New Shoes or Old Shoes, Still a Perfect Fit
They’re known today only to power-pop fanatics, primarily, but within that realm, Shoes are revered as one of the genre’s greatest and most durable gems. With a catalog overflowing with hits that never were, their songs are punchy but clear, graceful and clean, full of yearning harmonies and heartfelt romanticism. While it may have resulted in a brief flash of immediate attention, they never succumbed to gimmicks or trends or flashy accouterments, and though their recordings have grown more sophisticated and their songwriting has matured along with their lives, Shoes sound today very much as they did when they first started perking ears in the late ’70s. Whether you consider that to be a case of timelessness or being hopelessly stuck in time is probably dependent on your fondness for power-pop itself.
That they broke out of the small, northeastern Illinois town of Zion, along Lake Michigan near the Wisconsin border, is rather remarkable in itself, but is due largely to the determination and enthusiasm of the band’s members. Formed by brothers John and Jeff Murphy (bass and guitar, respectively) and their high school friend Gary Klebe (guitar) in 1973, as they were still learning their instruments, their early recordings were done at home on a four-track machine, and released themselves in limited quantities (their first album, 1974’s Heads or Tails, literally only made it to the acetate stage; another, ‘75’s Bazooka, was just a cassette tape). They were DIY before it was it was a thing, but it started to pay off when their album Black Vinyl Shoes began to get a buzz in 1977, and especially the next year when it was picked up by JEM/PVC Records for national distribution. Soon folks like Greg Shaw were cheering them on (Bomp! issued a Shoes single in the summer of ’78), and in early ’79, Shoes – by then with drummer Skip Meyer – signed to Elektra Records, who released three of their albums beginning with Present Tense later that year.
Since the late ‘80s, they’ve been on their own again, recording their songs at their Short Order Recorder studio (which they sold in 2004 after 21 years) and releasing albums on their indie label, Black Vinyl Records. And though it arrived a whopping 18 years after their previous album, this year’s Ignition (recorded with current drummer John Richardson) stands as one of their absolute best. Actually, I prefer it to Present Tense or any of those early records, because it’s marked by the wisdom and weariness only age can bring. The songs are still crisp, classic-style power-pop, for sure, but there’s a little more grit involved – it’s not so fresh faced and innocent. I guess I relate to it more because of that.
It’s been an uncharacteristically active year for Shoes – aside from Ignition, they’ve had a career-spanning compilation released by Real Gone Music (35 Years – The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012), they’re having three early albums (One in Versailles, Bazooka and Black Vinyl Shoes) along with a fourth album of Present Tense demos reissued on vinyl by the esteemed Chicago-based Numero Group, and there’s a biography of the band expected to be published early next year.
And, just a week after our recent phone conversation, Jeff Murphy and his wife celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, which is almost as big a milestone as having Shoes together for going on 40 years…
Jeff Murphy: “You know, it’s really weird, because the new Mojo has an article, it’s a full page about us, but it’s really about Black Vinyl Shoes, and Gary called me today, and he’s like, ‘How weird is it that they’re talking about a record that’s 35 years old!’ It’s hard to believe it was that long ago. It seems like a lifetime, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like that long ago.”
And it’s a record that you recorded and released totally on your own. Could you have imagined then that a major UK magazine would be writing about it so many years later?
“No, but we feel that way about everything we do! We’ve never lost the sense of astonishment that we’re doing this. Back in the day it was just such a pipe dream. And here we are, 35, 40 years later, still making music. We’re three high school friends who love doing it, and we get together when we can. It’s amazing to us that people still give a shit!”
It’s been 18 years since the last studio album, Propeller. As time went on, did you realistically think you’d make another, or had you sort of resigned yourselves to it being over?
