Pure Pop From Zion
Shoes with Jeff on the right
Shoes interview, part 1 of 3Though there were other bands that came before that in retrospect fit the template, to me Shoes were the first power pop group since the Raspberries to truly achieve an identity wholly separate from the sum of their influences. Where other mid-'70's pop/rock groups retroactively labeled power pop seemed content to update a style of melodic, guitar-powered hard rock (Artful Dodger, The Pop!), glitter (The Boys (U.S.), The Quick) or a kind of neo-Merseybeat (Poppees, Shake Some Action-era Flamin' Groovies) that, while enjoyable, offered little in the way of original ideas, Shoes' only mission statement seemed to be the shouted chorus of the Raspberries' "Overnight Sensation." The band wanted to make hit records, they wanted to hear themselves on the radio, they wanted to make informed yet un-derivative music to meet the pop demand. Shoes has carved out a career from this modest and unpretentious goal, creating timeless music seemingly tailor-made for the radio without a single hit to their short, curious name.
by Collin Makamson
For years in rented rooms or basements, Shoes (brothers Jeff and John Murphy, Gary Klebe and Skip Meyer) waged a quiet, polite D.I.Y. pop revolution, recording whole albums in their small-town home of Zion, Illinois, each lovingly crafted with passion and perfectionism. Shoes was also one of the first groups of the late 70's to release home-recorded material, beginning with 1977's masterpiece Black Vinyl Shoes and predating the current bedroom indie-pop boom by nearly two decades. All of Shoes' albums blossom with brilliant melodicism: guitars that jangle, harmonies that soar, hand-claps and Roy Wood style guitar licks, simple lovelorn lyrics - all in the dark era of Styx and Chicago live albums. Like Eric Carmen's group earlier in the decade, Shoes coupled the classic Midwestern pop aesthetic with the best elements of the '60's rock and pop tradition to produce a distinctly new and distinctly American pop sound. Shoes continue to practice their classicist craft to this day, irregardless of passing musical trends. Despite the fact that the band has not released an album since 1994, head Shoe Jeff Murphy assured me that the world has not heard the last from his group.
The interviewer had the opportunity to converse with Jeff about Shoes and pop music in general over a series of emails in May of this year and, despite the best efforts of technology, the results were well worth the wait. Enjoy.
PSF: Jeff, before we start, I'd like thank you for giving up some of your time for this interview. Any opening statements or messages you'd like to send out to Shoes fans?
JM: The first thing I'd like to do is to thank Shoes fans for their support over the years. I know we're not the most prolific band around and the time between discs has made it hard for folks to feel a sense of continuity, but we truly appreciate it when people write or email us with comments and words of encouragement.
PSF: I guess I'll start at the beginning and ask the exact geographic location and size of the pop nexus known as Zion, Illinois. How do we get there and what are some of the sights we're likely to see?
JM: Zion, IL is just a small town of about 18,000 located in the Northeastern-most corner of Illinois on the edge of Lake Michigan. Not much to see but there is a state park located at the beach... just south of the nuclear power plant!
PSF: Have you lived in Zion all your life?
JM: We all grew up in Zion and John met Gary in high school and worked together on an independently published satirical 'magazine' for the school. They fantasized about having a band and I was messing around with recording gear and learning to play on my own. Then in 1974, we got together and worked on some crude recordings that became Heads or Tails. That was the official start of it.
PSF: Did you always have and enjoy pop music growing up or was it something you came to later?
JM: We were all weened on the pop radio culture of the mid to late '60's in Chicago, which was exciting and vibrant. New Beatles songs coming every few weeks and two new Beatles albums a year groomed us on pop music along with all the other great stuff happening at the time.
PSF: What song or group represented the big, eye-opening moment for you that said, 'yeah, this is what I want to do' and how old were you when it happened? Had you previously considered any other career path?
