The IN THE UNDERGROUND Interview By Jordan Williams (June 1992)
(Dayton, VA) Jim Shelley has just released a new cassette, his fourth, DON'T STOP THE SCREAM. For the few hardcore fans who have followed his somewhat sporadic recording career over the years, this is good news indeed. That it may well be his most assured album yet (Alternative Press calls it "his most powerful album yet") is further cause to celebrate. Although many of the new songs retain Shelley's trademark grinding buzzsaw guitar sound coupled with often brutal, howling vocals, DON'T STOP THE SCREAM also features some determinedly pop offerings. Where once primal guitars/bass/drums were the sum of his sound, now the occasional acoustic guitar, organ or mouth harp has filtered into the mix. As, however, with previous outings, the lyrics remain angry, often obscure, and filled with vivid, sometimes violent, images of Shelley's disorienting, fragmented world view. I sat down with Jim recently at his home where we shared sips from a pint of Virginia Gentleman in his attic studio and talked about his life in music as well as his newest tape and views on music in general.
JW: You've been making music now for quite a few years.
JS: (Laughing) Yeah...quite a few years. I can't seem to get it out of my system.
JW: How long?
JS: Too long to try to remember. Since I was a kid.
JW: What sort of music were you playing then?
JS: Oh, I guess pretty much the same stuff every band was in those days. Beatles, Stones, Who, etc. etc. We had a really good guitarist in my first band who loved Alvin Lee. Remember Ten Years After in the movie "Woodstock?" This kid had the guitar part to "I'm Going Home" down note for note. That was sort of our specialty song. The big show stopper at the end of the set! Actually we weren't bad for as young as we all were.
JW: You were writing songs even back then.
JS: Yeah. If you want to call them songs. I only knew like three chords, so I was kinda limited in what I could do. Now I know four chords so the sky's the limit!
JW: What sort of music were you writing?
JS: Actually, all kinds. I was pushing the boundaries as far as I could with the limited technique I possessed. I had very crude recording equipment.
JW: You were recording even then?
JS: Oh yeah! I started messing with recording when I was real young. Then in high school I worked all summer as an orderly between my junior and senior years and bought a pretty nice Sony reel to reel. It had sound on sound. I had an old Radio Shack...I think it was called Lafayette back then...cassette recorder and I would bounce tracks back and forth. It was an extremely painstaking process. I still have a few songs from those days.
JW: I know that your insistence on playing original material as opposed to covers has been constant source of irritation in whatever groups you were in.
JS: Well, I don't know. See, I never saw the point in having a band if all you were gonna do was play other people's songs. I mean...yeah...being in a band...even a totally shitty band...has its up side. You know, you get laid more than you would otherwise and you get to play at parties and drink lots of free beer and maybe you make enough money to get you through the week until the next gig. But that gets old fast. (Laughs) It does. Really. Playing original material keeps it interesting for me. Not that I didn't want to play covers. That was always a big issue with me, too. I didn't want to play the same songs every other band was doing. I wanted to play obscure stuff. Things that you wouldn't typically hear in a local group's set.
JW: So the other members of your bands were generally opposed to doing original material?
JS: Sure. Look, when you're living and playing in a town of maybe 20-30,000 people, you're just going to find out that very few of those people want to go to a bar or a party and listen to songs they don't know. That sort of scene doesn't exist in small towns. It just doesn't. Therefore, you're not gonna find many musicians who want to take a chance on playing a bunch of original material. It's a lot safer to play "Free Bird."
JW: So why stay in a small town?
JS: Okay...that's a fair question. I don't know. I guess when I was in my early twenties I got a taste of what it really means to be in a serious band. There's not much time for anything else. I suppose I never really...I don't enjoy playing live that much. I mean, I do and I think I can still put on a really good live show but for somebody as...shy...as private as I am...it's just very difficult to do one show after another. It's hard enough for me to get it together to do one. And if you're not gonna play every night, if you're not willing to put your ass on the road 250 nights a week, you're not gonna make it as a band.
JW: Let's get back to your recording. The first tape you released was "BLOOM OR DIE in 1989.