“Well, we never broke up. We never said, ‘OK, that’s it.’ We maintained the studio, which was kind of our base, our clubhouse, more or less. But I reached a point in the late ’90s where I just said, ‘Man, I’m burned out.’ I went up to the studio every day, producing other bands, and engineering things, and John and Gary had gone on to regular day jobs. Because the studio business was changing, we could see it was mutating, and the whole digital recording thing was coming, so the studios were really starting to fade, so I started looking for another source of income. Then we decided to sell the building – we wanted to keep it together and sell it as a studio if we could, but we had it on the market for a year or so, and the studio was just a hard sell. So we decided to just sell the building, and then we’ll piece out the gear. And once that was gone, it was like, OK, now what do we do? What I did was I took some of the money from selling all that stuff, and I bought a home setup, and I recorded a solo CD in 2007. Really shortly after that, we were asked to do a Cheap Trick cover song for a tribute album. And we did that partially at my house, and Gary had a digital studio, and that was really the first time we tried it outside of our studio, to see if we could do the digital thing, and it went really smoothly. I also wrote a book in 2007 called Birth of a Band: The Record Deal and the Making of Present Tense, and we put out an collection of demos for Present Tense and [1980’s] Tongue Twister called Double Exposure. So we were doing things, but we weren’t recording. We had kind of a bad taste in our mouths from what happened with independent distribution in the late ’90s, just collapsing around us. Even if we had a new record in 2004, we wouldn’t have known what to do with it. But, you know, come forward five years, and the industry changed so much, with using the internet, and people downloading, and being able to do direct mail sales, and websites like Amazon, iTunes, CD Baby, really making it so independents had an outlet. And then around 2010, a friend of mine had died, really tragically and very suddenly, and I wrote this song, it’s kind of a lament, and I gave John and Gary sort of the rough of it, and Gary’s like, ‘Hey, you wanna come over and see my new studio?’ ‘What new studio?’ He had moved and bought another house, and built a studio in his basement, not saying anything to anybody. Gary likes to surprise us. So John and I went over, and here he had this great gear, and it was all-digital now. So we took that song that I had
started…and it was so fun for us just to be doing something again on that song that we thought, let’s try some more. And it just grew from there.”
I’m sure you’d changed somewhat, grown as people. Did you find yourselves writing or playing any differently?
“I think the main difference on this group of songs was there wasn’t as much conscious editing going on. In the past there was also this sort of feeling like, ‘I can’t do a song like that, I have to do this.’ We were just doing music that we liked. We were only trying to please ourselves, as songwriters. Because that’s what we really consider ourselves to be, even more than a band. We’re songwriters and producers – and musicians last. We learn how to play just enough to execute our songs (laughs). It’s kind of backwards. We write and then try to figure out how to play. But on this record, we just did what we liked. Gone are the days of record companies or radio stations or MTV, that’s all gone. I hope it’s not just a matter of us being proponents of a dead format. I loved what Dave Grohl said when he won Album of the Year – he said, ‘This is what it’s about – guys in their garages with microphones recording rock music.’ That’s what I love, that’s why I got into it, and there’s very little of it now that rises to the top. There’s a lot of it, of course, but you have to kind of search for it. In terms of the stuff people hear on the radio, it’s Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber and One Direction, and you don’t hear much rock music. The days of the rock star are gone, but hopefully the days of a good rock tune that inspires a 12-year-old kid to sit in his basement or bedroom or his garage with his friends and try and put a band together, that’s just so exciting when that happens, when you can inspire somebody to do that. I love the randomness of bands just throwing themselves together. None of us had been in other bands. It wasn’t like we were searching for the best singer, or the best drummer. The way that we found Johnny Richardson to play drums is he’s the younger brother of a guy that was on our road crew years ago. He called me up and said, ‘Hey, I’m doing sound for Tommy Keene, and he’s playing the Metro tomorrow and my little brother’s playing drums – you wanna come to the show?’ We saw Johnny playing drums and we were like, ‘Holy cow!’ He was great! And he started calling us, lobbying to play. He was like 18. We eventually gave him a shot. He was living, I think, at the time in North Carolina, and he said, ‘I’ll make it work.’ And he flew in, and we rehearsed, and we haven’t wanted to play with anybody else ever since. He lives in Wisconsin now – we all live in Wisconsin – but Johnny lives about five hours north of us. He goes out with other bands too. For years he was the Gin Blossoms’ live drummer. Most recently he’s been out with Will Hoge. So when we have the opportunity to record or do some shows, we have to book it in advance around his schedule.”
