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Before launching a singer-songwriter career, Virgil Shaw co-helmed San Francisco's Dieselhed in the early '90s with members of Camper Van Beethoven and Mr. Bungle -- a freewheeling union that produced a few notable punk-and-country-tinged albums for Beck's Bong Load Records. Now residing in Manhattan's East Village, Shaw pays the bills with carpentry and solo gigs, having issued a pair of distinguished platters for Future Farmer, 2000's Quad Cities and 2003's Still Falling. Backed in the studio by the Killer Views, the rustic troubadour blends rootsiness and wary nostalgia into a brand of Americana that suggests Gram Parsons on the back porch swapping whoppers with Shane MacGowan. Shaw shared a few tales of his own recently, from touring with Green Day to playing with Link Wray.
Westword: Your very first band, Brent's T.V., was a skiffle and speed-pop outfit that toured laundromats with early Green Day. What was that like?
Virgil Shaw: We went up the coast to Vancouver and back. I remember burying Green Day's car behind a snow bank. They must've all been like eighteen, but they definitely had it going on. It was one of my favorite tours ever. You'd just show up and find a gig at the co-op or a Polish hall or whatever, make like a dollar a day. We were all pretty young and a little sloppy. But the energy was good.
Dieselhed became Link Wray's backing band for a while. Got any funny stories?
We played a great show in Denver once. He was late because he wanted to watch Mike Tyson fight. Link had the weirdest people he would look up to -- Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, right? Anyway, that was the night Tyson bit Holyfield's ear off. So Link shows up completely stunned. His hero had just fallen. He couldn't figure out how the most powerful man in the world could do that.
Did you ever want to emulate anyone lyrically when you started writing songs?
I was kind of always around old train-wreck music -- fiddle and Irish stuff. Then I kind of went into my Black Flag days and my country-Western thing. I've retreated back into my own head more, I think. I'm happier with my music a lot more than I've ever been. I feel like I know what I'm doing. The songs breathe more, move a little slower. I guess my songs are pretty linear and deal with America. Sort of.
Quad Cities was unanimously declared a bleak album. Fair assessment?
Yeah. But I think I have optimism within my darkness, ultimately. Quad Cities was sort of this weird, down-home science-fiction-sounding thing. But it could be anywhere. I just liked the haunted, empty-downtown-ness of it. Sort of universally nondescript. The first one was about places, and Still Falling was more about ideas and people and such. But a lot of underlying themes are actually about everyday life, and love, and hate, and tolerance.
What makes a good tearjerker?
There's probably gotta be love involved. Definitely no beer involved. But maybe a song where everyone can find their own tears within. I'm kind of an environmentalist. A lot of my songs deal with the demise of the world. That's a tearjerker if anything is.