- February 2015 -
HAVE A BEER WITH THE SHARROWS
Meet Madison-based roots quintet The Sharrows, whose latest five-track EP — Days of Yore — was recorded at Jim Dickinson's storied Zebra Ranch Studios in Coldwater, Miss. We chatted with the band over some beers and covered their time spent recording down south, biker gangs, Andrew Bird jokes and who in the band is most likely to get into a fight.
The Show: The Black Cadillacs with The Sharrows // Schubas Tavern // February 7, 2015
Drinks of Choice: Bulleit Rye Whiskey and Founders Brewing Breakfast Stout
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You guys are from Madison and have been there for pretty much your entire band career. What's your favorite thing about the scene there?
Matt: It's been really good for our band. It's a great scene, but it's smaller so it gives us a lot of opportunities to get on shows that, in other cities, 15 bands might all want in on. We've been able to get on some pretty big shows. We opened for Kongos at the Union Theater, and we recently opened for Knox Hamilton.
Kristen: How did you guys initially meet?
Sylvia: Matt posted some flyers a couple years ago.
Kristen:Flyers? That's so old school. I love it.
Matt: Phil, and our drummer, who isn’t here tonight, responded to the flyer.
Sylvia: I knew Phil. And Joe and Phil are cousins, so we all got roped in.
Phil: Joe and I were already playing some local biker parties.
Joe: My dad's in a biker gang.
Kristen: A biker gang? No way.
Phil: We've got some other friends that are called the Freewheelers. They have an annual party every year.
Joe: One of the guys is a pretty good musician. He plays guitar and sings so we were backing him up.
Kristen: Do those biker parties get pretty rowdy?
Joe: Oh yeah. My dad’s buddy would stand on the seat of his Harley and go down the highway at 55.
Kristen: No way.
Joe: Yes. The bike would be on cruise.
Kristen:That’s insane. What kind of music did you guys play at the biker party?
Phil: Covers and then some originals. Yeah, we were just playing some good old Bob Seger. Things that make guys go down the highway at 55 and stand on top of their motorcycles.
Joe: Stuff that makes bikers cry. “Free Bird.” They'd probably cry at that one.
Kristen: Aside from the biker party gig, when was the turning point for you guys as a band — when you realized this wasn’t just a side project, and something that you whole-heartedly wanted to pursue?
Matt: I think it’s kind of happening now. It's always happening. Sometimes you talk to people, and say you’ve been playing a lot of shows and making a lot of music: it’s like, you guys are making it. But I always think of it as we’re always just making it work. At this point in our lives, everyone has shit going on, but we love playing together so we continue to make it work.
Kristen: Yeah. Doesn’t that get hard? Balancing the band with everyday life?
Sylvia: Yeah, it gets busy. I work full time, and Joe works full time, too. A lot of times we have to find a balance or figure out where we draw the line. These guys have figured out a way to play trio.
Phil: It doesn’t happen very often though, which is good.
Kristen: Do you have a local watering hole in Madison—a place you go to pretty consistently?
Phil: Caribou Tavern. It's a little dive bar.
Joe: Frequency. They've got a DJ.
Matt: And The High Noon, which is a venue.
Joe: Yeah, it's a pretty cool bar, too. They've got a lot of shit going on.
Kristen: And you live on a farm outside of Madison, which is pretty much my dream.
Phil: Yeah, it's kind of a compound, if you want to come check it out.
Joe: We've got a festival every year we throw out there called Burning Cow.
Sylvia: You'll have to come out. It’s on Labor Day weekend. We camp out and stuff.
Kristen:How did this start? What's the story?
Joe: I was supposed to go to Burning Man one year, but I realized “Fuck, I didn’t get a ticket.” So I said, “Fuck it. I'll just throw my own burning something party.” We live out on a farm, an old dairy farm, so I figured I’d call it Burning Cow. We painted up some big cows and I made a big wooden cow and we burned it. We had five bands the first year. The second year we had 11.
Kristen: Are they all local, usually?
Phil: Yeah, except for one that came because we were friends with them.
Matt: They were on tour and had the day off.
Phil: We knew they were around and they were friends. Otherwise it was Madison-area bands. Our friend Thomas does a festival called Bubble Fest in Madison. He had 100 bands last year and took over the city for a weekend. We had a pre-party for that festival at Burning Cow as well this year.
