A Bridge That Will Bring Us Together (Again)by David Varno
Shellshag at the Mercury Lounge, Releasing Destroy Me I’m Yours (Starcleaner)
There was a time when partners Shellhead and Jen Shag fronted a whole band together. That was in San Francisco, and their name was Kung Fu USA. They played their own brand of power pop (and opened for Iggy Pop). Then, in 2003, they stripped it all down to just the two of them and began performing under the name Shellshag. It’s a special connection, to say the least, and evident in the way they sing into each other’s eyes on stage, sharing a DIY (and patented) Flying V mic stand that allows them to face one another while beating on their instruments. Whether screaming or crooning, they never blink.
Shellhead, or Shell, or Johnny, is long-haired and lanky with good posture—just like Iggy Pop—and his voice echoes him too, along with the garage punk of the Wipers and early Replacements. In fact, during the set at Mercury Lounge last month that inaugurated the band’s tour with the Slits and celebrated the “digital release” of their first full-length, Destroy Me I’m Yours, they played a Wipers song. They also covered Liz Phair, along with something from the eighties pop world that was painfully familiar, but without the bass line and synth parts, was difficult to place. It was an expansive set for a band whose straightforwardness sets up inherent limitations. Shell told me afterwards, laughing at himself through chilly cigarette smoke on the darkening end of Houston St., that he wished there could’ve been a bass for some of those songs. But the two-instrument punch made the sound their own. The holes are filled by the tension they create. One highlight was the new “Bill Bagdley, Please Don’t Fade Away,” which alternates between slow and fast tempos, with a low-pitched sing-along chorus and a Stooges-boogie bridge.
Jen Shag, or Shagawat, wears bells on her ankles and keeps extra sticks in her back pocket as she stands dancing and singing at her minimal drum kit. She is the best rock drummer I’ve seen who doesn’t use a full drum set; it’s amazing to hear what she can do while singing and jumping up and down at the same time. She plays loud and fast, ratcheting the songs to a new level of rock and anchoring Shell’s thrashier guitar playing, before they come back together in gut-wrenching 4/4. The new record introduces an even balance of songs wherein one or the other sings alone. The previous, eponymous record—also known as The Gary Young EP, after the Pavement alumnus who made the recording in 2004—consisted mostly of tracks sung in synch or led by Shell, with the exception of the Bic-torcher “Gary’s Note.” The increased presence of Jen’s voice now, along with the often off-beat/upbeat tone and extended instrumental passages, highlights the Breeders’ influence on the band.
As songwriters, Shell and Shag inform one another and freely swap styles, as with Shell’s lullabye-rocker “Little Birdy.” Furthermore, as Shell explained to me, if one of them feels the need to rock out during a live set, the other picks up alternate vocal duties. But it’s when they sing simultaneously that the magic begins. Consider the album-opener “Shut Up”: with all its aggression and futility the duet that most embodies the theme of its title. Shell and Jen scream at each other to “Be quiet / Don’t talk no more / I don’t want to hear the sound of your voice,” and aside from “Sshh” and “Shut up” the song has no other words. But it might have the strongest level of intimacy, more than the love songs sung to one another from afar. Perhaps this is the connection alluded to in “Bridge,” an abstract, pretty narrative sung by Jen: “I saw the bridge that you live under…the bridge that will bring us together again.” Here in these songs is the drama of a whole relationship: knowing a person well enough to scream at them and love them too.
But the performance of a Shellshag show is compromised by none of that. In emphasizing that they don’t blink, the point is that they portray no emotion but the serious fun of rocking a set, and as evidence they dutifully destroy their equipment with each grand finale. Shell is comfortable with playing the indie–rock star role, and more than happy to venture out as “the only guy with six chicks,” on tour all month with the lovely Slits. But he maintains his DIY humility when he insists that the band they are slated to play the West Coast with, after the Slits tour and their appearance at South by Southwest, be mentioned in this article: “The King Brothers, man, one of the best bands to come out of Japan; you’ve got to write about them, too.”
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.