an interview with Shellshag, whose new album comes out soon (stream it ++ updated dates)
by Andrew Sacher
As mentioned, Brooklyn duo Shellshag are releasing their new album, Shellshag Forever, on April 16 via Don Giovanni. The band formed in the ’90s as the duo of John Driver, whose nickname is Shellhead, and Jennifer Shagawat (aka Shell and Shag, hence Shellshag), who were and still are a couple. Though they’ve been a band for so long, they’ve been getting more attention for this new album (appearing on Pitchfork and Stereogum for this first time). And Shellshag Forever is a great record to gain them a larger fan base. The production is a bit bigger and clearer than their past releases, and their songwriting is in top form. Many of the tracks are autobiographical stories about Shell and Shag’s band and relationship with lyrics that put you in specific moments like “That old hoodie, it reminds me of the time we walked a mile to play that show out in the sunset.”
The album is now available for pre-order at the Don Giovanni webstore, and you can listen to it in its entirety ahead of its release date at the bottom of this post. Also below is a video of Shellshag performing an acoustic version of the album’s lead track, “Face to Face,” which they recorded for the BrooklynVegan ‘Green Room Sessions’ in 2011.
As mentioned, Shellshag have a number of shows coming up, including one at Union Pool on Saturday (4/13) with RVIVR, Dogjaw, and Extra Feeler (tickets) and a record release show for Shellshag Forever on April 20 at Maxwell’s with Screaming Females, Swearin’ Hilly Eye, and Waxahatchee/Swearin’ side project Great Thunder (tickets). The flyer for the release show is below.
They’ve also since announced other local shows, including May 10 at Death by Audio with Black Wine, Swearin’, and comedians Dave Hill and Chris Gethard, May 18 at Mercury Lounge, where they’ll be an opener, along with Hunters, for the first of two previously announced JEFF the Brotherhood shows (JEFF also plays Merc on 5/19), May 25 at Party Expo with Moira Scara, and June 5 at Death by Audio with Shell’s brother’s band, Apogee Sound Cloud. All dates are listed below.
I also recently spoke to Shellshag about their new album, being veterans of the DIY scene, and the increased attention for Don Giovanni Records. You can read that interview, along with the album stream, video, and list of tour dates, below…
Shellshag – Shellshag Forever
Shellshag – “Face to Face” Live Acoustic for ‘BV Green Room Sessions’
BV: On the new record, Shellshag Forever, the production sounds a bit bigger than earlier releases. Was that a conscious decision or just the result of a bigger budget?
Shell: We didn’t have a bigger budget, and I don’t think we had an intension on that, but it was a little bit of a natural progression with our friend [and producer] Elton [Ridge]. It was our fifth album with him, and he’d been gradually growing throughout the years. He’s had his biggest studio to date, had some of the best gear options, bigger rooms — so it was a natural progression for all of us.
BV: Where did the album title come from?
Shell: We went through a ton of titles and all, and we were gonna call it “Forever,” but we don’t really like title tracks. It can kind of veer people towards this one song in particular. And we just thought the phrase “Shellshag Forever” was just more what were saying than just “Forever” by itself.
Shell: I think it’s a recommitment to being active with Shellshag as a band, especially considering we’re a couple, we feel pretty solid, and we’ve been together a really long time. It’s kind of a given with us, but not necessarily a given that Shellshag might keep playing and performing beyond Jen and I as a couple. I think the title comes as a reaffirmation of that to ourselves and to anyone who cares.
BV: Like you said you’ve been playing for a while, and I’m sure you guys are asked this a lot, but having been on the DIY circuit for so long, how does it compare now, being something of a veteran on the scene, to when you first started?
Shell: If you go all the way back to the beginning and compare with the present, it’s just different in almost every single way, with the exception of […] three to five acts that all play music. I kind of thought by now it would have evolved into an announcer, some vaudeville acts, a rock band, and then maybe some kind of dessert performance, but the only thing that stays the same is that one part that I mentioned — sound guy, doorman, and the other stuff included.
We play so many different types of shows now that very seldom is there something completely unexpected. I guess we have a system, but everyone’s gotta find that for themselves you know? Ours only works for me and Jennifer’s band, so all of our stuff’s built around our situation. But in regards to the shows, we could write a book about helpful tips and bad fucking ideas that we’ve already tried out — the latter of which we’ve gotten rid of and we’ve kept the good ideas. In the early days of DIY shows, there seemed to be a lot less of a search to try and take care of costs. It was usually a little bit more like a party, even at Jennifer’s warehouse, which was one of the more organized of the first few that I remember seeing at all. It was $5 donation, if you didn’t have any money no one really bothered you about it, so it wasn’t expensive like it is now. And there wasn’t a bar set up with people making some more dough, it was BYOB. So in a way it made it a little crazier, and also made the art a little freer and stuff. Now it just seems there’s a faction behind the show, or a website that’s got its own thing going on with promotion, which is also awesome, but just different.
