Blair Shehan of the Jealous Sound: "Anything else didn't feel like the right suit to put on"
The Jealous Sound (playing tonight at the Marquis Theater) came together when former Knapsack guitarist and singer Blair Shehan got together with some of his friends who had also been members of melodic punk bands of the '90s, including Padro Benito of Sunday's Best, John McGinnis of Neither Trumpets Nor Drums and Adam Wade, who had drummed for Jawbox and previously had a stint in Shudder to Think.
The group's sound was at once a continuation of and an evolution beyond the sort of music the foursome had helped to pioneer in their earlier projects. Some might recoil at the term "emo" or not even consider it accurate in the case of this band, but the combination of raw, emotional vulnerability and the punk drive to carry it along is very much in the DNA of the Jealous Sound.
Around 2006, Shehan experienced a bit of a personal crisis, and the band effectively split, but within the last few years he returned to what he knew best. In 2009, the Jealous Sound opened for Sunny Day Real Estate on that band's reunion tour, and last month, Shehan and his bandmates released their first full-length in nearly a decade, A Gentle Reminder. We spoke with Shehan about his early years in punk and one of the catalysts for reconnecting with his creative life in a healthier way.
Westword: How did you get involved in punk rock and underground music where you grew up, and were there particular bands in the local scene that inspired you?
Blair Shehan: I grew up in a fairly small town called Redding, California, maybe like 50,000 people. When I was in like eighth grade, twelve and thirteen, I got into new-wave stuff -- the Cure, the Smiths and stuff like that. When I got into ninth grade, everyone started skateboarding, so it turned really quick into getting into punk rock. When I got into punk rock, I couldn't get enough of it, and that's all I wanted at that point.
The bands that were sort of near to us, which would be like San Francisco, would be Crimpshrine or Operation Ivy. They were pretty inspiring at that age, so you'd end up going to see them if you could hitch a ride with somebody. I remember some incarnation of some of those types of bands would come through, and we'd end up seeing somebody playing at some kind of house party kind of thing.
So you made it over to 924 Gilman and that sort of thing?
Oh, yeah, of course. Then I got into being a super-excited straight-edge kid the next year or so after that. So that had a big impact on me, too.
When you started Knapsack -- and I don't mean to mischaracterize your music -- the term "emo" wasn't really a term people used. What would you say inspired that band and the kind of music you made with it?
The funny thing is that at that point in my evolution, in growing up musically and otherwise, I'd gone to college and worked at the college radio station. This was in '93 or somewhere around there, so indie rock was in full swing: Dinosaur Jr, Superchunk, Pavement, Guided by Voices and stuff like that. I really loved all that stuff, but I also wanted to marry it with the energy that I grew up with being in hardcore bands. It felt more appropriate for me as a musician to express myself with that sort of push behind it. Anything else didn't feel like the right suit to put on.
To me, it's always been that way and still is to this day. I still want that push that comes from classic vintage Marshall half-stack and a Les Paul; that's what I'm looking for. Big drums and a Fender Precision Bass and an Ampeg SVT -- all those kinds of things that I think that I still gravitate toward all these years later. I'd look at old Minor Threat photos, and those are all the instruments that they would play and looked a certain way. It's still printed in my brain that that's the way band instrumentation should be, you know what I mean?
How did you put together the first lineup for the Jealous Sound, and what's the significance of the name you chose?
I know Pedro [Benito] played with us; I'd known him for a few years, and then I moved to Los Angeles. So we started playing together, and then my friend John [McGinnis], who I worked with at a music-video production company, said he would play bass, and he came down. That took a big chunk of his life once he committed to that.
As far as drummers, it was kind of Spinal Tap-esque. We had a pretty big revolving drummer's seat. Some of them would work on something for a while. No one was really the permanent drummer. We had a guy named Tony Palermo who was almost a gun for hire. He played drums on a few songs with us for the first recording -- and, actually, on the first album as well.
Then we had a guy named Michel Bravine, who played sort of in the in-between time before that record was made, but he didn't actually record with us. Tony Palermo couldn't do any touring because he'd been touring with Suicidal Tendencies and all sorts of big stuff.
I had a friend named Adam Wade, and he'd been in Jawbox and Shudder to Think and stuff like that. He lives in L.A., and he said he would go out and play with us and joined up for a while. Our newest guy is Bob Penn. I guess that's sort of a convoluted story about members and how that all worked.
It's funny; it's in the line of one of the first songs we ever wrote, "Bitter Strings" -- "You're saving us now from the bitter strings of the jealous sound." For some reason, I liked the line. We took the line from song because we were in kind of a time crunch, like a lot of bands do, and then that just became the name. That was kind of silly.
