Full Steam Ahead

With his other projects behind him, Jeff Mueller is putting all his energy into Shipping News.

A couple of telling facts about Shipping News:

Fact one: The band -- whose approach to what we still persist in calling "rock music" is at once notably intellectual and appealingly emotional -- is named for one of the most stunningly written novels of the past decade, 1993's The Shipping News, for which author E. Annie Proulx earned a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact two: The group's leader, guitarist/ vocalist Jeff Mueller, didn't read the book until about six months ago, over four years after the handle was chosen.

A literary posse: Jeff Mueller, Jason Noble and Kyle Crabtree (from front) of Shipping News.
A literary posse: Jeff Mueller, Jason Noble and Kyle Crabtree (from front) of Shipping News.


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How on earth did that happen? The extremely personable Mueller explains that back in 1996, when the act had not yet settled on a moniker, his musical partner, bassist/vocalist Jason Noble, was knee-deep in the tome. "Jason was like, 'Wow, "Shipping News" is kind of an interesting name,' and since the names we'd been coming up with had been really ridiculous, 'Shipping News' rose to the surface." He adds, "I hadn't read The Shipping News, but I'd read Accordion Crimes, which is another Annie book, and I'd liked it. So I figured, 'Oh, I'm sure The Shipping News is good; let's just take the name. Fuck it.'"

This decision might have proven unfortunate had Mueller loathed Proulx's tragicomic tale, which revolves around a heartsick newspaperman named Quoyle who settles in a remote part of Newfoundland with his two young daughters following the death of his serially unfaithful wife. Fortunately, though, everything worked out. "It's dark, a challenging read -- a pretty bleak book. But I always kind of arrive back at it. When I'm reading other books these days, I'll be like, 'This is pretty good. When was the last time I read a book this good? Oh, The Shipping News.'"

The group came together as casually as did its moniker. Mueller and Noble had once played together as part of the pioneering noise outfit Rodan, and they stayed in touch even after the band fractured. Then, in 1996, Mueller was asked to contribute some incidental music to a report about schizophrenia that was slated to run on This American Life, a National Public Radio program that he refers to admiringly as "60 Minutes for mutants." He subsequently asked Noble to collaborate with him, and after spending three days together in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, recording assorted snippets, "We realized how excited we were just to be playing music with each other again. So we put together another period of time when we could record and write songs and play music, and that's what went on to become Shipping News.

"The best part of playing with Jason is the freshness part of it," he continues. "I love being able to go into a room with two people like Jason and Kyle (Crabtree, the drummer) and collaborate on such an open and honest level, without any apprehensions. Just to feel completely comfortable, in my opinion, makes this an incredible success. Not to mention all the other great things -- like just being able to play a show, for Christ's sake. You know, to drive to a place like, say, Atlanta, Georgia, and have some people come and see us play. It's crazy to me that we're able to do that, because the beginning of our band wasn't really thought out at all. It was just, 'Let's play some music and see what happens.'"

As these comments imply, Shipping News didn't initially occupy the top spot on Mueller's priority list. When it was founded, he was also a member of June of 44, an angular quartet made up of players with impeccable underground-rock pedigrees: Mueller's cohorts had spent time in Codeine, Hoover and Sonora Pine. As a result, the press branded June of 44 an indie supergroup -- a designation that simultaneously amused and annoyed Mueller, as he made clear in these pages ("Blind Faith Redux," November 14, 1996). Today, Mueller says such references played no part in June's dissolution, which took place just over a year ago because of what he says were creative differences; his new attitude regarding such matters adds credence to his claims. After all, the collective resumé of the Shipping News threesome is sparkling, too: In addition to his role in Rodan, Noble has played with the esoteric cult combo Rachel's, and Crabtree was once in Metroschifter and Eleven Eleven. But Mueller no longer bristles at allusions to their musical pasts. "I realize these things give people a vantage point," he notes. "And in any case, it only helps bring people out, which helps all of us."

Most of those who've gotten a chance to spin Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company, Shipping News's latest disc on Quarterstick Records, have liked what they heard. But positive reactions haven't been universal. Like novelist Proulx's prose, the album's lyrics are fragmentary, imagistic and resonant -- e.g., "We are facing something/Leaving/In the media of the senses/She can feel distant stars collapse," from "How to Draw Horses." As an added bonus, the words are reproduced on the CD's liner. In the past, Mueller hasn't been much interested in setting down his couplets on the printed page, but he changed his mind after numerous requests from fans and because "Jason and I put a lot more effort into writing the lyrics that go with the music. We wanted people to be able to follow what we were saying."

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