Interview With Shy, Low
"The Danger Behind The Things That Give You Light"
I am sure you already heard the news that the new Shy, Low record "Snake Behind The Sun" is out. My feature on it received more than just a few visits. So thank you for that! Now I had the chance to talk to the band that people use to mention in one sentence with giants like Cult Of Luna and Russian Circles.
We talked about their recording sessions at the Vudu Studios, working with Pelagic Records and Mike Watts, and the history of the Richmond, Virginia based post-rock band. And about vegetables.
Anne: Hi! Thank you very much for taking the time! How are you doing today? You just released your new album "Snake Behind The Sun". How is the feedback so far?
"People like the new album"
Gregg: Hey Anne, I am doing quite well, thank you for asking. The feedback we have received after releasing "Snake Behind the Sun" has been incredibly positive. We have gotten so many positive notes about the overall mix of the record and the song structure. Sonically, it is quite a bit more powerful than our previous full-lengths, and while I think some folks were expecting it, I think the majority of our listeners were expecting another toned down record, so it seems like this was a nice surprise to many.
Dylan: Feedback has been pretty overwhelming for us. It's been a validating couple of weeks overall. We've heard from many old friends, near and far, who have all been incredibly supportive, and it seems like we've been able to catch some new listeners' attention as well. After focusing for so long on getting this record written, recorded, and released, without the ability to play shows in between, it's gratifying to finally have something to show for the last two years of forced stagnancy (quarantine, etc.). We couldn't be happier with the response, and we're so thankful and honoured to have such strong positive support, especially during such a vulnerable time. It's been pretty wild.
Anne: You already gave me some insights about this, and I definitely want to know more about what distinguishes the record from the ones you made before.
"'Snake Behind The Sun' is a lot busier than our last album"
Gregg: This record was written with a lot of influence from our newer bassist, Drew, who has come from primarily a metal background. He and Zak teamed up really well and presented several ideas for songs, demoed them out via Garageband with programmed drums, and then we all brought them to life with Dylan incorporating his own flair on drums and Gregg still sprinkling elements from previous records. Overall though, these songs came out with much more of a polished punch from start to finish, whereas the "Hiraeth", for example, was a bit more simplified and focused more on the overall mood and string melodies. "Snake Behind The Sun" is a lot busier of a record but not over-complicated to where you feel lost.
Dylan: Well, first off: we've had a small number of member changes over the last few years, so writing with new people will always yield songwriting that feels a little different. Each person brings their own influences, backgrounds, and strengths to the table, and collaborative writing will always reflect each member's voice in different ways. But we also had a slightly clearer vision for what we wanted to put into this release. I think that focus in conjunction with new musical flavours to play around with has resulted in a slightly more mature and well-rounded release as a whole. We also spent much more energy on that actual recording process, which gave our initial vision more polish than we've been able to achieve previously.
Anne: You said it was the first time for you to sit down in the studio and focus on the production of your album together with a producer with all these fantastic instruments and studio equipment in the back. How was it like working like this? Btw: The studio you produced "Snake Behind The Sun" in was none less than the famous Vudu Studios, and your producer was none other than Mike Watts (The Dillinger Escape Plan, Hopesfall, Tides of Man, GlassJaw). How was that?
"Working with Mike Watts was amazing"
Gregg: We spent three full weeks of ten to 15 hour days up at Vudu Studios. In the past, we usually did weekend sessions and would track drums, then move on to bass, then guitars another weekend, and then extras yet another weekend. With this more recent process, I think it allowed us to be in the moment and focus on every tonal element of each part of every song. We also had Mike Watts in the studio a lot of time, listening and giving feedback from a producer's role, and he helped us "trim down the fat" in a few songs, which we haven't really had in the previous records. It has usually been our call 98 per cent and the engineers giving helpful suggestions.
Dylan: Working with Mike was great. He's got an insane wealth of engineering and production knowledge, and he was present for basically the entire process and was always prepared to guide when it seemed like we were losing focus. He's got an excellent ear for gauging individual creative voices, which means mostly that he can hear when you're dead-on – and when you're way off. I think that kind of input helped establish the amount of polish we were able to get on this record. Hearing him say, "nope, do it again. you can do better" might be irritating at the moment, but he's got a great vision for seeing a record from a bird's eye view, and he was able to sort of act as an editor would for a publishing author. Our two engineers, Kevin Preller and Frank Mitaritonna, were also absolute wizards in the studio, and much of the quality of the record can be attributed to their proficiency and creativity too. Overall an excellent and uplifting experience.
Anne: So working with Mike and his team was great?
"We completely focused on the album"
Gregg: As mentioned previously, Mike Watts took on a great producer's role within this recording process. We spoke with him before going up to start tracking after listening to several albums he had produced before and felt that he would help bring this new record to life in the way we were hoping. I think he, Kevin Preller, who primarily engineered it, and Frank Mitaritonna, who helped out with engineering, all had excellent suggestions and worked very efficiently to help us achieve an incredible sounding record.
Anne: You told Pelagic that "Snake Behind The Sun" is a metaphor for the idea that darkness and negativity can remain hidden even beneath seemingly positive forces and a positive being in a person's life. Do you remember who came up with this topic and what led to this idea?
