With bands like June of '44, Rodan and Rachel's in their family tree, it's hard not to expect huge things from The Shipping News. Very Soon and In Pleasant Company, the band's sophomore release, was written over two and a half years, with Jeff Mueller in Philadelphia and Chicago and Kyle Crabtree and Jason Noble in Louisville. Sporadic practices and frequently performances gave the band a different, more subtle approach to songwriting, with slow and pretty meandering guitar and quiet vocals setting Very Soon and in Pleasant Company apart from their first record, Save Everything.
Akash Pathak's first mission for Splendid was to give us the lowdown on The Shipping News. Never one to shirk responsibility, Akash sat down with the band to talk about the Louisville scene, growing up together and the truth behind their alternate name, The Sweaty Douche Bags.
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Splendid: You all appeared in the movie Half-Cocked. How'd that come about?
Jason Noble: Basically it was an opportunity to spend time with a lot of people we liked. Mike and Lisa were friends of ours for that project. They asked us to play these unmotivated, kind of semi-loser characters, to the effect of when we were a lot younger the kind of confusion that dominated our lives, not that there isn't plenty of confusion still. Its not like a documentary or anything, which has occasionally been the perception, but really there are still some things that are pretty true to life.
Splendid: Have you guys, Jeff and Jason, been friends for a long time?
Jason Noble: Since we were fourteen.
Splendid: When did you start playing music with each other?
Jason Noble: Right away.
Splendid: What was the first thing you pursued together musically?
Jason Noble: Rap music. Partially it was something we could experiment on, but it was also something that lead to us getting involved with home recording. We didn't feel confident to say "Oh, we're gonna be in a rap band." We sort of put a beat down and just started ranting.
Jeff Mueller: King G and the J Krew. That's actually how our first band started. We were a recording project. King G and the J Krew was trying to turn into a live band and we were using traditional rock instrumentation and we couldn't pull it off, so we just became a rock band. I was listening to Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash and the Fat Boys. Bunch of old school rap. When I was a freshman I was a Def Leppard/REO Speedwagon kind of a guy, then I got into rap music and then it became punk rock. It was all kind of tongue in cheek until I started to see music in my head.
Splendid: When did you first pick up an instrument?
Jason Noble: In High School. Our friend Greg King played piano and had a sensibility about music that we all sort of admired.
Splendid: Getting back to the present...what happened in the three years between Very Soon... and your last record?
Kyle Crabtree: Those songs all came together at different times over those three years. The way we work is getting together in chunks of time (Mueller moved to Chicago in 1994 and then lived in Philadelphia before coming back to Chicago last July.).
Jeff Mueller: We (June of 44) broke up in November of 1999, in Belgium. Various things, caused it -- mainly separation as far as the direction of music. And that spurred a certain element of ill communication. There wasn't a direct line of dialogue or creative speak that enabled us to further our capacity. We just had a really difficult time from the moment we started recording our last record to the last day of our band was a band. There were feelings that were bubbling and ballooning but never realized or talked about on our last trip in Europe. The main issue was, I think, that I wanted to be less on the tough guy, technical, obvious, show off my chops side, and do a little bit more storytelling, singer songwritery kind of stuff. I was edging in on that world.
Splendid: Has the writing process changed at all since Save Everything?
Jeff Mueller: The way we arrived at things on the first record was really kind of a fulfilling experience for me because it happened in a similar fashion as in the early days of June of 44. We got together and we went into a room and none of us had really met each other. I at least knew Jason, but circumstances were similar in that none of the music had really been composed. We sat down in a room and just played a bunch of new songs. It was a very timely and extremely fast, vigorous method. In some ways the evolution between the two records is because we worked in reverse order. We said let's be a band, write songs and let's make a record, and then let's go on tour and figure out how we play with each other. As far as the newest record is concerned, the main thing it shows is our desire to tell stories, and not be so afraid to use our voices…to have vocals. We're kind of like the anti-band as far as what's going on in contemporary independent music -- there's so much instrumental music or ambient and dub music, which I like a lot.
