Pure Pop From Zion
Shoes interview, Part 2 of 3
by Collin Makamson
PSF: Where did you record in the early days? The myths all say it was in your parent's living room.
JM: It actually started in my parents basement and then I got my own place in early 1975 and that became home-base until 1978 when we rented a space and set up there... in the basement of a dress shop in downtown Zion.
PSF: Compared to Fleetwood Mac, ensconced months at a time in top-flight studios getting the right guitar sound, the first Shoes' recordings must have seemed decidely lo-fi. For the first three records (Un Dans Versailles, Bazooka and Black Vinyl Shoes) what technology was at the band's disposal?
JM: Our arsenal increased with each recording as we bought more gear, but in the early days we owned four or five mics, one compressor, a mixer, a tape echo and the TEAC 3340. We bought and sold amps and guitars as time went on trying different set ups.
PSF: Though you were at opposite ends of the rock and roll spectrum, would you consider Shoes just as perfectionist as Fleetwood Mac, that is, did you spend a lot of time trying to get the right sounds or getting a song perfect or was it more fluid and loose?
JM: We like Fleetwood Mac and certainly listened to their records as a sonic reference point. When we finally got a chance to peek in on a Fleetwood Mac recording session we were surprised to see that they were using the same mics we were on some of their drums (Shure SM 57). We would definitely labor over it. But there was a sense of urgency, too… at least in the early years.
PSF: Were the first three albums, including Black Vinyl, cut pretty much live or was there a lot of post-production over-dubbing and sound tweaking? Who was in charge of the production, by the way?
JM: Virtually everything was overdubbed. Like I say, we weren't very good players and that was the only way we could get things down. I did the engineering but we all 'produced' and influenced the sonic direction.
PSF: Were the home-recordings always intended to be stand-alone albums or were there hopes of using them as demos to attract label attention?
JM: Both, really. We tried to make each collection of songs a project. Once finished, they were grouped together in LP form and then we moved on to the next batch. By the time Elektra came around we had what was to become Present Tense completely recorded in demo form. We did that up to and including Stolen Wishes. So there is virtually a complete second version of everything we've released. Some of which showed up on the As-Is compilation.
PSF: What's all on As Is? I've been meaning to check it out.
JM: Disc one is a combination of the two projects that we recorded before Black Vinyl Shoes: One In Versailles and Bazooka. Despite their embarrassingly primitive production and songwriting, we thought true Shoe fans would enjoy a glimpse into our early days. Disc two is a compilation of outtakes, demos and studio clips from the period up to 1997.
PSF: Was Shoes always a 'democracy,' that is, was it agreed upon from the start that each member would write, contribute and sing their own songs or did one voice tend to dominate early on?
JM: Very democratic from the onset. The parameters have changed a bit though. In the earliest stages, when John and Gary wrote together, John did words and melody and Gary did the music. I was always the outsider working alone. As time went on, the lines blurred more and we worked together in different combinations as well as individually. Gary didn't start singing live until around 1976. Even on some of [Gary's] recorded songs John would often sing and on "Not Me" [from Black Vinyl Shoes] I sang the chorus. He was very shy and private. Now we all do whatever, whenever.
PSF: Had any of you written or sung your own songs prior to the Versailles record?
JM: Heads or Tails was the first 'real' Shoes 'album' and there were a few individual songs just prior to that.
PSF: How did early Shoes' songs like "Eggroll Rock" or "Dance In Your Sleep" differ from those on your first official release, Black Vinyl Shoes?
JM: Yikes! "Eggroll Rock" was just messing around with the recorder but "Dance In Your Sleep" was a 'real' song. We actually did a re-recording of it in September of 1978 as a test for our newly acquired 8-track machine. We also did a re-make of "Like I Told You" at that time which is coming out on a compilation being assembled by Jordan Oakes from Yellow Pills fame.
PSF: Who was the greatest influence on your songwriting and singing early-on?