Shag: I think it’s safe to say, just years ago, music was un-welcomed. For me, in a way, in the early 90s, it was hard to do shows. Bands weren’t really cool, you know?
Shell: That’s actually true. That brings up another good point. As far as the bigger clubs in the early days — or not even bigger but just a regular venue — since there weren’t a bunch of house parties and a lot of people throwing events that allowed for live music, it was fucking really hard to even get a show. What’s interesting to see is even after about 18 years, there’s still not enough places for people to play, and new places are popping up, and then kids and their friends get together, and then they get more friends, and then their whole fucking thing is going on.
Shag: Well a big difference now is back then there were a lot of bad bands. “Bad” in the best way. I say that in a way that I mean I love it, but they were bad bands, they were trying hard. And now there’s a lot of great bands because a lot of the kids were allowed to play a lot longer and start earlier and their parents were musicians and stuff. So now the bands we do play with are really great bands. A lot of them we meet when they’re 16, so by the time they’re 20 they’re, rightfully so, exposed to a lot of people. Back then there was no press for it, no one cared, there were no cell phones, there were no fucking emails. So getting the show was like a letter and everything was much more complicated. Now it’s a lot easier and there’s pros and cons to it in all kinds of ways.
Shell: Yeah, we did used to have to send the full packet out, call the booker, whose hours would strangely be like right when there was a show so nobody could hear the damn phone.
Shag: But then there started to become a lot more warehouses to play, and it’s evolved. Like I went to  Kent last night [4/3] and I really love the venue. It’s great. It’s amazing in every way. It’s perfect. But, you know, going through there was a little bit like going through the airport, you know? And I get it, we’re in New York and everything, but it’s just almost too organized sometimes, for me, you know? But then it was Waxahatchee melting your minds, you know what I mean?
Shell: I can give you a good example from mid-time period. In 2000, Jen and I played a Halloween show with The Cramps at the Fillmore with 1200 people. It was fucking awesome, everyone’s in Halloween outfits. And then we play the next night at probably like a 50-75 person place to the bartender and the doorman, because nobody goes out after Halloween. So it doesn’t matter where you play, just don’t play the night after Halloween.
Shag: But Shell did write a really great song about playing house shows, and that it’s gotta be right there on the first floor, inside the front door…
(At this point Shellshag began singing the song Shell wrote)
Shell: So yeah, we like a place that’s just like a few feet from the van and you play right on the other side of the door, those are the best joints.
BV: What’s your favorite place to play in NYC?
Shag: I really like Death by Audio, I have a good time there.
Shell: And you know what else? It’s right inside the front door, right on the first floor. Yeah I love Death by Audio, Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Tompkins, our friend’s house, it’s actually on the third floor and it’s a real pain in the ass to get up there, but it’s worth it in every way.
BV: Any crazy stories from any of those venues?
Shell: Yeah, at our friends house at Tompkins we played and it was so hot, and I don’t like being hot all night so I brought several bags of ice and a baby pool and all you had to do was stand in this baby pool to cool down, but I overlooked the swimming pool factor of it, which slowly developed from climbing in and out of the baby pool, so it was like a wild and wet summer party inside someone’s apartment.
BV: Awesome. Before, you guys were talking about seeing bands get exposed to bigger audiences. You’ve been on Don Giovanni Records for a while, and I think in general that label has very recently been really taking off. Since you guys have been part of that family for a while, do you feel like the attention is growing for Shellshag too?
Shag: I’m totally humbled by the Don Giovanni love, because all the people we’re involved with just happen to be so amazing as humans and so fucking talented. From the get go, I didn’t even know why any of them liked us.
Shell: I definitely feel some excitement growing for Don Giovanni, and I’m really psyched that we have another record coming out with those guys. They’ve been very honest, they’ve worked really word, they’ve made really great selections of music to get behind, and I think they’re having a really great time while doing it. All these things are really important and if I were to trace back the history of other labels, that might not necessarily be the case. And definitely we’re already seeing a little more activity for us on our end, and hopefully that grows for the label and every band, and even the bands on subsequent labels that play with them a lot around the country.
BV: It does seem to me like there’s more anticipation for the new Shellshag album.
