by Ryan Meehan
Shoes, the trailblazing guitar-pop combo from tiny Zion, Illinois — who in the 1970s prefigured the home-recording DIY boom of the ’90s and beyond — will release their first album of new material since 1994 on August 14, 2012. Ignition switches on with 15 fresh, vital tracks from Shoes’ three founding members and songwriters: bassist-vocalist John Murphy, guitarist-vocalist Jeff Murphy, and guitarist-vocalist Gary Klebe, plus longtime stage drummer John Richardson. Self-produced and released on the band’s own Black Vinyl Records, Ignition not only carries on Shoes’ cult-heroic tradition of edibly tuneful, harmony-honeycombed guitar pop; it ventures intriguingly beyond those comfortable (though undeniably rewarding) borders as well. Altogether the work of seasoned, mature musicians whose singular trajectory as 100-percent self-taught, self-created recording artists has been outside-the-box since it began, Ignition showcases Shoes at their technical and artistic peak. We are extremely honored to have Jeff Murphy, Gary Klebe, and John Murphy as our guests this week in 5 Questions.
FOH: “Ignition” will be your first studio album in seventeen years. Were you able to pick up where you left off when it came to most aspects of the songwriting process, or did you find yourself starting from scratch during a couple of the steps?
Jeff: It felt completely natural to begin the recording process and work together. Like we had been doing it all along. The songwriting is always the most difficult part, but even that felt like it always has. There was a learning curve for the new gear and environment (computer based/analog hybrid) but Shoes started out recording at home, so it was totally comfortable for us to work this way. There was no pressure to please anyone but ourselves, so we could relax and enjoy it…and we did!
GK: When starting a new project, particularly when a lot of time has passed, I think most artists have an unconscious fear of failure, a fear that the songs just won’t come. Everyone is exciting to be recording again, but until the first few songs are recorded, there seems to be more anxiety. After that, the confidence builds, and the direction of the project begins to gain more clarity. In other words, like anything else, it takes a while to loosen up.
John: Yeah the songwriting process is pretty isolating and it’s a little like what they say about exercise…you have to make friends with it. But the more corners I wrote myself out of, the better I felt about the material that I was coming up with. You discover over years of writing how to possibly fix some of the problem sections that you’re not happy with. And you definitely don’t wanna throw the baby out with the bathwater, so you’re reminded how to reclaim the good parts and rework and fiddle with a song until it shapes up into its fullest potential, without it sounding too fussed over.
FOH: I noticed that while previewing the new record, there’s not a single song that’s under three minutes or over four minutes. “Heaven Help Me” is my favorite…Gary, what was your influence when writing that song?
GK: The average song time is a little longer on this album. Some songs have more distinct parts that just take longer to play through, and others have extended instrumental sections. On the song “Heaven Help Me”, I can’t really name a specific influence, although subconsciously there are probably many. I suppose the biggest influence would be certain Shoes songs of the past. We’re somewhat known for laying down a slow, steady rock beat with dark, chunky guitars and melancholy lyrics. Then we go back against the grain by adding a melodic tune and big vocals. This all results in that classic Shoes bitter sweetness.
FOH: One of the more little known facts in rock n’ roll history is that you guys were one of the first artists ever to appear on MTV, and they played four of your videos that night they premiered. Has it ever bothered you that more people aren’t aware of that?
Jeff: We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and have 4 videos ready, when MTV premiered in 1981. They played those songs heavily then and they still pop up on VH-1 occasionally. But Elektra decided not to finance anymore videos for us, at the time. We even went so far as to submit a self-produced video to MTV in 1982, which they began to air, until Elektra had them pull it because it wasn’t done through “official Elektra” channels. But it remains a happy footnote in Shoes long history and more and more people seem to find out about that all the time.
GK: At that time, our label was solely fixated on getting airplay on major radio stations. In the meantime, MTV had four of our older videos in full rotation. Since MTV wasn’t available in many large cities, including New York, Chicago and L.A. many major record labels including Elektra didn’t take it seriously. Both our manager and MTV pleaded with Elektra to produce more videos for our second and third albums. It may have been the most pivotal point in our careers when the CEO of our label refused to make those videos and confidently declared that MTV didn’t sell records. Ironically, Warner Bros., the parent company of Elektra, actually owned MTV.
John: It’s a really nice historical thing to be a part of but, since cable TV wasn’t anything like it is today, I don’t really fault people for not knowin’ about it. We didn’t even see it ourselves, at the time…we were told about it after the fact. We certainly wish we could’ve followed it up with newer videos and use it like, say, Men at Work, did but the decks were stacked against us then.
