Beware, those of you who think that because the Legendary Shack Shakers put on a wild live show and play with southern-gothic stereotypes, that they’re a bunch of crazy rednecks. David Lee and J.D. Wilkes are as thoughtful and articulate as they are insane onstage, and more than willing to share their thoughts on rock’n’roll, roots music, old-time religion, and the Southern literary tradition.
KaffeineBuzz: How long have you been with the band?
David Lee: About a year and a half.
KB: Ok, because I saw them play a couple of years ago in Denver with Hank Williams III and I think the lineup has changed since then.
DL: That’s right before Joe Buck left the band. This is the deal, though. Right off the bat, we clicked. I’ve played in other bands, and we did some shows with the Shack Shakers, and we got to be really good friends, so right away it was just amazing, natural, kind of uncannily weird. It’s been really great, and we’ve been touring ever since.
KB: I think uncannily weird is a good way to describe your band, actually. I went to see the show looking for Hank III, and by the end of the Shack Shakers set it was like, “What the hell just happened?” Anyway, I think that there’s a little bit of any possible kind of roots music I can think of in there.
DL: I think that’s very accurate. It’s definitely a hodgepodge of all of our influences that all come together and work their way through us, and that’s how the Shack Shakers come out.
KB: Tell me a little bit, then, about where you came from before you joined up with the Shack Shakers.
DL: I had played in other punk and rockabilly and psychobilly bands over the years, nothing extremely notable but definitely all in the same sort of genre, roots music. I play old Gretsch guitars, old Marshalls, old blackface Fender Bassmans, so I think I bring a bit more of a punk element to the band than Joe Buck did, but it still definitely has a lot of two-beat, klezmer gypsy music influences. It seemed to be perfectly where the band was morphing at the time. I came in and kind of quickly established my musical influences along with everyone else. It was a really good mesh.
KB: “So Believe” is the first CD that you played on.
KB: Because the vocals sound so interesting, I wanted to ask a bit about the bullet microphone that J.D. uses.
DL: They’re old, basically harmonica microphones from the fifties but it gives you a really cool sound when you sing through them. It has kind of a CB, squawk box kind of feel, and it makes sense because then he can just flip right over and play the harps through it as well. They’re all vintage. He actually has a guy that has given him a couple of new microphones recently that have more modern elements on the inside, so they’re a little less likely to feedback and a few of the other things that come with it—those things weren’t made to be played at full volume constantly. There are a few little odds and ends you can do—he plays the old Fender Bassmans as well, and it just gives it a really unique, gravelly distorted sound.
KB: That’s definitely one thing that’s very unique about your sound.
DL: It is a very cool—I don’t want to say trademark, but his vocals are amazing and it does give a different kind of feel on the whole thing. It fits really well with the whole presence of the band, I think.
KB: One of my comments on the record was that though it was a very good record, it would be impossible to translate what the show is like.
DL: We’ve definitely been trying to get more elaborate with the recordings, bring in fiddle and accordion and tuba and different things to play, and then live it’s definitely more lean and mean. That comes from our love of live music and we think that the performance has a lot to say about the band itself.
KB: I heard that Jello Biafra referred to J.D. as the last great rock’n’roll frontman.
DL: He actually said that to me. We were playing South by Southwest last year at Anton’s and we had this really amazing show. And this guy comes up to me–and I saw Jello play when I was 14 years old, that was one of my first punk rock shows, so now it’s come full circle that he’s a fan of our band—so he comes up to me and I totally didn’t recognize him, and he says “You’re a hell of a guitar player, but I gotta tell you, your singer’s the last great American rock’n’roll frontman.”
And I’m like, “Wow, that’s quite a profound statement. What’s your name, sir?” And he goes “Jello Biafra,” and I’m like, “You gotta be kidding me.”
He says, “No. I think your band’s great, that was one of the best shows I’ve seen since I don’t know when.” So I’m like, “Oh my god, you’ve got to come meet J.D.”
We’ve become very good friends with Jello, actually. Last time we were in San Francisco, I dislocated my kneecap on stage and Jello actually gave me a ride back to my hotel. He’s a really sweet guy, really amazing. He’s been calling up and checking on me on tour.
KB: Not only is that a great comment to have, but that’s a great person to get it from.
DL: I know, does it get any better than that?
KB: Not really!
DL: Another flattering thing that’s happened to us recently, is that we got an email that Lux Interior and Poison Ivy from the Cramps are coming to our show in L.A. We met the bass player and the drummer in Santa Cruz and they passed the CD’s along to Lux and Ivy and now they want to come and meet us and see us live. I think they’ll totally get the feel for us. We’re secretly keeping our fingers crossed that they’ll ask us to go on tour with them.
KB: The religious theme—I know it’s a theme for J.D., I don’t know if it’s a thing for you as well. . .
DL: Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m about to get on the van right now, so I can hand the phone to J.D. and he can talk to you about the religious iconography in our music.
