Scene Point Blank: We've already talked about FUTQ as being a different kind of album for you, but it's also the follow-up to 18 Sycamore -- which was a totally different way of doing things too. How do you follow-up that up? Does FUTQ and whatever comes next feel like a new chapter?
Shellshag: 18 Sycamore is actually the LP that is most different, and it’s 18 Sycamore that set up the situation that allowed us to approach FUTQ with more freedom.
18 Sycamore accompanies a one-hour movie that visually takes one through our first 25 years. Every track on 18 Sycamore was recorded between 1995 and 1999 at the beginning of that 25 years.
18 Sycamore is also split into two parts, the first disc being Shell songs and the second being Shag songs. The songs that make up 18 Sycamore became finished songs because at no point over the 25 years did any of them get improved via a new recording. They are great representations of the original bedroom sound of Shellshag from 1995 when we first met each other and wrote songs together. It is probably the most Shellshag sounding record to us. It also helped us to summarize our past into one movie and soundtrack, which has given us a new beginning with freedom to reinvent ourselves. We put our past to rest with 18 Sycamore, which is the address of the Starcleaners Warehouse Jen founded in San Francisco back in 1994.
Photo by Jim Appio (Cool Dad Music)
Scene Point Blank: I personally associate Shellshag with the punk DIY scene. But reading up on your history, because of Starcleaner Warehouse, you're associated with Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre, who frequented that space. Do you have a personal connection with those bands (and how has it changed from the late '90s to today)?
Shellshag: We do not have a personal connection at all, but Jen, specifically, hung out with Anton Newcombe a lot in '94 and '95. We were all playing music at the same time and place, trying to make something happen. We think the press connects us because BJM are probably the most famous band that regularly played Starcleaners, the all ages art space we ran in SF, CA from 1994-1999. Shellhead and Jen Shag met each other there too and formed shellshag there later on. You can see quite a bit of the building in our film [and] our last album was recorded almost entirely in that building and is extremely sentimental for us.
We have mostly great memories of that time and place and Anton is one of them. He dated Jen’s bandmate and friend Dawn Thomas, at the time. Their band was called Noise Star. Dawn is on the cover of a great BJM album called Spacegirl and Other Favorites. She’s the kid in the bath tub. We played a lot of shows together. J Lee, a phenomenal guitar player, noise maker and friend that still plays on almost every one of Shellshag’s records, played in Noise Star as well as Static Faction with Jen and he worked with Anton a lot sonically. J Lee introduced us all at a party in lower Haight that BJM was playing in 1993. Anton came over a lot and started booking a lot of shows at our place at the time, and the Dandy Warhols were simply one of the shows he booked. They got signed at our house during that show, so press was in the building along with lots of famous people, so word really got around.
Jen did play percussion for BJM on occasion and that was probably the highlight of their friendship aside from a notorious acid trip in Kelseyville, CA. Jen has a lot of great stories from that era but rarely gets to share them. Most notably the Psychic TV show in SF, CA in 1995. It was a benefit for Genesis, whose house had burned down. Jen drummed on a bucket in a gown at the end of a long cat walk for about 20 minutes as each member joined the stage they joined her until they were on full swing, then she walked off and they absolutely slayed that set. We do not keep in touch at all but we sure had many good times together with their early line-up while we were all in our early 20s.
Scene Point Blank: While you're 100% DIY these days, what label was your favorite experience over the band's history?
Shellshag: Most record labels we have released music on folded before we did. Smelly Records, Probe Records, Broken Rekids, We are Busy Bodies, and Mauled by Tigers all closed up shop. When they did, we represented those releases ourselves via Starcleaner Records and kept going. We do not have a particular favorite, we love all of the labels we worked with in the past and all the ones we work with now. If we had to pick a favorite, it would be our label, Starcleaner Records.
Scene Point Blank: Given our chat about digital distributors, would you be willing to share some of the most challenging experiences you've had as a result of being tied to a record label or other third party? (No need to name names.)
Shellshag: The conversation between bands and their labels about the possibilities of changing the overall approach to digital distribution is the key to meaningful change for independent bands, and we want to share how that has gone for us so far. Don Giovanni Records would be the label we are “tied to” as you put it, and DG has been very supportive of our quest and agreed to pull our music from the digital distributor they use, Red Eye Distribution. We are hopeful that in time we will have a coordinated response to this question, an answer that comes from us and DG simultaneously, but right now we are all working hard to understand our relationship with one another.
