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Donning headphones and hitting play on The Sharp Shadows’ latest single “Meet Me in the Middle” won’t transport listeners to a polished-to-perfection land of studio wizardry, where songs are sculpted and fluffed beyond the recognizable sonic image of their creators. While the Brooklyn-based trio did employ Replacements’ reunion guitarist Dave Minehan’s well-equipped Boston studio (and the impassioned help of engineer Matt Jones), the sound is no-frills and all energy. Reclining back into your favorite arm chair as the opening jangle of guitars slams into a wall of fuzz and sledgehammer drums, it’s hard to believe the band isn’t right there in the room, sweating and eager and laying it all out to bare just for you.
The best part about The Sharp Shadows is that there isn’t just one. Together, guitarist/vocalist Stephen Bailey, bassist Thomas Califour, and drummer Zac Pless cultivate a sound that is simultaneously intimate and immediate. It’s a raw vitality made possible through honesty, through all of the small victories that only a band of friends could experience and learn from together. And it happens to be catchy as all hell.
BTRtoday talks with Bailey and Califour about the band’s creative process and what’s in store for the months ahead.
BTRtoday (BTR): It’s been a while since BTR last touched base with you guys. What have the past couple of years been like for the band?
Steve Bailey (SB): It’s been a pretty tumultuous couple of years since we last touched base. We lost two drummers and weren’t really able to be much of a live band in that time. It kind of tested our resolve to see if we even really wanted to keep doing things or not. Ultimately we decided upon the former and doubled down in the studio, which has finally resulted in the upcoming record. We also have a wonderful drummer (Zac Pless) who’s been with us the past half a year or so, and we’ve been playing out a lot more now. Feels good!
BTR: That’s great to hear. So… let’s say an alien was visiting earth and asked about your band. How would you describe the sound of The Sharp Shadows–without using any genre distinctions?
SB: It’s kind of like a dance. The louder and more exuberant it gets, the more our partner (the audience) is compelled to do the same. It’s an exploration of illogical human emotions through sound, and trying to paint the various colors of those moments and feelings into something you can see and understand. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride with a lot of euphoric highs and sharp turns.
Thomas Chalifour (TC): We sound like frustration.
BTR: Steve, you do the songwriting, what’s your process like? Do you find yourself drawn to any recurring ideas or sounds?
SB: Songs seem to come to me in one of two ways: fully formed as if I’m just borrowing them from some ether where they are already out in the world, or through the daily grind of meshing phrases to chord changes and trying to smelt a pop song into being. I’m always amused by how the “fully formed, done in five minutes” songs seem to have more staying power and completeness to people than the ones I spend the most time on and really stretch myself doing. That’s the weird alchemy of songwriting though, you can’t really predict what’s going to work or how it’s going to go over. You just do your best and hope that it connects.
As far as recurring sounds and ideas, my pop tastes were formed by repeated exposure to British Invasion music as a kid, and as my adult tastes formed around bands that descended from that like the Jam, The Pretenders, and powerpop and punk rock bands, it’s definitely led me to favor brevity and conciseness. On the guitar I’ve always been drawn to twinkly arpeggiated chords, as well as siren-esque lead guitar noises. I like rhythm parts that allow for a bit of drone or open strings ringing out. It makes standard chord progressions sound a bit more mysterious or interesting when you leave a note out or do a different voicing. As far as lead parts, I like little bits that I can hum to and that are as catchy as the vocal hooks.
BTR: Tell us a little bit about the making of your most recent record, Small Victories, which is set for release May 15th.
SB: We ended up coming up with the title almost as a last minute thing, but it really did apply to the situation of making this record. Most of the songs have been around since early 2014, but our time in the studio was stretched out over a long time because of scheduling and money issues. As a result, for a record that sounds like it was recorded live in a couple of afternoons, it ended up being drawn out into an agonizing year and a half of retakes and nitpicking of small ideas.
The “small victories” in that situation were just the moments where things actually seemed to work, like landing a take or realizing something was finally done. That being said, I’m very proud of the song selection and the overall feel we were able to get. It’s one of those records were it manages to sound all like us, but no two songs sound exactly the same. That’s something I’m really pleased about, because I hate records that are just like… one idea pounded into the dirt for half an hour.
TC: It was two years of ducking into the studio when we could. Usually because Dave was off touring with the Replacements or we’d all have work off. Sometimes we’d throw out a whole weekend’s worth of tracking or just walk away with one usable guitar track. It was slow going, but the moments of serendipity like nailing “Tubes” on our first take or finally getting all of the vocals we needed done were small victories that felt huge. The name felt immediately appropriate when it came to us.
BTR: The single from the record which you recently released, “Meet Me in the Middle,” feels at once very intimate and relatable. Is there a personal story behind this one?
SB: Thank you, and yes there definitely is. I’ve always been jealous of people who can write “character songs” or go outside of their own experiences when writing, because I’ve never been able to completely do that convincingly in a song. For me it’s always something happens and it sets off an avalanche of creativity and sometimes I’m working my way through an experience to the tune of 50-60 songs just to get the right two or three that sum it all up.
(Photo courtesy of the band)
In the case of “Meet Me in the Middle” I was really fresh from a big breakup and the opening “scene” of the song was kind of the last gasp from it. Then the rest is just about the mental gymnastics you go through of dealing with losing an important person in your life. I was actually really worried about the chorus for a while because one thing I try to do when I write “relationship” songs is avoid doing like… finger-pointy, “ahhhh this person sucks” kind of songs because everyone plays a part in that kind of situation. So that “meet me in the middle now” thing I worried people would see as a demanding “now!” versus the “come on now, let’s try and meet in the middle” way it’s actually meant.
Ultimately I try to avoid going into super detail in lyrics because I want to write something everyone can relate to. The super-diary thing that some people do was always a turnoff for me, and I think when you’re listening to these kind of songs over and over again in the headphones you want to put yourself in them, not care about what Steve Bailey specifically was doing.
BTR: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as an artist while making music with The Sharp Shadows?
SB: That being an artist is all about how true to yourself you can be, and seeing how far whatever that is can take you. When you’re coming up making music, you are trying to make sense of all the influences going into you, be it the sounds you grew up hearing or the bands you are into now, or are trying to fit in with. It’s hard sometimes to determine what makes you unique or special. I’ve been in bands for probably about a decade at this point, and only in hindsight sometimes can I really pick out the elements in what I’ve made as “this is what being Steve Bailey as a songwriter is all about.”
That being said, going that long allows you to draw a line in it, and it can be comforting sometimes to realize what you’ve stuck with and how that’s brought you to the places that you are. I felt really out of touch when I first started playing in bands in 2004 being into stuff like The Clash or the bands in Our Band Could Be Your Life when most of my friends in college were into like… Radiohead and Modest Mouse and stuff like that. Looking at it now where short punchy songs and loud guitars are starting to rear their heads in bands again in music, I’m happy that I didn’t give up on making that kind of music. For once I don’t feel like I’m making retro music. People listening now might relate to what I’m making, and that’s a very encouraging thought.
TC: Even if no one is listening, it’s important to make a noise. You might be only hearing yourself echo back but it’s the act of creating something that’s most satisfying. And if you make enough noise, someone’s bound to hear you.
BTR: What’s in store for 2016?
SB: The album is coming out on cassette on May 15th. We’re playing out in New York a lot more this year now that we have a full lineup. Practicing a lot. Some small scale touring and promoting later in the year, and writing songs for the next one. We can’t wait!
To hear more from The Sharp Shadows, check out their site or tune into BTRtoday’s very own In the Den.