Perhaps you’re familiar with Andrew WK’s Cartoon Network show Destroy Build Destroy? The concept is obvious, two teams Destroy a set of random objects like cars, musical instruments, or boats. In turn they salvage parts from their destruction and Build them into another device, compete against other team and the winner Destroys the losers contraption. This was immediately what came to mind when I thought of Shana Cleveland’s career, well, on a far more simple level.
It’s safe to say that this would not have been the image that first came to mind had Shana and her band mates in the infamous Curious Mystery not decided to call it quits just a few short weeks before our interview. The Curious Mystery had become a centerpiece of K-Records and their Olympia Washington indie rock empire. We Creeling, their 2011 follow up to the album Rotting Slowly was beautiful, intense, and nothing short of amazing.
The specific image that penetrated my brain was of Shana gently planting a tightly wound bundle of dynamite underneath the rusty hulk of a handful of musical styles. She runs quickly unraveling the fuse before attaching it to a comically large plunger marked TNT. She pushes down and watches as shrapnel of notes, trebel clef’s, and bars go flying. When the dust settles she marches back into the blast zone with a wicker basket and precedes to gather the building blocks she’ll need for her next project.
Then off in a laboratory somewhere she sits at a work bench delicately reassembling the pieces into something new and beautiful. When she tires of this construction she’ll start this whole process over again.
Generally I find that I really like about two thirds of any given musicians projects. It seems there’s almost always one that just misses the mark for me, when it comes to Shana Cleveland the projects she’s been involved in, I love them all. No matter what she stamps her seal of approval on, it always lives up to my expectations.
It began in her collaboration with Nick Gonzalez forming The Curious Mystery a psych-folk-indie-rock band that included everything and the kitchen sink. While working with TCM, Shana joined with Olie Eshleman to record an album under the name Evening Plains. It’s an album brimming with so much airy folky(ness) that you can almost literally see and feel golden grass blowing in the wind with a bleached cow skull nestled near the roots.
Another of Shana’s musical involvements is with The Sandcastles. A “quiet time collection” of soulful folk music that is absolutely delectable. In many ways that band might be the best pure expression of what Shana is capable of, a sultry voice that swirls and wafts like freshly blown cigarette smoke. Smooth folky guitar that has so much texture to it you could literally pick it up with your hands.
Then you have Shana’s most recent project La Luz, an all girl surf rock band. It’s that classic surf music constructed with classic rock and roll structures and wavy distortion pedals like water logged ears. I’ve been a longtime fan of bands like the Ventures, and Dick Dale & the Del-Tones, La Luz cuts right into that genre with a switch blade and inserts the lovely twist of female voices, namely Shana’s. Which also happens to be exhibited at its best.
I almost feel as if a big thanks is owed to Shana’s mother (a singer herself) who visited Seattle while Shana was wandering the strip malls of North Hollywood and the Valley. It was an issue of the Stranger sent to her from her mother that sparked her interest and initiated a move to the PNW. It’s possible she would have gone on to play music elsewhere, but we have her right here in our back yard.
I met Shana in her University District home in North Seattle, just a few blocks from where my wife and I lived years before. The house is nestled in between a series of tall trees that wrap its branches around it like a great leafy hug. Inside it was just as I’d imagined Shana’s home to be, earthy, organic, and textural. All around was a mixture of her own beautiful artwork and a number of oil painted landscapes; a mountain towering over a placid glacial lake, or golden rolling hills. Shana Cleveland’s music practically radiated straight out of the canvases.
After the interview was finished Shana and I spent a little time out on her porch (as I waited for my wife to pick me up) talking music, Los Angeles, and Anacortes. I’m trying to prepare myself for the day I encounter some really nasty artist who hates me and my interview, but that hasn’t happened yet, as once again Shana was an absolute delight to meet and spend a couple of hours with. As I said before, it’s rare to find a musician who’s various projects are as consistently incredible as Shana’s.
As an interviewer my goal is constantly to become more relaxed and conversational, every time I sit down with an artist I get a little closer and this might be my best attempt yet. We covered so much more ground than what I had initially planned and the end result is some fascinating audio. What follows is just a microscopic fraction of my conversation with Shana and I highly encourage you to download the full audio podcast, which you can hear for free here or in itunes.
For the past six or so years you’ve been most associated with your role in The Curious Mystery. What made you all decide to move on from that band?
