. My goal as drummer is to fit perfectly inside the sound of the band – sometimes driving it, sometimes laying back – but never standing out as something separate.
Sam (pedal steel): For me, playing music is the antidote to city living. It takes me back to a simpler place filled with the curiosity of youth, pickup trucks and wide open spaces. My first known exposure to pedal steel guitar was listening to Son Volt’s ‘Trace’ album which I got for 1 cent from the BMG music club. Its speeding alone down an empty road in South Dakota at 1am, blasting Mazzy Star and enjoying the smells of summer.
Carver (bass): I think we are all fans of music of the south and that musical appreciation comes together when we play. As a songwriter myself, I share Skip’s reverence for folks like Hank Williams, Junior Kimbrough and Jeff Mangum. There is a brilliant economy to the songs and a natural, conversational feel in the phrasing. I try and carry that over to my playing with the group and leave some space. I keep the rhythm going and and some notes here and there to contribute to the atmosphere, set the mood and keep folks listening but I try not to let my instrument get in the way of the singer telling a story.
Rabbitsblack: Who does the writing of your songs? Tell me about the themed motifs that find their way into the lyrics. How would you define the style of your music?
Skip: I write all the song basics: chord structures & melodies. I’m pretty slow about it, maybe a song every 4 months or so. I bring those to the fellas and then they each contribute their own parts or suggest arrangements. I usually just
write about what I’m going through, or write them as letters to the people and places I love. Sometimes its my wife. Sometimes its a street in Baton Rouge. Sometimes its a BBQ joint in Oakland. I would just call it folk or country rock… but I’ve heard all kinda things from other people: Americana, Southern Gothic, twangy folk, Alt. Country, etc.
Adam: I think of Skip’s lyrics as dark, with a ray of hope for something better.
Carver: We play a loose style and alternative country that swerves into some of the adjacent lanes of folk, indie, blues and southern rock.
Rabbitsblack: I have read about some of your recent productions, such as the Russian River Songs that was recorded in the California redwoods a few hours North of the Bay Area. Do you guys often like to work outdoors? What are some of your other inspirational outdoor venues?
Skip: I feel a pretty strong connection to the outdoors, having grown up in a pine forest between Baton Rouge & New Orleans. The woods was our playground, our tree house. One of the great things about being in the Bay Area is being just a step or two away from Yosemite, the redwoods, the Oakland hills… its so easy to go for a hike & get lost for awhile, when jamming onto a BART train every morning starts wearing on your nerves. I don’t have a yard or a garden right now, just a few of my wife’s plants… but soon!
Adam: The out of doors is a great source of inspiration. It can be tough to identify ‘out of the box’ venues to play at. Unfortunately, we usually find ourselves performing indoors at night, in bars.
Rabbitsblack: Your latest major production, Beautiful Was the Night, was just released last month. How has your music evolved since your band’s inception and how is that evolution personified in the new album?
Carver: As a quartet we’ve gotten a little rowdier as a band since our first e.p. With dozens of shows under our belt we are a little more comfortable with our parts. One track in particular where the difference can be heard is the song called The Fire. The version we recorded for the album has a much heavier feel to it.
Rabbitsblack: Highlight a few tracks on the new album. Which track was the most fun to produce? Which track embodies the signature bluesy, folksy, country style of The Shants?
Skip: Baton Rouge is probably the key song. Its got everything: a beat-up acoustic guitar, Louisiana juke joints, sentimental pedal steel, lots of open spaces in-between, peppered by a loose waltz rhythm.
The Fire was full of surprises. First of all, we borrowed some percussive elements that we’d never used before to create a spookier vibe (a bell tree thing, plus a huge Indonesian gong). Then a whole lot of juju went down while we were tracking. The tape kinda slowed down a bit (the joys of analog recording), and also a fire truck drove right past the studio during the intro. I swear that wasn’t intentional… just one of the many perks of recording in downtown Oakland.
(I’m Not) Gonna Waste Another Song On You was definitely the most fun. We wanted this kinda junky French Quarter street band vibe, so we stripped down our instrumentation a bit, then we had a bunch of friends come in & really make it a party. Quinn DeVeaux & Brianna Lea Pruett were in the room with us for the singing, then the Blue Bone Express brought their horns down and just went nuts. Its a joyful noise happening there. On the last bang, one of the shakers broke apart and sand went flying all over… thats why we’re all laughing on the way out.
Adam: (I’m Not) Gonna Waste Another Song On You was a treat because we had so many great contributors – from singers to brass. I think Baton Rouge really does Skip’s songwriting justice as it hits the highs and lows of moving on…
Rabbitsblack: I am very excited about the album release party coming up this Saturday! What kind of performance should your fans expect?
Skip: We’re playing the whole record, front to back. We’re also reuniting the crew that came together to help us out with the recording: Brianna Lea Pruett is contributing her golden harmonies, we’re bringing out those funky percussion instruments, and our engineer Eliot Curtis is gonna lend his trombone and general long-haired mayhem. Should be magical.
There you have it folks. Check out the new album, Beautiful Was the Night, and other great stuff from The Shants here http://theshants.bandcamp.com . I hope to see you at the album release show in SF this Saturday!