Jim Shelley Interview (Gajoob #10) by Bryan Baker
GAJOOB: How did you get started in home recording?
Jim Shelley: It's kind of cloudy now when I think back on how I got started in home recording. I know that I loved music since I was a little teeny kid. My parents bought me a cheesy Sears acoustic guitar one Christmas and I've been trying to learn how to play it ever since. Anyway...I've always loved listening to HOW people put records together, especially earlier bands like the Beatles who did so much with so little in the way of equipment.
When I discovered that there were four track cassette decks on the market, I drove up to Washington Music in Maryland and bought a Tascam Portastudio. My credit card was overcharged but I had enough money in my checking account to just cover it. I think I lived on a half loaf of bread and water for a month until my next check. But when I got home! Oh MAN! I wrote 15-20 songs in a very short time (many of which appeared on "12 Songs") and basically learned how to use the Portastudio while writing and recording the new songs. I was very strictly into a sort of classic pop song--verse chorus verse chorus bridge etc. etc. thing but I still like most of the songs I wrote then.
GAJOOB: Give us a brief rundown of your releases.
JS: I've put out way too many albums to talk about in any detail, but I'll give a brief rundown and you can edit as you see fit--
12/74 - NOIZ: A collection I did at a very tender age. Crazed guitar noise, screaming and pots and pans banging along with weird backwards sounds which I got by turning the tape inside out or something. This was when I had a reel to reel. Why was I doing this sort of thing as a child? No idea.
12/79 - 12 SONGS: See above. A boy in love with pop music.
07/87 - WHAT I DID ON MY SUMMER VACATION: A three hour collection of various crap I'd done over the last 13 years.
Okay...then in 1988 I fell in love with Sonic Youth and Live Skull and early Pixies and was already listening to Husker Du and various other earlier CA bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, etc. and I wrote a song called "The Night John Lennon Died." This is the single most important thing (musically) that I've ever done because it defined my musical direction. The next summer I put together BLOOM OR DIE, my first REAL album, and sent it to Jim Santo at ALTERNATIVE PRESS and HE REVIEWED IT! AND HE LIKED IT! If that had not happened, I doubt that I would've put out another tape. There are over 600 copies of BLOOM in circulation.
GAJOOB: That's amazing for a DiY release! Did you get 600 responses from the Jim Santo review alone?
JS: I didn't get 600 responses from Santo's review...Actually, at best, I got a dozen inquiries specifically related to that particular column. In fact, I got many, many more responses from an extremely negative review (which I never saw, by the way) in MAXIMUM ROCK AND ROLL! And ironically the inquiries I got were almost uniformly sympathetic. I've maintained correspondence with a couple of those people to this very day.
Anyway there are over 600 copies of the tape in circulation because about 400 people have bought it over the years and I've given away tons of them. Additionally, there are a lot of dubs made of my stuff, which I encourage.
GAJOOB: How do you feel about AP dropping Jim Santo's Demorandum column?
JS: I think that was inevitable. AP has gotten awfully big; perhaps they felt that Jim's column just didn't appeal to that many readers. And, really, it seemed kind of out of place in AP anymore anyway, didn't it? I don't know the real reasons, actually, and never really asked Jim about it. I thought it was the liveliest column by far in the magazine. I know he's putting together something for AP's net zine but I don't know when that's going to come together. Anyway, the loss of "Demorandum" I thought was a major blow. It pretty much leaves GAJOOB all alone in the spotlight.
GAJOOB: Have you seen AUTOReverse? The last issue puts it right where Electronic Cottage left off. Although Ian Stewart seems to share Hal McGee's affection for noise and experimental, he's also not averse to including the occasional popmeister. (Scott Brookman gets some space in a recent issue.) Anyway, what comes after BLOOM OR DIE?
JS: In 1991 I put out FOR THE GOOD OF THE CAUSE, a collection of stuff I'd done in 1990 plus some radical deconstructions of some ancient folk songs I recorded in '91. I sent this one to AP also, and Santo gave it a really good review. I got several inquiries from AP readers after that and some them became longtime listeners.
I put out three albums in '92...DON'T STOP THE SCREAM, 8 FROM THE ATTIC, and THE HAUNTED LIFE. SCREAM got really nice reviews from AP and a couple of smaller zines. HAUNTED LIFE is one of my lowest sellers but I think it is by far one of my best...It is basically the sound of a man having a nervous breakdown. But I generally do some of my best work when I'm hovering on the edge of insanity.
