Shudder to Think + The Shaggs
This is an interview series highlighting musicians who go from being a band’s biggest fan to being in THAT band. The title is taken from the hardcore band Kill Your Idols.
Jesse Krakow is a bassist, composer and host of “Minor Music”, a radio show that showcases rad musicians under 18. You may also know him from Dynamite Club, Time of Orchids, PAK, Doctor Nerve and The Exploding Note Ensemble.
At what point in your life did you discover Shudder to Think?
Jesse Krakow: I guess I first heard the name Shudder To Think in high school, when I found out that one of the guys in the band did the music for the MTV sketch show “The State”, which I was (and still am) obsessed with. But I didn’t hear them until early 1999 when I joined Time of Orchids and Charlie Looker – ToO’s guitarist at the time – made me a mixtape with three of their songs: “Gang Of $”, “Chakka”, and “Hit Liquor”.
What album drew you in?
JK: “Pony Express Record”, definitely. All of their albums are wonderful, but that one is incredibly special. The idea that a record that fucked up came out on Epic Records makes zero sense, in the best way.
How did it affect you?
JK: It actually really pissed me off at first, because it was exactly – and I mean EXACTLY – the kind of music I wanted to play, as well as being something completely new. It was proggy without being egghead-y, it was anthemic without being cheesy, it rocked without being derivative, and it was fucking heavy – sonically and metaphysically – as hell. The guitars were playing all these weird dissonant chords and soaring atonal solos, but it was all very controlled. Very James Honeyman-Scott. The bass and drums were a machine, even when the tempos and feels were pushing and pulling against each other. And the singer had this bizarre falsetto with a demonic vibrato, and he was singing these amazing cryptic lyrics, and crafting them into “hooks”. I loved everything everyone was doing, and in the process it changed how I listened to, approached, and ultimately played and thought about music. (And therefore art.)
Let’s fast forward passed many years of playing in bands like Dynamite Club and Time Of Orchids and making your own Solo projects happen. How did you meet Craig Wedren?
JK: I met Craig in 2004 through my old job as a music producer at an advertising agency. My job was to reach out to new composers and see if they would be interested in writing music for commercials. Having known that Craig had done TV and film work, I called him in for a meeting. It should be noted that Craig knew of Time of Orchids, so he was aware that I was a musician and huge fan of his. By 2006 I was no longer in advertising, but I had stayed in touch with Craig’s manager Chris Dell’Olio and had let him know – almost in a jokey way – that if Craig was ever in need of a bass player that I’d love to play with him. And in 2006 he was, so I got the call.
How did you go from playing in his solo project to playing shows with Shudder to Think?
JK: Quite simply, Stuart Hill – the original bass player – didn’t want to do it. And being that I was a huge fan, could play a lot of the songs, and could count out of the weird parts, and had been played with Craig, Kevin, and even Nathan before, they asked me. I remember the phone call from Craig very well. I was at my job getting ready to teach, when he called and asked me “So are you fucking psyched to do some shows with Shudder To Think this summer?” And then I started shaking…
After playing in Shudder for a while, what would you tell your teenage self about the band?
JK: Well I probably would tell my teenage self “Hey, the dude who wrote the theme to “The State” has a great band that you should check out.” But I would tell my slightly older self that what was and is so amazing about Shudder To Think is that they didn’t know – from a technical standpoint – what they were doing. They loved art-rock stuff, but they also loved X. They loved free jazz, but they also loved Joni Mitchell. They loved Cecil Taylor, but they also loved Van Halen. You see, at the time I was under the impression that complex music could only come from a complex place, and especially a technical one. I thought that all composers knew exactly what they’re doing, always. But Craig and Nathan had no idea that they were playing in 23/16, or playing polytonal chords, or playing stacked tritones. They were just doing THIS part. And that is really, really fucking important. Do THIS. Why? I dunno, but you should just do it, ’cause its rad. That’s art. Or ART.
A few years ago you put together a Shaggs tribute show. How did that show transition from a tribute to you playing in Dot Wiggin’s band?
JK: That all came from the tribute. At the tribute I organized a Q & A session where Dot and her sisters could answer questions from the audience that I would read aloud. One of the questions was “Are there any unrecorded or unfinished Shaggs songs?”, and we were all surprised to learn that the answer was “Yes.” The day after the concert I was talking to Dot about these unfinished songs and told her if she needed someone to help her finish them that I would love to be that person. She said “sounds good”, and a few months later I got a package of sheet music from her, including the original charts for “My Pal Foot-Foot”, “Philosophy Of The World”, and a host of new tunes and lyrics. After looking at all these sheets I decided to put a band together featuring the biggest Shaggs fans I knew (who had performed at the tribute) and record her new songs. We did that, and then we drove up to Epping, NH to record Dot’s vocals. Shortly thereafter Dot was asked to perform at a WFMU Benefit concert, which necessitated us forming a proper band and getting a full set together. Following that, I sent the recordings to Jello Biafra, who flipped out when he heard them. And long story short, Dot’s solo debut album came out in late Oct. on Alternative Tentacles.
Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot in front of your idol.
Let’s say I’m 17 and I want to make strange music, what advice would you give me? How do I join my idols?
JK: Well first off I’d tell them not to call it “strange”. It’s not strange, it’s beautiful and very real. “Strange” is something you say to someone who doesn’t know about cool shit when you are trying to explain what you sound like. But much more importantly, I would tell them to not worry about trying to impress people with your coolness. Impress them with your knowledge of their music, and your dedication to it. I remember one time Craig asked me what I did the night before and I told him, truthfully, that I spent most of the night trying to play through “50, 000 B.C” – Shudder To Think’s last studio album. He had no gigs booked, I was just doing this because I loved the record. And when he realized this I think it made him appreciate how seriously I took his music. And that lead to me being asked to replace Stuart in the band.
I’d also tell them not to be afraid to take a huge gamble and try something that makes no sense and that people tell you is crazy. When I was arranging my Shaggs Tribute I got Dot’s number through a friend, and I had to take a moment to tell myself “ok, now you’re gonna call the person who wrote “My Pal Foot-Foot” on the phone and ask her if she wants to come to the show.” And I did, and she said yes. Then I had to figure out a way to get her and her family down to the show, which cost me money. So I had to figure out a way to pay for it. Everyone I talked to said that there was no way The Shaggs would want to come down and see their music be performed, because they had such a horrible time as a band. But they were wrong, and the only way we know this is because I wasn’t afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot in front of your idol. So long as you are an honest idiot who knows what they’re talking about and are talking about something they’re interested in – and if that something is how much you love their music, they’ll be interested. I’ve achieved some pretty amazing things in my life by totally geeking out on my idols, and so can you.
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