JM: We inspired each other and encouraged each other to improve. It helped that we were all in the same boat: no experience or knowledge of what the 'right way' was. No training or lessons; baptism by fire. We certainly aspired to be like The Beatles and Robin Zander [of Cheap Trick] is probably the greatest rock singer of all time, but everything that we listened to inspired us.
PSF: How large a pressing did you guys run on the Versailles LP and could you give a brief back-story on the origins of the album's title for those who don't know?
JM: We originally pressed up 300 copies on 12" vinyl. The title comes from the fact that Gary was away at school in Versailles, France. John came up with the title as an idea to launch from and we saw it as a vehicle to conjure up a fictitious situation of a girl in a far away place and the longing for her return.
PSF: Did anyone fill in for Gary while he was abroad or did Shoes play on as a trio?
JM: John and I wrote, played and sang everything on it except for our then-drummer, Barry Schumaker. We wanted to surprise Gary with it when he came home and we did. It inspired him to hit the ground running and we launched directly into Bazooka on his return.
PSF: Did the Versailles record receive any press or draw any industry interest toward the group?
JM: Nope, none. It's very crude, but another step in our progression.
PSF: How were you guys making a living at this point? Were you going to school or working or what?
JM: I was a printer, John worked in some capacity for the county (graphic design) and Gary was working construction.
PSF: Were you aware of other like-minded groups regionally or across the country or publications such as Who Put The Bomp? or Punk? Did you feel any kinship to other bands or did you consider yourselves mavericks?
JM: We were unaware of any of that until after Black Vinyl Shoes came out and we started to discover the press and the entire underground movement. We really operated in a vacuum. Zion has no clubs or bars to play at and Chicago and Milwaukee seemed a world away. But the biggest band out of Chicago at the time was Styx and we weren't fans of that stuff.
PSF: Was the band happy with the Versailles and Bazooka albums? Did you feel they were an accurate depiction of the group's sound and vision or did you feel they were too rough and unpolished to serve as an official debut?
JM: Well, it's all we had so we used it to promote ourselves as much as we could. But as soon as we finished one, we'd start another so to us each one was progressively better than the last.
PSF: Why was Bazooka shelved until the late 90's?
JM: Soon after we finished recording Bazooka, Barry Schumaker, the drummer on Bazooka and Un Dans Versailles (who was also my roommate) was prompted by his then-girlfriend to quit the band and get into something more stable (who could blame him? We lived and breathed music and Shoes). So shortly after Bazooka was finished, he quit and we started looking for another drummer, finding Skip in mid 1976. Almost immediately we started what was to become Black Vinyl Shoes so we never looked back. I think over time it became this mystical recording that people heard about, but never heard.
PSF: What lessons had the band learned in terms of songwriting and recording by the time the album that became Black Vinyl Shoes was begun in November of 1976? Do you think recording the first two limited-press albums helped the group make a more mature and fully formed 'first' outing?
JM: With each recording, we learned more about the art of writing as well as singing, playing and arranging. Additionally, our recording skills improved to the extent that during the recording of Black Vinyl Shoes we felt disappointed that the sonic difference between the first song recorded ("Capital Gain") and the last song recorded ("Tragedy") was too obvious.
PSF: A lot of people consider Black Vinyl Shoes to be the best album Shoes ever cut; I think Robert Christgau gave it an A- or something pedantic like that. What are you feelings now, looking back on the record? I know it got exceptional reviews in Trouser Press and the Illinois Entertainer, but do you think it could have been any better?
JM: We're still very proud of that record. We really consider it a watershed event for us as it launched our career and introduced us to the press and the public.
PSF: Did any airplay, higher-profile gigs or new label interest result from the release of Black Vinyl Shoes?
JM: After our initial release of Black Vinyl Shoes, Greg Shaw from Bomp! contacted us and asked if we'd record a single for his label so we wrote "Tomorrow Night" for the B side as Greg wanted us to re-record "Okay" for the A side. Gary and I wrote it so that all three writers would be represented. After that, Greg wanted to re-issue Black Vinyl Shoes on Bomp!, but was not able to release it in a timely manner so his distributor, JEM Imports (Passport/PVC) contacted us and offered to release it directly, which we did. This really upset Greg, but as a result of the re-issue on PVC, there was a new wave of press that followed and Elektra Records discovered us from that and by early 1979, Elektra flew into Zion for their first meeting with us. Two days later, we were in L.A. negotiating a record deal with Elektra.
