Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Quick One: Jeff Murphy of the Shoes

I'll say it: The Shoes are the Greatest American Power-Pop Band.

And, yeah,
are -- they still play out. Infrequently, but no less splendidly.

Was lucky enough to catch one of their rare live appearances at Chicago's Millennium Park one summer aft in '07. Their set, dominated by selections from their Elektra catalog, might've been the purest offering of pop I'd seen in the years leading up to it. Certainly the purest I've seen since.

The band was great, of course, simultaneously conjuring up the warm fuzz of the recorded output on one hand and, on the other, assuaging any fears about seeing an aging group that'd once banked on aw-shucks teenisms. But, lo, they nailed it. Not surprisingly, the salient force of the day was the radiant vocal performance: Three-part honeyed harmonies that seemed to swoop outta clouds or sky. Could vox that yootful really flow forth from those older gents, them mere mortals on stage proper? They sounded just as toothsome & modestly crushing as they did on those classic records that'd been self-released some 30 twelvemonths hence. The mawkish, gawrsh-I-likes-ya innocence of
One in Versailles, Bazooka, Black Vinyl Shoes -- fully intact! Tender yet tough, fawning yet firm, they could still call upon the core quintessence of the Midwestern shy-guy aesthetic as celebrated in tunes like "Too Late" and "When It Hits." They proved why they had not only played a major part in defining early American power-pop, but also how they transcended most of what the genre had to offer in any territory on the map -- US, UK, Europe, wherever. Then as now.

Jeff Murphy, vox/guitarist and all-around swell gent, kindly entertained some of my q's with a's by e-mail some weeks ago.

Attacking the Beat:
First off, Jeff, how long had you and John been playing together before meeting Gary Klebe and Skip Meyer? Were you two involved in any other bands before the Shoes? How did you meet?

Jeff Murphy: John and Gary were high school buddies and came up with the initial idea for the band in mid-1973 and I hooked up with them shortly afterwards. When we needed a new drummer in 1976 we found Skip by a fluke; he was dating Gary's sister. There weren't any other bands for us (but Skip was in a local cover band).

ATB: In your formative years, what bands did you aspire to sound like?

JM: We were hugely inspired by the British invasion (Beatles, Stones, Who, Hollies, Badfinger, etc.) as well as American artists and bands like Big Star, Nils Lofgren (Grin), Neil Young and even bands like the Turtles, Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

ATB: What were your early shows like? How was it playing in the Chicago area? Any early tours?

JM: We never played live that much, although we were doing shows in the Chicago area. We always preferred to be in the studio writing and recording. It's tough to strip the songs down to basic "guitar, bass, drums" arrangements after fleshing a song out in the studio. So our shows are usually the more rock-edged songs that we do. But we've still managed to play on both coasts, in the midwest and even in Canada. The opportunity arose to play in Japan through our label there, Air Mail Recordings, and we're really excited about the gigs there!

ATB: What made you decide to record and release those early albums yourselves?

JM: Mostly out of necessity! We bought an early 4-channel tape machine to learn to write, play and record our songs and couldn't afford to go into a "real" studio. So we pressed the discs ourselves. But we always hoped to get signed to a major label, because back at that time, it was the only way to get your music out to a larger audience. But even after we got our deal, we still maintained control over our business and music. So reverting back to indie status in the early 1980s wasn't all that tough. Now, most cool music is on indie labels!

ATB: What was the recording process like for those early releases --
Un Dans Versailles, Bazooka and Black Vinyl?

JM: Well, with each new set of tunes, we learned more and more about the process of recording and song structures. By the time we did Black Vinyl Shoes, we had developed a format and sequence to the recording that allowed the best sound quality with those limited resources. We would record rhythm guitars and drums in stereo, first. Then we'd "ping-pong" or "bounce" the tracks around while adding additional instruments until we had solos, backing vocals, percussion or whatever else we wanted in the song. (In the Abbey Road sessions with the Beatles, they referred to this process as "making a reduction". Combining several tracks together and re-recording that mix of things onto one new track.) Then, we would record the main vocals on a track, usually combined with a minor instrument that wouldn't interfere too much, or would work around the vocals. Then add bass and maybe a tambourine on its own track. After all 4 tracks were full, we'd make a stereo final mix. We eventually developed a flow-chart type of track sheet that we could plot out a song before we started recording it. If you bounced a track more than twice it started to sound pretty crappy, so we limited bounces to twice. Bass didn't bounce well, so it was recorded later and not usually bounced at all.

ATB: Was the band happy with the production on these records? I think the sound of
Black Vinyl in particular is very ethereal, a lush and dreamlike buzz -- especially for a 4-track recording! Looking back, what are your thoughts on the way those records sound?

