An Interview with Shawn Phillips of The Eighth
Whether fronting the industrial “concept” The Eighth, playing bass in Uber Cool Kung Fu or composing ambient soundscapes for multi-media projects; Shawn Phillips is a musician who always keeps things both interesting and edgy. I recently had the chance to catch up with Shawn and discover where the muse has been leading him.
Todd: Starting out, could you tell me a little bit about your history in the Twin Cities’ music scene? You’re originally from North Dakota, correct?
Shawn Phillips: North Dakota, the secret I can’t seem to keep under wraps. I grew up there in a town where the only original live music could be found in the basements of rented banquet rooms and VFWs, where the bands were usually still in high school and played either punk or nu-metal. I started out in 1993 playing coffee shops on the acoustic guitar, playing bass in a punk band, and co-running a live poetry performance night, eventually moving on to what I’d call “Ghetto DJ’ing” with a CD player, a keyboard and a 4-track cassette recorder. Around 1999 I started Chairman Mao, the band I became known for there. We got labeled by promoters as “darkwave industrial”, which I found pretty funny but rolled with it anyway. We were for all intents and purposes the only electronically-oriented band for 300 miles. I also ended up playing guitar and writing material in a prog metal band (cutting a demo at Music Tech, before it became McNally Smith). In 2002 I moved to Red Wing, MN to study Band Instrument Repair (clarinets, trumpets, etc). I’m a self-taught guitarist and was the only person out of forty students who wasn’t a band geek and couldn’t read sheet music!
“Wasted Heartbeats” by: The Eighth
I ended up quitting school a few weeks before completing the course, wrote a novella, material for a new album, and moved to Minneapolis in 2003. In that time I discovered a couple Yahoo Groups for electronic music artists in the Twin Cities. After joining I discovered a lot of flame wars and fighting. I threatened to leave, but Nick from Endless Blue convinced me to stay on. I even went to a monthly meeting of one of the groups, where I met Alex from Apraxia and Mike from Envy Is Blind, sharing each other’s material. Compared to their stuff, my Mao material was kinda ‘redneck industrial’, tech-wise.
One evening, Jesse Shaw found me on one of those online groups and messaged me, asking if I played bass. I said sure, but I didn’t have any equipment. I was duped into becoming a founding member of Uber Cool Kung Fu (UCKF), an electro-pop-punk band. After I got comfortable being told I played too many notes and still getting away with it, I revisited my material, and invited a few people into the project which became The Eighth Day. That ended nastily, but with the time I spent in UCKF I made a number of connections with many other locals, doing temp and session work for Adam from Thosquanta (another UCKF and notorious mishaps alumnus!) as well as for Geoff and Dan from OBCT, some writing with Bill from Heliosphere, promo and conceptualizing with Brooke from Telephone!/Pop Inc, and the list goes on.
That’s a little more than “a bit” of the history. We were such a young and hopeful little community back then.
Todd: You’ve described “The Eighth” as a “concept” – as opposed to a “band” – would you mind explaining what you mean by this? How did The Eighth come together?
SP: Well, in 2006, when The Eighth Day went belly-up, I had a lot of ideas that went unfulfilled. That was when I started working with Geoff and Dan on rebooting the project. I can’t imagine doing this project without them. UCKF was still going on at the time, and Geoff was drumming for us. He and I have so many crazy stories from that time; it was just natural that we bonded. I met Dan separately at a TED show at the 7th Street Entry, giving me an OBCT demo and some hand-made stickers, which led to late night coffee and creating binges. Geoff offered to produce the new stuff I was doing, and he pulled in Dan off the bat. What is really great with having both of them involved is they balance out the electro-side of me and the rock-side of me, the order and the chaos, which has been very fitting.
