Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shake Some Action! Interview

Seattle Powerpop Blog (SPB):
Congratulations on the release of your stellar new album Sunny Days Ahead. I think it’s got a great sound that combines the polish of your first album Shake Some Action! with the excitement and directness of your live album Live at the Crocodile. Are you happy with the way it turned out?

James Hall (JH): Thanks Andy. Overall I'm very happy with it. I think your description is about right – it was a combination of playing live (the backing tracks) with the polish added in the overdub sessions that followed.

Gary Miller (GM): I’m very happy with the results. I know some folks have been surprised with the harder edge that comes with some of the tracks. But, I think it’s a good balance and it was a very satisfying process to go through to get the end results!

SPB: James you did a great job producing and engineering the album. Was recording the rhythm tracks with Rob Sharp at Playroom Studio key to getting the sound you wanted?

JH: Thanks Andy! It was – Rob is such an easy guy to work with and we all knew him to varying degrees, so we knew he understood what would work best for the songs. He has an amazing collection of vintage analog gear – great preamps and mics and some rare Vox and Selmer amps that we put to good use. We wanted a warm analog feel for the drums and bass in particular, with just the right amount of grit - and Rob knows how to dial in the right amount of grit.

SPB: I love the use of keyboards and percussion on this album. Did you guys experiment overdubbing various instruments after you had the basic tracks recorded?

JH: We spent about 2 months overdubbing and yeah, we experimented a lot. Chris did most of the percussion – the tambourines and shakers and the like – and we used percussion on almost every song. Gary and I spent a lot of time trying various keyboard overdubs – we had a pretty clear idea that we didn’t want it to just sound exactly like the live band, we wanted to spice it up a bit. There’s a lot of Hammond B3 organ, some Mellotron and Farfisa, some piano and Gary played lap steel on “Curtain Call.” It’s easy to go overboard with that stuff but I think we got the balance about right.

SPB: The songs on Sunny Days Ahead are credited to Shake Some Action! on the CD insert, how much of a group effort was this record? What was the songwriting process like?

JH: It was very much a group effort from the very beginning. Gary and I talked about co-writing early last year and we found we worked really well together – once we started a lot of new material just came out of nowhere. We had a lot of fun coming in with ideas, recording demos in my studio, then taking away unfinished songs and returning a week later with lyrics and melodies. Those first few songs ended up in our live set at the end of last year – “Walking Away,” “Looking For Someone” and “Unusual Girl.” Then Chris started coming in with songs (he wrote a lot of “You Don’t Care”) and would help co-write on others. Once we had chords and lyrics we would learn the songs as a band and that was where David would come in and add the icing on the cake with his guitar work. So the writing process was very collaborative from beginning to end.

SPB: Several of the songs seem to be about disintegrating relationships. Was there a catalyst?

JH: Not really. That’s the stuff that always fascinates me regardless of whether it’s happening to me or not. Some friends of mine were going through a nasty divorce last year and that inspired some lyrics on a few songs but only in a general sense.

GM: I’ve always written lyrics that have some type of loss or longing in them. For some reason, that’s always been a draw for me both as a writer and a listener. So, as one who is happily married, it requires putting yourself in another space or frame of mind sometimes. But, really, that kind of stuff is universal and you can draw on past experiences, or even things that evoke the same feeling but are in completely different parts of life. Truth be known, while I was writing the lyrics to “Your Valentine,” my dog was very sick and almost died. I’m sure that imbued some sadness in those lyrics.

SPB: I think David’s a great guitar player but I understand that he was busy with his newborn baby (congratulations) during much of the recording and that Gary actually played some of the guitar solos on Sunny Days Ahead. I really love the solo on “Half Past Three” - the way the tension quickly builds over the bridge erupting in a quick burst of violence and then when it starts back into the verse it sounds so joyful like a little victory dance and finally over the chorus almost gloating – nah nah nah nah, nah nah, nah nah nah…Great stuff and it fits so perfectly with the story the lyrics tell. I’m curious Gary, was all that thought out or was it just intuitive?

GM: You know, it’s funny you should ask that, because that is the one song that I hadn’t analyzed the lyrics for at all. In truth, it hadn’t really even struck me what that song was about until you wrote about it on SPB. I should probably hang my head in shame for that, I’m sure. But, the song’s story wasn’t obvious to me until you wrote about it. I suppose I’m thick headed or something! I guess that’s a long way of answering that it was total intuition and luck that allows the guitar solo to match the storyline of the song. I was just writing to the music, rather than the lyrics.

SPB: “Who Do You Love?” has a scorching solo played by Ryan Maxwell of Young Sportsmen. How did you happen to work with Ryan on that track?

GM: Well, this song almost didn’t make it onto the record. Even though it’s a total rocker, I don’t think James has ever really been in love with the tune. So, we were working on this one late in the game, during the time where David and Dana were getting closer to having their baby. I didn’t feel like I could really pull off a solo to match the vibe of the tune. So, I asked James if he wanted to go “outside the circle.” I called up Ryan, and he literally said “have guitar, will travel.” So, he came over and just blasted through it.

SPB: What kind of distribution deal do you have for Sunny Days Ahead and where can people buy a copy?

JH: People can buy a copy at any of the major online stores – iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody, CD Baby etc etc – and our distribution stretches across the world so even if it isn’t on the shelves, it can be ordered from practically any record store on the planet.

SPB: You guys haven’t played any shows since last September. Gary moved to North Carolina earlier this year. I’m getting a little worried. Gary’s driving rock-solid bass playing and spot-on high harmony vocals are an integral part of Shake Some Action’s sound. Are you going to try to function as a bi-costal band or are you looking for a replacement for Gary?

JH: We still haven’t worked that one out. We had planned on taking a little break after finishing the record anyway – so with Gary gone that’s just been extended. We’re still in that mindset of having a rest from the band and seeing what happens. As you mentioned, Gary is an exceptional bass player and vocalist. It would be tough to find someone who could do either of those things as well as him, let alone wrapped up in the one person. We had such a great chemistry as a band – everyone was easy going and low maintenance, there was never any drama – that replacing any member of the band would diminish it for me. We’ve talked about collaborating long-distance and as far as recording goes that’s perfectly do-able. We’re just not sure about playing live – we haven’t ruled anything in or out, we’ll just wait and see where the dust settles.

I really hope to see the long-distance collaboration come into being. I think that’d be interesting and fun, especially since I think James and I write well together. But, as he says, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens after this record runs its course.

Gary you like to classify Seattle bands in what you call affinity groups, so what bands are in Shake Some Action’s affinity group?

GM: That’s a very good question. I may be too close to the forest to see any particular trees here. I think we might straddle a few. I think we always felt comfortable surrounded by the Unsmashable guys. But, at the same time, some of our best shows I think were with The Purrs. We’re not nearly as psychedelic as those guys. But, I think both bands have a slightly dark undercurrent.

SPB: Every review or article I’ve ever read about Shake Some Action! mentions that you play Rickenbacker guitars. Have you ever thought about trying to secure an endorsement deal?

JH: Dreamed about it would be more accurate! If John Hall is reading this, we’d love a 12 string 360.

GM: And if you could toss a 4003 in the box, that’d be awesome. Ha ha.

I have a theory that bands that play Rickenbacker guitars are somewhat enamored with the music of the mid-sixties Beatles, Byrds and Who, hope to emulate that sound in some way and will therefore most likely make pretty good music themselves. What do you think of my theory?

I think that’s true to a large extent, although a lot of bands can take the emulation too far - the trick is to incorporate other influences to put a fresh spin on the music. After all, those bands eventually got away from that sound themselves so it’s important to evolve.

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