Power-pop progenitors? O.G. DIYers? The last college-rock survivors? No label adequately captures the four-decade journey of Zion, Ill.’s Shoes, who are releasing their first new studio material in 17 years.
“Say It Like You Mean It” (download):
Shoes singer/guitarist Jeff Murphy is doing his best impression of the Hedleys, the “hardest working West Indian family” from In Living Color who seemed to take a perverse delight in toting up the sheer number of jobs it was possible to hold down at any given time. When he’s not playing with his band of nearly 40 years, he also has a day gig (fixing electronic gear at a local music store) or is engaged in the kind of activity he’s preparing for today: putting in a guest teaching appearance at Harper College in nearby Palatine, Ill., to help out a professor friend.
“I’m a bit harried because I’m speaking at a Beatles class,” relates Murphy with no small degree of enthusiasm. “We’re gonna try ‘You Can’t Do That.’ I like to try to involve the students as much as possible, so I’m bringing along a cowbell and a tambourine to pluck a couple of them out of their seats to come up and play along. The prof for the class is Greg Herriges. He’s a writer friend of mine who also did a documentary called Player: A Rock And Roll Dream. And I’ve taught in his class for three or four years now. We did ‘Two Of Us’ last year. I really don’t want it to be about me trying to show off in front of a class full of college kids. Greg talked me into it,” Murphy finishes in what is his—and his band’s—typically self-deprecating fashion. “But I love doing these kind of speaking things, and to be able to talk about the Beatles is a double-plus.”
Embodied in this guest-teaching vignette is literally everything you need to know about Shoes: the single-minded pursuit of perfection, the enthusiasm that only fans can bring to a volunteer endeavor, the desire to support friends who are equally committed to their art or avocation, the self-skewering sense of humor. Not to mention the “Midwest nice” demeanor that colors every conversation with the band on virtually every topic, any time.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Shoes is that this ethic and attitude prevails despite a collection of music-biz bumps and bruises that could rival Charlie Brown in terms of sheer career futility. In some ways, they’re the Forrest Gumps of rock. Shoes essentially presaged punk’s DIY movement by recording its first, early-’70s albums in Murphy’s living room before garnering enough critical acclaim to merit a major-label contract; recorded three terrific if underappreciated power-pop albums on Elektra before being unceremoniously dumped in the mid-’80s; had the presence of mind to take their separation pay from the label and parlay it into a proper commercial studio (Short Order Recorder) and record label operation (Black Vinyl Records), thus affording Shoes not only cheap access to studio time and readymade record distribution, but also the ability to produce other up-and-coming bands along the way. (Oh, hello, Material Issue and Local H.) That business venture was then shuttered in the mid-2000s and the band members moved their recording equipment back into the basement, so to speak, bringing them full circle in a career that has seen a little of everything the music business has to offer except for one elusive prize: mainstream success.
Nonetheless, the lack of bitterness about this experience almost defies explanation. Not to mention normal human emotion. “This is my band; they quite literally changed my life,” says Mary Donnelly, an English professor from Binghamton, N.Y., who has just completed Shoes’ first definitive biography, Boys Don’t Lie: The History Of Shoes, due out later this year. “Shoes were around for all these little transitions that make up the history of the independent music scene for the last 30 years: playing all these little colleges before we knew that circuit as ‘college rock,’ the crash of 1979, the development of the mp3, the indie distribution cycle collapsing around them while they were trying to build a business around it in the early ’90s. And yet, they don’t spend any time on recrimination or regret. It’s refreshing.”
Or as Murphy himself sums up, “Back in the day, when (bassist) John (Murphy, Jeff’s brother) and (guitarist/vocalist) Gary (Klebe) were away at college, Loudon Wainwright III would play all of these cool, one-man shows. Then he had his hit with ‘Dead Skunk’ and suddenly he’s the Dead Skunk Guy rather than this guy who does cool college shows and has a cult following. A single hit, pulled out of context, can really be crippling to a band. For us, it’s great to be in this position: to have all these albums in our discography we can go back and draw from, but not have this one hugely successful song to compare you to every time.”
As Butch once asked the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys, anyway?”
(Come On Feel The) Illinoise
Zion, Ill., is, in many respects, the perfect town from which a band like Shoes could silently issue forth to wage musical war on an unsuspecting universe. The city of 25,000-ish (noteworthy homeboy: actor Gary Coleman) is situated midway between Chicago and Milwaukee near the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, and it’s responsible for a cultural ethos that threads all the way through the very fabric of Shoes since the beginning of the band.