When I sit down to write pieces of music, it's music I'd like to hear that nobody else is making. So a lot of times we'll make these weird droney pop songs -- these weird sad sappy pop songs. Pieces of music that are on the new record were written or composed while we were recording them, for the most part. I mean, we had the skeleton. We used the time we had in the studio to build the songs rather than have them fully thought out. It was kind of an interesting way to put it together because we found ourselves having to rethink and re-figure out how to play them in a live format, which is super cool to me. Two of the songs we're playing right now we had never played before we started this tour. We put a loose skeleton down to tape and then the whole song would happen around that, and then we had to rethink how we were going to try and present the songs in a live set.
Jason Noble: Since Save Everything, Jeff's worked on three records: two June of 44 records and his own record, and Kyle and I have done two Rachel's records. All three of those bands have been touring -- Rachels, Shipping News, and June of 44, all at different times. There is some incestuousness; we all work together, we're all friends, and Christian and Edward even played on the record. We spend a lot of time with these people; they're our peers.
Kyle Crabtree: It's impossible for me or any of us to be really objective about it. I think that I could pick out times in the first record; I could pick out little nodules and things in the first record that I can point to in Very Soon and in Pleasant Company, where some sort of landmines and groundwork was laid. The only thing I would say is more starkly different is the songwriting, which is more like traditional songwriting.
Jason Noble: It's very different because we spent a lot of time playing and touring without the pressure of documenting. We documented everything on the first record immediately -- we worked on that stuff and it was very spontaneous. While recording Very Soon..., we had the chance to grow as a band, to open things up, even in a conversational sense. We tried to be pretty open with each other as far what we said. We don't have precious egos.
AUDIO: Actual Blood
Splendid: Do you guys feel that you've grown together?
Kyle Crabtree: Sure. That would be the desired effect.
Jason Noble: Hopefully.
Kyle Crabtree: We all are into so many different things that sometimes it doesn't even make sense together. There is no real place that any of us are scared to go. If we like it then it's fair game. That's a good thing and a bad thing. We have no idea what the next thing is going to sound like. There isn't a way to categorize the music we make.
Jeff Mueller: It's pretty great, actually, because Jason and I have a pretty solid understanding of where we'll go and what our capacities for each other are, so if one of us is pushing the other too much, we'll go take a break, pet the dog, eat a bowl of cereal or make a sandwich. The bonus is that we've been through it before. We've been through it when Rodan broke up. We both just kind of hit the wall. We know what to expect. More than anything, we make sure our relationship is healthy so if there's a problem we're not afraid to talk about it. Aside from my mom, my stepfather, my girlfirend and Jason, those are my... I mean, I've know Jason half my life. I've known my girlfriend just over a third of my life. It's not like being in a band is secondary to the healthiness of our relationship. If it ever became something a little volatile, I'm sure we'd be like "Well, let's go to a movie and forget about it." But I certainly don't foresee that happening. Pretty much the basis and fundamental foundation of our reality is just being productive and communicative at the same time. It's what keeps us both sane.
Splendid: Did Kyle grow up with you guys? How did he end up playing in Shipping News?
Jason Noble: Getting together in Shipping News is where we started really spending the most time together. We were in the same musical community and our bands had traveled together. He played in a band called Eleven Eleven and also in Metroshifter. It was a very natural thing for us to get together.
Kyle Crabtree: Jeff and Jason wanted to play together, and...
Jason Noble: Basically then we all felt "We've gotta continue this."
Jeff Mueller: During the days of June of 44, Rachel's, and Rodan we played shows with him, so we kind of knew each other a little bit. But more than anything, Kyle's one of the most thoughtful and considerate people I've met. Before we even played with each other, he'd just come around and he was really tentative, inquisitive. He'd say "Well, I know you and Jason are working on something, and if you need anybody to help you, any kind of percussion, I'll come over and play drums on your record for a couple songs." That's how it happened; he came over, we played a song with him and it was like, "I guess Kyle's going to be the drummer of Shipping News if he wants to be. If he doesn't fire us." (laughs)
Splendid: How would you describe the Louisville music scene? Here in Chicago, I've noticed people aren't linked by their philosophies so much as interests, and by the places they choose to drink and gather.
Jason Noble: It's much more by common ground, figuratively and literally. We're all in the same places -- there aren't that many places to go. (laughs)
Kyle Crabtree: I think Dr. Dre sums up Louisville pretty well in the first NWA record (everyone laughs). Or maybe it was Ice Cube. I forget which one it was. He said he just wanted to make something that the kids around his neighborhood liked.
