The vocals are distant and sound as if they’re coming through to you via a walkie-talkie, the guitar spits dusty riffs, the drums boom and clank longingly, impatiently, thoughtfully. Somewhere a bass thuds boogie grooves of heart thumping sonorous sounds, and occasionally a saxophone weeps the sad tale of city man. These aren’t some long lost blues recordings plucked from the mud of the Mississippi delta, these are the gritty, weathered sounds of Seattle’s own blues inspired Lonesome Shack.
Though the name sounds like it was ripped from the back of an old blues album, which it was, it was also the name of a real shack, built by the architect of Lonesome Shack Ben Todd. The shack was a small wood structure built off the side of an old tractor trailer, in the middle of Alma New Mexico, in f Catron County, right on the boarder of New Mexico and Arizona. The New Mexico board of tourism, officially lists Alma as a ghost town. Not so coincidentally, Ben describes the sound of Lonesome Shack as Haunted Boogie.
That trailer and shack would serve as Ben and his girlfriend’s home for ten years, before attending a Luthier school in Phoenix, which eventually brought him back home to the Pacific Northwest, to work at the Trading Musician on Roosevelt Ave. in Seattle, where he would fix and build guitars. Just one block south of the Trading Musician was the quirky, Cafe Racer, which hosted a weekly performance from Ben.
This is where Ben met Kristian Garrard, a drummer, who knew exactly what Ben needed, real percussion. Together they put out three albums, Bound to Die, Slidin Boa, and last year’s City Man. Recorded live at Cafe Racer, City Man would effectively bring the duo full circle, back to where it all began. Though by this time the band had expanded, adding bassist Luke Bergman (who plays in Kristian’s other band Thousands) and Andrew Swanson on Saxophone.
The story of City Man, is full of heart break and ingenuity. It was Kristian’s idea to go for broke and record the album in front of a live audience at Cafe Racer. Lonesome Shack had always seen themselves as a party band, they played best in front of an audience, feeding off that live, and ravenous energy. City Man is far from a polished and precise album full of effects and edits, it’s a live and raw recording, a aural record of one night of music at Cafe Racer.
That was April 6th. Nearly two months later on May 30th Ian Stawicki entered Cafe Racer and opened fire, killing four and injuring another. It would kick off a bloody day as Stawicki would later take the life of another before ending his own in West Seattle. The incident rocked the community to it’s core, especially those at Cafe Racer who were already a tight knit group.
City Man had been posing a host of problems for Kristian and Ben, the recording was messy, far messier than they had hoped. They were toying with scrapping the whole thing and instead recording the album at their home. But following the shooting, they were determined to find a way to make the album work. It wasn’t just a live album full of problematic sounds, it was a recorded memory of friends, some who were killed on May 30th. City Man is dedicated to the victims and their families, and serves as a fitting tribute to the scene at Cafe Racer.
When you talk about bands in the Northwest who for one arbitrary reason or another haven’t received the recognition they deserve, certainly Lonesome Shack tops the list. Perhaps too traditional for the indie scene, and not blues enough for the blues scene, the band is left in limbo. They shouldn’t be garnering attention simply because they’re some kind of novelty, but rather because there’s just so few who manage to do what they do, as good as they do it. Their music makes you want to dance, and hours later the rhythms and melodies are still clanging around your body.
There’s a strong emotional core to this music, it catches you off guard, but it’s present throughout their catalog. The tear educing City Man, the giddy smile of Longtime Love, the cool fear of Robert Pete, or the solitary isolation of Down and Alone. It could be so easy to quickly judge this band without giving them a chance, they are so much more than any simple surface description that I could muster.
Just as with Lindsay Schief and Angelo Spencer, though certainly not purposely, not long after interviewing Shana Cleveland I returned to her home which she shares with her boyfriend Ben Todd, to interview Ben and Kristian. City Man had just come out and not long before that I’d seen them woo a packed house at Cafe Racer.
I would see them again at 20/20 Cycle, once again filling the house so full that people had to be turned away. Though they’re still making the same kind of infectious music that they made years ago when Kristian joined up with Ben, it seems that finally they are beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. There are many ways to describe a good show, fun doesn’t necessarily apply to all, but with Lonesome Shack it certainly does.
I’m guilty of building opinions of musicians before even meeting them, based purely on the type of music they make. I fear that they’ll be pretentious, snobbish, or even just rude. As excited as I was to meet Karl Blau I was nervous for our interview, my fears were completely unfounded. The same could be said for Kristian and Ben, I had wrongly assumed that only serious no nonsense musicians could have devised the genius music of Lonesome Shack. I could not have had more fun interviewing them. They were relaxed, fun, and more than welcoming.
Occasionally I feel like I manage to strike just the right chord in an interview and hit on all the right answers. As a result I feel particularly proud of the final result in this interview. I felt like we really got to the core of what Lonesome Shack is and how they work. While this written interview serves as a nice jumping off point, I strongly urge you to listen to the full audio podcast. Which you can listen to right here, or in itunes.
The story goes that Lonesome Shack began in an actual shack that you built yourself in New Mexico.
