Chris Shaw of Ex-Cult on the appeal of mono recordings and how it's a working class sound
Renate Winter Ex-Cult
Known for a diverse music scene, Memphis, Tennessee has become known for its punk and garage rock scene, thanks to acts like the Oblivions, the Reatards and the bands championed by Goner Records. Ex-Cult came out of that punk world but ended up making the kind of rock and roll with the drive and energy of punk and garage but also the imaginative and adventurous guitar sounds of post-punk and psychedelia.
The band's eponymous 2012 album is a thrillingly raw and electrifying listen akin to the music of outfits like the Sonics, Wipers and Wire. We recently spoke with Ex-Cult frontman Chris Shaw about his early experiences with underground music, '60s album art aesthetics, the appeal of mono recordings and how punk really is made up of many sounds that influenced its earliest days.
Westword: You did an interview with ATX Sounds last month, and you mentioned how Memphis has kind of a small scene. How did you become aware of and connected to that scene?
Chris Shaw: I guess I started going to local shows when I was in high school. There was a venue that had hardcore and punk shows four or five nights a week. I got sucked into it. That's part of how the band formed. We all attended shows and played in other bands. It's a really small musical community and most people play in multiple bands and multiple instruments just because there are not a lot people involved in it.
What was the name of the venue?
It was this place called the Caravan. It was an all ages venue. It was only around for a couple of years. I was a sophomore in high school, just a kid out of the suburbs. I would drive twenty-five or thirty minutes to go to that place. It was a really small room. Probably maximum capacity of seventy-five people, maybe. It doesn't hold a significance to anyone in the band besides me. The guy that was booking stuff there did a good job of booking all kinds of stuff, everything from metal, to indie rock and everything in between.
The most important part of that was supporting underground music. Sometimes it wasn't something I wanted to listen to or buy a record or t-shirt. It was just important to me to be a part of an underground music scene and be around people I could relate to instead of the people I was forced to be around in high school. When I got a little bit older, I was sneaking into twenty-one and up shows at dive bars around Memphis, and that's how I met everyone that's in the band.
What role did the Lamplighter play in the formation and the development of your band?
The Lamplighter is kind of the local hangout. It's all run by the same group of friends. It's more like a clubhouse than a bar because there's just so much shit going on there. There's different theme nights every single week. It's kind of a community meeting place, but it's also a bar. It's just a really chill spot to drink. I remember having conversations with Michael Peery who now plays drums in Ex-Cult. If we were going to talk about something, it would probably at the Lamplighter because it's one of the few places that people that play music or are interested in music consistently hang out.
Memphis has a rich history of all kinds of music being made there. Do you feel that the diverse music from there has had a direct or indirect impact on the kind of music you make?
I don't know because I think when we started, I don't think anybody else was doing what we were trying to do. I think that's maybe why people paid attention to it at first because it was a group of people that had never played together before. They were kind of curious to see what would come out of it. We all came from pretty different bands in the past. I think that's kind of what sparked people's interest and probably sparked the record label's interest as well. Like I said earlier, it's a really small music scene so everyone knew what the other person was doing as far as playing in bands. But they didn't know what to expect when we first started.
Why did you want to get together with this group of people to play music?
Me and Michael had talked about it a lot and I knew that JB [Horrell] was a really good guitar player and I was interested in his style of guitar and we talked to him. The other two members was a similar thing. We knew what they were into and what they were capable of doing and it seemed like a really good fit. It was pieced together intentionally. We didn't have tryouts or anything. And we were all friends. We all hung out anyway, we saw each other at shows and at bars.
What kinds of bands was Michael in beforehand?
Michael was in a couple of psychedelic rock and roll bands, and he was also in that band the Magic Kids.
You were in a band called Vile Nation?
Yeah, I was in that band before we started Ex-Cult. That was active for about three years.
Was it kind of a hardcore band?
It was a really nasty hardcore. It had a revolving door of members, so the sound kind of changed as we picked up different rhythm sections. It was me and a guitar player and basically whoever we could get to play bass and drums on a record and for a handful of shows if we were going out of town. If we played locally, we would get whoever we could get. There were a few records and two of the records had a different rhythm section on it, so that obviously changes the sound a lot.
What made what you're doing now more appealing? Not that the hardcore you were making in Vile Nation is unappealing.
I think I saw that band fail enough times with just people not being as into it as I was. The guitar player and I were really committed, but we just couldn't get the line-up right. We had offers to do things. It's just really frustrating to see something you were working on that people in other parts of the country and the world respected and cared about enough to put out on record but we just couldn't get it right. Well, we could get it right, but we couldn't get the right combination of people.
That was really important to me when we started this band. I wanted there to be a serious commitment and get a group of people that were willing to put in as much time and energy as I was. That's what's made it work. Everyone expects the same thing out of it. It's not like one person is the driving force or the main songwriter. We contribute what we can to it. It doesn't have anything to do with the genre of music, just more to do with the people involved.