I had the pleasure of seeing Casey Shea at the Rock'n'Roll Hotel on August 12th and also reviewed his recent record. He graciously gave me a chunk of time before the show to sit down and talk a bit about his career and the music biz. And as usual, I took my time in writing it up. But here is a good half hour or so of our conversation. I certainly hope to see him again some time because he was a pleasure to talk with and is a songwriter/performer that is worth going back to.
Casey Shea Awesome. Is that the new one?
DH Yes and this is your third album?
CS Yes. My first one was like a homemade demo and the second was kind of like a mixture of being in the studios and homemade. This one is the first one that is kind of a proper record. We went into the studio with like one band and then had a few people come in and out. So I'm excited about it.
DH Do you have that band tonight?
CS No, tonight it's just solo. it will be interesting in a lot of different ways. Because in New York I always play with the band. And when I do the solo thing, I try to make it as different as possible from the band thing and try to the toned down quiet acoustic thing. But because of who I am opening for, Tally Hall, they've got this like great kind of young fan base that is energetic; I've found the first show I needed be a bit more entertaining and get the night started off right. I did not want to put everyone into somber mode (laughter).
DH And this is a Friday night, too. So are you touring with them the whole way?
CS Yes, it's the whole month and we're just past the 3 weeks part with 8 or 9 shows left.
DH And it's a substantial coast to coast tour?
CS Yeah, a lot of driving.
DH (after some discussion of Denver) And the Denver show went well?
CS Great! And actually I had a friend from college who I have not seen since college in like ten years and she came out so it was really good. She drove from Parachute, so she drove like three hours.
DH Nice. Have you toured before?
CS Yeah, I've done like various little Northeast touring. I had another band where we did an out to LA and back kind of thing. I've also lived in England and did a little touring there. And then last year I was actually filling in for one of the members of Tally Hall and we did like a three week thing, but we didn't get out to the west coast.
DH Actually that's the problem out west, the shows out there are a little far apart from each other.
CS Oh man, I tell you. We started out in Michigan and for the first two weeks, every day was an eight-hour minimum drive. It is just so spread-out in the middle of the country.
DH Yeah, and then it might be a small city, too. From my old home town of Denver, if you go to Salt Lake, Omaha, Albuquerque, Kansas City, that's 8-10 hours each. But it's nice that you mention one of the good things of touring is meeting up with all friends. That's really great.
CS And it's nice that the fact that Tally Hall has a big fan base that after 8-9 hours in a car, you show up to good crowd and having that crowd in the rooms makes everything worth it.
DH Yeah, this is a nice sized place tonight and Friday will have people pouring in. Because it's so sad when I see some one over here from Europe and there is like eight people in the crowd.
CS (laughs) yes.
DH So did you grow up in Florida and get your start there?
CS Yes, most of my life. I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana but when I was six moved to Florida, grew up there, went to college in Tallahassee at Florida State. And then after that we moved to Nashville with the band I had from college. Me and the guy that were writing all the songs... Have you heard of Duck Dunn?
DH Yes (he is the bass player of the legendary Booker T and the MGs)
CS The guy I was writing songs with grew up right down the street from Duck Dunn in Tampa and for the last year or two we tried to do some recording on our own, but were horrendous. We thought we were great...
DH (laughs) But you weren't Duck Dunn.
CS Exactly. So we would go back and play him these songs that were so bad... They weren't bad, but like the fact that we were steering them to a Rock'n'Roll Hall of Famer... (laughter) But he was always encouraging. He was like, you guys need to find a really good rhythm section and you have some good songs and I like your voice. So he called up Steve Cropper who had a studio in Nashville. We went up there to do a demo, we fell in love, so we moved to Nashville right after we graduated and lived there for about a year and a half. And then that band fell apart as happens. (laughter) Imagine that? And then my girlfriend went to New York and got an internship that turned into a job right when all signs were... Well, we had some people come up to us in Nashville and say you guys were more of a rock thing and you need to be in New York. And everything was kind of pointing to New York, so that is when I moved to New York.
DH Yes, I am kind of curious about Nashville. The drummer for a punk band I managed became a good session drummer down in Austin. But he went to Nashville and found it a little more closed-door there.
CS Yeah, it's very, very... you know, when we first decided to go there, our thought was man, everyone here is a musician. If this was LA or New York, you have big music scenes, but here it's like constant. You are going to be around people that really feel the same way as you do about music. But that kind of ends up being the downfall because you can't really build anything up or it felt like that to me.
DH Especially just coming, if you lived there your whole life maybe, unless you are coming in as a star.
CS Exactly, or with the country. We're doing like rock music, so it's not like we could get a deal with one of the labels in Nashville as they are looking for the next big country thing. But it was an amazing time. I really actually love Nashville as a town and the level of musicians and the studios everywhere.... So much great stuff, but for a person who is trying to build something, it did not seem possible.
DH But now you are in Brooklyn. So now there's a band in every other house.
CS Exactly. In certain ways it is the same, although there's still...at least there's nine million people there and there are people that still don't do music and you can develop something out of New York.
DH And very eclectic there with all the different styles off the charts. This all makes a lot of sense and I can certainly see Nashville with Cropper and Dunn as part of it. But back to the studio recordings. Your album sounds very slick, well done, so what were the challenges moving up from a lo-fi approach. Did you work slowly on the parts or did a have a live approach?
CS So over the past two or so years, right when I finished the last album which was pieced together at different studios, nothing was done at the same time. The drum part was done at the drummer's apartment, the bass part at my apartment... After that the band that I was slowly putting together was taking shape and we were taking songs and making them a bit more 'bandy' than just like a guy or songwriter with a back-up band, so we spent like a year and half playing a ton and working out arrangements for songs and our original theory was we were going in and play it live and record that, which is always, you know, a lot easier said than done.
