Chris Shaw of Ex-Cult on the appeal of mono recordings and how it's a working class sound
The cover for the album you put out last year looks like something out of Etiquette Records, like that great cover for the Sonics' Here Are The Sonics or a Fabulous Wailers album cover. Was that intentional?
That's actually a cool question. We liked the way those old records, like you're mentioning, look -- just that simple and clean aesthetic. We wanted something easily identifiable as to what it was. Our friend Bekah Cope, from Nashville, is an awesome photographer. I think when we played a show in Nashville, we figured out that she had taken the color photo for every band that was playing except for one, and I think that's because that band didn't have a record out. That must be pretty cool for her. And it's big bands. Bands that are touring and have records out and followings.
We just picked one of her photos. That photo is from our first Nashville show. I think we liked it because the background looks like we're playing in a rundown city. The back wall has streamers but half of them are missing and kind of shitty looking. I thought that was kind of cool. We're used to playing places like that so it was an accurate representation of a place we would play.
Luckily, our bass player Natalie [Hoffman] is really good at design, so we lucked out with that. She designed the cover, and then her and I usually work together on T-shirt designs, single art and posters and fliers. That's something we're both passionate about, so it's fun to work together on that kinds of stuff. I think some people look at that kind of shit as like a chore and just throw something together. For the two of us, that's a big part of the band -- the aesthetic. And presenting yourself in a professional way that you want to represent you.
What is the name of the club in the photo?
The Springwater Supper Club. It doesn't look like where a club would be because it's next to a McDonald's, and it always smells really bad. Every time I go there, it smells horrible. It's in downtown Nashville. So you turn at McDonald's, and all of sudden you're a dive bar/club type of thing. We've played some huge venues, and it's awesome to play on a stage that big.
But then we played a college where it looked like we were playing a rec room. That was one of the most fun shows of the tour. We feel just at home in a small dive bar as we do on some of the stages we've played, like Webster Hall or Music Hall of Williamsburg or the Mohawk in Austin. Someone from Toronto told us that the Ramones had played on the stage that we played on in Toronto eight times, and I was pretty stoked about that.
Going back to the album cover a moment, It's nice touch that you have "mono" underneath the picture on the right because obviously the album was recorded in mono, and the word on the front isn't just some sort of affectation of visual style.
I think ten seconds after we decided to do it in mono, someone was like, "We've got to put 'mono' on this cover." I think that we were just as excited to put that on the cover as we were to do it in mono. I don't think that Ty or Eric Bauer -- the engineer for the album -- I don't think either of them had recorded in mono for a long time.
And after we finally did it that way and heard the mixes, and it sounded exactly the way we wanted it to, it was kind of cool to see them get excited about it. "Oh, man, we've got to do this again. Now I want to do a record in mono!" That's pretty cool to have people that are that esteemed when it comes to recording bands and have massive recording outputs to say it was a good idea.
What do you like about that mono sound?
It just fit a lot more what we're trying to do. If you listen to a lot of '70s post-punk and punk bands, that's what they were doing, too. I just really like that style a lot more than stereo. Sometimes I listen to something in stereo, and I don't really know what's happening. I think it comes from having a shitty stereo system my whole life, where I didn't even know that I was listening to stuff in mono because my stereo was shitty.
So that sounds good to me. I think that's the case with everyone else. Everyone is used to listening to records on an old turntable with an old receiver. So what you're used to isn't some super hi-fi production. You're used to listening to records on your thrift store turntable. So it just kind of made sense. It's a working class sound.
Obviously you draw inspiration from a broad swath of music from across decades. What got you interested in exploring music that broadly and deeply?
I think one of the things that makes this work so well is that we're all obsessed with music and not just punk. There's not a single day when we hang out or have band practice that we're not listening to music. Someone will play a record or play something on their phone -- that's a big part of what we do, showing each other good music. When we go in to the practice room, we're drawing from broad influences because we're all so open-minded when it comes to music.
I know people that seem to only listen to punk music or only listen to garage. I'm kind of too old for that. I think it's important to try to listen to as much different stuff as you possibly can because you never know what is going to inspire you. I think that helps a lot when you're so close-minded, where you're like, "How did The Swell Maps create this sound on their second record. Let me sit in here until I get that exactly right." It's not like that at all.
Your band is often described as punk, post-punk or garage because of your associations with other bands that some people like to put in one of those categories, as well. You're obviously inspired by so much different music. Do you think of your band as belonging in any specific genre or milieu?
I think it's a punk band, but it's also a rock and roll band. I think the garage comparisons come because Goner is such an integral part of the garage rock scene, and they have fans worldwide because of the garage rock records they put out. But they've put out a lot of other stuff, too, weird stuff. I think they're getting to the point now where they're more interested in stuff like that, which is really cool.
Obviously it's a punk band but there are a lot of elements of psychedelic rock, too. So I think the easiest way to describe it as just as a serious rock and roll band, no frills, raw.
Listening to your record there is a bit that is reminiscent of the Cramps, and what were they? You can't put a genre title on that band because it's not just one thing.
Yeah, we've all been listening to punk for years and there's so many different elements of rock and roll, blues, soul and psychedelic that goes into punk that kinda gets overlooked, I think. So maybe with us those elements are more accessible.