Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
Believe (Yep Roc)
An interview with Col. J.D. Wilkes
By Ari M. Joffe
2004 was a yin/yang year for Col. J.D. Wilkes and his fellow Legendary Shack Shakers. They toured the U.S. and Europe numerous times, switched record labels, recorded two albums (one of which may never see the light of day), lost a drummer to rehab, and sold a song for use in a Geico commercial. But by far, the biggest event within the Shack Shakers’ camp was the mid-year departure of J.D.’s former righthand man, badass guitarist Joe Buck.
For Shack Shakers fans, this was tantamount to Keith leaving the Stones. The questions loomed “will the band still be as raw dog without Joe Buck? What will the new album sound like? Will they still be able to tear shit up live?”
Well, the proof is in the pudding, but everyone’s got different taste buds, ya know? To my tongue, Believe is a tight album, as raucous as Cockadoodledon’t was, but with a touch more finesse in terms of songwriting and arrangements. Buck’s replacement, David Lee, is an ace on the six-string, no doubt about it. And live? Hell, man! Their shows are still completely unsafe, and here’s why: One minute you’re smiling and shakin’ year ass to their boogie/punk/blues, and the next thing you know, you’re dodging snot, metal buckets, beer bottles, and whatever other projectiles J.D. decides to launch off the stage.
I spoke with J.D., after one such raucous show in Chicago at Double Door, about the ups and downs of being the reluctant leader of the purest, most dangerous rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet today.
So, the new album, Believe, was released by Yep Roc, not Bloodshot. Why did you guys leave Bloodshot?
Bloodshot is a good label if you wanna stay small and make lo-fi, cool, edgy, alt-country records for the rest of your life. We never fit that mold. We’re a little bit more ambitious. Bloodshot has this socialist idealism that doesn’t reflect our competitiveness and ambition. Yep Roc wants to make waves, just like we do. We’re striving to be the best we can be. We wanna make hi-fi, FM-friendly, rock ‘n’ roll records that hit you in the face when you hear ’em. Unfortunately, it costs money to do that – to do it the right way – and Bloodshot wasn’t willing to invest in us like we thought they should. And that’s okay. They’re a lo-fi label, and we’re going in a direction that’s more hi-fi, more musically ambitious, and more professionally ambitious. Yep Roc is a good meat and potatoes label that’s larger than Bloodshot and has more of a drive and an optimism that’s lacking in Bloodshot and a lot of other labels. There’s such a positive energy coming from Yep Roc, it’s a real breath of fresh air. They aren’t locked into that alt-country/Americana stereotype. There aren’t any hard feeling with Bloodshot.
At what point did you start to feel things weren’t working out with Bloodshot?
Bloodshot did a lot of great things for us. They put us on the map. They know how to work their aesthetic, and they were trying to fit us in to that aesthetic. But, it just wouldn’t work. We’re not alt-country, we’re “x-the unknown.” We’re more of a junkyard/carnival/punk band. We’re more of an anomaly, and you can’t put us into a mold we don’t fit into. We don’t wanna be one of these bands that sing about PBR and “the dirty South.” We have more of a romanticized notion of where we come from. It’s less about Jerry Springer and more about Flannery O’Connor. They were really into the whole old school Sun Records, “go in knock it out in one take” thing. As a painter, I appreciate the process of addition and subtraction. I wanna make records like I make my paintings. Why should the process of music be any different? Why should you handicap yourself? I’m unabashedly a fan of ProTools and the luxuries of modern technology. We still do most our songs in one take. We might go back and fix a little problem here and there, but sometimes, it’s best to leave those quirky moments in. We wanna be able to straddle both sides.
Had you started working on Believe before you left the label?
Yeah, it was supposed to be a Bloodshot release, but the money ran out. That process of addition and subtraction that I’m talking about can rack up some money. We’d done about three or four songs – “Agony Wagon” and “Where’s the Devil” – and the label liked what they heard. But, in a way, by them holding up the funds or balking at the price tag, we were kinda forced into the position of “what do we do with the rest of the record? Do we just knock it out live?” But then we wouldn’t’ve been doing it our way, we’d’ve been doing it their way. So, there’s the pressure.
Did you have things lined up with Yep Roc before you decided to leave Bloodshot?
Yep Roc had been interested in us early on. Bloodshot had more of a name for themselves at the time, so we went with them. Yep Roc’s got a lot of variety – The Butchies, The Rev. Horton Heat – they’ve got anything and everything, and I like that. We’re still tied up in some legal shenanigans with Bloodshot. I mean, we were contractually obligated to give them another record and we did. We gave them the artwork and everything for an album called Miracle Cures Live Oddities. It’s an album that we recorded for the fans who’d been clamoring for a more “live sounding” record. We went in the studio and knocked it out in lo-fi, quick, to the point. A lot of the songs on there are older songs and covers like “White Lightnin'” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that we’ve been doing live. But, I doubt it will come out. I’d love to see it on the shelves, but it seems like they… (pauses) it’s a nasty turn of events that I probably shouldn’t get into.
Next hard question: What happened with Joe Buck?
