Interview with Tom Shannon
I haven't been posting lately, due to it being completely unrewarding. I recently saw online that someone thought I was someone else, and let me just say that this is not true; and I don't want to go into further discussion of the matter. As you can well imagine, I don't think I will be posting very much anymore, if at all.
Also, Agony Shorthand, which I read often, has called it a day. I may, on occasion have disagreed with Jay's opinions, but when do you agree 100% with anyone? It was well and intelligently written, and I will miss reading it.
Final note, commenting has been disabled, due to an abundance of recent spam that somehow managed to get past the Blogger's filter. I can reinstate the comments, but it would entail wading through offers for obtaining prescription drugs online and hot stock tips.
Here's an interview conducted months ago with Tom Shannon of the Cheater Slicks. They have a new record, due out next year, and being a reliable band that has consistently produced great records over their long lifespan, I am going to take and educated guess and say that it's amazing.
Phil Honolulu: How old were you when you first started playing music?
Tom Shannon: I was 21, David was probably about 25, and Dana had been playing since he was a teenager. Neither David nor I played much until we were a couple years out of college. David was pursuing painting and I was just working. We both played other instruments in grade school. David was a pretty good trumpet player. We came from a musical family. Our dad is an accomplished pianist. In some ways that thwarted us rather than helped us.
PH: Did you play in a band before The Cheater Slicks?
TS: I played in a band called the Fishers in college back in 1984. It was just for fun, but was actually kind of a precursor to a lot of bands later that did garage and soul stuff. We had a black female singer. I had only been playing guitar about two months when we formed. It was fun but had no ambitions of being anything. Dana was in a high school punk/metal band called The Four Letter Words. He was just the singer. He formed the band with some degenerate pot head friends and they played their high school talent show. He sang "Gloria" I believe. They even played Boston a couple times and got some attention because they were bizarre high school kids from a nowhere town. They rode into Boston on the train to do their shows. David played with some friends in NYC but nothing serious.
PH: When did you first realize you could sing?
TS: I think I knew I could sing when I was a child. I heard things in a musical way, but was too shy and self defeatist to actually try singing. I think I knew I had the ability. Playing guitar and singing was of course another matter and took a couple years as a band to start to emerge. Dana was the first to sing in Cheater Slicks. "Leave My House" was the first song we did with vocals. Our first few shows were instrumental. We had a violin player. It was very droney noisy strange drug rock. Then we auditioned singers for about a year none of them working out. We then had to start singing for ourselves to get the sound we wanted. We were just too strange for most singers to latch on to. We felt we could do it better.
PH: How did you first meet Dana?
TS: Dana was in a band with a guy I went to college with. I had just moved to Boston, David hadn't even moved up yet. Anyway this college friend was involved in the music scene already and was friends with Stephen Merritt, and others in that clique. When David moved up we had another drummer. A High school friend of mine who ended up quitting right away. David and I continued to work on things alone after his departure. This college friend said we could use his practice space (for a fee) and "borrow" his drummer who turned out to be Dana. The minute we played together we knew there was something there. It was crude and awful, but the sound was already there. That's important when forming a band! We were lucky. Whoever we tried to bring into the band, it was always just the three of us somehow as the essential core.
PH: Did you really calculate how you wanted the Cheater Slicks to sound, or did it develop more organically?
TS: We have always worked organically and never tried to make a song sound like anything. It has to develop on its own, and if it's good we keep it if not we throw it out. This was true from the very beginning. We play and develop songs for years before recording them, because we have to wait for them to mature into their final form. We do it instrumentally at first and then add the vocals later after the music has developed sufficiently. We've never once verbalized how a song should be. We have never spoken between us about a song structure. We play it until it finds its own logic.
PH: Someone told me you're a fan of Alex Chilton's 'Like Flies On Sherbert' record, which is a favorite of mine, I'm just wondering what you think of Alex Chilton's other material...
TS: I saw Alex Chilton in Boston in 1986 or so and he was great. It was a shambolic set, not like the later more professional ones he started to do. I then hunted down as much of his stuff as I could. I like him pretty well up to "High Priest" then my interest dwindles. I loved the way he could make great songs from chaos. Even Big Star has an element of this. "Sister Lovers" is a masterpiece and "Flies on Sherbet" was influenced, I think, by his work with the Cramps. Being a huge Cramps fan at that time, I loved the messy rock n roll of "Flies". Panther Burns is great from that period also. I still respect him greatly and don't mean to speak ill of him in any way.
PH: What kind of music do you just DESPISE?
