Pure Pop From Zion
Shoes interview, Part 3 of 3
by Collin Makamson
PSF: Did Elektra see Shoes as 'its' Knack or maybe even 'its' next Cars? I ask because I know Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd complained that Elektra suggested Television take a more Cars-y new-wave route after both Adventure and Marquee Moon bombed.
JM: Elektra treated us very well and never tried to influence us to be like anybody else (until just prior to their re-organization in late 1983/early 1984). They put us on a pedestal and always considered us to be in a different league than most of those other 'Knack style' bands. The Cars were a huge success, but they were quirkier 'new wave' and we covered a different territory. We liked the personal attention at Elektra and the fact that they approached us first instead of reacting to an industry buzz.
PSF: How long was it between the signing to Elektra and work commencing in England on the album that would become Present Tense?
JM: We signed in early April and after narrowly missing a fatal flight out of Chicago to L.A. (our flight, American 191 on Memorial Day weekend was moved at the last minute until the following Tuesday). We flew out to England in early June.
PSF: Fatal flight? Like a plane crash, Big Bopper/Ritchie Valens style?
JM: Shoes was scheduled and booked to fly out of Chicago's O'Hare airport, out to L.A. on Memorial Day weekend of 1979 to begin a producer search for our first Elektra album. We were to leave Friday on American flight 191. Needless to say we were very excited to go and get things started on the new album. We were all packed and ready to go when on Thursday afternoon, the L.A. office called and cancelled our flights, rescheduling the following Tuesday because the Elektra offices would be closed all weekend for the holiday. We were very upset because we looked forward to a free weekend in sunny, southern California. Our previous flight, American 191 lost an engine on the runway during take-off and all aboard were killed.
PSF: Wow, what a tragedy. Were the songs for the album already written and rehearsed or did you guys come up with a lot of material in the studio?
JM: As I recall almost everything was written, but I think Gary came up with 'Too Late' just before we left.
PSF: Was it daunting going from 4-track home-recordings to a state-of-the-art 24-track recording studio in London?
JM: We were intimidated at first but many people told us we had an 'English' approach to recording and we referred back to the demos quite often during the recording. We were in heaven there.
PSF: How did the group react to the idea of an outside producer in the form of Mike Stone? Did you want to work with him or was he appointed by Elektra to oversee the album?
JM: We interviewed a parade of possible producers as we were signed not as artists, but as a production deal so we had a lot more control over things. We chose Michael Stone because we liked him and he was the one that suggested recording at the Manor. The album was considered a co-production, but his lawyers insisted on the credit as it reads now.
PSF: Was the recording experience in England enjoyable or very tense?
JM: Very relaxed except for the timetable we were on. We had sixty days to record and mix it before coming home. We had a blast and it is still one of our favorite experiences.
PSF: Did you guys feel you had something to prove following the power-pop backlash and the 'Nuke The Knack' campaign?
JM: We were concerned about it, but felt secure that Elektra was positioning us differently in the market.
PSF: When work on Present Tense was complete, was the album or either of its two singles, "Tomorrow Night" and "Too Late," well received or was response more predictably muted?
JM: Elektra actually released four singles in very quick succession: "Too Late," "Tomorrow Night," "In My Arms Again" and "I Don't Want To Hear It." They couldn't make up their minds on what they liked best so they dumped them all out there, hoping that radio would pick the single. But it only confused radio. It was their first major blunder.
PSF: Did Shoes tour anywhere in Britain or Europe?
JM: No, we never toured in the UK or Europe but we always wanted to. We never got the financial support from the overseas offices that we wanted to see despite a huge, glowing lead review in the New Musical Express and great press in other publications.
PSF: When you guys did play out, who did you enjoy playing with the most?
JM: We enjoyed playing with everyone although, when we toured we generally went out on our own. We did open for the Kinks once and that was great fun. But we also opened for Warren Zevon, Michael Penn, The DiVinyls and even Kiss(!!!) once. We just never hopped onto a national tour. When we toured, we went out into smaller venues by ourselves or played festivals
PSF: Also, did you guys ever shoot videos for any of your songs because I swear I saw a clip of "In My Arms Again" on VH1 Classic late one winter's night.