Joe: We got all the best bands to come and play that one.
Phil: Mostly it was whoever would come.
Joe: …And they happened to be the best ones.
Kristen: Yeah. You guys have played numerous shows in Chicago, including gigs at the Elbo Room and The Hideout. Do you have a particularly memorable Chicago experience?
Matt: Phil and I got to play with Ian McLagan at FitzGerald's.
Phil: That was pretty special for us.
Matt: He passed two months later, in December. We played with him in October 2014.
Kristen: What about it made it special for you, aside from the fact that it was Ian McLagan?
Matt: He really embraced us and gave us some wise words about music.
Phil: Yeah, he talked to the crowd about the future of rock-and-roll and shared stories about joining The Stones. It was great.
Matt: He was mostly talking about his age compared to ours and how there's a reason he's still playing. Which is that he's still trying to get better and he still loves it. He was basically telling us to keep going.
Phil: Yeah. It was a really cool opportunity for us and we didn't know exactly what to expect. When we first met him, he just walked into the bar and was like, "Are you all ready to have some fun?" That was a great energy to start off a show.
Kristen: Yeah, and especially coming from someone like him, who's so established.
Matt: Who you might think would be super serious…Totally.
Kristen: He kind of broke that barrier down for you.
Matt: Yeah, right away. It was really cool.
Kristen:You released an EP in June 2014 called Days of Yore. What was the process of recording that like?
Joe: It was a lot of hot Mississippi days. Sylvia got bit by a tick.
Sylvia: I got Lyme Disease in Mississippi last year. I'm still on antibiotics to this day. I probably shouldn't be drinking this, but I'm taking a night off from antibiotics. Cheers!
Kristen:Cheers! That really sucks though. I’m glad you’re able to take a night off and have a beer with us. What led you guys down to Mississippi to record in the first place?
Matt: The North Mississippi Allstars, who are from there, have a home studio down there called Zebra Ranch. When we were on tour in January 2014, I sent them an email to see if we could come by the studio, which was run by the late Jim Dickinson, the famous producer who worked with The Stones and Dylan and Aretha Franklin and a bunch of other people. His wife Mary said we could come in, so we did one song that day. Then we rescheduled some recording time a couple of months later to go do the album. It's really cool.
Phil: Yeah. It's pretty much an old farmhouse they converted into a studio.
Joe: It's out in the country. It was really cool because it reminded me a lot of the house that some of us live in. It was chaos. You saw those brothers [Cody and Luther Dickinson from North Mississippi Allstars], the drawings, the way that they wrote on all the walls and hung little weird things in their father’s den.
Phil: It was beautiful, but chaotic. It just reminded me of the shape that our house is in. Every instrument was recorded in a different room. Matt played in the main what would have been the living room, but his amp was recorded in the bathroom.
Joe: Yeah, at one point, Mary came in and began showing us all these cool little secrets. With the guitar amp you could sometimes hear the pipes in the bathroom or other weird things rattling. She had an ear for it. It was pretty cool.
Kristen:You had limited time to record. Did you have all the songs set and ready to go before you went there or were you hoping to hash some of it out in the studio?
Matt: We thought we did. You always learn.
Kristen: How did it change once you got there?
Matt: It became so detail oriented.
Joe: You end up breaking the song down to every tiny little sound. Once you start doing that, it gets involved.
Kristen: Does that every get hard or really frustrating?
Phil: Sometimes it gets frustrating because you want to get it perfect and sometimes it just doesn't happen that way. That’s when you have to go take a walk, take a breath and then continue.
Kristen:Were there any songs that surprised you when you recorded — either in a positive or negative way?
Sylvia: “Echo” was kind of a surprise.
Joe: Yeah, we have a track called “Echo” that we were messing with a lot right before we went into the studio. We didn't even know if we were going to record it. We just kind of saw it through and it turned out pretty sweet. We didn’t force it, but we made ourselves play it out and really think about it.
Kristen:What’s that process like—the process of seeing something through even if you’re not sure it’s going to work?
Matt: Well, in this case we had to figure certain parts out — their length, whether or not we should cut or keep things. It’s about making sure the song has a good flow. Sometimes other members of the band might have ideas or we can't decide on something. Sometimes you just have to say, “Okay, it’s going to be this way,” and you have to make a final decision, otherwise you could go back and forth for days.