It’s great that you have Numero doing these vinyl reissues – they do a fantastic job. How did that association come about?
“Initially, several years ago, they had done a CD called Yellow Pills: Prefill that Jordan Oakes had put together with them, and we had a song on there, and I was always impressed with the fact that they were very timely with making statements to us. I particularly remember the fact that the very last statement we got for that record, even though it was out of print, was for like two dollars. And I thought that was an indication of their honesty. Most labels would say, ‘Who cares,’ but they sent a check for two dollars and 64 cents or whatever it was. I really thought that showed their integrity. Then when we were recording Ignition, Ken Shipley from Numero rang up and said, ‘You know what? I heard that Double Exposure CD that you guys did, and hearing the demos for Present Tense is probably the most exciting record I’ve heard all year! What I’d like to do is release some of those old things.’”
Are the Elektra albums in print?
“Yes. We had a clause in our Elektra deal years ago that said if we ask them to release it and they refused, the rights reverted back to us. So we have them out on vinyl through Black Vinyl.”
That must’ve been a thrill for a little band from Zion, Illinois, being signed to a major record label. Were you heroes in your hometown or did people there not know who you were?
“Kind of a little of both. More sort of the latter. I think that people just didn’t know what was going on. It’s funny how we would go talk to my mother and say, ‘Hey, mom, look, we’re number 75 on Billboard this week!’ ‘Oh, that’s nice. But hey, did you know that you’re in the Zion newspaper?!!’ You know, if you’re in the local paper, then it’s important! So it’s weird, because Zion’s not really plugged in to the music scene. Unless you really start to make waves then people really aren’t aware of you… But yeah, it did blow our minds getting signed to Elektra. I had never been out of Illinois or Wisconsin at that point. I had never been on a plane before. And it was the dead of winter, too, at the time. Literally, the standing temperature during the day would be 10 below zero, 5 below, and the wind chill could get it down to 30 below. We get on a plane [to Los Angeles], and four hours later it’s 80 degrees, and there’s girls on roller skates and hot pants and tank tops. And then you go to the record company, and we were signed by the vice president, who’d never signed a band before, so we were treated as teacher’s pets. And we got a great deal. We had a lot of control. We really got signed more as a production company. We were in charge of the production. If we wanted to work with an outside producer, we got to decide who it was. We got full publishing, we got all of that. So even though we were from backwoods Zion, Illinois, we were astute enough to learn that publishing is where the money is, and we didn’t give anything away. I talk to these bands that were signed at the same time as we were, maybe by another label, and they’re pissing and moaning, sayin’ they got ripped off or never got paid. We found a way to make money for 25 years, just making music.”
That’s astounding for a band that’s never had a hit song and has what you’d probably call a cult following.
“Yeah, and in talking to the guys from Numero, I said something to them and I remember Ken’s mouth kind of gaped open when I said it. I said, ‘We were lucky enough never to have a hit.’ He said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ I said, ‘Look, you take a band like The Knack – they had this one huge hit, and nobody pays attention to anything else! As songwriters, that’s the worst thing you can have!’ What became the biggest problem that labels had with us, Elektra would just go crazy trying to pick out which song to release as a single. Because they liked so many different songs. And this radio station in Philadelphia is playing this song, but this station in California is playing that song. And Chicago’s playing another song. But as songwriters, it shows depth and it shows the fact you’re more than a one trick pony. Can you imagine being Question Mark & the Mysterions? Everyone’s just waiting around for them to play ’96 Tears.’ That’s the curse of being a one-hit wonder. I love the fact that we can go do a show, people are callin’ out all kinds of different songs. They’re not just there to hear one song.”
