Chris Shaw of Ex-Cult on the appeal of mono recordings and how it's a working class sound
Known for a diverse music scene, Memphis, Tennessee has become known for its punk and garage rock scene, thanks to acts like the Oblivions, the Reatards and the bands championed by Goner Records. Ex-Cult came out of that punk world but ended up making the kind of rock and roll with the drive and energy of punk and garage but also the imaginative and adventurous guitar sounds of post-punk and psychedelia.
The band's eponymous 2012 album is a thrillingly raw and electrifying listen akin to the music of outfits like the Sonics, Wipers and Wire. We recently spoke with Ex-Cult frontman Chris Shaw about his early experiences with underground music, '60s album art aesthetics, the appeal of mono recordings and how punk really is made up of many sounds that influenced its earliest days.
Westword: You did an interview with ATX Sounds last month, and you mentioned how Memphis has kind of a small scene. How did you become aware of and connected to that scene?
Chris Shaw: I guess I started going to local shows when I was in high school. There was a venue that had hardcore and punk shows four or five nights a week. I got sucked into it. That's part of how the band formed. We all attended shows and played in other bands. It's a really small musical community and most people play in multiple bands and multiple instruments just because there are not a lot people involved in it.
What was the name of the venue?
It was this place called the Caravan. It was an all ages venue. It was only around for a couple of years. I was a sophomore in high school, just a kid out of the suburbs. I would drive twenty-five or thirty minutes to go to that place. It was a really small room. Probably maximum capacity of seventy-five people, maybe. It doesn't hold a significance to anyone in the band besides me. The guy that was booking stuff there did a good job of booking all kinds of stuff, everything from metal, to indie rock and everything in between.
The most important part of that was supporting underground music. Sometimes it wasn't something I wanted to listen to or buy a record or t-shirt. It was just important to me to be a part of an underground music scene and be around people I could relate to instead of the people I was forced to be around in high school. When I got a little bit older, I was sneaking into twenty-one and up shows at dive bars around Memphis, and that's how I met everyone that's in the band.
What role did the Lamplighter play in the formation and the development of your band?
The Lamplighter is kind of the local hangout. It's all run by the same group of friends. It's more like a clubhouse than a bar because there's just so much shit going on there. There's different theme nights every single week. It's kind of a community meeting place, but it's also a bar. It's just a really chill spot to drink. I remember having conversations with Michael Peery who now plays drums in Ex-Cult. If we were going to talk about something, it would probably at the Lamplighter because it's one of the few places that people that play music or are interested in music consistently hang out.
Memphis has a rich history of all kinds of music being made there. Do you feel that the diverse music from there has had a direct or indirect impact on the kind of music you make?
I don't know because I think when we started, I don't think anybody else was doing what we were trying to do. I think that's maybe why people paid attention to it at first because it was a group of people that had never played together before. They were kind of curious to see what would come out of it. We all came from pretty different bands in the past. I think that's kind of what sparked people's interest and probably sparked the record label's interest as well. Like I said earlier, it's a really small music scene so everyone knew what the other person was doing as far as playing in bands. But they didn't know what to expect when we first started.
Why did you want to get together with this group of people to play music?
Me and Michael had talked about it a lot and I knew that JB [Horrell] was a really good guitar player and I was interested in his style of guitar and we talked to him. The other two members was a similar thing. We knew what they were into and what they were capable of doing and it seemed like a really good fit. It was pieced together intentionally. We didn't have tryouts or anything. And we were all friends. We all hung out anyway, we saw each other at shows and at bars.
What kinds of bands was Michael in beforehand?
Michael was in a couple of psychedelic rock and roll bands, and he was also in that band the Magic Kids.
You were in a band called Vile Nation?
Yeah, I was in that band before we started Ex-Cult. That was active for about three years.
Was it kind of a hardcore band?
It was a really nasty hardcore. It had a revolving door of members, so the sound kind of changed as we picked up different rhythm sections. It was me and a guitar player and basically whoever we could get to play bass and drums on a record and for a handful of shows if we were going out of town. If we played locally, we would get whoever we could get. There were a few records and two of the records had a different rhythm section on it, so that obviously changes the sound a lot.
What made what you're doing now more appealing? Not that the hardcore you were making in Vile Nation is unappealing.
I think I saw that band fail enough times with just people not being as into it as I was. The guitar player and I were really committed, but we just couldn't get the line-up right. We had offers to do things. It's just really frustrating to see something you were working on that people in other parts of the country and the world respected and cared about enough to put out on record but we just couldn't get it right. Well, we could get it right, but we couldn't get the right combination of people.
That was really important to me when we started this band. I wanted there to be a serious commitment and get a group of people that were willing to put in as much time and energy as I was. That's what's made it work. Everyone expects the same thing out of it. It's not like one person is the driving force or the main songwriter. We contribute what we can to it. It doesn't have anything to do with the genre of music, just more to do with the people involved.
The cover for the album you put out last year looks like something out of Etiquette Records, like that great cover for the Sonics' Here Are The Sonics or a Fabulous Wailers album cover. Was that intentional?