So in a way, when we would play that song, we were name-checking ourselves. There's no real significance to it, I guess. Band names are so funny. They're all kind of crazy or nothing particularly great, but you gotta name it something.
When did you first meet Sunny Day Real Estate, and how did that music affect you when you first experienced it?
When my first band, Knapsack, started, our second or third out-of-town show ever was in Seattle. We ended up opening for Sunny Day Real Estate and Treepeople. This was before the record had come out; it was just about to come out. They just kind of hit the stage, and I didn't know what to expect, and I was like, "Oh, my God, these guys are doing something kind of like what we're doing, but doing it so much better."
I thought they were the cat's pajamas. They were so young. When you're delivering that sort of impactful, crescendo rock action that they do so well? I kind of still use that in my brain, whether I know it or not, as the touchstone of delivering those types of things.
How did it come to be that Nate Mendel joined the Jealous Sound? Did he join before or after your tour with Sunny Day in 2009?
What happened was I had been gone and had come back to L.A. He had been touring with the Fire Theft, which was basically Sunny Day Real Estate, and we hung out with Nate for a while. Pedro, our guitar player, had become good friends with him. Nate would come around every so often. Our previous bass player wasn't available, and he said, "Hey, I'll play bass on your new record. That sounds fun." And that's what he did.
Obviously he's in Foo Fighters, and that's one of the biggest bands in the world, so he's not climbing in a van with anyone. But it was great, and he's a super-talented nice guy. Fun and funny, and it still kind of blows my mind that he thought it was a worthy project to get involved in. Right now Josh Staples is touring with us, and he sang backups on the majority of the whole record and played bass on two of the songs Nate didn't play on. He's a fantastic musician, and we love him.
Was recording at Studio 606 with John Lousteau connected directly with Nate joining the band, or did you consider some other facilities to record the album?
John Lousteau, the head engineer at Studio 606. I met him a few times, and he said he wanted to help with the next record. It ended up that we had access to that studio through John Lousteau, and Nate is part owner of the studio, as well, and that facilitated us to be able to go in there, which was amazing.
In the last few years, it seems like the band, at least from outward appearances from people who aren't directly involved, has been much more active. What sparked this kind of renewed life for the group?
We had shut down completely. I had moved away. There wasn't a band. My life had changed in a dramatic fashion, and I moved back to L.A.. When I moved back to L.A., I decided to start making music again because I had taken years off. It was a search for meaning and purpose in my life, and going back to what I had known in the past. It was a great experience to be able to do it again. So I'm thrilled -- I didn't think I was ever going to make any more records.
What kinds of lyrical themes do you explore on A Gentle Reminder?
The lyrical themes are sort of about reconnecting with people, sort of realigning your life. My life had changed in a not-so-fun, dramatic, come-off-the-rails fashion. It's about getting yourself back on to those tracks again and navigating what seems to be an inhospitable landscape. And about doing things with integrity and finding strength and courage when you don't think that you have it. Reaching deep. For me, it's about taking this journey through what is really difficult and seems insurmountable and pushing through.
Related to that, the cover for the album has an image of wolves congregating on a snowy, forested landscape. Was there something in particular you were hoping to convey with this image?
What I like about those wolves is that...wolves are kind of the top of the food chain, but in that picture they don't really look that way. They're struggling. There's sort of a desperation about it. They're hunkered down because they have to make it through the winter or whatever it may be. There's something about that that struck me. I think it's pretty engaging.
Did you feel that completing this album was a closing chapter on the last several years in some ways and/or the start of another?
Absolutely. I think a lot in terms of records as sort of a timeline of my life. I'd intended to finish a record in '05 and '06, and I failed to do that. It's something I really wanted to complete and end that chapter in my life and start a new one. So, yeah.
When you look back on the last several years, are there things of special significance that you learned, that you will remember to do or not do with your life and your art going forward?
It's hard. When it comes to doing art, you have to put yourself fully into it. If you're going to do it, do it. So for me, making this record, I was going to do the absolute best I could. I read a book called The Artist's Way [by Julia Cameron] about learning to be an artist and doing it in a healthy way and understanding the process.
Making art can be kind of self-destructive. You feel like you're not good enough and so forth. It's humbling, you know. If your intent is to make the art, and you make it honestly, and if you give everything you have available to it, that will be reflected in it. And don't be concerned about the other aspects of it -- just with the thing you want to make, and not worry about the other stuff.
You have to live with it; ultimately, it's yours. That's your legacy. You only get so many attempts at these types of things. Because they're major undertakings, you want to make sure you do the best you can. Hopefully it's sincere and comes from a real place. Part of the problem for me has always been, "How do I do this? I don't know what I'm doing. Why is this so difficult?" For me, that book was really helpful as a toolbox on how to do things.
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