JS: Yeah. I've been making tapes for years and occasionally giving one out to friends. BLOOM OR DIE was the first one I actually put on sale in a record store. It sold pretty well. I made 300 or so copies over a period of time and they're all gone now. Of course, I don't even have the master of that album anymore. I made a few copies of a copy I have for some kids recently.
JW: The infamous MiracleWorks Records story.
JS: Yeah...let's pass that on by.
JW: Done. You've told me you don't like BLOOM OR DIE?
JS: No, I don't. I can't even listen to it. Well...I like a couple songs on it, but other than that...no, I don't like it very much. I never listen to it. I like "I just wanna be normal" a lot. I want to do that again some day on better equipment.
JW: I think the album's very powerful.
JS: Thanks. I know some people think it's the better of the first two albums. I don't.
JW: Why not?
JS: Why don't I like it? Too many of the songs are too sloppy. And it's not a very good sounding tape. It was the best I could do at the time. Of course, I haven't progressed all that far since then, I suppose.
JW: You didn't formally release anything during 1990.
JS: No, I didn't.
JS: Just couldn't get it together.
JW: Which brings us to FOR THE GOOD OF THE CAUSE from 1991. Some of those songs were recorded in 1990, weren't they?
JS: That's actually two albums for the price of one. Of course, not that many people actually bought it. Kids around here, you know, one of them buys the album and then five people'll tape it. You don't sell many tapes that way. But what the hell...at least people are listening.
JW: I thought the second side, the updated folk songs, was excellent. The first side wasn't too bad either.
JS: Thanks. See, 1990 was a really bad year for me. I had all these ideas for a new tape and I was excited about turning those ideas into real songs and then along came the MiracleWorks fiasco which I just gave way too much importance to...
JW: How so?
JS: I just thought...Wow! Here's my chance to have a real California record company put out some songs of mine and it all went to hell and then I just couldn't find the time I needed to record and when I finally got a little time my goddamn recorder broke down and then when I finally got it back it was time to get back to work, the summer being over and I got total writer's block all of a sudden. Also, I was trying to start a band with a couple of old friends and that ended up being a fight over creative directions and destructed. And there was some personal stuff. Jesus that whole year was such a waste.
JW: So how did that lead to FOR THE GOOD OF THE CAUSE?
JS: As you know, I teach high school. Teaching takes so much out of you...I really don't have much energy left to make music between September and May and so I do almost all of my recording during the summer. I'm rambling aren't I? Okay...so I didn't get anything done during 1990. It was really frustrating for me and that frustration carried over to '91 to the point where I didn't know if I wanted to keep making music or not. What I'm trying to say is there was a lot of energy built up from the summer of '90 and all that energy sort of fed on itself over the winter while I was teaching so by the time next summer rolled around I was really ready to so some serious recording. But it didn't come. I got kind of panicky. And then the demands of my family...and I ended up not getting much done until suddenly the summer was already half over. I knew I had to do something or I was gonna go two years without an album. I honestly didn't know if I was gonna get anything recorded or not.
JW: But you did. What happened?
JS: What I did was write a few new songs...kind of Dylan-ish, Beatle-ish stuff...and I had a few demos of old stuff that I'd never put out that I liked. That summer I was really floundering. I just couldn't figure out what I wanted to do next in music. Then out of the blue, a friend turns me on to these old records of folk music from the 30s, 40s and 50s and it was like a total revelation. Such wonderful music. Lyrics of such emotion and depth. I was knocked for a loop. Then I hit on the idea of sort of making a double album...I had these unreleased songs and a couple new ones and I wanted to put out my own versions of some of this folk music. I recorded fifteen different songs in like a week and a half and released eight of them.
JW: Still, you didn't really have much new material to offer.
JS: Right. Hey, I had a lot of music on tape from years past. I never totally stopped writing and recording. It's just that for one reason or another, I didn't feel like releasing most of it. So ultimately it was a pretty dry two years. I'm making up for it now.
JW: Why do you keep so much of your material to yourself? According to you, you have tons of songs no one's ever heard.