JM: I think most red-blooded American boys had that epiphany in February of 1964 watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but it was just a fantasy as we were only nine and ten years old. It wasn't until years later, in the mid-1970's, that we started to actually pursue it. I don't think we actually looked at it as a career possibility until maybe 1976 or so. Gary and John attended college and Gary received a degree in architecture in 1975 from the University of Illinois and seriously thought about going to grad school, but the band was making such good progress by then that he put his plans on indefinite hold... thankfully!
PSF: Had you played or been interested in music before you heard rock 'n' roll?
JM: John and I were just starting to buy 45s like The New Christy Minstrals' "Green, Green" and Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire," but the first single I ever got was "Rock Around the Clock" with our first record player around 1961. I was always fascinated by record players, tape recorders and electronics.
PSF: Did your brother John share in your enthusiasm for music?
JM: John was always the biggest influence on my musical life, being my big brother. He marched to a slightly different drummer musically, even back then. He is the true artist of the band; unconventional and experimental.
PSF: Were either of you, together or separately, ever in groups before Shoes?
JM: No. Shoes is it. We've since done some outside work with other projects, but Shoes is our home.
PSF: How and when did you meet Gary Klebe and Skip Meyer?
JM: John met Gary in high school and we met Skip when we were searching for a drummer and he happened to have dated Gary's sister and was playing in a local cover band in 1976.
PSF: Did the four of you just instantly 'click,' that is to say, did you guys share similar backgrounds, interests or musical passions?
JM: I think John, Gary and I all share the same roots in music, humor, ethics and upbringing. We definitely bonded over musical tastes and influences and we all have that midwestern work ethic. Drummers have come and gone for us, but Skip was there during the Black Vinyl Shoes and Elektra years so he was our last drummer to actually have been a member of the band. Since then we use friends and accuaintences (Ric Menck, John Richardson, Mike Zelenco) to lay down the drums. Skip retired from drumming in 1984, but we're still friends with him and see him frequently.
PSF: At what point did you decide to form a band with John, Skip and Gary?
JM: John and Gary fiddled around recording at home in early 1973 and I had recently purchased the first, commercially available multi-track machine for the home recordist called the TEAC 3340. It really gave us our careers as we learned to get quite good at using it to record ideas bit by bit. This enabled us to build confidence in our writing, playing and singing that we probably would never have done if we had to rely on live performance.
PSF: Were Skip and Gary musical or had they not played before?
JM: None of us had played before so it was from the ground up. Not sure about Skip, but he says Cubby from the original Mickey Mouse Club on TV influenced him to get into drums.
PSF: When the band first formed and started playing together, what was the original statement of intent? Why did you want to make music?
JM: Our influences were bands like Big Star, Badfinger, early David Bowie, Emitt Rhodes, Nils Lofgren, Grin, the whole of the British Invasion stuff and bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders as well as the Monkees... but mostly The Beatles. As that type of music started to fade from the radio we pursued it because we loved it and missed it.
PSF: So was it always your intention to do a 'pop' thing? I mean, I know you guys had never played before, but was that always the over-riding mission statement of the group or did it just 'happen' like that?
JM: When we first started out we simply wanted to try to make the kind of music that we loved. It started to become apparent to us that there was a declining number of people making what came to be known as 'power pop,' but we tried to search it out, leading us to bands like Big Star and Badfinger as well as solo artists like Emitt Rhodes, Todd Rundgren, Tom Petty and Nils Lofgren. Bowie's Ziggy Stardust was a big influence as were bands like T. Rex, 10cc, and, of course, the entire lot of British invasion bands from our youth. It seemed particularly interesting to us when bands mixed acoustic guitars with electric guitars. Our style evolved from all of these influences.
PSF: There's a popular image of Shoes as this fragile, insular, quixotic, bedroom-pop band. Did the band ever play gigs in or around Zion or were you guys always more concerned with achieving the perfect pop sound?
JM: I don't know if Shoes was ever totally comfortable on stage, but we certainly weren't 'in-demand.' Live performance was a vehicle to promote our music in a different context. In our early days we did covers along with original songs. Mostly out of a need to get booked into the clubs. Even our cover songs were obscure to most; "Silly Love" by 10cc, "Smash Your Head Against the Wall" by John Entwhistle.