PSF: The album was finished and released in May '77, the same month which saw the Sex Pistols release "God Save The Queen." How aware were you guys of punk?
JM: After Black Vinyl Shoes started to get reviewed in different publications and fanzines we discovered not only a whole new world of underground press, but also a lot of what else was happening in the world of music that had yet to reach the mainstream. We became very aware of punk and that entire movement, but we were never fans of the violence and 'gobbing' that became in vogue as a result of it. We loved the Ramones!
PSF: Did you identify with any of the groups coming out of Cleveland, New York or England at the time?
JM: We felt, or at least hoped that we were part of a new resurgence in music and it encompassed many different genres. It seemed like the world was opening up to us. Bands like Devo, Blondie, The Nerves, The Clash and countless others influenced us, but we still had a foot in commercial pop radio with bands like Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and Elton John.
PSF: Greg Shaw, the man behind Who Put The Bomp? and later Bomp! records, then and probably now feels that punk hijacked and subsequently destroyed a fermenting mod-pop or power pop renaissance in the United States. Do you feel Shaw was right in believing that the pendulum in the mid and late 70's was swinging back towards a more Anglo Mersey-pop sound?
JM: Yes, it was. Punk attracted the attention because it was louder and more abrasive in its content and approach so it got more headlines and as a result anything that came out then was called 'New Wave' and to most people that meant punk.
PSF: Do you think the negative media saturation surrounding punk and the Sex Pistols' American tour damaged the chances of new non-punk guitar pop groups beyond repair?
JM: The advent of punk music was as much an influence on us as anything at the time and we certainly didn't harbor any ill feelings towards it. We simply saw it as another genre with both good and bad bands doing it. It is unfortunate, however, that the media attention and 'buzz' seems to only be able to focus on one genre at a time. The record companies are the most affected by this situation. Just because someone has a hit with a country song doesn't mean that classical or blues ceases to exist. It simply shifts the focus of attention. Power pop music as a genre will always exist… much the way that classical music always exists. But it will have periods of success and media attention and then drift into the background. It's a similar cycle with all types of music.
PSF: I may be drifting into counterfactual 'rock theory' here, but do you think a lot of these now 'cult' power pop groups, like yourselves, would have had a better crack at chart success if the media hadn't picked up on punk so quickly?
JM: Because charts are a reflection of popularity, they are a direct result of how much promotion money is spent and how much airplay a band receives. Some songs take off after an initial push is made and take on a life of their own, but some songs take longer to settle into our collective consciousness. Generally speaking, the faster a song becomes a hit, the quicker people get sick of it. While we would love to have a huge hit, our songs were more subtle and we tried to craft nuances into them that it may take a while for people to pick up on. That's one of the things that makes Beatles songs so interesting to us and so long-lasting to fans. There are so many things going on inside that even after over thirty years you still find yourself asking, 'Is that a typewriter or a tambourine in the verse of ”Paperback Writer”?'
PSF: Did you ever consider yourselves a 'power pop' band? Do you think that label's perennial association with Shoes was detrimental to the group's career?
JM: I think power pop is perhaps the best definition of what we do. All labels can be confining and for whatever reason, people have a fear of seeming too wimpy in their musical tastes so labels that contain words like 'pop' make people think of Barbara Striesand, Barry Manilow and that ilk. Anything that was too melodic was considered 'lightweight' and fluff, but we saw it differently. Current bands like Oasis, The White Stripes, etc. have been able to survive it [the pop stigma].
PSF: Greg Shaw was one of your earliest champions in the pages of Bomp! magazine. How did you guys get in contact? The mythology goes that you simply called him up and asked to send him a record and press-pack.
JM: That's about right. It may have been a contact that was given to us by one of our other, newly acquainted press friends like Cary Baker and Bill Paige. They were a tremendous help in turning us on to the underground press.