Do you think one reason Elektra signed you was your clean good looks might appeal to teenage girls? You all sort of resembled a band of Leif Garretts back then, or maybe more accurately a band of Eric Carmens.
“You know, I guess in hindsight, maybe they were sort of grooming us like that. We never looked at ourselves that way, or even would’ve wanted to be marketed in that way. Because that’s really a slippery slope and, again, a temporary thing, terrible pressure. Again, the music is what’s important to us. I do remember answering a few questionaires for 16 and Tiger Beat. But to us, that was just part of the media. We were just spreading it out like a broadcast signal goes out in all directions. We thought any magazine, any press is good press. I think we may have been a little too old at the time. We were about mid-20s, I think I was 24 when we got signed.”
Nobody had to know that!
“See, I remember them telling us to shave years off! ‘You guys can say you’re five years younger!’ But we are what we are. We were always very straightforward and very careful not to project any false images. They’re always going to pick the photos that look best, and of course they never really look like you! (laughs) But we never really thought, oh yeah, let’s go for the teen market. We just wanted people to hear our music.”
You were DIY really from the start, doing home recordings and releasing on your own. Most bands were not doing that at that time.
“It wasn’t a grand plan. It was more an act of survival. This was how we had to do it to become a band, and to learn, and we couldn’t afford to go into the studio, so…you know, I was a tech geek, Gary was too, we both always had stereos and stuff, so I bought a four-track recorder, and we just kind of learned from the ground up. And that’s the fun of it! To me, that’s the fun of this band, is that we don’t know what we’re supposed to do, so we just do what we want to. Someone said we were too dumb to know that we couldn’t do it – which I thought was a great way to put it! It’s true. We didn’t know that weren’t supposed to succeed doing this. We just did what made sense to us.”
When I’ve interviewed sibling bands before, they often speak of a natural instinctual connection they get playing with their brother or sister that they don’t get with other players. Do you feel like you have that with John?
“Musically, certainly. We’re only a year apart, age-wise, and so we grew up on the exact same music. I’m a year younger than he is, but I would tag along with him anyway. I found the older kids more interesting than kids my own age. And that’s kind of how I ended up in the band. I had recording gear, and I was, you know, hanging around, and originally John and Gary had this idea to do a band, but they didn’t really have the means to get it recorded. I had the recorder, and I was messing around with the guitar. So it was never an official thing, it just sort of mutated into the point where I was recording them, and then I was playing on the stuff, and then that’s what Shoes was. But John and I, especially vocally, I think, there’s something that happens when John and I sing together. But oddly enough, all three of us have something similar enough in our voices where any two of us singing together sounds like Shoes. And I think Gary and I probably sound the most similar, even though John and I are brothers.”
When you were starting out, I get the impression that it was more of a home recording project. But did you play local gigs or tour regionally? What sort of places would you play?
“Zion’s a dry town. It was founded by religious zealots back in the turn of the 19th century, and the town has no alcohol. So it has no bars, it has no clubs. So it has no music scene. So we would have to go to Chicago, or Milwaukee, or the outlying suburban towns, to see bands. And that’s what we eventually started doing, but the great thing was, we were within radio reception of Chicago. So all the great British Invasion stuff that was happening on the radio was an influence. That’s what got us started wanting to be in a band. We’ve done a fair amount of shows over the years (laughs), you know, we’ve probably done a couple hundred shows, but we would do them in these little three or four week stretches of maybe doing 20 shows, and then you wouldn’t do one for ten months. And as we’ve gotten older, that span between gets a little bit wider (laughs).”
You’re more content in the studio.
