The Tape Op Interview
Under The Radar (Tape Op #) by Rob Christensen
If you've been involved with home taping for any time at all, you've probably heard of Book of Kills. BOK has been around for over ten years and has been featured in Alternative Press, Demo Universe (formerly associated with AP), Gajoob, and Free Agent, among others. Demo Universe's Jim Santo has been raving about BOK for years: "Those interested in excellent songwriting in its purest, most immediate form must pick up on this guy!" "That no label, major or indie, has seen fit to put the man in a proper studio is case-closed evidence of the intrinsic bankruptcy of the music business. Are they all deaf?" After reading countless references to BOK I decided to make contact.
Book of Kills is essentially Jim Shelley, a high school teacher from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. A life long rock and roll / punk fan whose likes and influences range from The Beatles to Patti Smith to Bob Dylan to Husker Du and Nirvana, Shelley got started playing around age twelve: "I first got into the Beatles, I think... Really the whole first British Invasion thing. I'm sure even as a little kid listening to those British bands I dreamed about being LIKE them. I can recall designing album covers for my 'band'. I'd even make up song titles. When I was twelve, my parents gave me a cheap electric guitar and amplifier. I learned a few chords from a book I got somewhere, but I was pretty frustrated by how hard it was to play a guitar like I heard people playing on the records I listened to. To be honest, I haven't really progressed in my understanding of the guitar from when I was twelve, which is probably as much a blessing as a curse."
Though Shelley has been recording and releasing material off and on since the mid-seventies, Book of Kills really got started in 1989, both as a live band and as a recording entity. "Back in 1987, I formed a group that was a sort of dry run for what would later become Book of Kills. The band lasted maybe six or seven months and didn't play out much, but it was the first time I'd really decided to put together a set of almost exclusively my own stuff. I learned a lot from audience reaction to various songs as to what worked and what didn't. I also just plain learned how to play guitar better. When you sing and play at the same time in a high energy rock band you're really in a sink or swim situation and you either work like mad to make your guitar playing almost an unconscious act so that you can concentrate on the singing part or you get frustrated and hang it up. Anyway, by 1988 I was gaining confidence as a composer. I wrote 'The Night John Lennon Died' in '88 and that was the key song in my maturing as a songwriter. It was the first thing I'd ever done that I felt was really me and not just an imitation of someone else. There were a few people around who liked what I was doing and they encouraged me to write more, which I did. I recorded Bloom or Die in the spring of '89 and somehow got the guts to send a tape of it to Jim Santo, who was writing a great column called "DemoRandom" in Alternative Press. He not only reviewed the album positively, he also published part of the letter I'd enclosed as the main focus of that month's column. It legitimized what I was doing. Jim has no idea how important he is to my music. Ha! He's to blame, people! Once I saw that someone of significance actually kind of liked what I was doing, the flood gates opened and from '89 to '97 I wrote and released 21 albums/singles of my stuff. I guess I've kind of slowed down since then."
In the studio BOK is basically a one man band. For the first bunch of albums, Shelley used a 4-track Tascam Porta studio to record his songs. Starting with 1992's The Haunted Life, he got a TOA 8-track and used that almost exclusively until 1996 when he bought a new 8-track Tascam 488mkII. "I have a Shure SM-57 and a '58, both of which I use for vocals, though I prefer the '58...it seems a little clearer. That stuff about buying $500 - $1000 mics is bullshit, by the way. Buy a '58 for $100 and spend the rest of your money on food or something. People aren't gonna hear the difference. They don't even care. I have a Telecaster (a cheap Japanese one and a nice modified one with three pickups) for all the electric stuff. 95% of the time I record guitars direct. I have a little Zoom effects box that I've used for the last 2-3 CDs. I have a nice 100 watt Crate amp but can't play it loud because of the neighbors. I have a Yamaha 12 channel powered mixer that I used to use for shows but it's really on its last legs...very noisy...that I've used since '89 for mix-downs. These days I often just mix down to a master tape right from the Tascam. I'm not wildly into pristine sound quality. My drum machine is an Alesis SR-15, I think. I've had it forever. Sometimes I'll program just a bass drum track and do a snare drum live. My acoustic guitar is some piece of shit Korean thing...totally funky. No resonance or decent tone at all. I should buy a good acoustic I guess. For keyboards I use a Casio that I bought at a department store for about $150. $150 is a big purchase for me. I have a hard time paying that much for musical equipment. Which means, of course, that all I've got to work with is utter shite. Everything I've got is broken or breaking. I drank too much Virginia Gentlemen and threw up on my Zoom pedal not too long ago. Now it makes these annoying crackling noises but I'm not gonna buy a new pedal until it just doesn't work anymore. I don't use a compressor. Never have. You'll laugh, but I think compressors make music sound fake...kind of like Velveeta cheese. I don't get into perfect machine music at all. I use a drum machine only because I can't play drums worth a damn."
