Making babies and playing rock-and-roll music don't really seem like compatible endeavors, even though the process of making babies is one of the genre's most well-celebrated themes. Raising a child requires a certain settling of one's more raucous instincts: How can you party till dawn in a nihilistic, depraved fever if you have to wake up at 7:30 to drive Mick Jr. to daycare? How can you create art from behind the wheel of an Astro Van?
"Tell you what: During all of Zeppelin's most debauched years, they all had babies at home," says Shiner singer/guitarist Allen Epley. "Not to say we're out doing 'Shark Stories,' all the Zeppelin hijinks. I think there's a huge perception in the world and among musicians that everything has to stop [once you've had a child]. I don't buy into that, necessarily."
Babies have been on Epley's mind a lot lately, and not just because he and his wife want to someday have one of their own. Childbirth has touched his Kansas City-based band more than once in recent years: Drummer Tim Dow parted amicably with Shiner in 1998 to be with his wife and newborn in Los Angeles; current bass player Paul Malinowski and his wife just had a child, too. Perhaps Shiner's newest release, The Egg, should have been titled The Egg and the Sperm instead.
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"I just think you have to be smarter about it," Epley says, dismissing notions of the muse of rock and roll floating away with the arrival of dirty diapers. "I think it takes a lot more work, and commitment from your partner, but all our wives completely believe in what we're doing, and that helps. If they were like, 'You guys are pretty good, but not that good,' it would be different."
There's little doubt that Shiner is that good. A followup to 2000's Starless, The Egg displays the band in all its four-piece glory (drummer Jason Gerkin and guitarist Josh Newton play alongside Epley and Malinowski) and in its most mature state since forming in 1993. Shiner falls somewhere outside of emo and indie, barely skirting the southern fringe of art rock. The music is at times shimmering and otherworldly, at times pounding and inexorable -- a combination that has drawn comparisons to Radiohead as often as ones to Jawbox or Chavez. A warmth and humanity in Shiner's music prevents its soaring, ethereal songs from developing ice on their wings: Despite the bleakness, there's always a human heart beating underneath.
The Egg marks Shiner's return to DeSoto Records, the label for which the band has recorded a string of seven-inches and EPs in the past. Circular, roving and thematic, the disc comes this close to being a good old-fashioned concept album. Thankfully, the band avoids the ham-handed, Tolkein-influenced images of '70s prog rock.
"We've all grown up with Rush, Yes and all this ELP nonsense," Epley says, laughing, "and we like a lot of it. But we also know so much of it's just wizards and fairies." He bursts into a flailing attempt at Rush's "The Trees," then says, "You don't know what the hell's going on there. We try to incorporate the coolest parts of that stuff into what we do. There definitely was a push to create something larger, to go beyond rock."
That push is evident in the album's masterful title song, an insistent rush of pinging guitar lines matched against twin vocal tracks -- one Epley's normal scratchy tenor, one a muffled, bassy track that sounds like it was recorded by someone singing through a pillow. An episodic bend also weaves through "The Simple Truth," an eight-minute saga so riddled with movements and subtle changes it's practically a symphony on its own.
But the elliptical nature of the record as a whole is best illustrated on "The Truth About Cows," the opening track. One of Egg's few lighter numbers, it features an exultant shoulder shrug of a melody despite power-rock rhythm and bleak lyrics: "The sheep are Styrofoam/They'll go where they are told/They'll eat what they are sold/I wanna wake up." Eight songs later, "Spook the Herd" chases the same melody, though more slowly and with tweaked lyrics. In between, The Egg flows along like a withdrawal dream -- sounding alternately sharp, piercing and wispy-soft. But there's also a naturalness and ease there.
"I had a bunch of different melodies floating around, and some of them overlapped with other parts of songs," Epley says. "At first I was like, 'Why am I writing the same song again?' But I found they worked together. I decided to use that basic theme lyrically and musically and alter them. I was like, 'Fuck! We can have a reprise!'"
That kind of childlike excitement and enthusiasm percolates throughout a conversation with Epley, a fact that runs counter to the desolate lyrics he pens. But even those -- packed full of startling imagery about death, suicide, murder, loneliness, hopelessness and depression -- convey a sense of life. It's as though Epley can never allow himself to truly give up, no matter how dire Epley's outlook may have been when he wrote a given song.
"Basically, the songs are metaphors," he says. "I don't always know what they mean when I start out writing them. I'll, like, blah blah blah some stuff at practice for us to [play] to. If something happens to pop into my head, I'll follow that line and see what it turns into. And if you dig into your subconscious -- 'Why'd you choose those words?' -- basically what ends up is I whittle down everything else I hate: 'I hate that, hate that, and what's left? Okay, there's the song.' A lot of it starts out as total stream of consciousness.
"I couldn't live the way I think in my songs," he concludes.
One of Epley's most haunting works doesn't fit as neatly into The Egg's overarching structure. "Top of the World" is a slower, more despondent song reminiscent of Trent Reznor in one of his less screamy moments. The song is memorable as much for its "Casio kick-drum" beat, as Epley calls it, as for the tiny bell that accents whispered, ominous lyrics throughout: "I could crack your head wide open/And leave you on the pavement/You're bleeding all over the place/And your face is.../The top of the world is mine/And it's fine."
"I just found a creepy little melody and...I tried to fit it lyrically to the music," Epley says. "It sounds to me as if someone is pretty precariously perched at the end of his rope but has already come to terms with the fact that he's going to do himself in, and everybody else. The lyrics are just supposed to produce images in the listener, not necessarily supposed to represent anything directly from me. It's not supposed to be 'This happened here.'
"We made a decision to put a lot of the more upbeat songs right at the beginning," Epley adds. "And right when you get to 'Top of the World,' the record takes a more dark turn, almost to the very end. The eyebrows get a little more evil, and you kind of get the look of Malcolm McDowell from Clockwork Orange. That's kind of what it falls into -- someone just a little off the edge."
Beyond the darkness and angst, what The Egg exhibits most of all is a group that has grown up a great deal in recent years. Shiner has found its musical sea legs and is fully in charge of what it creates, despite the free-form approach that Epley employs when crafting lyrics. Starless, the band's third full-length album (released on Fort Collins's O&O label), was ambitious -- and suggested brilliance -- but it lacked direction in places and was ultimately uneven. With The Egg, a new fortitude and certainty have emerged, perhaps reflecting a new way that Shiner's members look at life as a whole.
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"I just now feel like I turned into a man from, like, an 'old boy,'" Epley says. "You know how in your late twenties, you're just this college dude who's kind of displaced? I turned thirty and I was like, 'Wow, I'm thirty.' I just now feel like I've become a young man."
Another aspect of becoming an adult is a stronger sense of confidence, more "swagger in the strut," as Epley puts it. What comes out on the disc, and in conversation with the songwriter, is a feeling of someone who really isn't concerned anymore with the slings and arrows people are always throwing.
"Our sense of being a bit of an enigma is evidenced in the fact that we're too indie for the rock crowd and too rock for the indie crowd," Epley says. "Talk to any rock knucklehead, and they'll call us an emo fag band. Talk to any indie hipster elitist, and they'll call us Bush. What's happened is we've cultivated our own crowd, and they're all coming along.
"I think anybody gets their biggest success when they're least concerned about everybody else's critiques and bullshit," he adds. "If you just get your vibe on and create it in the most honest, passionate, coolest way, it's going to come through on the recording, and people are going to dig it."