JM: The limitations frustrated us at the time, but also forced us to make certain decisions as we went along that helped create that particular sound. Because even our guitars, amps, effects and mics were limited, we made the best with what we had. In some cases, this meant not using an amp at all and plugging directly into the mixing desk. It made for some weird sounds, but they proved to be fairly unique. While we are embarrassed by a lot of the early productions and performances (it's like seeing pictures of yourself from 3rd grade!) they were an essential part of our development and overall, we're fairly proud of how they turned out, given the circumstances they were created in. By the time we did Black Vinyl Shoes, we were pretty comfortable with the process.

ATB: What halted the release of
Bazooka after it had been recorded in '76?

JM: Our drummer up to that point was a friend named Barry Shumaker and he decided to quit the band in early 1976 to pursue a career in music retail. We didn't feel right pressing up a record with a drummer that was quitting and we didn't have the money to do it anyway. We found Skip in late 1976 and immediately started recording Black Vinyl Shoes in November of that year, finally finishing in May of 1977.

ATB: Can you explain how you came into contact with Bomp! Records and describe your relationship with Greg Shaw?

JM: After we pressed up Black Vinyl Shoes and released the LP in summer of 1977, we started to send copies to local critics and music writers. That opened up an entire network of music publications and fanzines that were exploding onto the scene, largely fueled by the punk and D.I.Y. movement. Greg found out about us and started to buy copies of BVS for overseas distribution. By late 1977 he asked us to record a single for his label. He wanted to re-issue BVS on Bomp!, but couldn't get things put together in a timely manner due to financial restrictions (small label and magazine). He had great musical instincts and was very focused on the music, but wasn't a great businessman. So we re-issued BVS on Passport Records/JEM Imports in the fall of 1978, much to Greg's chagrin. We remained friends, but he didn't like the fact that we had gone with a major label instead of remaining independent. Greg was very helpful in encouraging us to set up a PO Box for contact/fan club correspondence and telling us about publishing alternatives. We set up Shoetunes publishing in 1978 and have always controlled our own publishing and copyrights.

ATB: Many herald the Shoes as one of the bands that defined American power-pop in the '70s. How did you guys fit into the power-pop scene of this period? What bands did you consider to be like-minded, and what bands did you enjoy playing with?

JM: We never really played with any other bands of the day. But we admired bands like Big Star, The Nerves, The Ramones, 20/20, Dwight Twilley, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, The Cars, Emitt Rhodes, Grin, Neil Young, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren. We really liked folks that did that D.I.Y. thing and had a grassroots feel to their sound and approach. We just played what we enjoyed and didn't really try to follow a movement or musical trend. It's great to be acknowledged for the music we did back then, but we continue to write and record new stuff, although we're a bit more sporadic in our time between releases.

ATB: When punk rock and new wave "hit," how did that affect the band? Did you feel that you were welcomed by that particular audience?

JM: Absolutely! We loved it. It was an explosion of creation and new music. Even though the musical content may have been of a different genre, we felt a real kinship with the punk movement. Things were moving quickly and it was great fun to see all the new stuff coming out. It was inspiring and a challenge to keep up with.

ATB: How did your relationship with Elektra Records begin? Was there now a sense of pressure added to the mix due to the involvement of a major label?

JM: Elektra discovered us through the re-release of Black Vinyl Shoes. They had recently established the Cars as a new band and were looking for more new acts. When they flew in to meet with us in early 1979, we were already finishing the demos that became Present Tense (recently released as part of the Double Exposure CD set) so we were ready to jump right into the studio and start recording. It was perfect timing for us. But yeah, it started to put pressure on us to "write hits" which can always create a tense, combative relationship with the label. Fortunately, through most of our tenure with Elektra, we maintained alot of control over our music and had a great relationship with most of the folks at the label.

ATB: Can you explain what it was like to record in a comparatively lavish 24-track studio for
Present Tense? Was it difficult working with Mike Stone, the producer, after the band had essentially been producing its own records for years?

JM: Working with Mike Stone at The Manor Studios in England was a dream come true for us! It was heaven. We did have some creative differences with Mike over some issues, but overall it was a great experience. We were technically singed to Elektra as a production company, so we had production control over the process. I recently found a bunch of slides and photos I had taken while recording there and wrote about it in a book last year called Birth of A Band, The Record Deal and The Making of Present Tense.

Look out for an upcoming reissue of the seminal Black Vinyl Shoes on Spain's Wah Wah Records, and if you happen to be in the area, you might catch 'em touring Japan in April.