JM: We shot four videos in late 1979 for the European market (MTV was still two years away): "Too Late," "Tomorrow Night," "Cruel You" and "In My Arms Again" and they were some of the earliest videos played on MTV. At the time, some of the VJs actually wore Shoes T-shirts on the air! VH-1 still plays them from time to time, but by today's standards they look very primitive, being shot on videotape instead of film in a live performance format. We shot all four in one day. As MTV asked us for additional videos two years later, Elektra refused saying MTV was 'a flash in the pan' and 'no big deal' (They actually owned it, as MTV was a WEA/AmEx creation). That proved to be a fatal mistake.
PSF: Of the three albums Shoes recorded for Elektra, Present Tense, Tongue Twister and Boomerang, which do you think holds up best today?
JM: I think the songs from all three still hold up well. It's the difference in production values that seem to date one more than another as technology was changing and the availability of 'new toys' in the studio tended to influence our recording approach. As a result, the more straight-ahead arrangements survive the test of time the best.
PSF: After Boomerang, you were dropped by Elektra and Skip Meyer departed. Was there ever any question of whether or not the three of you would continue to make music together?
JM: We were set back by what happened at Elektra, but the company was deteriorating and, by the end of 1983, most of the people we knew had been fired. Even as we were recording Boomerang, people started to get fired at the L.A. office. At that time, we built our own studio and continued working as best we could on Silhouette, but our facility was much more restricted than what we had grown accustomed to; only 16-track and limited outboard gear. It was tough going, but we knew we'd continue making music, the question was if we could still make a living at it.
PSF: Was the return to home-recording then for the next two albums, 1984's Silhouette and 1989's Stolen Wishes, a reaction against the later Elektra experience?
JM: It was a means of survival. The release of Stolen Wishes was the most financially successful disc we had done to date and that helped us to establish our mail-order service, studio facility and later website.
PSF: Do you believe major labels ever have the best interests of their performing groups at heart and do you feel Shoes works best free of outside interference?
JM: Major labels are definitely a double-edged sword. Providing the financial backing for touring, recording and promotion that most bands can't afford, but also imposing an oversight that can be impeding and a corporate mentality that can affect the type of songs you write. All songs needed their approval so you catch yourself thinking, 'I can't do this because the record company won't release it.' They actually reached a point in the later days of our tenure when they called up to suggest some 'lyric changes' to some of our songs and requesting more songs by this writer and less by that! We don't play that game.
PSF: What did you, Gary and John do during the hiatus between Stolen Wishes and 1994's Propeller?
JM: It seems like a long time from the outside, but due to the way we worked at that point it was just the amount of time it took to get it done. In early 1988, Gene Simmons from Kiss contacted us and courted us for his label Simmons Records (!!!). After months of talks and negotiations, it still boiled down to the fact that we wanted to maintain control of our music. He actually wanted us to change the name of the band. Sorry, we don't play that game either. We always lived by the expression, 'It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!'
PSF: That would have been a very odd alliance. What did Gene Simmons envision for the band's 'new direction'? Did he want you guys as songwriters, a band, what?
JM: Gene Simmons was starting his own label in 1987-88 called Simmons Records and contacted us on the strength of a Billboard review for Shoes Best [released, 1987] that he saw. He was familiar with us from 1979 as we were approached to sell our publishing at the time, which we declined. Despite his 'metal' image and the circus-like theatrics of Kiss, Gene is a big pop music fan and an avid Beatles fan. His musical knowledge is very impressive as well. He proposed to sign us to Simmons Records. His plan was to sign only a few artists a year and, through his parent company BMG, sell millions of each title. Unfortunately, even after two aborted attempts, we could not come to an agreement. He wanted us to change the band name and started to criticize the songs we were writing for the upcoming Stolen Wishes. He later called after the release of Stolen Wishes to say how he 'didn't get it.' He didn't, but Rolling Stone gave it a 4-star review and we did quite well with that disc making us more money than any record that we had done previously and even landed a song in the Mannequin II movie (!!!), despite the fact that it was self-released on Black Vinyl Records. That's when we established our mail order service.
PSF: I'd like to know how you came to work with Material Issue? They were obviously fans and I can hear a lot of Shoes in their sound, especially the guitars on the first album.
JM: Jim [Ellison, lead vocalist/guitarist] came to our first studio in 1985 with an early line-up of MI and I produced 4 songs for him. He was a great fan of Shoes and loved pop music, regardless of how 'un-hip' it may have been: he was an unabashed pop fan. I introduced him to Hi-Watt amps (he had some broken down piece of junk) and that became a big part of their sound. I read an interview with him where he said he considered me his older brother in a way. Their first album was actually the demo tape we were working on and Polygram released it as-is; a great disc. Jim was a great singer and songwriter.