KB: Sure. So I had just asked David about the religious background of your music and your actual religious background.
J.D. Wilkes: I don’t think that there’s too much really other than the photographs on the record and the title that are really overtly religious. It’s just kind of a small motif. I like gospel music—I like the old stuff, though. The Stanley Brothers—the old school, old time religion, the music that’s really what is at the heart of most American roots music. The charismatic spirit that motivates it. It’s just good stuff. I came from a traditional Christian home in Kentucky, one of those environments where some people might imagine it to be a horrible thing, but it wasn’t. I thought it was just a real classic nuclear family with traditional values. But they sent me to this church school in high school because the public schools were so screwed up. They sent me to this one place, they were kind of crazy, and it was like Assemblies of God where they speak in tongues, crazy stuff. So that was kind of neat. Just as an objective observer, I thought it was kind of interesting to watch these people go into it—completely losing themselves in the moment. I think that has a lot to do with the way I interpret music. I think it’s the same thing really. It’s just that charisma that’s at the heart of it all. Rock’n’roll, old time religion, same thing.
KB: On your website, I read your response to something the Nashville Scene had written about your lyrics being stereotypical, saying that “they did southerners no favors.”
JW: I think that whoever that writer was, was just more interested in coming across as cool to whomever. Because they’re an alt-weekly, you have to be somewhat subversive and always second-guessing everything. This sort of post-modern mindset, all these writers drive themselves crazy playing devil’s advocate for a living.
KB: Oh, I know.
JW: I say that knowingly, because I was a writer for my college paper, and I write, that’s part of what I do anyway, and I’ve done record reviews and things too, and I’m pretty jaded as well. I think what we do is we try to let people have fun, lose themselves, play around with certain archetypal characters, and to me it’s all part of entertainment, part of the fun of it. I don’t shy away from the sort of Southern cartoon characters, because in a way we’re defusing them. The way black people say the n-word. You sort of defuse it. It’s equal parts playing into the stereotype and debunking it. You have fun playing around with it, but it’s just a way of defusing it, the way you defuse a bomb. A Southern white male is the only person left that you can completely lampoon and still be politically correct. It’s a way of affirming ourselves.
The idea that you can’t have a sense of humor in rock music—and that you can’t have a self-deprecating sense of humor in your music, since the sixties and the whole post-modern, post-cultural revolution era, rock stars have become the new clergy. They’re the ones that we’re not supposed to question, we’re just supposed to fawn over them and lap up their pearls of wisdom because they’re all such tortured geniuses. And to me, rock’n’roll just started as a way to blow off steam. I think that it’s at its best when it serves that purpose.
KB: I think in music, I see a lot of two extremes. Either it’s so serious, so tragic, everything is so important, or it’s the other side where people don’t take anything at all seriously.
JW: I don’t think that we’re a novelty act. If you read our lyrics, I’ve put a lot of work into coming across as somewhat literate, and thoughtful, but not taking myself so seriously. I’m writing in a traditional vein, you know, murder ballads. It’s somewhat histrionic, but it’s not supposed to be derivative. It’s supposed to be fitting into an American tradition, and so many people just pooh-pooh that, and throw it all off, that it’s all backwards-looking, backwards-thinking, but it’s who we are as human beings. I think we should embrace our traditions, because there’s a lot to learn from them. And you can be a part of the lineage, the legacy of it all if you try hard and really get into it. The same way that Tom Waits is adored by roots music fans, blues people love him, but he’s also a darling of the indie rock scene. If it rings true, of truth and humanity, but a little bit of humor to set it all off, it can stand the test of time.
KB: It’s the mix of all of those things that makes good writing and good music. And I think the greatest literary tradition in this country is from the South. It’s Faulkner, Tennessee Williams . . .
JW: O’Connor, and the like. The people of that area are tied closer to the soil, they flew lower to the ground, and they came from an agrarian background. And there was also a lot of social-cultural turmoil that they had to overcome. The church played a huge part in that. You can’t write about the south if you don’t include a little bit of that gospel—it’s the marriage of gothic and gospel. I think that’s the beauty of the best of American writing.
A lot of people playing rock these days are trying to be someone else. They’ve got their full-length mirror at home and MTV on, or they’re reading their Magnet magazine, getting whatever’s “hip” and “with it” at the time, and all that stuff just comes and goes so quickly. How can you stay on top of that, changing who you are? I actually know people who change their haircut depending on what was in Rolling Stone that week. I know people that are that fickle, that insecure. Just inhabit who you are, take pride in where you come from. Stick with the stuff that’s been there all the time. It’s better stuff, anyway. It feeds your soul instead of distracts your eye toward the ephemeral, toward the flash-in-the-pan trends that are here and then gone.