“Zion was founded in the early 20th century as a religious community and was steeped in a very conservative attitude,” Murphy wrote in his 2006 pictorial memoir, Birth Of A Band, The Record Deal, And The Making of “Present Tense”. “It had absolutely no music scene or even a club to play at. And it was a dry town, so there were no bars, clubs or restaurants that served alcohol. Even the simple possession of tobacco was, at one time, illegal. But it was within radio reception of Chicago, and Chicago’s AM radio in the mid-’60s was a phenomenal influence on every red-blooded adolescent who imagined themselves as a pop star.” Put simply: If you were going to have fun in Zion, you’d have to make it yourself. Murphy was a young gearhead—he purchased his first reel-to-reel recording equipment at the age of eight—while older brother John and his high-school friend, Gary Klebe, had already decided to form Shoes by 1973, asking Jeff to join later when it became apparent that he was the one with the equipment they needed to realize their vision (one part Beatles, one part Big Star, one part Bowie). The trio, plus a friend of Jeff’s on drums, made its initial foray into home recording with 1974’s Heads Or Tails, a mono-only collection of 10 songs cut to a 10-inch disc that the band printed exactly four copies of (one for each member of the group). Eventually, Murphy moved out of his parents’ home and into a house he called “La Cabane,” a kind of boys-only, music-geek clubhouse that became ground zero for the band’s next three home-recorded albums, Un Dans Versailles (One In Versailles), the unreleased Bazooka (both from 1976) and 1977 leftfield classic Black Vinyl Shoes, which contained just the right mixture of jingle-jangle six-string and creamy, dreamy harmony vocals to capture the attention of influential rock critics such as Ira Robbins and Robert Christgau, both of whom championed it loudly while the nascent power-pop movement of the ’70s (Raspberries, Badfinger, Flamin’ Groovies) was winding down and the next generation of melodists-with-muscle (Knack, Cars, Romantics, Cheap Trick) was gearing up for unprecedented commercial success.
Shoes would eventually get its opportunity to see how the other half lived when its early, home-brewed successes won them a contract with Elektra. The group decamped for England to record 1979’s Present Tense at the Manor in Oxfordshire—an album that would net them minor radio hits with “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late”—working with noted producers such as Mike Stone (Queen) and Richard Dashut (Fleetwood Mac, during the Rumors and Tusk era) as their follow-up albums Tongue Twister (1980) and Boomerang (1982) landed the group some early MTV exposure (four of their videos were on the network during its first 24 hours of operation) and accorded them no small amount of respect and critical plaudits, even if sales never quite amounted to what both the band and label had hoped for.
Shoes was eventually released from its contract in 1982 and used their parting gift from the label to build a small studio, Short Order Recorder, in a strip mall near its hometown, as well as start up the Black Vinyl label. This enabled them to carry on as a recording act (1984’s Silhouette, 1989’s Stolen Wishes) while producing other like-minded musical acts, such as Chicago’s Material Issue and Zion homeboys Local H (both of whom went on to major-label success) as well as the Sneetches. Shoes had, in effect, created a self-contained universe in which the band could operate as it wished with little of the financial pressures that accompanied a major-label contract. The group toured nationally for the first time in support of Stolen Wishes (hard to believe for a band that had effectively been operating for 15 years; but then Shoes had always considered itself a recording act, first) and generally enjoyed the fruits of its two decades’ worth of labor. But something was simmering beneath the surface, both within the industry as well as within the band itself.
“We never liked being a record label, but it was a necessary evil to get our records out there,” explains Klebe of this particular chapter in the band’s history. “We had so many other worries besides making music. But it gave us an outlet we wouldn’t have had otherwise. In some ways it was good, but in others it was really stressful and what suffered the most, in the end, was our work as recording artists.”
It was this realization that eventually led Shoes to wrap up the recording of 1994’s Propeller—a more rocking, higher-energy album than the band had recorded in years—and essentially put the group on ice in favor of other activities for the foreseeable future. Coming as it did at the apex of grunge—the era of big distorted guitars, growly vocals that killed harmonies dead, lyrical anger and its antecedents, rather than the poignant and funny boy/girl relationship stories that remained Shoes stock in trade—this seemed like the end. And yet, it was hardly that, by a long shot.
Given the near-brushes with success and the tireless work ethic that saw Shoes transition from major-label act back to a D.I.Y. way of working (out of necessity more than any deliberate decision on its part), it’s nothing short of shocking to hear the product of all the group’s efforts over the past few years, Ignition: 15 well-crafted pop/rock nuggets as catchy as anything in the band’s previous 10-album catalog.