PSF: At this point, did Greg seem interested in signing Shoes to record for Bomp! or was he simply a zealous admirer of your sound?
JM: Both, really. We were sad that we upset Greg when we opted for PVC to re-issue Black Vinyl Shoes, but we still had (and still have) the utmost respect for Greg and his astute musical instincts. It was purely a business decision that paid off with a major label deal. Now, we're back to self-releases and self-promotion, but we have the benefit of having had major label exposure and promotion.
PSF: What were the reasons you guys eventually went with Greg for the "Okay"/"Tomorrow Night" single? Did you feel that Greg, coming from a independent fanzine background, maybe understood you guys more than a large label would?
JM: We felt a sense of friendship and mutual admiration. We certainly respected the fact that he had a lot more experience than we did, but he lacked the deep pockets that a major label has to get your name out to the public and on the radio. That was our ultimate goal. We always wanted commercial success and still do. We create for ourselves, but aspire to mass acceptance and respect from our peers.
PSF: When did the single (BOMP 116) come out and was it well-received? I know it topped the Bomp! magazine charts for almost four months.
JM: I believe it came out in early 1978, but it was delayed for various reasons. As I recall, we recorded it in December of 1977 at a studio called Hedden West in Schaumburg, IL; our first venture into a 'real' 24-track studio.
PSF: Did you guys pack up and move out to L.A. at this point or did you stay in Zion?
JM: We remained based in Zion. We seriously considered moving to L.A. in 1981, but were convinced by our manager, Dan Bourgoise, that we'd be better off staying in Zion. We wanted to be where the action was, but the reality of day-to-day survival seemed more affordable in Zion. We consoled ourselves in the fact that we were traveling quite a bit for tours, promotions and recording.
PSF: So you guys never played the West Coast power pop 'havens' at Madame Wong's or the Hong Kong Cafe?
JM: No. We never played in L.A. during that period and it wasn't until after the release of Stolen Wishes that we did our first gig on the West coast in 1990. We did go to the Whisky one night in 1980 to see a band called Great Buildings (early members of the Rembrandts, former members of The Quick) and we were backstage meeting the band when I spotted Richard Dashut sitting in a chair so I walked over and introduced myself. I explained that we were in town looking for a producer [for 1980's Tongue Twister] and reminded him that we had contacted him to produce our first album, but he was tied up with Fleetwood Mac doing Tusk. He remembered us contacting him and said he was just getting off the road from touring with Mac so he could do the next album. He invited us to his house the next day and we struck it off as friends and proceeded into the studio a few weeks later.
PSF: After the success of the Bomp! single, did the group immediately start writing and rehearsing new material or did you tour and take time off?
JM: We were constantly in motion. When we finished one batch of recordings we started on another. We rarely played live because recording was our passion.
PSF: Did Greg want you guys to record an LP or any more songs for Bomp! or was the single designed specifically to be a one-off?
JM: It was a one-off deal.
PSF: When did Elektra first show real interest in the group? Was it before or after Capitol had exploded with the platinum success of The Knack in June of '79?
JM: Seymour Stein from Sire Records was the first major label exec to approach us in early 1979 as a result of the Black Vinyl Shoes exposure, but when he flew off to France in late January, the execs from Elektra contacted us and flew in to meet the first week in February. We inked the deal on April 5th of 1979. The Knack hit big while we were recording in England. In a way, the success of the Knack hurt us and a lot of other pop bands because we all became lumped into that 'Knack clone' category by ignorant critics that didn't know about our history.
PSF: Did the group feel slighted or upset over the Knack's breakthrough?
JM: The Knack had a glossy, corporate feel, but you could not deny the strength of that song [the #1 hit "My Sharona"]. Unfortunately, there was a backlash to it that hurt us and a lot of others. I remember a review in Rolling Stone at the time that actually lumped Shoes, 20/20, the Reds, The Motels, The A's and a few others into the same review! They wrote all of us off in the same damn review! Incredibly poor journalism.
See Part 3 of the Shoes interview
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