PSF: That's another 'popular' image I'd like to touch on for a moment, if you don't mind: that of the mid-1970's music scene. The punk viewpoint of the 70's, which has become pretty orthodox by this point, would tell us that everything pre-'77 was an embarrassing wash-out. What are your feelings, overall, on American rock 'n' roll at the time Shoes began?
JM: We certainly weren't punk, but we loved the Ramones and were really excited about how the punk scene invigorated the music scene at that time. It also brought that D.I.Y. ethic into play that we were all about. There was a huge surge of fanzines and newsletters dedicated to the love of music. There was still good music around in the early 1970's... You just had to hunt it down.
PSF: You've stated that musicians often times form groups due to a restlessness of spirit or a desperate need to express themselves. Was Shoes restively reacting against a staid and unresponsive industry or simply playing for itself?
JM: I think our desire to create something artistically coupled with our love of music and pursuit of what we saw as cool all combined to drive us. Of course, then there were the girls...
PSF: At the time, how hostile was the musical climate in general towards new Mod or Beatles-influenced guitar bands?
JM: It seemed to us that guitar bands were on the decline as disco reared its ugly head and dominated public consciousness. So all in all, it was a tough road back then. But even the best parts of successful bands like Fleetwood Mac utilized those [guitar pop] influences. Thank you, Lindsey Buckingham!
PSF: What contemporary groups did you like or feel inspired some of Shoes' sound or direction? Was the '60's tradition always more influential?
JM: There were always bands that we took comfort in, that did what we liked and kept the torch alive: Cheap Trick, The Nerves, The Ramones, Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Move, ELO. Rod Stewart and the Faces were a breath of fresh air in the early '70's as well.
PSF: Tommy Gauvenda, guitarist for another Illinois pop quartet, Chicago's Pezband, once stated that if New York was the Stones, Chicago was the Beatles. Would you agree that a lot of the pre-punk Midwestern pop bands, from Cheap Trick, Circus and the Raspberries to The Names, Pezband and Blue Ash, shared the Beatles as a common point of reference and would you include Shoes within that framework?
JM: We'd love to be included with that company. The first time I saw Cheap Trick I was simply blown away. They're from around here and so we got to see them often. I feel their best songwriting is when they expound on that Beatles/Move foundation. It's great that they adopted a Big Star song ["In The Street" off #1 Record] for the theme song for That 70's Show.
PSF: What qualities in the classic sound and lyrics of the Beatles, the Move or Big Star attracted you as a guitarist, singer and songwriter? Or, I guess what I'm trying to ask is why pop? Why not punk or even progressive rock? Did the four of you or yourself personally believe, like Greg Shaw and other rock-theorists of the time, that a '70's pop revival was imminent?
JM: I think the Beatles were writing the handbook on power pop music as they progressed. Their '65-'66 period was probably the birth of today's power pop religion. Songs like "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Paperback Writer" and "She Said" define it. It's all about simplicity and that elusive guitar riff. Greg Shaw, God bless him, saw the need and did whatever he could to help promote it. I think we're due again!
PSF: Approximately when did the group begin recording?
JM: Approximately '73-'74.
PSF: How did the group reach the decision to forego the bar band circuit and expensive studios and record in-house? It seems logical now, but at the time the idea was quasi-revolutionary, right?
JM: Yes, it was unusual. But because we were just learning everything it was our only option. Little did we know that we were on the leading edge of the home recording revolution. Most bands were only making 45's, we did an entire album's worth and each time we got a little better at it. Black Vinyl Shoes was the pinnacle of our 4-track days.
PSF: Was the band always unanimously in favor of home-recording?
JM: Yes! No other option really existed. Until Greg Shaw came around and sponsored us to record "Tomorrow Night" and "Okay" for a Bomp! single in late 1977.
See Part 2 of the Shoes interview
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