So much of what America is are those writers, Faulkner and O’Connor, but look what it’s become, just trend-obsessed, money-obsessed culture of garbage. I think it’s better to just go back to what we know works, and not just do a period piece and do it like they did back then, but try to channel what they were channeling. But do it in your own way, with your own psychology informing the end result.
KB: As I get older, I find my musical tastes moving back—the things that I like become more and more traditional-sounding.
JW: I think that happens to most people, if they’re truthful with themselves. Flights of fancy like that, it’s a youthful experience. You see these kids, hardcore kids, punk rock kids, kind of retiring into the rockabilly lock. But from the beginning I was just drawn to the blues and country. I figure that has a lot to do with the household I grew up in. It was more traditional. We didn’t have MTV. But now I’m learning more about punk rock that I’d missed out on when I was a kid. There’s good in just about every genre of music. The original purveyors of that style are usually the best, and then all your copycats come along and ruin it. It’s weird how that works.
KB: I had commented to David that I think your music touches on so many genres of roots music. You’re not just taking one genre of traditional music, but taking a lot of them and bringing them together.
JW: I think that our music is all those different genres of music combined, and if anything we’re just reconstructing it, for whatever the song calls for. If it comes out a little more bluesy here, a little more klezmer there, that’s just what the song calls for. But it’s all American, even these forms like polka and klezmer, they’ve come into American roots music through immigration and even informed Texas country music. So we’re just separating out the sounds depending on what the songs call for, and creating our own sort of hybrid monstrosity. It’s a lot more cohesive live because of the limitations of our four-piece setup, but in the studio we can bring in a fiddle player or a clarinet player and bring out those sounds the way they’re supposed to sound. Or not supposed to sound, actually.
As long as it’s got kind of a soulful, down-to-earth quality to it, I think it’s worthwhile and will stand the test of time. We’re getting better at what we’re doing, as we’re learning it more and more. We’re a pretty young band and we’re still learning who we are, experimenting, but I just want to grow with this thing, really hone it down to a science but always be loose enough to go with the moment. We have four guys in this band who always have their antennae out for those kinds of ancient tones, echoing from the moment of creation. Guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Doc Boggs that we’re listening to, were really on to something but it’s nothing you can put your finger on. It’s all about just closing your eyes, letting your eyes roll back in your head and just going for it. And not worrying about what’s popular. There are guys who are like, “we need to get out of this country music thing, the next thing coming along is going to be something else.” You can never second-guess what’s going to be coming along next. There might be a revival of this kind of music someday. But that’s not what we’re banking everything on. We’re doing this because we have to, because it’s our therapy, and because it makes sense in a way that’s deep down in your bones, in your veins. It’s so primal I can’t believe it.
I was talking to this interviewer earlier who was asking me about growing up in a Christian home and how that “warps” you. It doesn’t “warp” me at all. My parents are actually intellectual, but they’re also spiritual. The two things are not mutually exclusive. You can write about faith, you can write about religion, and it’s really not like I’m writing that much about it at all, except for the Southern Gothic vein, but you can write about all that in an informed fashion, with an intellect, and be completely legitimately both. That’s another stereotype that we’re trying to debunk, and maybe in debunking it we play into it a little bit, but if people come see us, when they leave, if they’ve got a decent enough head on their shoulders, they know that we’re coming from a place that’s completely informed, but at the same time completely rife with this spiritual thing that you find in these churches.
KB: The constant stereotype is that religious people from the South are all ignorant rednecks who voted for Bush because they didn’t want gays to get married.
JW: That’s the thinking among a lot of journalists. And with that kind of thinking, their party is never going to regain power as long as they dismiss the red states as a bunch of inbreeders. They’re starting to learn, I think. I think it’s healthy for this country to have two parties that work somewhere from left to middle, right to middle. But you’ve got to find that middle ground. And it comes from being honest, not being so negative and subversive all the damn time. Acknowledge mom and pop America for their values and you can start a dialogue going. I didn’t mean to get into politics, but in a way it’s all the same, it’s a pervasive attitude with art, music, politics, the same misinformation that permeates throughout.
KB: People assume that if you have one trait, you are this kind of a person.
JW: They say, “The Shack Shakers, man, they’re fucked up,” but no, we’re really not at all. It’s just about trying to connect with people on a primal level, get them outside of themselves, letting them sweat it out for a change. They’ve gone through a hard week working, going to school, and they come sweat it out with us and know that they’re not going to look any sillier than we do. And at the heart of it there’s a little bit of this gothic gospel thing, that shouldn’t go to discredit us. And because we’ve got a self-deprecating sense of humor about it, that shouldn’t go to discredit us either. In fact, I think that lots of these singer-songwriter supposed geniuses would do well to admit: that they put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. How many people can be tortured geniuses?
I don’t believe in calling musicians geniuses. Albert Einstein was a genius. Genius is someone like Stephen Hawking, someone who’s figured out the universe from his wheelchair.
photos by Rick Kaplan