“The main reason it’s taken us 17 years to put together a new Shoes album is because of timing,” says Murphy. “It’s been difficult to fit it into everyone’s schedule. Gary runs a local business with his brother, and John works there too in the graphics department; they do a massive catalog several times every year and employ 30 people. But shortly after we started recording again, I said to those guys that it all felt totally natural, like there hadn’t been a huge break between records, and how much I really enjoy writing and recording Shoes music.
“Returning to the home studio after we started there nearly 40 years ago (Shoes recorded Ignition in its entirety in Klebe’s basement studio, a move that was set in motion when Short Order Recorder ceased to operate in 2004) is like getting back to our roots. The fact that this album was recorded over 18 months is because we could only fit in three or four nights a week. So, the actual number of hours spent recording it is still about what we used to average when we recorded full-time; Tongue Twister averaged about 45 hours per song, and we’re spending nearly that on this album as well. Plus, we were writing the songs and demoing them on the fly, just like the old days. Gary would come in with something like ‘Heaven Help Me’ (a song with driving, spidery guitar crawling across its surface) and immediately I was like, ‘I know what I want to do on this. I want this guitar that just sucks you in, zooms in on you.’ Then with a Stones-y thing like ‘Hot Mess,’ I said, ‘Put me in, I know what to do!’ and John said, ‘Well, I’ve got these lyrics … ’” Murphy laughs. (“I sang them with a hand-held mic, like a live performance, and only swore twice!” counters John Murphy of his turn on vocals that evening.) “It was great to still feel that kind of enthusiasm and excitement after 40 years of doing it together. There’s no one else in the world I trust more than John and Gary in terms of their musical opinion.”
“When we sold the studio years ago, we lost not just a place to record, but a rehearsal space as well,” says John. “It was our clubhouse, so to speak, and even though Jeff set up a room in his house to record, it wasn’t the same as having a neutral location where you could come and go at all hours of the day or night, makin’ as much racket as you wanted to. When we started discussing making new music, the question was, ‘Could we pull it off?’ and would there still be an appreciative audience out there for a new CD? Recording a new album is a commitment, so there was a certain amount of reacquainting ourselves with the process again, from the insular act of songwriting to the collaborative effort of helping each other achieve the potential of that particular song. It was a baptism by fire.”
Between Donnelly’s forthcoming biography (which all three Shoes members agree played a role in getting them back into the studio to record again), Klebe’s state-of-the-art basement studio (if there can really be such a thing) and finding the time and energy to devote to their craft once again, the three boys from Zion have somehow managed to defy expectations once more, unleashing an album that dozens of bands half their age would be delighted to take out and road-test every night. The fact that Shoes likely won’t tour behind the album makes chart success all the more improbable to attain, but is also par for the course with a group that has largely gone about its craft exactly the way it’s seen fit for as long as it has been creating music together, even if that way has sacrificed some of the success the band would no doubt have tasted by now had it taken a more conventional path.
“Music follows trends; people chase success,” says Garbage member, Smart Studios owner and noted producer Butch Vig, who has known Shoes since way back in the days when his band Spooner first crossed paths with them in the ’70s. “Back when Nirvana’s Nevermind happened, labels were trying to sign anything that sounded or even looked like Kurt. But I have way more respect for bands that follow their original love of music and stick to it. Shoes is one of the bands that set the template for power pop: those buzzy guitars, lush vocals, great melodic hooks. They have a sound, a sensibility. And I love it! It’s a testament to their integrity that they stuck with it. I have an immense amount of admiration for them and was so excited to hear the new record. I knew it wasn’t going to be Prodigy or Eminem, you know?” Vig laughs. “Having a strong sonic identity is an asset, and they’ve had that from the start.”
“Shoes were among my Midwest power-pop idols,” says Matthew Sweet. “Like Cheap Trick and the Raspberries, Shoes epitomize that classic sound of super-melodic, post-Beatles American rock. I love the very personal singing sound, and they have tons of great songs. Great harmonies, guitars, bass, the whole package. And they are super nice guys. I had the opportunity to rehearse in their Zion studio for an early tour of mine, and they were totally cool.”
“I said to my wife the other day, ‘When Shoes gets together to eat a pizza, nobody ever eats the last slice,’” says Jeff of the group’s “all-for-one, one-for-all” ethos. “We all sink or swim together. Shoes is, and has always been, a three-man sack race. It’s about us. There’s no ‘i’ in Shoes. And, hell, there’s no ‘the’ either!”