Shag: It feels like the timing is so right, because a lot of the people we’ve met have been like 16 or 18 and we’ve been around for a long time. We kind of grew up with them in a way. And their support has finally allowed attention for us. And after playing with this project for ten years along, I think in the last year more people heard our music than in the previous nine years. It’s definitely from Don Giovanni and our friends that are wrapped all around it. There’s like this new wave of people that we met and it just synced up for all of us. I feel very humbled by it, and it’s cool that even with all the haters, we’re being allowed to play music. Even the haters can’t hate us because it’s been such a part of our life for so long. Kids came along and kept reviving us and gave us the support to continue to do it. I can feel people wanting to hate our band, and people even do hate our band, but they can’t even say it, they gotta hand it to us for keeping going, and give us all a hand for keeping to inspire each other to continue to do shit. So I’m definitely happy about that. We’ve never even really had press, so just even reading other people’s opinions is interesting, you know? Reading how people hear the music who haven’t seen us live, since it’s such a live band, you know? Not knowing that there’s no bass, not knowing that I’m standing playing drums. It’s kind of interesting, it makes you think about your music differently.
Shellshag at Knitting Factory in 2010 (more by Andrew St. Clair)
BV: Do you think that you’re more of a live band than a recorded band?
Shell: No way. I think we’re actually a good positive example of almost being the opposite. We take full advantage of the fact that it’s a live show, and we put very little effort into trying to control that. It’s a moment in our lives. Jennifer and I are together 24/7 — Shellshag’s all day long, not just the few minutes we’re up there. We try not to stop living just for the show. So the album’s our only chance to attempt to do the songs perfect or tight on purpose, and I like it that way. You can do a lot more in the studio, we always have some people play with us a little bit. We’re not adversed to making the song sound good. We don’t beef up the kit, and we don’t really change the songs in a way that we can’t represent them live, because that doesn’t feel natural to us. But I like that we’re very different in those two regards. I used to go home and hear the album and be like “oh yeah!” like dead on and groovy as opposed to wild and crazy, but on occasion we play them dead on and groovy live too.
Shag: Yeah, it kind of feels boring sometimes to do that, but sometimes if you get in an opportunity like Music Hall of Williamsburg, which sounds so good, you want to actually sound good.
Shell: Yeah, [on the new record] we had my brother Wade, who plays in this band Apogee Sound Club, play guitar on the song “Forever.” On one of the other songs on the record — our friend Greg Turner always does a track on our records where he sings into the pickup of a guitar, which distorts it and it kind of comes out like a vocal organ. He’s got a nice kind of Beach Boys voice, so he did his track like that. We had Jay Crawford from the band Bomb do some psychedelic cello.
Shag: You should definitely look up the band Bomb from the 90s in San Francisco. They’re like legends in my book.
Shell: Also we had Jay Lee from the band The Rabbles, who used to play with Jennifer in this band Static Faction. Oh, and our friends Vivian and Dylan, who are our engineers’ teenage kids, sang on one of the sentimental tracks on the record. That was awesome. We had a good time in the studio, we put a lot of stuff on this record, I’m psyched.
Shag: Yeah, we get out there in San Francisco with our old friend Elton, who we’ve known for like 20 years, and we just hang out and having an amazing week together, you know?
Shell: Yeah, we spent like three weeks. We did three week-long trips out there to do the record. We did the record through this digital-analog — maybe I said that backwards — machine that Jim Gamble made. He’s this guy who made like microphones and shit for The Who, he’s like a music gear inventor.
Shag: There’s a famous picture of this guy where The Who is destroying all of their equipment and there’s this sound engineer in absolute panic trying to save one of his microphones. His name’s Jim Gamble, you can look it up on the internet, he’s like diving to save it.
Shellshag Forever Release Show Flyer
Shellshag — 2013 Tour Dates
4/13 Brooklyn, NY – Union Pool *
4/20 Hoboken, NJ – Maxwells !
5/9 Boston, MA – Middle East ! @
5/10 Brooklyn, NY – Death By Audio @ $
5/18 Manhattan, NY – Mercury Lounge #
5/25 Brooklyn, NY – Party Expo &
6/5 Brooklyn, NY – Death By Audio ^
6/8 Kingston, NY – BSP Lounge ^
6/21-23 Chattanooga, TN – Do Ya Hear We Fest
* = w/ RVIVR, Dogjaw, Extra Feeler
! = w/ Screaming Females, Swearin’, Hilly Eye, Great Thunder
@ = w/ Black Wine
$ = w/ Swearin’ & comedians Dave Hill and Chris Gethard
# = w/ JEFF The Brotherhood and Hunters
^ = w/ Apogee Sound Club
& = w/ Moira Scara