Dylan: The imagery, I think, was either Zak or Drew initially, but it is one that we four can relate to in many ways. I think the image is symbolic of feeling a constant state of false security – knowing that there is danger lying behind the things that give you light and make you grow, even if you're too blinded by those very things to see it. I think a big part of it has to do with the politics of the last 20 years and what our generation has had to endure as a result of the missteps of those in power: very little reasonable access to healthcare, high inflation, the longest war in American history, an oncoming environmental catastrophe very soon, etc. So no matter how good things might seem on the day-to-day, we're constantly reminded that all is not what it seems, and it could all change at any moment. So there appears to be universality to the symbolism.
Anne: Your music lives from its contrasts and changes. The overall atmosphere is quite energetic and progressive. Is this how life is?
"We all work full-time"
Gregg: I think for each one of us, this would be pretty accurate. I personally have a tough time balancing everything going on, but somehow, it works out. We all work full-time, sometimes weird hours and then we are all in relationships, and I just got married a few weeks ago. In addition to house-hunting, my wife and I are slowly converting a school bus to travel and live in one day. I am also helping her get her dream business off of the ground. So I guess this answers that question about being energetic and making forward progress in our lives.
Dylan: It's hard to tell a story with just music alone, without a vocalist to help convey a narrative verbally. So the best way for us to tell a narrative without words is by simulating the push-and-pull of conflict and resolution, which usually ends up in songs with contrasting dynamics, tempos, atmospheres, etc. I don't know if it necessarily reflects how we live individually, but I like to think it reflects life for most people. There's always ebb and flow. Writing and performing also gives us a place to direct our frustrations with real life, so we don't end up spending that energy destructively. So I guess in that regard, the music reflects how we feel, though not always how we behave if that makes sense.
Anne: Gregg, one more thing you could describe as progressive is veganism. You told me that you and Zak have been vegetarian for like 12 years. Have you ever considered going vegan? What do you think about veganism?
"We try to eat as healthy and ethical as possible"
Gregg: Yes, Zak and I have been vegetarian for roughly about the same time now. I attempted it when I moved out to Illinois a few years ago, and I was working at an all-vegan restaurant at the time with little social life and a lot of extra time to cook and two awesome vegan roommates. When I moved back home to Virginia, I took on a significantly busier job that didn't allow me as much free time to cook properly, so I found myself eating fast food more while on the go. Usually Taco Bell. My wife was vegan for five years and focused on healthy eating habits, which have slowly rubbed off on me. I'm still not sure I could go full-on vegan, but I think we all try to eat as healthy and ethical as possible.
Anne: What do you think? Why is it that so many people in the music biz are vegan, vegetarian or on their way to going vegan? Some of them (Like Belinda and Justin from Crippled Black Phoenix, who I interviewed some days ago) are even active animal rights activists. It's not just the tour catering, is it?
Gregg: I honestly don't know. The idea of our bodies getting older and still doing the physical work of loading in heavy amps and cabs, exerting a lot of physical energy each night on stage. And then not wanting to load up on a ton of fatty foods, all probably have something to do with it. I will also say that I think food, primarily fruits and vegetables, tastes quite a bit fresher over Europe than here in the US. I am not sure if it has something to do with the soil or water or what, but it definitely makes me want to eat even healthier overseas.
Anne: Enough about food. You recorded five albums since you founded Shy, Low in 2011. Each of them is great, and they all differ from each other. Would you say they reflect your respective stages of life at these times?
"We are proud to be part of Pelagic"
Gregg: I would agree that each record is a reflection of the members involved with the making of that record. As we grow older, our music continues to mature and evolve. Each record has portrayed a theme that usually came to us after it was fully finished, but they all were representative of us at the moment.
Anne: You worked with several record companies, such as the Seattle based Spartan Records and Fluttery Records. Early this year, you announced that you are part of Pelagic now, which I consider a marvellous label. How is it working with the guys? Do you enjoy it?
Gregg: Pelagic Records, I think for me personally, has a dream roster. Some of the most inspirational bands have been or are a part of that label, so getting the chance to release a record with them has been incredible. Also, Paul and Robin have been very helpful with PR and helping out when needed. We are very grateful to be working with them.
Dylan: Pelagic has been wonderful and so welcoming thus far, and we are honoured to share a roster with such excellent bands. I think we were a little starstruck when we began discussing working together seriously. It sort of felt too good to be true. Their fan base is so supportive, and it's really neat to see a label put so much care into curating a specific sound with their release catalogue. It's almost like working with a museum curator or something. They seem to pick bands less by what they think they'll be able to sell and more by what they want to spread to the world. Pelagic is like the cool older brother of independent heavy-music record labels – the kind of label with all these sick bands that you have to check out simply because they're attached. We're just happy to be along for the ride and honoured to be among such heavy-hitters.
Anne: What's up next for you? Do you have tour plans? Are you already working on new songs?
"We want to go on a tour"
Gregg: We have some more things to be released in the upcoming weeks and months. We are working on lining up some tour dates, both in the US and overseas, but it's still in the very early stages. We are all demoing some new song ideas or at least parts and sending them off to each other.
Dylan: We have got a few things in the pipeline currently, but we're itching to get back on the road more than anything. Unfortunately, there's precedence for the bands who had their 2020/21 cancelled, so most of the booking for the next year is pretty jam-packed. However, we're looking into getting some dates routed for spring 2022. We'll likely get to start writing new material in the meantime, now that we're just about finished with the video shooting/editing processes for this release cycle (most of which was done in-house by Drew and Zak).
Anne: Thank you very much for this sympathetic interview! It was nice getting to know you guys!
Gregg: Thank you so much for the wonderful questions, and we hope we get to meet you sometime in our travels. All the best, take care.