1993...depression yielded one of my better selling tapes, WEE JIM'S BLACKEYE. I still do a lot of songs from that one live...Not that I play live much. Also in '93 I came up with the idea of putting out occasional compilations of old unreleased material under the catchall title BIG BUSINESS MONKEY. This one is still the most popular of that series.
In '94, as I was assembling a group of musicians for what became a really nice but short-lived (one year) band, I decided to put out a best-of and slammed together 90 minutes of new and old stuff and called it IN MY ROOM - THE BEST OF BOOK OF KILLS. It has become a very popular tape (in relative terms of course) and Jim Santo wrote "Along with F.M. Cornog, Jim Shelley belongs in the lo-fi pantheon..." about it and me...and I got a lot of inquiries but not many orders. Also in '94 - SONGS FOR A GONE WORLD. Really weird stuff kinda influenced by Chrome. DETRITUS...Band versions of old and new material...sold for $2...sold like hot cakes locally until the master tape fucked up...Now it's a pseudo collectors item. I don't even have one!
BIG BUSINESS MONKEY #2 in '95 along with SAINT JUDAS. By this time I'd decided to send tapes to you and IMPROVIJAZZATION NATION and God bless you both, you gave me very nice reviews. AP said it was my best album ever, but I don't know. Shortly after that I put out my first ever 7" which sold 26 copies. Ouch. But the local college radio station played the hell out of it for about a month.
BIG BUSINESS MONKEY #3 came out in June of '96. I just released a 90 minute tape of new material called SPLENDID TRIGGER which is a sort of story in musical form (NOT a rock opera)...A long time listener said it makes him feel "cold and empty." I don't know...it's weird. I worked with others on that tape. It's something I'm proud of but very unsure of too.
Gosh...I have gone on, haven't I?
GAJOOB: Tell us a little more about Splendid Trigger. How is this a departure from your previous material?
JS: SPLENDID TRIGGER is a tape I finished in August of '96 right before I had to go back to teaching school. It's a bit of a departure, I suppose, for one because it's like a 90 minute 29 song musical story. NOT a rock opera. God forbid. More along the lines of Husker Du's ZEN ARCADE. But a little more focused. Too, it's more subdued than a lot of my stuff. My last live band was so loud and raucous that I gues this tape's a bit of a shock to some listeners. It hasn't sold very well. Eleven copies so far. You don't get rich doing this, as you know. I guess it's also different in that I play a lot more keyboards on this one. Bought a relatively cheap Casio (is that redundant?) and used it a lot. I'm very proud of the lyrics on this album. I did have help this time from various people.
GAJOOB: You covered several songs by home taper Scott Johnson. How did this come about?
JS: I used the Scott Johnson songs because I really like Scott's music and don't feel (at least according to what he used to write to me) that he gets any recognition at all. Not that I get any either (what home taper does?), but I like his music--it's so full of fragile emotions.
GAJOOB: How has the response been?
JS: Unfortunately, this latest tape has turned out to be the biggest dud I've ever put out...I've only sold 11 copies! That compares with several hundred copies of some of my other tapes. Nobody seems to like it. That really sucks considering how much time I put into it. But...really...who does this to sell tapes? Then again, it just came out, so who knows.
I think people have come to expect a certain sound from me and I just refuse to pigeon hole myself. I had some dismal results when I put out SONGS FOR A GONE WORLD which was sort of a semi-noise collage thing. That came out in '93 and I've sold fewer than 20 copies of that one since.
I've always wondered what other home tapers' feelings were about sales. What sort of sales figures do others report> Really, why I add up the costs of buying a recorder, instruments, mics, tapes, paper, etc. I have lost several thousand dollars making music...a fact I've scrupulously hidden from my wife. You have to ask yourself how pathetic your desire to create really is, you know? I don't mean to sound so cynical, but it's a tough thing to swallow. It seems invariably to come back to the fact that home tapers are perceived to be "amateurs" or somehow deficient and therefore their music isn't worth actually purchasing. I know we're not "supposed" to worry about that but who doesn't really?
GAJOOB: It's ironic at a time where interest in home taping and lo-fi recording (as opposed to lo-fi recordings, perhaps) is at an all-time high and seemingly growing all the time, longtime home tapers still can't make any inroads in getting their music heard. Do you think it's the destiny of home tapers to labor in obscurity?