Phil: Yeah, you can get caught between the song meaning something to you and playing it all the time and feeling the wear from that. We want to keep it interesting for ourselves, too. You naturally get tired of playing a song a certain way and you say, “Well, maybe we should try it with a different energy or something.”
Joe: It's always changing. It's always cool to see the songs come to life when you have been playing them but haven't recorded them in a professional space.
Phil: Yeah, it's totally different.
Kristen: Let’s switch gears here. Who in the band is most likely to get into a fight?
Matt: Joe got a taser pulled on him.
Phil: It wasn't his fault ... He wasn't looking for a fight.
Joe: If somebody comes and says something to me ... I'll go up to them and ask, “What's your deal?” This guy walked by and hit me in the shoulder.
Sylvia: He has to stick up for himself.
Joe: And if I drink whiskey, I get a little crazy. I get a little feisty.
Sylvia: Joe has a nickname.
Joe: Oh, no.
Matt: It's an alter ego he'll turn into.
Kristen: Pepperballs? Where did that come from?
Phil: He's the guy that will run up behind you and kick you.
Matt: We don't see Pepperballs often.
Kristen:We should give you some whiskey tonight. I want to see Pepperballs come out. What do you guys do in the van to keep yourself occupied when you’re on the road?
Phil: We do Andrew Bird trivia. Like, “What's Andrew Bird's favorite football team?”
Kristen:I don't know. Do you know?
Phil: Yeah. There's the Falcons. Or maybe the Eagles.
Joe: We had a couple good ones today.
Phil: The trivia actually has nothing to do with Andrew Bird.
Joe: Where would Andrew Bird love to live?
Phil: In a cage.
Joe: There's a local bar in the town that we live by in Columbus, Wisconsin, and it’s called The Cage. The best one I heard in the car today was, “What's Andrew Bird's favorite bar in Columbus?”
Phil: The Cage.
Sylvia: That's our brains going.
Kristen: I love that. So, the whole time you're in the van, do you only talk about Andrew Bird?
Phil: Well, today we listened to the Flaming Lips and another band from Madison called Modern Mod.
Matt: Yeah we just saw them live. And no sleeping allowed in the van.
Joe: And Phil likes to clean the windows at gas stations.
Phil: If the windshield has a bunch of shit on it, it reduces your visibility and increases glare.
Matt: And Joe sprays the car with shit.
Joe: It was penetrating oil. The trailer crank was getting a little rusty so I wandered around and oiled all the hinges. Getting all the creaks out of it.
Kristen: Who is most likely to fall asleep on command?
Matt: Jake, our drummer, who isn’t here tonight.
Sylvia: He also plays really hard, so he just…
Joe: It's really cathartic, too. Get all the negative emotions out.
Phil: It helps, you know what I mean?
Kristen:What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you've done in the past year?
Matt: I went into a steam room recently at a gym with all these buff guys. I needed a body cleanse, but I was wearing this outfit, like jeans and a shirt. Everyone else had nothing on.
Kristen: Wait, you worked out in that?
Matt: No. I just went to the gym to go to the steam room.
Joe: You're supposed to strip down.
Matt: I know. I did.
Joe: But, it's a co-ed steam room. It's weird.
Joe: You can't go in there naked.
Phil: But Matt did.
Matt: I wore a towel, but I didn't feel very rock-‘n’-roll in there.
Kristen: Are you one of the people that goes to the gym once a year?
Matt: Yeah, I don't think our band really works out much.
Phil: Carrying gear is a work out.
Joe: Yeah, that is a good work out.
Kristen:What’s the best advice you've ever received?
Joe: For me, it’s “If you say you're going to do something, do it.” My grandpa told me that one, actually. He's 93. He's getting pretty old now, but he has been all over the world. Whenever he says he's going to do something, he does it. He got a motor home and drove up to Alaska and all over the whole country after he retired. He sailed the Saint Lawrence Seaway, down the east coast to the Caribbean. He’s gone all the way out to Easter Island and shit. He's fucking crazy adventurous.
Kristen: I love it. Someone to look up to, for sure.
Matt: As a band, I’d say it’s important for us to ride the highs and lows without getting too high or too low. Every day is different. If you have too high of expectations or if you ride the highs too much, you're just going to be let down. Some shows are good, some aren't. You need to just keep plugging away. Keep it steady.