Under the Influence: Andy Shauf
The Saskatchewan-raised singer-songwriter treats a mundane gathering like a glass menagerie on his ANTI- debut The Party—one of our favorite albums of 2016. Here, he talks about the influences behind the record.
Throughout the long and varied history of revelry, there have been a handful of celebratory gatherings so raucous and rambunctious, elaborate and elegant, or just plain weird enough to warrant their retelling in the form of epic verse, film, or song. From Steinbeck’s Doc and his throng of Cannery Row admirers setting the lab ablaze or a flat-topped Kid ’N Play throwing the mutha’ of all house parties to a casual Friday at Marie Antoinette’s place or just two guys having a good time in a Lonely Island triplex, most gala affairs preserved for eternity tend to focus on the fun parts of a fiesta. Not so for Saskatchewan-based musician Andy Shauf, whose accomplished ANTI- Records debut, The Party, dwells more on the comedown than the commotion of its titular to-do.
Shauf’s 2015 LP, The Bearer of Bad News, announced the arrival of a new talent possessing more than a passing fancy for the darkened pop chime of Elliott Smith and Paul Simon. Now, his subtle and gorgeous tunes capture the characters, ebbs, and ending of a run-of-the-mill suburban fete with all the mature songwriting sensibility of Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman and the sharp eye of a wizened wallflower enjoying a cigarette break. Listen as clarinet, piano, and strings rise and fall through the steady, slow clip of Shauf’s confident tempos and charmingly unique and at times mush-mouthed delivery. There are sure-footed spaces of uncertainty in the album-launching “The Magician,” sunny and upbeat AM radio pop rays in “Begin Again,” moments of heart-worn mortification in “To You,” and sparse lulls of sweeping majesty in “Martha Sways.” While Shauf’s party is not necessarily one for the annals of Instagram’s Explore tab, it is no doubt an affair to recognize and to remember. When he asks in the jangly cynical “The Worst in You,” “Are you running around or just running away?” it’s a cry that each of us have no doubt bellowed from some half-dark hallway of our youth.
Here, Shauf speaks about the various favors, themes, and machines that make up his Party.
When I decided to make the album with the running theme of a party, I was having trouble coming up with ideas for things that would happen at one. So me and my friends got together in the garage and smoked cigarettes and drank beers and thought about what would happen at a party. There’s the person who gets drunk too fast and the people who are too sober; there’s the part of the night that gets a little greasy, and then the calm afterwards. “Martha Sways” was written about ending the night in a living room somewhere and slow dancing. I think I always outlast the party a little bit. I like the calm afterwards. My favorite part is sitting on the couch later and just talking shit.
“To You” is a song about opening up to someone and being humiliated. I can think of specific times that happened to me, though this particular instance didn’t. There’s a character that goes through most of the party named Jeremy. For Jeremy, it’s probably near to the end of the night and this [other] guy’s a little too drunk and decides to talk to him about their friendship. I knew that it was going to be him sharing a certain thing and then trying to go back on what he said, so my first lyric was about it all being a big joke. It’s a fear of perceiving an outcome to be one way and then feeling like you’ve totally read someone wrong.
The song that went through the most revisions was “Eyes of Them All.” I wrote it two summers ago and never came up with good lyrics for it. I struggled with that one. I eventually changed the key and changed the arrangement.
“It takes more confidence in songwriting to write fast songs. I think it’s easy to write slow songs.”
Another one that went through a lot of revisions was “The Magician.” Originally, it was a piano song, really sparse and quiet with big, five-second breaks. It was horribly spaced out. I demoed it like that, sat with it for a little while. Then I recorded drums and bass over it. It was still really spaced out. I just couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like it. What I usually do when I come to that conclusion is to strip away the chording instrument. I took away the piano and changed it to acoustic guitar with a looped beat behind it. There were these big fills; it was really dramatic. The intro now is just this chord for a really long time. It’s still really spacious but I’ve found a better way for it to keep its momentum and continue to move.
The Prestige of “The Magician”
I think the first line I wrote for that song—“Do you find it gets a little easier each time you make it disappear?”—gave me the picture of a magician. That decided what the song was going to be about. I pictured a sweating, nervous magician going through his act and trying to be like, “Tah-dah!” at some point. “The Magician” doesn’t really have anything to do with the party theme so it was more about how I was feeling when I wrote it. I guess that would have been two or three years ago, at a time when I had no idea what I was doing with my life—trying to play music and trying to keep a personal life together but not knowing how. That was the idea behind the chorus: “Just a shaking hand without a concrete plan.”
Picking Up Tools and the Tempo
I’ve played instruments my whole life but I never played in school band or anything. Originally I played drums; in grade nine, I was playing drums in a band. My guitar player taught me how to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” [on a guitar]. I was a big Blink-182 fan; we played a lot of punk covers. I used to be a pretty good drummer: single kick, fast-foot. There’s no fast-foot [on The Party]. I’ve lost my fast-foot. Now I just have a steady foot [laughs].
I think I will write faster songs eventually. It takes more confidence in songwriting to write fast songs. I think it’s easy to write slow songs. The more confident I become on piano, the easier it is to push what I can do on it. I’m really used to playing it safe with long, drawn out chords. “Quite Like You” is the fastest song on the album, and it’s still not very fast.
My New Guitar
I just got this guitar made by Collings, from Austin. It replicates an old [Gibson] Kalamazoo—it’s brand new but it’s made in the same way as those Depression-era guitars, with the same body style and wood. I’ve had shitty guitars that are similar but this one is nice and new and it stays in tune. Most of the things I buy are old and quirky so whenever I buy a new one it’s kind of sterile. It hasn’t had frequencies reverberating in it for fifty years. [To break in a new guitar] I just play it. When some people buy a new one, I’ve heard they’ll hang it in the closet and play white noise at it for a week to get all the frequencies vibrating in the wood and make it sound different. It’s super cheesy.
Randy Newman is definitely one of my favorite guys. His song “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is amazing. There’s a line in that song that’s so simple it blows my mind: “Tin can at my feet / Think I’ll kick it down the street / That’s the way to treat a friend.” It just rolls out so perfectly. He’s kind of my hero in the “story song” world. He can do more in a minute and a half than most people can do in a novel. I feel like we share a general aesthetic.
Randy Newman uses sevenths—it’s very natural for him to fall back on a major seventh [chord]. That’s really natural to me, too; I don’t know if that’s because I’ve listened to so much of his music or because it’s natural to me. I don’t think it’s rare to hear [sevenths] in pop music, but maybe it is these days. The Beatles used a lot of sevenths. It’s a solid thing to fall back on when you’re trying to make a major chord stand out a little bit.
“I don’t know a ton of music theory. I know enough to be an asshole.”
Sometimes I think about things I play like, “Is this too easy?” I’m not trying to make anything difficult; I just kind of do things until they feel right to me. I’ll change a chord. A lot of people will just play a D but I like to give it a different voice. It kind of changes the way the melody can sit over it, and the way that it can lead into the next chord. It makes you think differently about what you’re doing.
I don’t know a ton of music theory. I know enough to be an asshole. I usually have to play a song for my band to see what I’m doing. If I’m teaching my keyboard player a part, I’ll have to show him because I don’t know how to explain it. I think I’ve gotten good at what I do, but I definitely still feel like I have to work hard if I want it to be anything more than writing songs in my basement. Which is fine, too. FL