Devon Shirley of Summer Cannibals Has Deep Roots in Denver

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Summer Cannibals, from Portland, Oregon, return to Denver for two dates this coming weekend: Saturday, August 22 at the hi-dive, and Sunday, August 23, at Dryer Plug Studios. Both shows have more than the average significance for the band, because its drummer, Devon Shirley, cut his musical teeth in the Denver scene before relocating to Portland in 2009.

“My buddies Jason Walker, Josh Terry and Karl Zickrick all decided to move out to Portland and asked if I wanted to come,” explains Shirley of the move west. “I wasn't doing a whole lot and wanted a change of scenery. I didn't expect to be here for six years, that's for sure. I'm the only one who still lives here. Josh moved back to Denver and [later] bought the hi-dive. Walker moved to L.A. to start a band with [former Angels Never Answer and The New Rome member] Patrick Houston called Empty Palaces, and they're super-amazing. Karl did the same thing. Portland's my vibe. I like living here, and I love this city. I think it fit me better than it did for the rest of the guys.”

Shirley had played around Denver in bands since he was nineteen, most notably with long-running post-punk band the Photo Atlas and synth-rock outfit Red Orange Yellow. The latter was his band just before he decided to move to Portland; Rubedo singer and synth player Kyle Gray was also in that band. But Shirley's connections with Rubedo go further back, to a time when a preteen Shirley and future Rubedo drummer Gregg Ziemba went to the same church. Though younger, Ziemba was a precocious musician who played punk rock at a very early age, and Shirley was impressed with his talent.

“He's the reason I play drums; I can attribute my entire existence as a musician to Gregg. He was playing drums in a punk-rock band when I was thirteen, and I'd go over to his house and we'd hang out and I'd play his drums. If it wasn't for Gregg, I'd be playing clarinet or bongos or I don't know what.”

Fast-forward a handful of years, and Shirley was one of several people hanging out at the hi-dive and Sputnik and rubbing shoulders with other musicians, playing shows together and otherwise learning, in however informal a manner, how to be in a band and operate in a local scene. Shirley also picked up a social and artistic flexibility that has allowed him to play in a variety of scenes and musical styles in Portland. That and a very pragmatic attitude toward being a musician have been assets to Shirley as well.

“I've always lived by the mantra of, don't ever stop playing, even if it's not the best thing in the world,” Shirley says. “The first couple of bands I played with out here were not what I moved out here to do, but it kept me behind the drum kit.”

Shirley has played with metal bands, folk bands, indie-rock bands and a variety of other types of projects including Diesto, Lord Dying and Grand Horse. He played with the last band for three years, yielding a couple of records before the group dissolved in the latter half of 2014. At that point, Lord Dying had recruited Shirley for a monthlong tour, though he joined Summer Cannibals in October 2014.

Summer Cannibals guitarist Marc Swart had seen Shirley play at a party put on by Shirley's former record label, Touchy Feely Records, and approached the drummer with the proposition of joining the group, which proved fateful for Shirley.

“To be honest, I had been thinking of moving back to Denver, because I didn't think living in Portland was going to be working out for me anymore,” admits Shirley. “I'd been out here five years and didn't have the success I'd like to have had, and thought maybe the town wasn't for me. The Summer Cannibals showed up and I'm stoked again. It's a perfect relationship between me and the band. It brings me back to the fast, loud punk-rock music and stuff I fell in love with when I was nineteen or twenty and sneaking into the hi-dive with a fake ID.”

Summer Cannibals rolled through Denver during its trip back from SXSW in March 2015 with its sophomore record, Show Us Your Mind, on hand. Though sharing the stage with excellent bands like fellow Portland outfit the Shivas and Future Single Mom and Rubedo from Denver, Summer Cannibals stood out with its fuzzy punk songs like an interesting reinvention of '90s alternative rock. In the fall, the band will record with Chris Woodhouse, the engineer on records from Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees and WAND — a development over which Shirley expresses unqualified enthusiasm. But the drummer's love for Denver and his old friends is undiminished by time and distance, as evidenced by an anecdote about his friends in Rubedo.

“They were on tour recently, and I had this 2008 van in good condition I wasn't using because Summer Cannibals has its own van,” recalls Shirley. “Kyle called me up and said, 'Yo, we're on tour, and our van is total shit; it's breaking down everywhere we go. We're coming through Portland and we'll be there in four days.' They knew I had a van I was trying to sell, but it was way out of their price range. I worked out a deal and told them, 'Okay, just take my van, because you're on tour and you need a van. But leave your shitty van and we'll figure out something to do with that.' They rolled up in the middle of the night and loaded their stuff into my van. They said, 'Dude, thank you so much, we love you.' 'Cool, safe travels.' Then they just drove away. That was when I thought, 'Wait a minute, I just gave my friends a $14,000 van.' Which is kind of a weird feeling, but they're like my brothers and they can do no wrong. The next day I was going to go run some errands, and I realized, 'Holy shit, I don't have a car anymore.' I tried to drive their van and it broke down on the way. I couldn't believe they drove that thing across the country. But good people, I love those guys. They're killing it in Denver, and that makes me so happy.”

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