When asked about the recording process, Shelley had this to say: "If there are drums on the track, I do them first. Next I will do a rhythm guitar track. After that, it varies. There's no set pattern, although I usually do the bass last, or at least before I do the vocals. Sometimes I do a guide vocal early in the recording. More often than not I end up keeping the guide vocal because I'm a big believer in the emotional honesty of the first take. Once you start doing something over and over it becomes a very self-conscious process and less and less 'real', if you ask me. I hate working things to death. I rarely take things beyond eight tracks, by the way. Occasionally I will bounce eight tracks onto a second machine and add more stuff, but that's not all that typical really. I do little tricks all the time to maintain my interest in writing and recording music. The older I get the harder it is for me to channel energy into making music so I sort of trick myself into composing stuff. On Haunted Life, I decided I wanted to get a really loose feel to the album so almost all the vocals and solos are first takes. I'm not so sure that was a good idea now that I listen to the record, but it seemed like a great thing to do at the time. On Don't Stop The Scream, I decided I was going to do every song in a non-standard tuning, but I sort of wimped out on that idea. I guess about half the songs are in weird tunings of one sort or another. But those are the sort of things I will do. I don't generally consciously make the decision to do or not do something. I kind of approach recording as an intuitive process. As I'm doing overdubs, ideas come to me about how to do the arrangement and I work that way. The way a guitar sounds on a track, for instance, might suggest that I should play the bass in a certain way."
From 1989 - '97 BOK releases were available exclusively on cassette on Jim's own label, Ain't Records. In 1998 Ain't Records released the first BOK CD, If I Should Fall. Since then Jim has re-released several BOK albums on CD, many with previously unreleased bonus tracks. BOK releases are no longer released on cassette. "I don't bother much with tapes anymore, sad to say. I think cassettes are great. They liberated the home musician. They're still the medium of choice for many people around the world. But I just don't listen to them much these days. I think, as others have already said, that CD-Rs are the new cassettes for home tapers. Technology, however, is moving so quickly, I have a feeling that CD-Rs are going to become outdated much more quickly than we might suppose. They won't remain the medium of choice for twenty-five plus years as cassettes managed to do."
The thing that has impressed me is the passion Shelley has for his music. BOK has drawn comparisons to Guided By Voices, John Lennon, The Cure, Neil Young, and Echo and the Bunnymen, but, as Jim Santo said, "Comparisons are an insult. The man is an original." Like many of us, Shelley would love to make a living with his music. It's a shame that some indie label hasn't snatched him up, but maybe that's just as well. When you put out your own records you can do anything you want (within your budget).
Shelley has a very comprehensive website, featuring lots of in-depth articles and interviews, photos, mp3s, and a constantly updated news page. It's a fantastic resource for BOK fans. There's also a fan club which gives its members special releases, has contests, and puts out a nice newsletter.
At no more than $6.00 each, BOK recordings are a tremendous bargain. You can find out how to get 'em, or just learn more about Jim Shelley and Book of Kills, by visiting the website at bookofkills.com, emailing: email@example.com, or writing to Ain't Records, 206 High Street, Bridgewater, VA 22812. You can also buy BOK recordings, as well as many other releases from DIY artists, through www.homemademusic.com.