An Interview with Jesse Shaw
The term “singer-songwriter” usually evokes visions of coffee-shops and acoustic guitars. However, Jesse Shaw is a songwriter of a different breed. While his primary focus remains “the song” the tools of his trade include sequencers and synthesizers. I recently had a chance to catch up with Jesse and find out where “the Muse” has been leading him on his quest for the perfect pop song.
Todd Millenacker: For my own reference, what’s your band name now?
Jesse Shaw: Ahh yes, the band name thing. My first electropunk band name started off as a complete joke and ended up running for almost 5 years- Uber Cool Kung Fu. From there the band names were adopted due to new collaborations.
Todd: So is Uber Cool Kung Fu dead?
Jesse: UCKF is a zombie. I wrote so many songs for that project and the band worked so hard on them that we are going to release a farewell album (digital only) to say goodbye. I’m almost finished polishing everything off. My big problem is I get bored easily. I usually learn something new that seems to transform how I write or where inspiration comes from and makes my former work uninteresting so I abandon it. My hat’s off to my friends and band mates: Shawn, Adam, Geoff, and Dan for all the energy they infused into the project.
Todd: What’s happening with IKKI and Bit Switch Symphony?
Jesse: As far as IKKI, there are two other bands of the same name and I’m not sure I like the collision. Expect at least one EP in the near future produced by Spray‘s Ricardo Autobahn.
Bit Switch Symphony was a fun spin off where I started writing Carter USM-styled songs, but it ultimately became IKKI when I started to collaborate with Ric.
Where I go from here, I don’t know. I’ve got a ton of songs that need a home.
“Sociopath” by: IKKI
Todd: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical history?
Jesse: I had piano lessons at a young and tender age; drums, guitar, and bass. I wish I could tell you I’ve mastered them all, but I’m really a hack that plays by ear. I’ve recently been dabbling in acousmatic music and had a piece played at the SEAMUS 2010 conference. It was a crazy composition based on the spontaneous synchronization of heart pacemaker cells.
Todd: How did you get hooked up with the SEAMUS show?
Jesse: I’m actually hooked pretty hard into physics based representations of sound and composition. It really has gotten in the way of traditional song writing for the last few years. I’ve been working on an MBA at Saint Cloud State where I took two classes on digital synthesis and digital sound, thinking I was going to learn about core recording techniques. I was introduced to this crazy academic world of electro-acoustic music. Under the direction of Dr. Scott Miller, I’ve been working on purifying some of my compositions in both clarity and inspiration. One of my most recent used my social security number in as many digital and analog representations as possible: dialed on a rotary phone, dialed on a handset, in binary, Morse code, spoken etc. I called it “Numeri Liberi” or “Free Numbers.”
As far as SEAMUS, I was asked to submit a piece for consideration and was chosen by the panel. It was a huge honor. Probably the most important thing I’ve done musically.
Todd: What keeps you inspired to keep creating music?
Jesse: The main theme behind everything I write is balance: good and bad, love and hate, devils and angles. I find inspiration in people in love or those suffering. My songs always seem personal, but they really aren’t. I think I’ve only written one song about a certain ‘someone’.
Todd: Any favorite tools?
Jesse: I work in Digital Performer with a few synths and soft synths. In the studio now is a Korg M3 with a Radius module and a Access Virus TI. I’m also hooked on Native Instruments Reaktor and Kore2.
Todd: One thing I always enjoy about your music is basic “pop structure” focusing on a strong hook. Do you purposely set out to write music in the pop music format or does it just happen naturally?
Jesse: Thanks. I do… it does. I’m fairly narcissistic when it comes to writing music- I write music I like to listen to. I’m not sure if that constitutes narcissism. I usually take songs by other bands that I like and mash them up into something new. I’m not saying I steal riffs or even progressions, but the production quality of a song or two. I’m heavily influenced by New Order so you’ll probably hear some similarities in everything I write. What I really think happened is that my practice time was replaced by production and songwriting time.