JS: I don't know if I can explain that. There's no single explanation. Yeah, I have a lot of songs I've never let people hear. There's always a legitimate reason why I don't release a song. Usually it's because the song sucks.
JW: And so here it is 1992 and you have this explosion of creativity. And you even released most of it !
JS: I can't explain it. I was literally writing songs as I recorded them and as soon as one was done another one would come and I'd record that as fast as I could just so I could see what the next one was gonna be like. It was like a bottomless well-spring of ideas. But I didn't release everything I recorded. There's a couple songs, one's an instrumental, that I probably won't put out. Just didn't make the cut.
JW: This has been a good year for rock music. Did you get any inspiration from all of these new young bands?
JS: Indirectly. But I would've been writing whether that had happened or not. I don't wanna sound like a conceited son of a bitch, but they're not doing anything I and a lot of other older musicians weren't doing in the '80s. I don't know that anybody is doing anything that's really new. I mean, what has anybody done new in rock music since the Beatles's WHITE ALBUM?
JW: Good point. How do you think you've grown as a musician from the last album to this one?
JS: I don't think I've grown. (Laughing) I sure as hell haven't grown as a musician! I just did something a little different from the first two albums. I think the thing that differentiates SCREAM is the philosophy that went into making it.
JS: Being I wanted to do something with the lyrics that I hadn't done before and that was to take real poetry and mix it in with a very primal sort of rock sound. The imagery in these new songs is so...out there...I can't explain it. It's funny because I've written over a hundred songs in my time and these new ones are on one level extremely abstract and maybe a little arty but I have never recorded a more personal album than this one. It's the first tape of mine I like, other than DOGALYPSE, which will proabably never be released.
JW: Why? I have heard about this tape.
JS: Oh yeah? What'd you hear?
JW: Just that it is evidently this mysterious, dark album that no human ears must ever hear.
JS: Well...it's not like you'd turn to stone if you hear it, but you'd know more about me than I want you to if you did listen to it. It's too personal, too painful. I wrote it and recorded it back in 1979 when I was going through some real hell. Listening to that tape now is like walking barefoot across burning coals for me. It's just eight songs, maybe a half hour of music.
JW: You used many open tunings on the new album.
JS: Yes. That's something I'd never done before except for "The Night John Lennon Died" on BLOOM OR DIE. I got really tired of writing lyrics in the same old way and using the same four or five chords over and over. I wasn't willing to put in a lot of time learning all of these finger twisting new chords that only the Beatles used so I just screwed around with all kinds of weird open tunings. It was a hell of a lot of fun. Probably half the songs on DON'T STOP THE SCREAM are played that way.
JW: This album is so eclectic. I was impressed by the differences in the vocals. If I didn't know differently, I 'd think three or more people sang on the tape.
JS: Well...when you do all of the voices on the album you better try to vary something just to keep it from getting too same-sounding. I don't think I was totally successful in getting enough variety on the tape, to tell you the truth. That's the problem with working alone. You can get kind of inbred with yourself.
JW: I don't know. It's a pretty big leap from 'Religion is that I Love You' to 'Abandoned.'
JS: True. Actually, 'Abandoned' is an old song. I wrote that back in 1979. It's on another tape I released to maybe ten people back in '80 or '81. I don't remember.
JW: Whatever. The point remains the album has a lot of variation. I don't find my attention wandering when I listen to it.
JS: Well, that's the idea. There's basically two types of music. One type is for, you know, like driving to, or screwing to, and the other is for paying attention to. I want my music to capture people's attention. I don't particularly care if folks don't dislike it, I just want them to not be able to ignore it.
JW: You told me you worked very fast this time.
JS: Extremely fast. Like I said earlier, I was actually recording the songs as I wrote them. I think that's a good thing if you work by yourself, because it lends a certain freshness to the sound that you can lose if you labor over it for too long. The majority of the songs on this album were probably written in less than 30 minutes each. Most of them didn't take more than a couple hours to record, including the time it would take to program the drum machine.