Before I started getting into playing music, I was an artist, painting, doing commissioned concept designs. Around that time I was also doing performance art, doing poetry readings with audio soundtracks and cues, and props. So when I started writing material for what is now The Eighth, I wanted it to be more than just some live band. I looked at the live music scene and noticed how it was progressively becoming harder and harder to get even ten people to show up, let alone care about what was happening on the stage. I guess you can say I’ve become disenchanted with live music in Minneapolis, generally speaking. Skinny Puppy, probably the biggest inspiration to my work, is known for their intense live performances. No one really does that anymore. I don’t want to make a buck, I just want people to give a crap about what’s going on around them, so The Eighth is a concept in exploring and pursuing communication, using as many artistic mediums as possible to make a connection. We’ve experimented with a few initial ideas, but nothing near the scale I have planned. Of course, this idea doesn’t seem to fly in your standard pub (the past times we’ve attempted to make a crossover tended to leave people not knowing what to think!), so I’m taking this into the land of thespians and playwrights.
Todd: During 2008 you participated in a project titled The Year of the Buffalo. Could you tell me a little bit about this project?
SP: I was having dinner with a group of friends and acquaintances at Jerusalem’s Restaurant in December of 2007. My old roommate Kevin Kautzman had invited me, and he and Dwayne Williams were telling me about this project they had just started that week. Dwayne had taken a photo of this decaying buffalo head that Kevin’s step-father had, and Kevin wrote a narrative poem in response to it. They then thought it would be a fun thing to do a year-long blog responding to each other in their respective artistic crafts. I ended up getting roped in on the project, composing audio. So the cycle would go like this: on Monday Dwayne posted a photo, on Wednesday Kevin would respond to the photo with a narrative poem, on Friday I would respond to the poem with an audio track, and on the following Monday Dwayne would respond to the audio with another photo. We did this every week for an entire year, thus the name of the project. So, essentially, I had about two days to create and upload a ‘finished’ product! In the end, spanning 52 tracks, I created about 4 1/2 hours of ambient, industrial, experimental, and soundtrack-ish instrumentals. I have no idea what possessed us to think this was possible, but I did learn a lot about myself and what I was capable of doing.
Todd: How do you go about writing songs for The Eighth? What has the process been for writing The Plight of Saint Jude? What in particularly would you like a listener to “get” from your songs?
SP: Writing music for me is always dependent on the tool I’m using. If I’m writing on guitar, the song’s overall sound (and even genre) is going to be dictated by it. With The Eighth, I tend to write the material with music software, mainly for the ability to sculpt the sounds and work with arrangements. I’m a big fan of jigsaw puzzles and cryptograms, and using the software is like working with one elaborate puzzle for me.
With TITAN, I wrote and sequenced out a bunch of songs and ideas in Fruity Loops, cut down to the ideas that worked, and started writing lyrics. While I worked on the lyrics I sent the skeleton demos to Geoff to flesh out. It was a really exploratory record for me, in that I had access to options I only dreamed about ten years ago but didn’t know what the end result was going to be, and it was the first time that I wrote outside of my head, that is, the songs were not psychotherapy. From “Typecast” to “Ghost”, and even the hidden track, they’re all stories, stories that say, “Hey, wake up, the world is not right, pay attention!”.
What’s different with The Plight of Saint Jude is that I began to transition from Fruity Loops to Reason somewhere in the middle of the songwriting, so I ended up going back over tracks and refining repeatedly. Also, some of the synth work is performed live, rather than chopped and looped. The concepts are much deeper, and more global this time around. It’s no longer a wake-up call, it’s a farewell on many levels: personally, socially, economically, planetary, pretty much everything. And through the album I wonder if anyone cares.
It’s rather dystopic. I couldn’t write a pop song to save my life.
“F.I.U.” by: The Eighth
Todd: What do Geoff & Dan bring to the table regarding The Eighth?
SP: Honestly, they bring a lot, and while I love OBCT, the duo manages to keep The Eighth sounding different from their main gig. When we were working on TITAN, I remember Geoff saying at some point, “I want Producer credit.” He does what he fondly calls the Riff Relocation Program. Geoff helped me get over the chip on my shoulder about producers. On TITAN, he handled the engineering and mixing, and we traded on guitar work. Initially Dan was just pretty much along for the ride, he’s the kind of guy who’s up for whatever. But as he became more involved with the ambiance and other layers, Dan became just as integral. There were a lot of moments of “hey, let’s try this” or “Shawn, make something up for these two bars.” This time around with Saint Jude, it’s been more complicated. There were some falling out moments, and we went our different ways for awhile. But I have a much clearer idea about this album, so it’s been more meticulous. Geoff and I are working on vocals more, particularly with melodies since I have room for improvement in that.