I always start with the chorus and get it near production ready. If I like it, I’ll write a verse and nail down the melody. If I’m not bored, I’ll write a middle eight and two or three more verses then slap it all together and start trying to add production hooks. I usually write 10 songs for every 1 acceptable one. So, no, it does not come naturally. I wish it did. I know people that write 3 chord wonder songs in 2 minutes complete with bridges and breaks and they laugh them off. It’s very frustrating when they throw them away.
Todd: The IKKI material is produced by Spray’s Ricardo Autobahn. How did the two of you cross paths and how does the overseas collaboration work? (Ed note: Ricardo lives in England)?
Jesse: I met John ‘Ricardo Autobahn’ Matthews through a mutual musician, Brooke Aldridge. It all started over a cover version of ELO‘s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” John loved it and we hit it off from there. I really didn’t start with any expectations when I sent him some raw tracks to produce so I was 100% open to hear what he came up with. We would create a rough arrangement and mix, ask for slight changes to things like vocal tracks, or ask for more elements like acoustic guitar. When the dust settled, I was blown away by what he had created. I was fortunate to get to work with him.
Todd: Are you still collaborating with Ricardo?
Jesse: He’s incredibly busy writing and promoting another act, Bandito. That stuff will burrow an ear worm so deep it’ll invade your dreams. As for future collaborations, he’s a pro so I’ve just got to write another song he likes and is willing to put his limited time into.
Todd: How does your songwriting differ depending on the band members involved?
Jesse: It doesn’t really. When it comes to live or recorded performances, I have a general framework that parts need to fit into, but most of the fun for me is watching how everyone (fans and band members) react to the music.
Todd: Do you prefer the energy of a band (ala UCKF) or do you prefer working more one-to-one with a producer (ala Ricardo Autobahn)? How much leeway do you give to an outside producer?
“Electropunk All Stars” by: Uber Cool Kung Fu
Jesse: As far as the band vs one-on-one question… I’m not sure – they both yield totally different results. Band written songs tend to be more organic and fluid live but are usually ‘over-written.’ Artists always want to include their own fingerprint on a song- everyone wants to be special. I prefer either working alone or with one other collaborator. The optimal situation is a studio-to-studio collaboration (not being in the same room.) I’ve had the best results this way. Teaming up with Geoff Makousky, the prolific writer behind OBCT, is always awe inspiring. That guy reads my mind from 50 miles away.
I’ll give a producer 95% creative freedom. My goal is to make great music and even I may not know what that sounds like. That last 5% is the arrangement – I’ve studied song structure enough to know what works and what doesn’t. If the song is a two verse and they want another, that’ll be alright so long as the rest of the arrangement compliments it.
Todd: You’re obviously well versed in modern production techniques… what have you been listening to for inspiration (production-wise)?
Jesse: I’ve read a few books recently that have helped me a ton. Playing live has really shortened the amount of time I can spend in front of monitors. After an hour, everything sounds like tinnitus. I’m a big Faint fan as well as New Order. They are my peg, but it’s also a function of what I’ve been listening to recently: The Dear and Departed, tigersapien, The Rifles, Breathe Carolina, The Whip, The Big Pink, CSS, and Julian Casablancas (but I dislike The Strokes.)
Todd: Any warnings to the kids out there about protecting their hearing? When did your hearing start to diminish?
Jesse: As a kid, I didn’t take hearing loss too seriously and would crank up the music as loud as it could go. I never wore ear plugs to concerts- so unfashionable. The constant 8800Hz buzz in my ears is easy enough to ignore (yes, I pitch matched it.) It’s an annoying “blind spot” when it comes to mixing. The onset was very slow. I never really noticed until I was in a crowd of people and couldn’t hear a thing. I love to socialize in large groups and it’s a little hard now.
Kids these days have an even greater hearing enemy: the iPod. Everywhere you look, someone is sporting the telltale white ear buds probably blasting horrible music at even more horrible volumes.