JS: I think most home tapers will labor in obscurity for several reasons. One, and I hope no one's offended by this because I'm including myself, I think there's probably something wrong with people who sit around in their basement or bedroom or garage and record albums on cassette tape. Who the hell is really gonna care other than a small band of listeners, if that? So I don't think most home tapers could cope with the demands of a musical career.
Secondly, most home tapers' music just isn't ever gonna appeal to very many people. Whatever else you might say about them, you must grant that a number of home tapers are extraordinarily strange and adventuresome and interesting. Of course, many more of them are just plain lame, bus so are most professional musicians. But the average music consumer doesn't want strange music that they can't latch onto right away. Good home tapers demand an awful lot from the listener. 'Course I guess most truly worthwhile musicians do.
Thirdly, I know some home tapers are happy right where they are. They don't wanna be rich and famous. I admire the hell out of that attitude. But to be truthful, I'd like to be able to make a living from my music.
And finally, I don't think most home tapers understand what they need to do to achieve recognition. Or perhaps they do and just aren't willing to expend energy in that direction. If you want people to hear your music, you have to take it to them. You have to be willing to starve for a while. You have to be willing to sleep on cold hard floors in dirty apartments as you travel up and down and back and forth across the nation. You have to be willing to get ripped off by the unscrupulous owners of the various dives you're gonna play. You have to be able to take an occasional stoney silent audience somewhere along the line. You must be able to listen to record executives tell you your music sucks and believe they're wrong. And when it all seems as though you're never gonna be a success and you hear the stability of a 9 to 5 calling you have to believe that you WILL make it and the 9 to 5 can suck eggs. You can never give up!
GAJOOB: Is being "unsure" of a release a common immediately after putting something out for consumption?
JS: As far as being unsure of one's self, sometimes I am and sometimes I'm not. It was excruciating to send BLOOM OR DIE off to AP and MRR. I mean, some local people really liked the tape, but I didn't know if that was because it was sort of a novelty for their friend to have put out a tape or what. Fortunately I didn't see the MRR review. I might've stopped recording! But usually after I record an album, I'm so excited over the act of creation that I can't wait for people to hear it. It's very hard for me to be objective about my own music especially new stuff.
GAJOOB: One thing I find interesting about your networking activities is your newsletter. How did you come about doing this? How many people are on your mailing list? Have there been any interesting results from publishing it?
JS: As far as the newsletter goes, I realized when some people from out of state started writing me that if I wanted to maintain contact with them (i.e. sell them more tapes) I'd have to come up with a newsletter thing. Which is what I did. I now send one out about three times a year. I don't know if it's worth doing. I send out about 130 newsletters at a time and that's over $40 in costs. Does it pay for itself? It's hard to say. It keeps me in the listener's mind, I guess, but if you sell tapes for $3-4 a piece it'll take a long time to recoup the costs just of the newsletters because home tapers don't sell a lot of tapes no matter what they try.
That's why I want to be on a record label. It's so frustrating to have written so many songs and put out so many tapes and not be heard. But I can't seem to make myself send off record companies demos of my stuff. The one time I did Trent Reznor's old label, TVT, sent an inquiry. I sent them three tapes and never heard anything back. Then about a year later, they sent another inquiry and I told them to fuck themselves. Afterwards I sent tapes to some real small labels and none of them wrote back.
It's very strange because I've had such nice reviews from the 'zines I've sent tapes to and when I play live the shows border on rabid response, but it's like somehow I still suck. I don't know...I can't stop. Sorry to ramble so much...
GAJOOB: Have you tried using any resources on the internet to let people know about your stuff?
JS: I would love to use internet resources but I don't know how. I love computers and the 'net, but I'm a bozo when it comes to using this stuff. A guy I know who goes to James Madison University tried to set up a Book of Kills web page but he just didn't have the time to do it right. I was really flattered to hear he'd tried, though. I thought it was a real honor.
GAJOOB: I think you've mentioned this before somewhere, but are any of your students familiar with your home taping? What do they think of your stuff?
JS: I teach English and Creative Writing. It's often fun and usually rewarding, but there's an awful lot of ignorance and pettiness and small-mindedness involved. And while I suspect that goes double for the music world, I wish I could use music to get out of teaching. But like I wrote in a song a long time ago, "Wishing never made a single dream come true."
My students are very aware that I play in band and many of them know I put out tapes. There've been some great shows in the past 5-6 years in which students and former students have composed a large part of the pretty out of control audience. I'm not really sure exactly who buys my tapes locally, but they sell fairly consistently. I've noticed though that sales slow down noticeably if I haven't played live in a few months. Promoting your music with a band remains the single best means of self-promotion...no getting around it. As far as what they think of my stuff...I guess they're pretty into it for the most part. Hell...I don't know...maybe they're just humoring me.
