Unlike some others, Chris Shiflett proves he’s not a Pretender
Fresh from headlining Glastonbury with the Foo Fighters in June, the guitarist came back in the UK to tour his excellent new album, ‘West Coast Towns’, and spoke to Peter Mawson about his country journey.
What is it about country music that is inspiring you? It’s quite a change from what you’ve done previously with Foo Fighters, so is it the end of the work with the Foo Fighters and all about country now?
I’ve been a big fan of country music for a long time, so I think maybe to people that don’t know me personally it might seem like a strange left turn or something, but really it isn’t for me. You know, beginning with the first Dead Peasants record I did was the first time I started to veer into that sound a little bit, and then I did a record of honky tonk covers a few years ago and then with this one. It’s sort of an evolution I guess. I have always liked country music for a long time and Americana or country and all that stuff, roots music of all kinds and I have always been in love with twangy guitars.
So in real terms, this is about your soul coming out in the music. You have realised that you are in an acclaimed musician in your own right, but this seems to me to be a bit more about you the person, Chris the man.
Well, this is it. I mean this is the direction that my song writing has gone, so.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that you’re going to look like a carpetbagger in some other genre…but to me, this is the music that is near and dearest to my soul”
Any real challenges that you’re facing going solo with?
Well, I mean the challenge is always…you are sort of starting; it is like starting over in a way. You are going out and playing songs that people don’t know and you are playing in little venues and stuff. It’s super exciting, I mean that’s the fun of it – to go out and try to win people over and just go out and have some fun, you know? It’s a very different experience, but it’s great, I love it.
And the sound is quite different, you’re livening things up a bit. I note that it has been described as a rowdy sort of country sound. How do you feel about that? Are you trying to put a different twinge onto what we might call country?
I don’t think that my record is a straight country record. I think it really depends on your perspective. Some people, people that come from the rock and roll world think that it’s a country record and then people coming from country music think it’s a cow punk record. Who knows, I don’t know. Country is a huge influence, but it’s equal parts rock and roll and country and whatever else. It’s just sort of a mix of different things that I like. You know, when I am writing or recording, I’m never setting out to do one thing or another. It’s just what happens…happens. But you know, the minute you stick a pedal steel on something, of course people are that conscious of the idea of country music, or whatever. Whatever. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter to me how people…
I was going to say it doesn’t sound to me like you are a man that worries about being pigeonholed too much.
No, not too much.
You’ve had a really positive reaction to the West Coast Town album. How’re you feeling about that? It’s obviously good news for you. As I say, it’s a strong reaction. It must be quite…
Yeah it’s great. I really put more work into writing these songs and recording them than probably any solo record that I’ve ever made. I felt like when I finished this record, it’s the most proud I’ve ever been of any of the solo records that I’ve done, and it is great to get some good feedback from people on it.
You’re certainly achieving that. Let’s just talk about the style and the melodies. They’re very different to what you’ve been known to produce. Can we expect to see more of that? What is the vibe that is coming through what you are writing now? Are we seeing this sort of continual shift?
I would imagine yeah, when I make another solo record I’ll probably continue along the same vein, but I will have to see when the time comes. Who knows, who knows what it will sound like, but this is…
It sounds like you’re a man who is delivering what you’ve found out about yourself through music, do you know where I am coming from with that?
Like, lyrically I always write from my own life experience. On this record, I tried to sort of craft the songs in more a sort of storytelling style, I think that that’s the biggest influence of country music on me as a songwriter. Country songs tend to be more straightforward story telling than rock and roll, so that was definitely a shift.
What about where you’re going, and your aspirations over the next few years? Clearly you’re a man on a path here, so when can we expect more of what’s coming up for us?
Well, the next thing I want to do…I mean I’m over here. I did the show last night at the 100 Club and I’m playing tonight at Water Rats, and I’m just doing these shows solo. Just an acoustic guitar, so I would love to get over here with my band and play these songs with the full band and me. Hopefully sometime later in the year I’ll be able to get over here and do that.
That would be cool. And plans for more recording? Have you got lots that you’re trying to put out at the moment or are you stocking things up and you’re on a gentle release schedule? How aggressive is the material going to be coming out?
Probably not for a little while. I mean, I would love to get another record out like next year, but I haven’t even really begun to think about recording. I’m sort of starting to think about it, but I’ve got to figure out what my schedule is and see when I’m going to have time, and all that sort of thing.
And inspirations for songs – can we just talk a little bit about that on the creative side? Where does that come from for you?
Well my friend, Mitch, is a drummer that plays with Dwight Yoakam and he has been a huge influence on me. I’ve worked on my songs over the years with Mitch and he turned me on to a lot of great music and educated me a lot on country music along the way. I remember in the early, early stages of me writing songs that became West Coast Town, we’re talking about songwriting, and he gave me really good advice. He was like, ‘you need the right country songs, but in your voice’ – and I think what he meant by that was that I couldn’t sit down and write a song about growing up on the farm or going down to the river bed in my pickup truck, and you know…just kind of cliché. None of that s*** is my life. I didn’t grow up in that world. So if there is a theme in the whole thing, I really just try to stay true to my own experiences and in the inspiration for it, and just try to figure out a way to apply that to this genre. I remember when I first got home and played the record for my wife, my wife goes she goes, ‘you can’t have like country songs where you are singing about drugs and stuff – you can’t’. But that is what I just did. I just made that record. Of course you can.
I think it is testament to your versatility and your creativity to be crossing genres as you’re doing. There seems to be no barriers in your mind, which is refreshing.
That’s nice to hear because I am always am a little…it’s been great to see the reaction to the record. It’s tough when you are known for a certain thing. A certain sound. When you work outside of that sound, you always run the risk of people going like, ‘oh look at the guy from the big band with his little vanity project, look he’s put a cowboy hat on, he’s trying to be a country guy now, oh isn’t that cute’, and you do get some of that. I’ve been really happy that I haven’t gotten much of that. It’s always in the back of your mind that you’re going to look like a carpetbagger in some other genre…but to me, this is the music that is near and dearest to my soul.
You’re saying something and I value that from a listening perspective.
Right on. Well, it’s a funny thing. Of course I love my rock music and at the end of the day, I am a rock and roll guitar player kind of first and foremost, and that is what it is, but I think anybody that you talk to that is a musician probably has pretty diverse tastes in their own musical choices.
Where did your musical journey begin for you? Were you guitar in hand at 11 years old or?
I started playing guitar when I was 11. I was lucky I had older brothers and I had older brothers with good record collections. I had a dad with a good record collection, which I think was pretty lucky, but certainly my older brothers were probably the primary influence in my life and they both played guitar. I remember when I started getting to that age when I was thinking about playing an instrument, I thought ‘oh I don’t want to play guitars because my brothers do so I will be a keyboardist’ and my mum bought me a piano and I never played it. After about a year of not playing it, she got me guitar and so I started getting guitar lessons and that’s what stuck. That was pretty much it. That is really the only thing I ever cared about pretty much from that point onwards – music, being in bands, seeing bands, listening to bands…I was just obsessed.
Well I can’t fault you and clearly you have excelled in the vocation as well and continue to do so. I’m looking forward to hearing more of what you have got to do and let’s hope that you make it back into the UK with the full band because that really would be quite awesome to see. We’ve got a lot going on around us in the world at the moment, but are we going to make it all better with new albums and music?
Well, I certainly wish that it would be like a generation of protest songs that would inspire people to throw Trump out of office, but we will just have to see what happens. It is certainly a strange time in this world and it just feels weird out there. I hope that doesn’t last.