DH Yes, it turns out that way.
CS And we did do it that way somewhat, but overtime we went back in and patched things up and overdubbed things and then I kind of let it sit for a while and was listening to the rough mixes and a couple of new songs kind of came in to the fold. We felt like we needed to put these on. So then we went to another studio and actually did those two live.
And that was a good experience, laying it down. If I told you the songs, you could probably hear the difference.
DH We'll see.
CS Yeah, we'll see if you can tell. So it was some live and some things pieced together. I think probably the biggest obstacle to overcome was to make it feel cohesive and to hopefully to have it sound good enough, you know.
DH RIght, that is what I listen for. Because initially I may hear singer-songwriter, Americana... I hear hundreds of these CDs when I review them for Folkworld, but when the first notes hit, I start thinking how do I differentiate this and so far so good on your record, slick, but raw. I thought you achieved that well. So how you achieve that in your studio sounds like it varies quite a bit. Did you use a producer or a specific engineer you worked with?
CS When we first went in, we wanted to do it all at one studio. There was a guy named Chris Cubeta. Although we had things worked out, he was really good at getting certain sounds like guitar sounds and good with the vocals and putting me at ease when something was good enough and capturing something that was not perfect but had the right vibe. I think that is one of the hardest things about recording, especially when you are a singer and you know what perfect sounds like which is what you want, but it just sounds boring a lot of times. So you listen to certain songs you know your whole life and think what a great vocal, but if you really listen to it or listen to yourself, but it is pitchy, not great, but it serves a purpose and that's what makes it.
DH Yes when I read about producers, they do mention the sort of psychological aspect or the mentoring that goes on. That is it as much as getting into the comfort zone with a band.
DH So this tour is almost over. What is next for you?
CS I just found out I am going to go to do about a week and a half in England opening for Wakey! Wakey! They are on the same label I am on. They are doing well over there. Earlier at the end of last year, I opened a couple of shows for them in England and one where I was solo and another with my band. And both times the crowds over there were amazing--such music lovers. You could hear a pin drop a lot of the time.
DH You won't have that here (laughter). One of my complaints I bitch about all the time is the talking during sets, like all the time. I pay $18 to listen, not talk.
CS Yeah, it's such a hard thing. On this tour especially when I am doing the solo thing. When you walk into a room, you can kind of tell what kind of crowd it is going to be. And you sort of sense the rock venues that usually turn into people talking. And like you say, you can go either really quiet with people talking at a lower level or you say screw it and play loud and they just talk louder. So, we'll see how they are tonight.
DH Yeah, I complain about it all the time, but if I'm in back by the bar or merch table, I don't mind short talks especially if it is musically related. But there was an old psyche folk artist Vashti Bunyan who played here. She came out of retirement when she googled herself and was stunned when her failure of an album was selling for a thousand dollars, etc. So she did a comeback album and played this stage. Her voice was about the most fragile thing in the world, so every bar noise was super loud and people were shushing every noise so it was spooky quiet. But we'll see tonight. You'll be on first. But on to a more off-the-wall question. Are there any non-musical artists or writers that you really look up to, inspirationally and all.
CS Wow, yeah like Shel Silverstein--I am very into like children's stuff-- and I'm like a big Beatles fan,too. One thing I thought about them is that a lot of their songs sound like children's songs. You know, like a lot of times the lyric were like really dark, but melodically and vibe-wise, it was something a five year old kid could have the same experience as a 55-year old. So I've always been into childhood things like Dr. Seuss.
DH Me, too.
CS I think these guys are like geniuses and maybe in the art world I like Salvador Dali and Van Gogh is amazing. I grew up kind of a painter and drawer, but I didn't really explore it as much as I should have. I went to England a couple years ago with this other band. And we worked with a lable who had done a demo and we were just over there for six months and it all fell apart--typical kind of label experience. But when I came back with my life in tatters without a place to live, so I was back at home and that was the first time in a while I went back into painting. And it was amazing, there was something about it.
DH (further discussion garbled by DJ chatter) Have you played here before?
CS I think I played the Black Cat was it?
DH Yes, was it the back stage or up top on the main stage.
CS It was the main stage. It's been a while.
DH It's still going strong.
CS Yeah, it was a cool place.
DH (more discussion on general business) I find labels interesting versus the whole DIY concept. Nowadays, there are so many different paths to take...
CS Which is amazing as it makes things infinitely better and worse, you know.
DH Absolutely. You have to say it that way, right.
CS But I'm glad I came around when I did because 20 years ago I probably would not have cracked through.
DH Or if you did, you it would be the all of the all or nothing formula.
CS Somehow hopefully bands will find ways to make enough money and find audiences.
DH How about New York gigs?
CS I have kind of been around a long enough time that is pretty easy. There is one place I play a lot, maybe too much, called Rockwood Music Hall, lower east side.
DH Do you do it solo?
CS I generally do it with the band. I have developed a really good relationship with the club over the last five or six years and usually they send me dates, often Friday or Saturday nights. It's nice to be able to keep busy and not have to worry about really trying to push. When I first got to New York, it was the hardest thing--how to get to the point where... Because you wanted a show and they would say that you gotta bring this many people or you don't make any money or whatever. So it's like how many people can you bring in? I don't know, five maybe? There's that 'how do you get gigs if people don't know about you and how do people know about you if you can't get a gig.' I spent a lot of time playing open mic nights and make friends with people and that slowly over the years helps you out.
DH Yeah, it's like that here, everywhere. But I am glad it's working out for you.
And we chattered away for a while longer, but it was too much of me blabbing about me, so I will spare you.