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November 29, 2012

Shoes: Reheeled and Rockin’

The Shoes

Power Pop veterans release first new LP in 18 years

by Michael Layne Heath

A

 lot can happen in eighteen years: political administrations and pop music careers alike can come and go. Thus, it’s to their estimable credit that Shoes (Zion, Illinois’ own paragons of Power-Pop), right from “Head vs. Heart” — the lead track on their new LP, Ignition — sound like no time has elapsed since their last album of new material, 1994’s Propeller.

Released on August 14th on the group’s Black Vinyl label, Ignition finds Shoes coming full circle from their astonishing, classic independent debut Black Vinyl Shoes from 1977. And while the technology has changed — Black Vinyl’s living room 4-track now replaced by founding member Gary Klebe’s state-of-the-art digital/analog basement studio — Shoes’ music still retains that unique blend of winsome, ethereal vocal harmonies and crunchy guitar pop that’s rightfully earned them an international cult following.

I recently had the chance to quiz Shoes’ Klebe and brothers Jeff and John Murphy (joined on Ignition by drummer John Richardson) about the new LP and some of those aforementioned changes since they took their leave of absence from the Pop music scene.

The Shoes 1979

Glad to have you back, it seems as if you picked up from where you left off! Any particular reason for such a prolonged lull, or was it more a case of “we’ll get back to it in a little while” which ended up 18 years?

John Murphy: Thanks!…it’s really good to feel vital again. Well, it wasn’t an intentional plan to be out of the picture for so long but we had gone through some business difficulties years ago, which resulted in selling the building that housed our studio and rehearsal space. It was a necessary step to take because it had long put pressures on us that weren’t even music-related. Actually we did do sporadic live shows in those years, including playing in Japan in 2007, to promote the release of Double Exposure (a collection of early Shoes demos). In the meantime, Jeff set up a space in his home for making demos and eventually recorded and released a solo CD, also in ’07. Gary subsequently moved in recent years and carved out a recording space in his new home, which was unveiled to Jeff and me in the fall of 2010. Turns out we could make more noise there than at Jeff’s house, plus Gary had been purchasing a higher quality of gear over the years with an eye toward recording some new Shoes material.

Did this protracted break between LPs cause any difficulties in getting the creative/songwriting juices flowing again?

Jeff Murphy: From a musical and songwriting standpoint, it was pretty natural to jump back into the creative process. Perhaps the biggest challenge was learning a new recording technique; from analog tape to a completely digital recording format. Learning the software and getting used to the ins and outs of the new gear was the most daunting aspect.

Any specific songs on the new disc you’re especially proud/fond of?

The Shoes 35 Years

Gary Klebe: It would be hard to name a specific song. I feel that, in general, our songs broke new ground in many respects. The lyrical content and musical arrangements extend beyond previous boundaries. We began the project with the attitude that we were making a record for ourselves. There was far less concern about fitting in with any current style or trend. There was no pressure to please anyone other than the three of us.

 The song “Hot Mess” on the new album is one I suspect many diehard Shoes fans will be talking about. Seems almost a parody of those sleazy R&R tunes about sleazy R&R girls that any number of rockers have been doing since Keith Richards discovered open-G. Was that intentional on your part, or…?

John: Oh yeah, we knew what we were doin’! Gary initially played the basic track for us and asked if we’d wanna put our heads together. Seemed to have a Stonesy vibe already so we went with it. I had the title in my notebook and thought it could work, as far as where to push the lyrics. Jeff added some guitar work that contributed to the feel and I would sing some spontaneous lyrics just for a laugh. Some of it got pretty raunchy but it started the wheels turning. We were genuine about making it stand on its own, not as a parody or a novelty thing. We had given ourselves a specific assignment with boundaries that we were trying to stick to. Wasn’t sure I could sing in a style more fitting to the track so I asked if I could just hold the mic rather than sing at it on a stationary stand. So, for me, it was more like a live performance. I was sequestered in the drum booth so I was a little less inhibited about cutting loose. John’s drumming was, as usual, inspiring so that did a lot for placing it in the groove. Jeff came up with the vocal bit that he sings in the chorus so we slapped on a “Brown Sugar”-coated acoustic guitar part, added some Shattered handclaps during Jeff’s Sticky-Fingered guitar solo and we were good to go.

Early Shoes discs like Un Dans Versailles and Black Vinyl Shoes were done on 4-track, which was especially I think for that time pretty ingenious in a ‘necessity=mother of inv.’ type of way. Seeing as how recording and sonic delivery technologies have changed so dramatically since 1994, any thoughts you might have on those changes? I guess specifically relating to mp3’s/downloads and their good/bad points, the resurgence in interest of black vinyl, etc.

Gary: In terms of the recording process, we were initially concerned about losing the rock-solid warmth of recording on analog tape. By the time we were a couple of songs into the album, we realized that the pros of digital recording far outweighed the cons. The speed, flexibility and the availability of unlimited tracks sped up the entire process considerably. We were sold. Actually, our system was a hybrid of both analog and digital. We used analog preamps, equalizers and compressors in conjunction with a digital system.

The fidelity of the format of the final recording is a different matter. The sound is seriously compromised by the limitations of CDs and mp3s. The CD format was established 30 years ago. At the time, I think it was assumed that new digital formats would emerge alongside the advancement of digital technology. Surprisingly, the opposite happened.

To accommodate the demand for downloading music on the Internet, the music had to be reduced in file size resulting in a further degradation of its fidelity. But it is what it is. Like them or not, mp3s are the new standard. Ironically, there is a rising demand for vinyl records as many prefer their sonic quality.

The Shoes Ignition
When music was first made available by Internet downloading, it sounded like a great idea…and it was. Artists could finally make their music available instantly without the cost of manufacturing and distribution. Finally, they could cut greedy record labels out of the picture by delivering their music straight to the listener. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, a predominant attitude developed that since music was no longer embedded in a physical format, like a CD or cassette, it ought to be free, after all, it’s just digital information…right?

Future plans: I heard that early Shoes music will be unearthed/re-issued. Beyond that, more recording… gigs, even?

John: At the moment, we’re all about doin’ what we have to do to promote Ignition, which could very easily lead to some live gigs. It’s a little more complicated setting things up these days but we’re trying to work it all out. Since festivals and a lot of venues book so far in advance, it would seem likely to shoot for the spring. We’d love to broaden our itinerary (like the West Coast!) so we’ll see what shakes out. Also, we have four vinyl reissues of our very early stuff coming from Numero Group in November and RealGone Music has just released a retrospective CD called 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012, which has 21 career-spanning re-mastered tracks. And now that there’s a permanent set-up for recording, chances are good that there’ll be a flow of new Shoetunes comin’ down the pipeline.






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