FOH: On your homepage, there’s a big picture of a Hamer “Explorer” style guitar. Which guitars do you guys prefer in the studio, and has it ever been that different as opposed to which guitars you prefer to use live?
Jeff: That Hamer was custom made by Hamer for me in 1979 and I received it on my 25th birthday. It was originally a deep cobalt blue and has faded over the years to this “natural” finish. But for me, I always return to my Gibson RD and Fender Strat and Hiwatt and Vox amps. Although we like to use many different guitars and amps in the studio for various tones. This record has a lot of Reverend guitars and Matchless amps on it, too.
GK: We use many different guitars when we record…guitars by Fender, Gibson, Schecter, Reverend, Hamer, Gretsch, G&L, Musicman, Tacoma, Dan Electro, Turner and others. It would be great to take all of our instruments on the road, but not very practical. For live shows, I find the best combination of diversity and ruggedness in my Reverend guitars. Jeff switches between his Strat and Gibson RD. John has been using Fender basses for a number of years, but has also been known to play a Gibson Thunderbird.
John: I’ve used a Gibson Thunderbird bass for recording and live work for many years but I’ve recorded with Fender basses on Propeller and Ignition. In the studio, we use mostly Fender, Gibson, Reverend, Guild and Danelectro electrics and Gibson and Tacoma acoustics.
FOH: Shoes hail from Zion, Illinois and you broke through about the same time that Styx was making waves in the Chicago area. Did you ever play any shows with them?
Jeff: No. They were a completely different style of music. They were classified as “arena rock” with a grandiose, over the top sound and show. We were more laid back, straight ahead rock type of live act. Not as theatrical.
GK: Styx had already made a name for themselves by the time we were being noticed. We never played any shows with them. Aside from a show with Kiss and another with The Kinks, we rarely played with other known artists. We had offers to go on tours with others, but never did.
John: No….they were further up the ladder when we put out Black Vinyl Shoes so our paths never crossed.
FOH: Of all the rock artists performing today, who do you hear that seems to be most influenced by your sound?
Jeff: I don’t know if we have influenced other bands with our sound. But there are bands that we feel must have been influenced by the same formative bands that we have. Like Fountains of Wayne, Snow Patrol, Gomez and even Foo Fighters.
GK: I’m always reluctant to answer that question, because I can never be sure if an artist is truly influenced by us or if it’s just coincidental. It would embarrassing to suggest that a particular band was influenced by Shoes, and then find out that they never heard of us!
John: Whenever I hear fuzzy or ringing guitars with softer vocals, I wonder if they’ve ever heard our stuff. I think I hear elements in groups like Teenage Fanclub, Snow Patrol, Fountains of Wayne or newer groups like Real Estate…but it could be wishful thinking on my part.
FOH: What are Shoes’ plans for the twelve months that follow the album’s release?
Jeff: Our main focus is to promote the new album as much as possible. If a situation arises for us to get out and play some live shows, we may do that, too. Ignition will be coming out in Japan, so another tour there is also a possibility. But there are some other great things coming up in the next 12 months including; the release of a very in-depth bio/book on the band called “Boys Don’t Lie; A History of Shoes” by Mary E. Donnelly. Also, starting in September, the release of our 4 earliest albums on vinyl by The Numero Group (One In Versailles, Bazooka, Black Vinyl Shoes and the demos for Present Tense). We’re working on a deal for a new “Best Of” collection on CD with Real Gone Music, due in September and of course, we’d like to get Ignition released on vinyl, too. We’re also planning to do some videos for the songs on Ignition. Letterman? Fallon? Ferguson? Kimmel? Sure, who knows?
GK: I wish I could say that we have long range plans, but we really don’t. We’ve already reached our most important goal – to record a new album. In earlier years, there were always career or financial reasons to record. This time around I think we did it for the enjoyment and maybe to prove that we still could. This isn’t to say that we wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to play live. We played in Japan a few years ago, and we’d love to go back.
John: The only plan at the moment is to promote Ignition in the best ways that we can. Social media will hopefully play a big part in that…it’s certainly a lot different than it was when we released Propeller in 1994. Live shows aren’t totally out of the question but it would probably take a pretty special situation for all the pieces to come together for any touring per se.
The official website of Shoes: http://shoeswire.com/home.cfm
Preview their new album here: http://shoeswire.com/ignition
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