PSF: Did they seem to enjoy recording in Zion? Did you enjoy working with them?
JM: I enjoyed the music tremendously, but Jim could be difficult to work with and there were times when he and I would argue over things. He was not at all technology based and would not even tune his guitar; I did it for him. He once broke a string during a recording while doing a lead and the guitar went flying out of tune. When I stopped the tape and told him to re-string his guitar he argued that he 'meant' to do that. But that was just Jim. We remained friends and he called me at the studio about something a few weeks before his death [in June, 1996]. I truly miss him. Ted [Ansani, bass] and Mike [Zelenko, drums] were always easy to work with and very good at what they did. I'd give Jim the day off when Ted came in to do backing vocals. It was much easier that way.
PSF: Have you ever considered becoming a full-fledged producer-to-the-stars like Todd Rundgren or Ric Ocasek?
JM: Producing became a big part of what I did from 1985-1997. It really paid the bills for us and helped us to maintain the studio. I loved it when I worked with a band I enjoyed, but hated it when I ended up with a band of prima-donnas or a band that did music I couldn't relate to.
PSF: Shoes' association with Material Issue I'm sure won you guys a lot of new fans. How comfortable are you with your group's legacy as fathers or at least nurturing forbearers to the '90's indie-pop movement which has taken much of Shoes' home-recording pop-aesthetic to heart?
JM: We love it. It's the Jimmy Stewart It's A Wonderful Life scenario. We do feel we've influenced others to do it. Hell, if three kids from a town like Zion, IL that didn't even know how to play instruments when they started can do it, almost anyone can! Even a band like Local H (another product of Zion, IL) was able to break out with some of the early demos and pre-production tapes that were done at our studio. It's a slightly different genre, but still has the same, hometown attitude.
PSF: Do you see or hear Shoes' influence in any bands today or do you not keep up with most current music ?
JM: Bands like Fountains of Wayne are an oasis in the desert of commercial music. Other bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Matthew Sweet, The Vines, The White Stripes, Oasis and countless others are still making music with a melodic rock aesthetic that we love. We try to keep abreast of as much as possible.
PSF: Do you think the bands of today's indie pop and power pop revival are carrying on Shoes' intent of supplying music for the pop demand, that is, does the future look bright or foreboding for pop?
JM: I believe pop music will always survive and will ebb and flow in periods of mass popularity, much the way that country, blues, jazz and classical survive. But the bozos that program the same songs over and over again on radio certainly make it difficult to discover new and emerging bands. Ironically, TV commercials have proven to be a surprising source for cool, new bands and songs.
PSF: What have you guys been busying yourselves with since 1994's live Fret Buzz album?
JM: We released the 1997 As-Is retrospective and earlier this year we closed our studio, Short Order Recorder, so we could avoid the financial burden and daily stress of owing and operating a business. Now we can get together as friends and musicians instead of as businessmen. Hopefully, that will lead to more Shoes songs. I've been working on a solo CD that I hope to release before year's end. I also recorded a CD called Either Way a few years ago as a side project under the name The Nerk Twins with a friend. Three additional Nerk songs appeared on the International Pop Overthrow CDs volumes 1, 2 and 3.
PSF: Are there any plans at the moment for new recorded output from Shoes be it a new record or perhaps a rarities compilation, video collection or even a tour?
JM: We've been working on compiling Shoes videos and concert footage for a possible DVD release and I'm hopeful that Shoes will get some new songs recorded once the smoke has cleared from the sale of our studio. I'm installing a home studio and hoping that a return to our roots will prove to be inspiring to all of us.
PSF: Finally Jeff, do you think Shoes succeeded in its original goals? What do you hope people remember most about the group?
JM: I'm very proud of what Shoes has accomplished in our career. How many bands can start from nothing and, despite the lack of huge financial success, remain friends and active for over thirty years? That's the true measure of success for us. It's great to influence others and get signed and have videos and songs on the radio and a studio and our own record company, but if we couldn't stay friends through it, what's the point? If Shoes has accomplished anything, it's that anyone from anywhere can do it and that should give hope to musicians everywhere that it can happen.
PSF: Jeff, again, thanks for your time.
October marks the 25th Anniversary of Shoes' Present Tense album. It and all of Shoes' back catalogue releases are available for order through the band's own Black Vinyl imprint @ www.blackvinyl.com.
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