GAJOOB: Do you have any ideas on your next release?
JS: I'm at a real crisis point in terms of my next release. I've started another band we're oriented towards the old Book of Kills sound..I don't know what that is exactly...sort of folk and punk and Beatles all tossed together but I'm weary of putting out tapes of fairly straightforward rock tunes. I mean I love great pop music...it's the best. But I want to do something else. I really love the experimental stuff going on in electronic music...I can't get enough of the various permutations of that sort of music...it's heading into a really interesting mix of metal, jazz, techno, punk...you know it. And I would like to try my hand at it. So I've been mulling over buying a decent synth and seeing what I can do. The one thing about most electronic music is very, very few people seem able to put any emotion into it and that's what I'd like to try to do.
GAJOOB: Do you come upon ideas for tapes sort of by sudden inspiration, or do they perhaps gel into a framework as you are working on songs or working with other people?
JS: Songs come two ways for me...All of a sudden or I labor over them for hours at a time. Particularly the words. The more songs you write, the harder it is to come up with a new way to say something. I guess that's why a good portion of my songs feature lyrics that are basically just a jumble of vaguely related images or idea. I know some people say the best songs are the ones that come out of the blue, but I don't necessarily find that to be true. I have a feeling many of the very greatest pop songs probably were the result of a lot of sweat and tears. Sometimes, when I have to have a song to fill out an album, I'll just pick a song by some other artist and sort of work a variation on it and occasionally I get some pretty cool songs that way.
GAJOOB: Some differences, pros and cons on recording your last project with other musicians as opposed to doing it solo?
JS: I like to record with other people but they rarely seem to understand where I am coming from...that is, what I want them to play. But I give people a lot of leeway to do what they want. I always try to play with people who are much better musicians than I am...they push me to try new things and they really do open my eyes to different possibilities. Still, it can be a pain.
GAJOOB: How do your music activities affect your home life and vice versa?
JS: Somebody once said that the great enemy of art is the family and that's true. So you have to have an understanding family. Still if I didn't have a family I'd probably long ago headed off to New York or DC or somewhere. You make your choics and and then you live with the responsibilities. I've put out 17 tapes in the last seven years but if I'd lived alone I would've probably doubled that. But I love my family...hell, I don't know. Maybe without them I'd have blown my head off a long time ago.
GAJOOB: Briefly describe your recording setup and how it's evolved over the years.
JS: I've never been able to put much money into recording gear. I still use a $100 acoustic guitar I bought years and years ago. And I have a cheap Japanese Telecaster that's falling apart. For keyboards I use a little Casio and I mix through an old Yamaha powered mixer that constantly malfunctions. What a load of junk it all is. I made my first tapes on a Tascam Portastudio, then later I picked up a TOA 8 track for really cheap. I finally save up enough this summer to buy a Tascam eight track cassette. It's really nice. But I'm still getting used to it. I did SPLENDID TRIGGER on it, you know. But I'm not at all pleased with the mix. Most of my songs are guitar based. I just record directly into the tape player. I know the experts say not to, but it works for me...gives your music a real claustrophobic feel which I like.
GAJOOB: Are you looking at any new equipment with lust in your heart?
JS: I'm lusting after a new amp, but it's gonna have to be a choice between the amp or the synth. I'd also like to get a CD-R. It's all up in the air right now.
GAJOOB: Do you have any favorite home tapers?
JS: My favorite home tapers are local people. I think you have to throw your support first and foremost to those artists who live in your town or where ever. Around here, I really like Robert St. Ours, who I believe is an undiscovered near-genius; Bruce Benedict, a nice folk-singer; the now defunct Necromantics; Blistre (now known as Bliss Trigger) which is a really cool Christian noise band; and nationally, FM Cornog. But FM's put a cd out and has gotten some national press, so I don't know if he "counts" anymore. Jim Santo's band, Jennifer Convertible, is pretty cool too, but they're on the verge of getting signed, I think, so maybe they don't count either. Oh...I really like Heather Perkins and Bat Lenny. And then there's Daniel Johnston. He may have been signed by a record company but he'll always be one of the gods of home taping...he's so brilliant.
CONTACT: Jim Shelley, 206 High Street, Bridgewater, VA 22812; firstname.lastname@example.org