A friend of mine from Bellingham owned some property in New Mexico and he wasn’t living there at the time, so I asked if my girlfriend and I could move to his land. So I got a sixteen foot travel trailer and pulled that onto his land, and built a shack off the side, using the trailer as one of the walls, so I only had to build three walls. That became the Lonesome Shack. Lonesome Shack is also the name of a Memphis Minnie song, but it became the name of the shack, and eventually the name of the band.
You were recording some music and putting it on tape?
I think the first tape that was called Lonesome Shack was around 2002.
How did that get around?
Mostly just sending them to friends. We had a “huge sale” once, at a wedding that we played. I think we moved ten tapes.
How did you find your way back up to the Northwest?
After being in the Southwest for about ten years I went to a Luthier school to learn how to fix and build guitars in Phoenix. I was there for a year and I didn’t know where I was going to go after that. I was either going to move to Tucson or New Orleans. I ended up getting a job offer at Trading Musician in Seattle. I wasn’t planning on moving back but the job seemed like just what I was looking for.
How did you two meet?
When Ben came back here, he started playing weekly shows at Cafe Racer on Roosevelt. I lived around the corner from there and my girlfriend at the time was a bartender there, so I hung out there a lot, and would see Ben play every week. I’d been playing drums for a long time, and at some point it occurred to me that we should try to play together.
He said if I ever felt like I wanted drums, he’d be into trying that out. Then I saw him play drums in this old band that he used to be in and I noticed that he was really good. I used to stomp my feet on a little box, and I’d do some percussion with my feet. So I had some rhythm going on. Once we tried playing together, I felt like it clicked right away. My song writing has changed partly because of the way Kristian and I work together. Because I think of rhythm or a part, that I think is interesting rhythmically.
Up until this most recent album, City Man, it had just been the two of you. But with City Man you added bass and saxophone. Was it a choice to be just a two piece before.
It’s easier for touring, but we just didn’t want to complicate things too much. I like the bareness. Our record Slidin Boa, that’s just drums and guitar. If you listen to it back to back with almost any other band recording, it sounds very empty. Thin guitar and booming bass drum. We were trying to go for that spareness. We’ve always looked at ourselves as a party band, whenever we play at Racer we encourage dancing, we get drunk and play for a few hours. Adding the bass, just gave us an extra element of something to dance to.
It thickens it up a little. That bass is a good frequency for people to feel as they’re dancing. The sax was so appropriate for the song City Man, because it’s the “urban sound.”
It’s rare for an album of original music to be recorded live first. Why choose to do a live album?
The set up of the recording was no different, it’s just that we did it all in one night in front of an audience.
Kristian came up with the idea. It sounded like a good thing to shoot for. Why not try it. It’d be novel, because this happened in one evening. You’ve got to let it go and let it be what it is. You can’t nitpick over little things. There’s plenty of stuff that I wasn’t happy with in my performance, but overall I was really happy with how it sounded. I think it’s good to let go of some of that perfection. For the style that we play it works really well, to have that live sound spontaneity, to hear the crowd.
We definitely play better in front of an audience.
Was there any extra challenge to recording this way?
The mix was challenging. We couldn’t figure out how to mix it and have it sound as jamming as we’d hoped. It was messy, there was a lot of bleed from all the mics being live. The raw material was pretty rough. We almost scrapped it and wen’t “alright, let’s just do it at home.” But I had a few ideas that I wanted to try, and it ended up working out okay.
I’m happy with the way it turned out. Some of the original mixes just didn’t sound that great. So we did quite a bit of post production. There’s only so much you can do with live recording. We took the final mix and put it onto a cassette, cranked up the levels a bit to get more compression, and add some crustiness. That technique has worked really well.
The album was recorded live at Cafe Racer on April 6th of last year. Just shy of two months later there was a shooting that took place there. As a result, you dedicated the album to the victims and their families. Did that effect how you proceeded with this album?
I think it did. There was a time when we were on the fence about whether we would use this recording, and that definitely pushed it more towards wanting to use it. Because of the significance of Racer to us and the fact that a few of the people the were shot were at the show, and you can hear them on the recording. I wanted to use it more after that happened, to honor the scene there.
That was definitely the driving reason why we kept the live recording. There’s a moment in the end of the last song on the record where you can hear Drew, who was one of the people killed, yell his signature phrase, “goddamn!” He used to say that almost every song.
If he thought that it was a good song.
That’s a special moment on the record. The last thing you hear before it fades out.***
You can purchase Lonesome Shack’s albums as a digital download, audio cassette, cd, or vinyl album at lonesomeshack.bandcamp.com. You can see them live in the coming months; at Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle 4/13, Cafe Racer in Seattle 4/19, and the Comet Tavern in Seattle 6/22. Keep up to date with all their comings and goings at Lonesomeshack.com.
As I said before, while this abridged article is certainly a good look into a unique and talented band, I strongly urge you to give the full podcast interview a listen, there’s some much to learn from these guys, and so many insights into how they create their amazing music. Listen to the podcast here, or in itunes.