Interview: The Shants
The Shants are attempting to do something rare with music. Straying away from the predictable indie rock and noise-band mentality that undeniably dominates the East Bay scene, the folk-infused foursome plays stripped-down tunes that are dripping with honesty and simple convention. And with all the buzz they’ve generated during their short tenure as a band, they must be doing something right.
The Oakland, Calif.-based band formed when Skip Allums (guitar, harmonica, vocals) met Samuel Tokheim (pedal steel guitar) at the most unlikely of places: the gym. As they got to talking, they realized they liked a lot of the same music. Naturally, it made sense for the two to begin playing music and so they recruited Carver Cordes (bass, vocals) and Adam Burstein (drums) to round out the group.
Each member comes from a different background—geographically and musically—and what results is a natural fusion of the familiar and the foreign, communicated through melodically-sound song structures intertwined with nostalgia-tinged recollection and yearning.
“We each bring our own spices to the kitchen, if you will,” Allums said of the way each member draws from his roots to add to the overall sound. “The sum of these four parts has created something very unique—hazy and dark plus sweet and soulful.”
Allums plays the part of the innocently-brooding bearded frontman quite well, harboring a lighthearted mentality under his quiet, tough exterior. Get him going in conversation and the slightest hint of his Southern drawl playfully sneaks into his sentences, which extends to his music. His singing can be tenuous at times, such as in “I’m a Ghost” or “The Fire,” but mostly hovers around soft and hushed, hesitant and slow.
And a large part of what makes this band different from Allums’ prior bands is that slowness. Where there was once a demand for immediacy in his songwriting, he has learned to step back and let things progress naturally. It’s in this process that music took on a new life for him.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot more patient, both as a person and as a musician,” Allums said. “Lately I feel I’ve been exploring the songs as we play them, allowing them to take on different tones and environments that maybe I wouldn’t have been interested in before.”
Allums said he frequently draws songwriting inspiration from his friends and loved ones or as reactions to things happening in the world around him.
“Most often, melodies come first for me,” he said. “I will find myself humming along as [I] bike or walk around Oakland and SF. Then I’ll come home and try to sketch songs out of them.”
But it’s his origin of Southern Louisiana that is a primary driving force behind the lyrical momentum of his music.
“Lately I find I’ve been writing a lot about my experiences back home in Louisiana,” Allums shared. “I’ve also been embracing some of the things that really shaped me from growing up in the South, like my dad’s Leadbelly and George Jones records…or the ‘smallness’ of communities and how interconnected everything is there.”
In January of this year, the band went on a four-day mini tour to get a feel for playing live in various towns and venues, and has since been playing the occasional one-off show. However, the latter half of August will be punctuated by a tour up and down the West Coast.
To add to that, the group has a collection of eight tunes entitled “Russian River Songs,” named because each track was recorded in one or two takes in a cabin near the sleepy CDP of Monte Rio, Calif. Since its release, the EP has garnered a lot of attention in Internet circles because of its minimalism, distinctive nature and lo-fi lushness.
“If we had known it would get as much blog momentum as it has, we would have taken a bit more time to get better takes,” Allums said. “But [overall] we’re happy with it as a document of a new band finding its way in the dark.”
The Shants are planning to hit the studio later this year, but this time around, they’ll be recording in their home base, at a studio in uptown. And tomorrow the band will make its first official local headlining appearance at The New Parish, the city’s newest venue.
“We’re proud of our little Oakland town,” Allums said. “So this will be a meaningful show for us.”
And indeed, it doesn’t take much to realize The Shants have a strange and sweet affinity for the city. One only has to listen to the lyrics of “Oh, Oakland,” a love-tinged namedropping homage to the town, to understand what it’s all about. And even if they forget to name Bubb Rubb along the likes of the Parkway and Broadway Street, they’ve still encompassed and personalized the spirit of the city, as any resident of Oakland can attest.