JW: This was what you've called a 'first take' album?
JS: What I meant was that as I was writing and recording the song I wouldn't sit there and plan anything out. I just played and as soon as I got, say, the bass track, for example, down relatively error free, I went on to the next instrument. I did the vocals like that too. I'll bet there isn't a single song that doesn't have a glaring error on it. Too bad. I just didn't have the inclination to go back and fix anything.
JW: What's your biggest frustration as a home taper?
JS: Probably the same for any serious home taper. You put your heart and soul into your music and you're constantly questioning why you do it because you know you'll be lucky if 100 people hear the tape. And there's so little recognition on any level for the home taper. Jim Santo from ALTERNATIVE PRESS is about the only guy on a truly national level keeping the faith. By the way...what he's doing...well, I have never met the man, but I love his ass for here to the moon. He can't know how important he is to musicians like me.
JW: What's next?
JS: I don't know. I could probably sit right down and write and record a bunch more songs. A friend of mine has gotten really heavy into the blues and wants me to sing in his band. I'll think it over. I've been thinking about bringing some other musicians in the next time I record.
JW: Can we expect another album next summer?
JS: If I'm still alive, I don't know why not. Music is my religion. Without it, there's no meaning in my life. I have to put out tapes. I might put out another one this summer...maybe by fall.
JW: Do you still want a record contract?
JS: If a record company called me up tomorrow...hell, I wouldn't care if it was Podunk Records...I'd probably crap my pants. Yeh...I would very much like to put out a cd. But I'm so leery of the whole process. I could never put myself in a situation where I had to compromise to sell records. I would not be able to write a single song. But it's a moot point. It's not like companies are knocking down my door.
JW: Why don't you use outside musicians more?
JS: Well, I've used you! I don't know. I've recorded a few things with other people. I generally don't like to record with others.
JW: Why not?
JS: It's just a lot easier for me to do it myself. I know I'm just barely an adequate musician, but in a way that's good because then I have to be creative about the way to get a sound down. It's not like I haven't tried to use other people. But every time I've brought somebody in they've had a real difficult time getting used to working with headphones and playing along with the rest of the track. I suppose it's a matter of being used to working that way. It's less of a hassle to just do it myself.
JW: Do you have any particular musical influences that have played a part in your sound? Bands? Producers?
JS: As far as producers go...I think George Martin and Phil Spector. Boy...that dates me, doesn't it? Those guys were as big as the artists they produced and in Spector's case usually bigger. I like the old Sun Records sound too. Sam Phillips. That incredible reverb. As far as bands...the Beatles. Love. The Sex Pistols and Ramones...that in your face guitar sound. That was something I always loved and yet nobody ever did that on record until the punks came along. I kept thinking all during the '60s the '70s, Why don't bands turn up their goddamned guitars?
JW: You're not a big fan of digital, are you?
JS: Maybe it's all subjective but somehow it sounds fake to me. I like the messiness of analog. I'm very at home with analog tape. But I own a DAT...so there you go...I'm full of shit, I guess.
JW: Why do so many of your songs feel so violent?
JS: I've asked myself that many times. I've actually had people come up to me and say something like, "You know, I can't understand many of the words of so and so song but it's such a violent song!" I guess I look at the world and see violence working on just about every level of our lives. Physical violence. Mental. You live in this world long enough you're going to get assaulted in one way or another. I used to write really catchy little pop ditties, you know, like "Dear Annie." But even the words to that one have sort of a dark undertone. It's just part of my nature, though God knows, I'm not a violent person.
JW: You say you purposely make your albums rough, sloppy and raw. Do you ever foresee making an album that's very carefully produced?
JS: It's always a possibility. There's something about jamming a song full, really producing it to the hilt. You know, backwards guitars, tons of reverb, synths, harmonies, all that. It's very attractive to me because it's like putting a complicated puzzle together. This time, I didn't want to do that. I wanted it fast and assaultive (sp). Next time, who knows? But it's always a possibility. I can only do so much, you know. Remember I'm a devoted home taper! (Laughing) I have a fucking tradition to uphold!