Mention the band Shoulders to veteran locals or a certain European contingent and inevitably Tom Waits and the Pogues arise. A poet did in fact bring together the Shane MacGowan/Spider Stacy front-duo axis of Michael Slattery and Todd Kassens, but he wasn't a musician.
"Michael and I [had] never met," remembers Kassens with a grin. "He walked up to me at UT and said, 'Listen to this poem by e.e. cummings' and started in. I don't remember what the poem was. Michael probably does."
Considering Shoulders' eccentric, Euro-cabaret flair, the pieces start fitting together.
In 1987, when the group first appeared on the local scene, their sound instantly stood out amid the smokin' blues revival of the era and the fading New Sincerity scene. After releasing a few cassettes and select showcases at New Music Seminar in New York, Shoulders broke in 1991 with its trademark debut, Trashman Shoes. The title track walked a thin line between murder ballad and bar anthem, coming to life as a black-and-white video with macabre splashes of red. Trashman Shoes made Shoulders stars in Europe.
Then, the fun stopped. As in 1992's The Fun Never Stops, which marked their last recording for more than two decades. The band continued to play throughout the Nineties, but not until last year did the notion of a third recording become a reality.
Shoulders decided to go Another Round.
Todd Kassens' hands are folded together as he sits inside Central Market Cafe on North Lamar, arms resting on a black laminate table as he faces his bandmate. Opposite him, Michael Slattery slouches in his chair with a cap on his head, parallel to the table and back to the bank of windows on the restaurant's south wall as the fading afternoon sun washes away into twilight.
It's become something of a joke lately, asking longtime musical partners how long they've been married (revisit Churchwood account "Reservoir Dogs," Aug. 23). An apt analogy it remains, however, since groups like Shoulders often discover that their entertainment and artistic value outlasts actual marriages. Relationship quirks can be more pronounced in a band, of course, and just as brutal.
"Fights. Trial separations. Restraining orders," nods Kassens amiably.
"It's an open marriage, but he's been cheating on me for 34 years!" protests Slattery. "I've been loyal!"
Kassens, guilty as charged when you consider his work in Shootin' Pains and Punkaroos, both with Shoulders jack-of-all-instruments Buxf Parrot, who also inducted the guitarist into the Dicks.
"Ask me what bands I've been in since starting Shoulders!" winks Slattery.
Not missing a beat, Kassens continues.
"Like the night onstage at the Continental Club in '96 or '98. During the break, Michael kept saying, 'This is fun, right? We're having fun, right? Fun?'"
"And then I stormed offstage," Slattery obliges with a smile.
The two laugh in a way that only those who've butted heads and walked away friends can.
"We're far enough removed from the trauma of making it," says Kassens. "We finally grew up."
Yet it was an awkward adolescence. Once Shoulders were musical darlings whose music eluded definition. Even Geffen Records was interested, but "they couldn't pigeonhole us," states Kassens.
"We weren't punk rock enough for punk, or folk enough for folk," elaborates Slattery. "Anything I even think to say in this realm of discussion I've heard other people say a million times. It's hard. I do this for the primitive reason to share what we have. We have a song, we want to share it.
"Business gets in the way and funnels what you're going to listen to. So you can't be shy about not fitting into the pigeonhole. That's what you have and you want to share it. But in the business world, that's not relevant. It's about making money, and that's where it gets hard.
"It's a battle to fight, to stick with your music. If there's a thread through the last few records, it's the same spirit coming through. It's the tribal way. We want to get out there and play to the people.
"I can't do anything else. I've tried. If I'm not creating this stuff, it's impossible to live."
Shoulders currently move as a quintet: Michael Slattery and Todd Kassens with longtime drummer Alan Williams, bassist Hunter Darby, and banjo player Buxf Parrot. Make that a sextet if master cellist John Hagen isn't on tour with Lyle Lovett.
Slattery's gravel-and-grit carnival bark melds with Kassens' sinewy guitar crunch as seamlessly on record as live, even when the lineup trims to a quartet as it did at Shoulders' HAAM Day set at Maria's Taco Xpress in September. The distinctive instrumental elements of new disc Another Round include Hagen on cello, Christian Herve's accordion, David Max Crawford on trumpet, and ex-Shoulder Chris Black guesting on bass and organ.
In another band, replicating that sonic layer live might present a challenge, but Shoulders hangs on the bones of its songs, no padding necessary. Alan Williams' tenure in Shoulders is the band's backbone, drumming through the careening sound on Another Round with a steady hand. The songs encase like skin, tattooed by Slattery's lyrics.
"I've always felt our songs, individually on album or a show, had to hit a nerve, to tickle your funny bone, and tug on your heartstrings," explains Slattery. "In a perfect world, we'd always have John Hagen, but we don't count on it. Todd and I play most of these songs by ourselves. We did this CD ourselves. Most of it is live, no tricks."
Slattery's got a few aces up his sleeve nevertheless, the singer capable of "making screechy noises" on trombone or squeezing an accordion as he famously bangs a bass drum and sings like a walking billboard for Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show in Something Wicked This Way Comes – all of it with a Weill/Brecht soundtrack! That's likely what appealed to so many European fans in the early Nineties.
Big in Europe, yes, where they played on the Peel Sessions in England, and bigger in France: "Trashman Shoes" reached the No. 2 spot on the French charts. Slattery groans at the memory.
"That was a nightmare in the studio. We did 68 takes of 'Trashman Shoes.' The band had to play it and I had to sing it full through every time. I didn't know how to work with a producer. I don't know how we didn't know what our rights were. We'd do something in the studio during Trashman Shoes and The Fun Never Stops and it would sound great. We'd be gone for a day or two and come back to find all these overdubs on it."
"Everything felt sterile," says Kassens. "We're a dirty band. And in the end, we used the second take."
The guitarist also calls the lengthy list of musicians who've rubbed Shoulders over the last quarter-century worthy of Spinal Tap, though Hunter Darby lucked out when then-bassist Chris Black decided he'd rather play piano around 1997. Darby paid his dues with the Wannabes, Diamond Smugglers, and others, but Shoulders offered him a chance to stretch in an entirely different direction.
"Mike and Todd's musical influences are all over the map," he says. "You can hear the effect of literature and even their previous theatre experience governing the bones, narrative nature, and dynamics of the songs.
"There are pinches of Ezra Pound and Malcolm Lowry blended with those dashes of Piaf and Springsteen. And yet, they never lean on any of these other artists long enough to sound derivative."
Some 34 years into this marriage of music and friendship that is Shoulders, Michael Slattery does in fact recall the e.e. cummings poem he spouted as a journalism student to bemused theatre major Todd Kassens outside a UT classroom.
Kassens chuckles and scratches the thatch of silver hair on his head. A cocky grin widens Slattery's face as he slides further into the chair, then quickly sits up. Closing his eyes, he turns to Kassens, folds his hands, and intones in a voice as mellifluous as the poem is free of punctuation.
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves
and kisses are a better fate
lady i swear by all flowers don't cry
the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other then
laugh leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
and death i think is no parenthesis
Slattery leans back in the chair and gives the brim of his cap a victory flick upwards.
"Or something like that."
CD release: Satuday, Oct. 26, Continental Club. Shoulders then guests at the Chronicle's local music series Paper Cuts on Tuesday, Oct. 29. RSVP: austinchronicle.com/paper-cuts.
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