That's actually a cool question. We liked the way those old records, like you're mentioning, look -- just that simple and clean aesthetic. We wanted something easily identifiable as to what it was. Our friend Bekah Cope, from Nashville, is an awesome photographer. I think when we played a show in Nashville, we figured out that she had taken the color photo for every band that was playing except for one, and I think that's because that band didn't have a record out. That must be pretty cool for her. And it's big bands. Bands that are touring and have records out and followings.
We just picked one of her photos. That photo is from our first Nashville show. I think we liked it because the background looks like we're playing in a rundown city. The back wall has streamers but half of them are missing and kind of shitty looking. I thought that was kind of cool. We're used to playing places like that so it was an accurate representation of a place we would play.
Luckily, our bass player Natalie [Hoffman] is really good at design, so we lucked out with that. She designed the cover, and then her and I usually work together on T-shirt designs, single art and posters and fliers. That's something we're both passionate about, so it's fun to work together on that kinds of stuff. I think some people look at that kind of shit as like a chore and just throw something together. For the two of us, that's a big part of the band -- the aesthetic. And presenting yourself in a professional way that you want to represent you.
What is the name of the club in the photo?
The Springwater Supper Club. It doesn't look like where a club would be because it's next to a McDonald's, and it always smells really bad. Every time I go there, it smells horrible. It's in downtown Nashville. So you turn at McDonald's, and all of sudden you're a dive bar/club type of thing. We've played some huge venues, and it's awesome to play on a stage that big.
But then we played a college where it looked like we were playing a rec room. That was one of the most fun shows of the tour. We feel just at home in a small dive bar as we do on some of the stages we've played, like Webster Hall or Music Hall of Williamsburg or the Mohawk in Austin. Someone from Toronto told us that the Ramones had played on the stage that we played on in Toronto eight times, and I was pretty stoked about that.
Going back to the album cover a moment, It's nice touch that you have "mono" underneath the picture on the right because obviously the album was recorded in mono, and the word on the front isn't just some sort of affectation of visual style.
I think ten seconds after we decided to do it in mono, someone was like, "We've got to put 'mono' on this cover." I think that we were just as excited to put that on the cover as we were to do it in mono. I don't think that Ty or Eric Bauer -- the engineer for the album -- I don't think either of them had recorded in mono for a long time.
And after we finally did it that way and heard the mixes, and it sounded exactly the way we wanted it to, it was kind of cool to see them get excited about it. "Oh, man, we've got to do this again. Now I want to do a record in mono!" That's pretty cool to have people that are that esteemed when it comes to recording bands and have massive recording outputs to say it was a good idea.
What do you like about that mono sound?
It just fit a lot more what we're trying to do. If you listen to a lot of '70s post-punk and punk bands, that's what they were doing, too. I just really like that style a lot more than stereo. Sometimes I listen to something in stereo, and I don't really know what's happening. I think it comes from having a shitty stereo system my whole life, where I didn't even know that I was listening to stuff in mono because my stereo was shitty.
So that sounds good to me. I think that's the case with everyone else. Everyone is used to listening to records on an old turntable with an old receiver. So what you're used to isn't some super hi-fi production. You're used to listening to records on your thrift store turntable. So it just kind of made sense. It's a working class sound.
Obviously you draw inspiration from a broad swath of music from across decades. What got you interested in exploring music that broadly and deeply?
I think one of the things that makes this work so well is that we're all obsessed with music and not just punk. There's not a single day when we hang out or have band practice that we're not listening to music. Someone will play a record or play something on their phone -- that's a big part of what we do, showing each other good music. When we go in to the practice room, we're drawing from broad influences because we're all so open-minded when it comes to music.
I know people that seem to only listen to punk music or only listen to garage. I'm kind of too old for that. I think it's important to try to listen to as much different stuff as you possibly can because you never know what is going to inspire you. I think that helps a lot when you're so close-minded, where you're like, "How did The Swell Maps create this sound on their second record. Let me sit in here until I get that exactly right." It's not like that at all.
Your band is often described as punk, post-punk or garage because of your associations with other bands that some people like to put in one of those categories, as well. You're obviously inspired by so much different music. Do you think of your band as belonging in any specific genre or milieu?
I think it's a punk band, but it's also a rock and roll band. I think the garage comparisons come because Goner is such an integral part of the garage rock scene, and they have fans worldwide because of the garage rock records they put out. But they've put out a lot of other stuff, too, weird stuff. I think they're getting to the point now where they're more interested in stuff like that, which is really cool.
Obviously it's a punk band but there are a lot of elements of psychedelic rock, too. So I think the easiest way to describe it as just as a serious rock and roll band, no frills, raw.
Listening to your record there is a bit that is reminiscent of the Cramps, and what were they? You can't put a genre title on that band because it's not just one thing.
Yeah, we've all been listening to punk for years and there's so many different elements of rock and roll, blues, soul and psychedelic that goes into punk that kinda gets overlooked, I think. So maybe with us those elements are more accessible.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.