We’d been doing that for a long time and I felt like it had run its course. We went on this long tour last Spring and I started listening to different styles of music and forming an idea for a band that I would start when I got home. Then I realized that I really couldn’t be doing three bands, so I had to get rid of one of them. I love The Curious Mystery, but I felt like I’d grown past it in a way. My whole life I’ve really love building and then being okay with leaving it. I think it’s really important as an artist to not just stay with what’s working, to challenge yourself to move forward.
What did it do for the band to meet Calvin Johnson of k-records and his network of musicians?
That whole network of k bands was really inspiring because it’s people doing their own thing. There’s nothing really trendy happening there, it’s all people who just make the music that they want to make, and it’s not with an eye towards what’s going to sell or be popular or cool. It’s just about pure artistic expression. It’s also so diverse, the roster of artists on k, it’s all over the place.
There’s a really sweet story about how your parents met. Would you mind telling that story.
My dad met my mom when he was on tour with a band, I think a Country Swing band. My mom was dancing, she’d just gone to the bar to dance. They liked each other and then my dad would come through every now and again on tour and try to get ahold of my mom. Eventually she just started traveling with them, she ran their sound for awhile to pull her own weight. Then she started back-up singing. And she’s a singer now, and a harmonica player.
What was the catalyst to get The Sandcastles started?
There’s a bunch of folk musicians that are really inspiring to me. Certain albums are really exciting as far as albums that sound quiet and relaxed but also feel sloppy, like you’re just hanging out in a barn with these people. Like Viva Last Blues and this girl from Maine, Caethua, her albums were influential to me and I really wanted to get at that intimate rough folk sound.
On your bandcamp page you called these songs, “quiet time songs… I think they sound best on a windy morning or at night with no lights.” I really like that description because while it’s not exclusive to how you should listen to the album, it’s very accurate of the sound.
You’re not going to put them on and party, it’s not going to make you want to get up and move. There’s some albums that make you want to turn off the lights, and just sit in a room and listen to them by myself. That’s what I had in mind for the album.
Tell us about your latest band La Luz.
It’s pretty much a combination between surf rock and a girl group. Not that we’re all girls, which we are, but the 60’s girl group, the Phil Spector sound. I was listening to a lot of girl group music and was getting into four part harmonies; ooh-ah’s and doo-whops.
You mentioned that this is the music that you’ve been wanting to play for a long time. Why is that?
I’ve been getting into early rock and roll in a lot of different areas of the arts. The late 50’s and 60’s rock and roll style is so powerful, you can see that in the fact that on every continent people have tried to imitate that style. It’s not white music or black music, or even American music, even though it started as American music. It’s cheesy but it’s like the power of rock and roll music.
The Northwest has a tradition of female rock bands, especially with the whole Riot Grrrrl movement in the early 90’s. What was your inspiration for wanting an all girl band?
I really like the way that women’s voices sound together when it’s all women. And I don’t really run across a ton of sexism in the music industry, but I do every now and then and I just got tired of playing shows where the sound guy didn’t take me seriously. I got tired of that attitude. I really liked the idea of being in a band with four women that are really awesome, not just that we’re all cute, it’s that we’re really good. You kind of have to take us seriously. Even though I’ve always played with open minded guys, I just got tired of people adjusting my amp or thinking that I couldn’t do those things myself.
Another thing that makes me excited to be in an all girl band was, I have this goal to be the most killer guitar player ever [laughs]. I was just feeling like there was a lack of really awesome female rock guitar players, and part of my goal is to try and fill that space.***
The purpose of Destroy Build Destroy is two fold, make awesome machines from scrap, and blow shit up. This is where the analogy fails when talking about Shana Cleveland. It’s just the end result of years spent perfecting one sound and the desire to create something new. La Luz is still just a newborn less than a month removed from its mothers womb, there are still plenty of years before a stick of dynamite is placed at its feet.
In September La Luz released their debut EP Damp Face which you can find at laluz.bandcamp.com. In October they began playing live with one final performance on October 26th opening for Lonesome Shack at Cafe Racer in Seattle. You can find the Curious Mystery’s albums at k-recs.com, and The Sandcastles at shanacleveland.bandcamp.com.
Again, there is so much more to hear that you’ll completely miss out on if you don’t listen to the podcast. I’m really proud of the conversation we had and the topics we covered. You can listen to the full audio podcast here or in itunes. And while you’re there please take a brief moment to rate and review us, thank you.