As far as warning kids about the perils of loud music, I’m not sure I want to… I own a fair amount of stock in hearing aid manufacturers. Just kidding… “Kids, if you really love the music and want to continue to enjoy it into your 80s, adjust the global volume setting in your iPod to around 75%. You can still crank it up all the way, but you won’t kill you ears.”
Todd: You mentioned New Order as an inspiration…. They’re obviously very well known, but they always seemed a bit more underground in comparison to their contemporaries (Depeche Mode, The Cure). Do you remember what first attracted you to their music? What’s your favorite album?
Jesse: YES! I remember hearing “Shellshock” on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack at the theater in 1986. I rushed out and could only find Low-Life which was enough to hook me for life. I dubbed a cassette from the LP and listened on my Walkman (how are those 80s references) and was blown away by the audio manipulation: stereo delays, flanging synths, and manually cut and spliced glitch. I liked Depeche and The Cure just fine… in fact I’ve only seen the Technique New Order tour, but have seen DM and The Cure many, many times. My favorite New Order album is Substance although Low-Life and Brotherhood are tied for second. I don’t have a favorite song, but I have a least favorite: “Fine Time.”
Todd: Are you a Joy Division fan?
Jesse: I like Joy Division, but I like the other spin-offs much more: Electronic, Monaco, Revenge, Bad Lieutenant (we’ll see where that goes), Freebass, and The Other Two. Of course I have lots of Sumner teamed with producers like 808 State and Blank and Jones.
I love music. I listen to almost everything except most country. I’m a punk skater kid from Wyoming that was harassed by cowboys. I have too many negative feelings to take it seriously. Maybe I should write a country album.
Todd: IKKI’s “Something Sinister” is going to be released this year. Will there be a live incarnation of the band? What’s your plans for the band?
Jesse : Playing live has always been bittersweet for me. I hate the build up to the show. I NEVER want to play a show the entire day of. I come up with internalized excuses to not go… I’m a little cracked maybe. Eventually, we show up, set up, and blow up the show. UCKF has always given 110% at live shows. Thanks guys! As for up and coming live performances, I’m still recovering from some really harsh vocal chord problems. I actually got whooping cough a few years ago and it shredded my vocal chords. Throw some acid reflux on top of that and you’d be right where I’m at. It’s crazy… I’m doing crazy things to get better. Aside from acid reflux drugs, I’ve tilted my bed about 6 degrees, I drink 3 cups of green tea a day, and have not been singing (much).
Todd: How much do you think live performance affects the success of a band?
Jesse: The internet has really changed the world of music. Look at Owl City. Zero to hero in 2 CDs with no tours until after the fact and they are all sellouts. You can’t plan success by subscribing to a set of do’s and don’ts. What you can do is do what you love.
Todd: An aspect I admire about your approach to the music industry is that you are not afraid to embrace a gimmick. For instance, the “CHOOSE UCKF” shirts from a few years back or the stealing of the Kinks and KISS logo for IKKI’s website. What’s the craziest promotional idea you’ve tried? What’s been the most successful?
Jesse: Oh you’re going to love this answer… I subscribe to the theory that there are no original melodies, song structures, or progressions. So I reuse what works. I applied that same theory to the visual world. I “sample” known, familiar visual themes and reconstruct them to my purpose. Whether it’s nostalgia, or eye candy, or an internet meme, nothing is sacred. The current IKKI shirts are a spin on IKEA’s logo.
I really haven’t approached ideas as promotional, but it’s always the spontaneous things that seem to help the most, like throwing a word of mouth warehouse party. I’m a big believer in serendipity and the law of unintended consequences. I’ve had some success despite my best efforts.
The craziest thing at a show was Shawn hanging upside down by his ankles from a metal truss while playing the bass. To this day I have no idea how he pulled it off.
Todd: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us, any final thoughts?
Jesse: I’d like to urge readers to support local music and art. It’s like buying local. Let’s not let the corporate machine dilute independent music.
Editor’s Note: Todd Millenacker performs in the local electronic band Avenpitch and writes about the TC Electropunk music scene in Minnesota. He can be contacted at avenpitch[at]avenpitch[dot]com.