Todd: What have they taught you about music/recording?
SP: Working with them has taught me how to determine the difference between what might sound cool and what is effective, and that sometimes it’s best to let go of certain things for the greater good.
Todd: Would you consider working with other outside musicians?
SP: I’m always up for working with other musicians, but it would depend on the project. With The Eighth it’s a lot more about personal convictions than musicianship, so I’m pretty picky about who gets to be in that inner sanctum. But once this project reaches its fulfillment, I’m game to just rock out with whomever, so long as I’m not writing.
Todd: After playing so many different instruments (bass in UCKF, guitar/keyboards in Chairman Mao & The Eight Day, vocals in The Eighth) is there any particular instrument you feel particularly skilled at?
SP: Well, I’m a Level 2 drummer (I can keep a beat and do the occasional fill, but I have a -5 to my metronome), if that counts. I’ve never really considered myself a musician. They’re all tools to create art. In my circle of music people, there are so many that are better than me. Jonathan from Dissociate/Stellar Vector is amazing with the guitar and electronics, Dave from OBCT kills on bass, I can’t even come close to Charles from Stellar Vector on keys, most drummers blow me out of the water, and like I said before, my voice needs improvement. For me, I think the skill level I feel for any instrument depends on what the song calls for.
Todd: Carrying on from an earlier topic, you seem a tad disgruntled with the “Minneapolis Music Scene”…
SP: A tad disgruntled, yeah, you could say that. There are a number of factors involved in the fall from self-crowned grace in the local “scene” here. The city-wide, and eventual state-wide smoking ban did a big number on the venues. The economy in general is keeping more people at home. Minnesota’s passive-aggressive nature whenever drama happens. Poor venue management or poor venue location turns people and bands off immediately. Over-saturation of mediocre bands playing the same places every other weekend kills any scene. You get a couple high school bands that get national attention through their rich parents and/or knowing the complacent writers of rags like City Pages, VitaMN or The Pulse, and all of a sudden half of this city is in a band. The only good thing going on here is the stuff Rhymesayers is putting out. Huge props to them.
Todd: Do you think a “scene” helps or hurts a musician?
SP: Right now, I think “scenes”, or associating yourself with one, would be comparable to wearing a cancer awareness ribbon on your lapel. Instead of a scene, I’d like to see a movement. I’d like to see action. “Scenes” make me think of stagnant water. A few years ago I tried to push for a collective of sorts, people on all levels of live music, from musicians to promoters, to work together and make things exciting again for music fans. I ran into a lot of ego, and a lot of complacency. There are rare moments of passion and sincerity, and even then I question the honesty behind those times.
Todd: What would you like to see happen in Minneapolis regarding the music scene?
SP: I guess I’d like to see about half of the bands wake up and realize that they might want to reconsider what they are currently doing with their life, or at least find the weakest link in their group and give them their pink slip.
Just to clarify, I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist with my tongue taking root in my cheek.
Todd: On that note, what’s next for The Eighth? When can we expect to hear The Plight of St. Jude? Any more “Year of the Buffalo”-type collaborations in the works?
SP: We just uploaded a couple demos for the new album at the Bandcamp site to give everyone a taste of what the new stuff is going to be like. I’m hoping to see it released by this summer, or sometime this year at the very least. Another project we’ve tossed around is doing a covers/unreleased compilation, the covers coming from international and local acts, and the unreleased material being taken from previous projects or songs that never saw the light properly. And of course, we plan to take the album live and give it a proper performance and stage. After that, I think The Eighth will have fulfilled its purpose, and I’ll be done with proper songwriting. Onward and upward!
As for YOTB-type work, I’m currently working on sound design with Kevin on a project for the Red Eye Theater’s “Works-In-Progress” series. Beyond that, there’s plenty of talk, but nothing solid yet. I hope to do more soundtracks or scoring, and perhaps do some session work for other locals.
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.