Jason Noble: At times in Louisville there was enormous support from the general listening community -- people would come out to just to check things out, not even knowing who the band was. It's a little different right now. It goes in waves. Whenever you're first playing in a band, you don't say "Oh, our band is perfect, let's play shows." You play shows and learn how it's going.
Kyle Crabtree: Although most people won't admit to it, I think that there is a general pride. There are a significant number of people who think there is something different in Louisville -- something special.
Jason Noble: A lot of bands, like Slint, Crain or Bastro, had a huge impact on us in a very direct sense, but also Kinghorse and some of the Chicago and DC bands that would play there. And there were a lot of bands who didn't ever go out on the road -- people who did creative things or freaky things that were original.
Jeff Mueller: I've been in Chicago a while. Especially in a city the size of Louisville, I think it's an inevitable thing that you would end up being friends with other people who were also playing music. As far as I'm concerned, I can't play with just anybody. I feel like there's some unspoken link or unspoken commitment that enables us to become creative with each other.
Splendid: Are you all fans of Annie Proulx, who wrote the book The Shipping News? I'm assuming that's where you got the name.
Kyle Crabtree: Jason read it first. (pointing at Noble)
Jason Noble: Yeah, there was a big red piece of paper that went on the wall while we were recording that had like twenty band names, and slowly each name was killed. An X went through each band name and the only one standing at the end was The Shipping News. We thought, "Oh, we're gonna get totally fucked because the audience will already think we're like, obsessed with boats and stuff." But we just liked how there's kind of a universal element to it. Almost every place on earth has some form of Shipping News, some printed periodical. The mood of the book was also kind of interesting to me; it was very tragic and comic. And it's better than Kyle, Jeff and Jason, or The Douche Bags.
At this point Will, a friend of the band, interjects:
Will: You guys are douche bags.
Jason Noble: With two Ds. (everyone laughs)
Splendid: Is there something special about boats to you guys?
Jeff Mueller: It's not a big deal; it's just an aesthetic that we pursue. It doesn't have any bearing on our everyday lives. It's something we like to do. A lot of my art work has visual references to ships and stuff like that. It didn't have anything to do with any actual ship or people who sailed on ships; it's just what they did and where they went how they looked archaic. We arrived at a book that we liked. I mean, Shipping News is something that has existed for more than a century as far as radio broadcast, conditions of the sea, even publications with printed matter of all the shipping news over fifty years. Proulx wrote another book called Accordion Crimes, which I actually like more. But I think Accordion Crimes as a name might be a bad idea. (In an impersonating voice) "Hey, we're Accordion Crimes." (everyone laughs).
AUDIO: Contents of a Landfill
Jeff Mueller: (directing a question at me) So, what's it like having an English degree?
I tell Jeff that I graduated last spring and worked at a bookstore for a while until I decided to try to be a journalist. "I like writing. It's fun reading and writing, and also writing creatively about whatever you want," I tell him.
Jeff Mueller: I would imagine it being a pretty hard degree to utilize in terms of career purposes unless you wanna be a teacher.
Splendid: I do want to be a teacher, but I wanna drink for a while before I be a teacher. (laughter)
Jeff Mueller: That's a great thing, sounds aspiring.
Splendid: I guess it's more like how can someone as young as I am be a teacher. What can I bring kids at this point? I'd rather wait 'til I'm like fifty. (laughter)
Jeff Mueller: You'll have a liver the size of a lentil by then. (more laughter)
Splendid: So, are you all big Annie Proulx fans? How do you feel about Lasse Halstrom directing the movie version of The Shipping News?
Jason Noble: Hopefully it'll be good. Lasse Halstrom is a very good director -- he made some stuff that I really love. I thought that My Life as a Dog and What's Eating Gilbert Grape were awesome. Thinking about that, taking The Shipping News as a name was really a little sort-sighted. We joked, "Oh, they'll probably make a movie of the book that won a Pulitzer." We didn't really talk about that at the time, but we've wondered whether we should change our name.
Kyle Crabtree: We actually almost did.
Splendid: What were you going to change it to?
Kyle Crabtree: The Douche Bags
Jason Noble: The Sweaty Douche Bags. (everyone laughs)
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Akash Pathak is America's foremost authority on prosthetic feet.
[ graphics credits :: header - george zahora | band photos - akash pathak :: credits graphics ]