Many types. Most bands just bore me and that's the worst offense. I like to see depth and emotion in music, and lately that seems lacking. I don't like "suburban" whining crap. It has to cut deeper than that. Also I really miss rock n roll. There's not a lot of it out there anymore. Tons of punk rock, very little experimental original RNR. People don't seem to know how to play that beat anymore. We are getting farther and farther away from it. People view it as corny, I think. Nothing is truly threatening or outrageous anymore. I'm not a big fan of this neo-psychedelic folk thing going on right now. I wish it would just go away.
PH: Is there a Cheater Slick's song you're proudest of?
TS: I've always thought "Possession" was a huge breakthrough for us. That was when we became a band in my mind. It really stood out at the time. And we did it as a three piece. That let us know it could be done. I'm very proud of many of our songs, but I'm not egotistical about it. To me, they formed out of the atmosphere and we were the conduits. I've heard many songwriters say the same thing. Therefore I don't take full responsibility for their creation. And that is why they are still fun to play today. They haven't changed much and they're still alive. I'm proud of many of the quieter songs we do which get much less recognition than the most outrageous ones. Our band would not be what it is if we didn't do the melodic stuff.
PH: Do you ever listen to your earlier records, and wish you could go back and change things?
TS: I do not listen to our records much after they have become ingrained in my mind. Yes I would like to change many things about them, but I never would. The songs are what they are. Being self conscious of their deficiencies is all just a part of the growth process. They are moments in time...snapshots of ideas. But they are fixed in time. I would like to do a live record at some point to show the difference in how we play them live. Most of the songs are much heavier live.
PH: How long have you and your brother been painting?
TS: My brother was an art major in college. He was always extremely artistic. He still does art, but not a lot of painting at this point in time. I'm sure he'll get back to it. But lately he's been sculpting and working with molds and casting. I am an occasional painter and just started a couple years ago to help my mental state when I was going through some problems. I haven't done much in a year or so.
PH: Do you read reviews of your band? How do you deal with bad reviews?
TS: We got so many bad reviews when we started. It was a real obstacle to overcome, but we really didn't care because we had this concept in our heads that could not be reversed or changed. We were pretty much in a tunnel vision state at that point. But still it was discouraging to be put down so much because we were different. The late 80's and all of the 90's sucked musically. We had few bands to play with so we got paired with bands that hated us and we were subjected to a lot of hate and scorn. Not to mention all the audiences we drove out at that time. We could clear a room faster than any band in history. Still can on some nights! Luckily for us, certain people liked us and that gave us the confidence to think "we must be doing something right". Now the reviews are much kinder to us, but we are still largely ignored.
PH: Any current music that you really enjoy?
TS: I enjoy all of the noisy fucked up bands out there that still stick to rock n roll roots. And that does not mean they have to be traditional. We play with a lot of good bands these days. It's very encouraging, and they keep us young and alive and respect us because they know we never quit.
PH: Are you much of a reader? What have you read lately?
TS: We all like to read. My reading has been sporadic lately. It comes in spurts for me. I have been an avid voracious reader at times, then I have to put it down and live. Lately I haven't been doing nearly enough of it and I feel it in my soul. The last book I read was a biography of Djuna Barnes. I don't know what the others are reading right now.
PH: Do people from your normal life (folks from your job, etc. - people out of the whole band loop) know about the Cheater Slicks?
TS: I would say not. At our jobs, yes. Beyond that...not many would know or care. We are a very low profile band, and we do not talk about it much to people outside of the music scene. What we do really wouldn't make sense to most people and I don't want to inflict it on those people.
PH: Do you ever miss Boston?
TS: For me personally- not as a place to live. It is an interesting city, and we do have friends there. The music coming out of Boston is much better than it used to be and WMBR was a very supportive station. I have no hard feelings about Boston. We got our asses kicked, but that's just part of our story. We played with some good bands there and had some good opportunities also. There's still a little bit of the backstabbing quality of that city that bothers me though...
PH:It seems like people are finally starting to give the Cheater Slicks some much overdue credit, do you attribute your recent upswing in popularity to anything specific?
TS: I don't think the upswing is huge. It's still nearly impossible for us to play live because our fan base is so small. I think we have become influential to current bands, but that still does not trickle down to the prosperity of our band. It's very strange. I'm gratified that we have had the longevity that we have had. We've been very lucky that people still find our ideas interesting. That's really more important than packing clubs full of asshole know nothings. I hate going to shows filled with those people. That would be a curse to us.
PH: Can you describe the genesis of 'Thinkin' Some More'?
TS: At this point I really can't. What I can tell you was that it was very structured with cues and all sorts of inner workings that lead us like a map through the improvisation. And we did drink a bottle of whisky before recording it, and we did end it right when the reel of tape ended...it was very strange. It was our tribute to The Velvet Underground...that is pretty obvious...and it was our way of showing we could improvise and not just be another "garage" band...we practiced it A LOT which drove everyone in our rehearsal complex crazy...maybe THAT was the genesis!