We’d like to add that people shouldn’t be afraid to have these conversations. It’s just a talk, and in the end we have already proven that a single band making these changes does not have a great impact. However, if in time, enough bands and labels come to agree that they should try out something different, like our suggestion to hold much of the music back from digital distributors and represent it somewhere else, that collectively we could have great impact and save the underground.
Scene Point Blank: I feel weird asking such a personal question over email, but as I understand it, the two of you started the band while you were a couple and that dynamic is part of the stage presence. Does it ever feel too public or does it affect songwriting, knowing that strangers will be interpreting your message in their own way?
Shellshag: It feels public because it is public. It does feel uncomfortable sometimes, but that is something we are use to and feel comfortable with. We are Shellshag even when we are not on stage; it’s all day every day. The band is a huge part of our relationship. All couples work to find common ground on their kids, housing, relatives, dinner and everything else. So do we, except some of our concerns are different. Shellshag is our child, and we care for and defend it as such.
Scene Point Blank: It's been a pleasure corresponding on this and we've covered a lot. Is there an expected release date yet for the physical FUTQ?
Shellshag: Yes, it will be released the final days of 2020. We have not set an exact date, but we will soon once we get a completion date from Brooklyn Phono, the very best vinyl record plant we have ever worked with. We love Brooklyn Phono. If folks knew how hard they work on everyone's record, they’d understand why we are so happy to have them making ours.
Scene Point Blank: Anything you'd like to add?
Shellshag: We have really enjoyed doing this interview with you. We feel that we have actually said something worth saying, and it is the questions you asked us that allowed us to do so. Thank you.
And we’ll say it outright to all the bands and labels out there: Please consider keeping your next releases away from the digital distributors, be vocal about doing so, and help us save a dying underground.
We would like to leave you all with this poem titled “My Band is the Forest”:
My band is
Exists and lives
My band is a savior
My band maims and kills
My band is a force
It’s own entity
My band is life It is all of me
My band is a lover
A mistress, a friend
My band is a master Cruel and unhinged My band is a pacifist Gentle and kind
My band is a warrior Fierce and undying
My band is branches
Branches my band
My band is the trunk Roots, dirt and land
The branches are many The branches are few
My band is the trunk
The branches are you
My band makes you happy
Inspired and true
My band makes you lonely Frustrated and blue
My band feeds me
Holds me, keeps me warm
Starves me, abandons me Causes me harm
My band is a weight
I carry with glee
My band is self assured A great responsibility
My band invites you
Come out of your cave
Needy and scared
It spits in your face
My band in your mirror
Shows you are the trunk
My band is just another Irritating drunk
My band is a spec Tiny, miniscule
My band is mighty Massive and huge
Branches so many
It lives in the dark
The forest so plenty Where’s it end? Where’s it start?
My band needs you
Needs air and light
My band does not need you
The unwilling to fight
My band defends me You and the weak
My band resents you The world and me
My band is corageous
And lives without fear My band is a coward My band is a tear
My band is Shellshag
We lived in the shade
So much shade, so dark We were starting to fade
My band is a savior
Adapts with change
My band is so real
And it’s all just a dream
My band is
My band is not
My band is a redwood Aged with rot
My band is the trunk
It has so many branches
The branches have branches
With leaves that have branhces
My band is not one
It is two and it’s not
My band is so many So many I forgot
My band loves me, hates me
Loves and hates you
My band is vulnerable and dangerous
My band will cut you in two
My band was rotting
The roots and the trunk
My band must be tended My band must have sun
My band is roots, trunk
Branches and leaves
My band starved of oxygen Labored to breath
My band was dying
Or pain made the same
My band is not human Can die and live again
So the trunk was lifted
An unbearable weight
Branches freed roots from the ground
And carried it away
Set down gently
In a bright bright new
Planted in sunshine My band soon grew
How could it be
In a forest so dense A trunk of this size Could find space within?
Only the trunk
Rests in light
The branches too many
Stretch into dark like night
Step back, back
And back again
Soon you will see
And then understand
My band is the trunk
Branches and leaves My band is confusion It appears as a tree
Step back once more
Look again in earnest
My band is not a tree My band is the forest.
- Shellshag, March 2020