“Yeah, that’s true. The last time we played was when we were invited to play in Japan three years ago. We’re shy kind of guys, believe it or not. I love that people say they like our music, but I’m not really good at handling it when I’m face-to-face with somebody, and they get very, you know, gushy about it. It’s uncomfortable for me to handle a compliment, and we’re all that way. We don’t feel necessarily uncomfortable onstage, but there are people that live for that adulation, and to hear the audience applauding and whatever, but for us, it’s like a completely different career.”
Have you played any live shows since the release of Ignition?
“No. We haven’t. And that’s one thing that we’ve talked about. The motivation is usually to have the opportunity to do something we’ve never done before. Like when the Japan thing came up. One thing that the guys at Numero have been sort of lobbying for is Record Store Day, which comes up in April. They really want to put together a special kind of live show. They said, ‘We wanna do something with you guys that people are gonna wanna fly in for.’ And we’re still kind of trying to decide if that’s something that we wanna do. Because of the logistics of putting it all together – you know, you have weeks of rehearsal, and getting everyone’s schedules together – and then you think, ‘Well are we gonna go through all this fuss and muss for one show?’ So it may turn into several shows. We’ll see what happens.”
There’s been sort of another small pocket of interest in power-pop among younger people in the past several years. New bands, and a revival in interest in some older bands like the Nerves. Not sure if Shoes have earned the seal of approval from younger power pop fans. They seem quite particular as to what they like and don’t like.
“I don’t know how to judge demographically. I think it would be fantastic if that happened. Because the music is timeless. I wrote a column recently for Magnet magazine, we were guest editors on their website, so we each wrote five different articles. And one of the pieces that I wrote was about the aging of rock music, and how it’s such a young format. Rock music’s only been around for 60 years now, maybe. And because of that, what people tend to do is mock the people who have moved on demographically. For instance, I heard the jokes about the Rolling Stones’ ‘Steel Wheelchair’ tour.”
Sure, and that was, what, eight tours ago?
“Yeah, and you think, did Mozart have this kind of mockery because he was old? Or country singers, like Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson? They’re revered as elder statesmen. Blues, jazz, they revere their elder statesmen. Rock music is such a young genre that they haven’t quite figured out what to do with their elder statesmen yet. So they attack them… It’s easy to pick on someone when they get older. I love the fact that today’s new players, and people forming bands, are much less bigoted than we were. You know, when I was listening to the Beatles in ’65, there was no way I was going to listen to something 20 years old, and thought it was cool. Now I see kids taking guitar lessons, and they wanna learn Led Zeppelin, and they wanna learn ‘Satisfaction,’ or ‘Day Tripper.’ I think that’s so cool. They’re learning stuff from 40 years ago because they respect it musically.”
Well, there really hasn’t been that much innovation in rock ‘n’ roll since that time. Look at the music you’re playing. You’re playing Beatles-style power pop.
“Once a genre is defined, be it blues or jazz, it seems to be… And I think that’s a problem – people are waiting for this huge… because we witnessed it – we saw what the birth of rock did. It was massive, massively influential. And you wait for that same kind of zeitgeist to happen, and you say, wait a minute – it doesn’t have to happen. I hear a song like ‘September Gurls’ by Big Star, and I still get goosebumps. To me, the opening of ‘Paperback Writer,’ that guitar, is like witnessing the birth of your child right there. That’s where power-pop came from. Great melody, great hook, cool guitar riff, and some balls behind it. And I love the stuff that falls into that genre. I don’t think it has to reinvent itself, it just has to have a unique personality. People say our stuff is Beatlesque. I go, ‘How is it Beatlesque?’ And they can’t pinpoint any particular song, it’s the attitude. There’s a certain simplicity. We’re not trying to be the fastest guitar players in the world. Any Shoes song, any average guitar player can play. And I would probably say the same thing with Big Star, or the Beatles, or Badfinger, or any of the bands that define that power-pop genre. It is the music of everyman. John Lennon had an everyman voice. That’s what rock is, it’s kids in their garage. And that’s why we love it, because it’s so simple.