Joe Buck was a force of nature. We just couldn’t contain him anymore. He was bigger than life. He was discovering that he could be a great frontman, and now he’s running his own show with his one-man band. I think he’ll be the next Hasil Atkins. He’s a great talent, and I wish him the best. But, the interpersonal stuff was getting a bit weird. I mean, hardly anyone is with the first girlfriend they ever had, ya know? People come and go in your life. This record really put everyone through the meat grinder, and there were clashes here and there. That stuff happens. It’s the creative process. I’m writing the songs, so, by default, that makes me the leader. And I’m learning more and more how to be a leader. I’m trying to be less deferential and more insistent on a certain artistic direction. With David Lee and the guys in the band now, the inter-band dynamic is so much better. We’re sluggin’ it out together, night after night, shoulder to shoulder, as a team.
Did Joe Buck work on any of Believe with you?
We pretty much did the whole thing without him. He had his ideas and I had mine. It became abundantly clear that we were going in different directions.
Have you heard any of his solo album?
No. I hear it’s a bunch of anti-Shack Shakers songs.
Well, the man sounds angry. I’m not sure who he’s angry at, but…
We’re not the only people he’s angry at. He’s a very angry man, and we don’t want anger around us. It looks like we’re pissed off on stage, but for every scowl and every “fuck you!” there’s a hug and a wink. It’s the polarity of humanity, the binary nature of mankind: Good and bad. That’s the theme that runs through this band: Man’s dual nature. If it’s all hate and anger, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’m not saying that’s what Joe Buck was, but if you put anyone in this band with the wrong attitude, it isn’t gonna work. It’s gotta be brothers. He was one of my best friends, and I wish it was still that way. But, it’s his way or the highway. And the Shack Shakers, is MY vision. There’s a hierarchy there, but I never bring it up and seldom enforce it. I’m always listening to the opinions of the other people in the band. It’s a benevolent monarchy. I’m the king, like half asleep on my throne with my cabinet running things. Kinda like President Bush, God bless him.
At the same time, Joe is playing bass with Hank III’s band. So he’s evidently able to work as a sideman in that situation.
Right. Well, I guess I don’t command as much respect because I’m not “hillbilly royalty.”
Did you ever get that feeling directly from Joe?
I get that feeling from lots of people. When Joe got that gig, all of the sudden, it wasn’t all about the Shack Shakers anymore. And there’s been a revolving line-up in Hank III’s band too, but nobody asks him about Duane Dennison. Who’s giving Hank III grief over that loss? No one. Because he’s “hillbilly royalty” and no one wants to go there.
Do you still talk to those guys at all?
No, it was a pretty bitter break up. The lesson I’ve learned this year is that negativity and bitterness will just breed more of the same. Joe Buck was such an asset to this band, but no more so than David Lee. I just think it’s getting better and better.
If Joe asked you to sit in with him one night, would you?
Oh absolutely! I’d love to burry the hatchet. If I wasn’t up for that, I’d be harboring bitterness. And you can’t get to heaven with bitterness in your heart. I’m sure he’s got his point of view, and I’m sure it will never change. Knowing the man, it will never change. It’s too bad, because I’d welcome the opportunity.
When you guys began to record, who was the resident guitar player?
Nick Kane (formerly of The Mavericks) sat in, Mark played some guitar, Jordan, our engineer played guitar; everyone was just passing it around, seeing what we could do. And those are the kind of records we want to make. We just wanna keep growing and expanding. Like the next record won’t sound anything like Believe. The records aren’t necessarily gonna sound like the live show. We wanna be recording artists as well as performing artists. What you get live is a lean, mean, punk rock band that interprets these songs in a completely different way than they were played on the record. It’s another facet to who we are. I don’t wanna be one of these one trick ponies that just slugs it out in the studio the same way they do it live. I wanna experiment. I wanna do weird mad scientist experiments. I wanna make an “agra-dustrial” record.
What does “agra-dustrial” mean?
It’d be like industrial meets agrarian, rural sounds. I wanna invent whatever that is.
Did you make up that word?
As far as I know, and I wanna see what it means. I wanna explore it with this band. I wanna make a gypsy-sounding record. I love kletzmer and carnival music. I wanna make something that haunts you with the melodies. I remember as a kid, I’d just sit there and hum these melodies in my head during long car trips. I look back and it was these gypsy/Latin sounds that come from like Asia Minor or the Ottoman Empire or something. I guess it comes naturally to me because one of my grandmothers was Spanish. I love riffing on that old creepy stuff, and I wanna put a punk rock beat to it and make it just scream. It’s gonna be fiery three-chord music that makes you wanna come outta your skin. It’s fiery, feisty music with the devil in it. Whether it’s Howlin’ Wolf style boogie music, or “oom-pah” music mixed with sideshow imagery, I wanna make all these crazy concoctions and see what works. That’s the painter in me, the “art fag.”
With all the craziness on stage during the show, do you ever worry that people are gonna start coming to the gigs for the spectacle over the music? It seems like the last few times I’ve seen you guys live, there are more and more knuckleheads in the audience attempting to “out J.D.”
Some people seem to have expectations of who I should be and what I should be. They wanna put me in a category with G.G. Allin, some sort of classic punk rock method actor. I wanna be myself. I’m in love with classic Americana sideshow lore, folklore, and the seamy, Southern Gothic aspects of the South. It’s edgy and creepy and weird, but it doesn’t descend into the shock value of pure horror. There’s a little bit of restraint there in the way you present yourself. It’s not gonna be like G.G. Allin or some of these death metal bands that are completely nihilistic. We’re asking questions. We’re perplexed by the issues of life. We wrestle with them, as the Christ-haunted, church-schooled Southerners that we are. We love that and we embrace it. We’re not throwing tantrums, and we’re not out to undo everything that came before us.