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Well friends, I’ve got good news and absolutely terrible news for ya. The absolutely terrible news: The Sound of One Hand Clapping, the latest record from musical mad scientist Shawn Ames, will be his last. The good news? It’s an epic, sprawling double album that carries the listener through the vast musical landscape of the madman’s mind, and it is probably the best thing the veteran songwriter has recorded.
Comprised of twenty one songs and two hours worth of material that runs the gamut from Ames’s trademark edgy , nervous prog to slick doo-woppy ditties to gentle ballads, The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a beast of a release, an uncontrollable purge of a record that shows the many sides of a talented, though criminally under-appreciated songwriter.
I was lucky enough to sit down with the master late last week to ask him a few questions about the record, which will be released on Halloween. And keep your eyes open cuz I’ll have a review ready later this week once I’ve wrapped my head around this thing.
Overmental: Is your music too dark?
Shawn Ames: It could be. It is, a lot of it is. I don’t know why. I’m a relatively happy person but there’s all sorts of stressors in the world these days. It just seems like all of it comes from a very dark place.
OM: What about a song like “Underneath the Pickle Tree”?
Ames: That’s been a long standing joke, and I don’t remember how it came out but I actually had people convinced that my grandfather had a pickle tree. But one day I was just writing music and I turned to my wife and I made up a series of questions and I said just answer the first thing that comes into your head. So I asked her favorite car and so on and I put all of her answers into the song and it came together. Just like that. She went to work, I wrote it in a day, she came home and it was done. It just came out. It’s not very dark but it’s a good stoner track!!
OM: Is this, your last album, a bitter album?
Ames: It probably comes off that way but it’s basically a guy who’s on the edge of turning 50 who never what I think I deserve. It didn’t have to be monetary but… I should have, somewhere along the line, done a lot better somewhere at something. Because i don’t know too many other creatures like me that can lay down tracks, then expect people to open it up like a Christmas present and go “Wow!”. Most people open it up and go “Hmmm, I don’t know if i can sit through two hours of this…”.
I know the album’s cynical but it’s basically just me putting my last best foot forward. There have been recordings that I’ve made that didn’t cut the mustard, but this one just nails it. I got everything that I wanted to get across out and I wanted to make sure that I got the point across. I wanted to make sure that my vocals were as best as possible, I wanted to make sure that the leads came out perfect. I spent time in my truck driving back and forth on my route listening to the mixes and tweaking them. The very first song I tweaked for even fucking months.
And it was the worst possible circumstances to make a record. I had one of my wife’s family members dying, Brian [McGuire, guitarist for Ames’ band Backlash and best friend, who died this year of cancer] was dying, my computer died three times. And I had this energy that I’d never had because, since this was the last one, I could write anything and not have to worry about what anyone else would say. I don’t care anymore. Go ahead and get your own studio and put the music out and spend as much time on it, but don’t give me any flack for me creating my thing because that’s what I do. But this doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop forever, I’m just gonna stop making records.
OM: Ok, so what are the reasons for this retirement?
Ames: The first thing is my playing hand. When you play chords on a guitar everything from here over turns into this big knot, so I can only play this thing for about twenty minutes at a time. playing the drums is even worse, and making chords on the keyboard is just as bad, and that means it takes things twice as long to get done.
The second is my voice, which was never a good voice anyway. But it finally crapped out from years of not playing live.
And third, if nobody’s listening then there’s no point in me doing something as hard as making a record. The only people who are going to hear it is me, of course my wife will listen to it, and my dogs. So, it’s just time to do something else like become a master gardener or a guy who takes care of his own house.
OM: Tell me about the song “Old Whisky and Old Friends”?
Ames: Brian [Mcguire] and I had always talked about doing Backlash’s No Quarter, No Mercy again. Even when he was in the hospital [dying of lung cancer] he kept saying “I’m gonna get out of here and I’m gonna help you finish that!”. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. So, around February or March I decided that if I was going to record with him one last time I’d better do it soon because he doesn’t have much time. So I didn’t have anything written and I contacted him and said “Let’s do something, just something”. And I hashed out this song in five minutes, sent it to him and asked him do you think you’d be able to pull it off, just this simple little Don Ho sound on the guitar. It was really simple but it made this really nice crying guitar sound.
But he was at the point where the guitar was too heavy and he was too weak to play chords and he’d have to re-teach himself. And he got sicker and sicker and we couldn’t do it. One day i took his track that was on another Backlash song, put it in the right key, and just plugged it in.
Well, then he died, and I figured since this is the last record and the rest of the band had a lot to do with being friends, let’s get everyone in the studio and do this. I normally don’t record with anybody, but we brought in JD Nash, and Ron [Proeth, former Backlash drummer] and Chris [NIcklay, former Backlash bassist] and Ron’s friend JW, who actually played in Backlash for one set. I was trying to emulate a song by Roger Miller called “Old Friend”. There’s a line in that song that says “at the end of my days, grant me one good friend”. And that’s kind of where this was at, I just want one good friend, and most of my friends drink whiskey, so it was just a chance to get to record with Brian one more time. And i wanted it to sound like we all got together, drank a bunch of beer and whisky and played. It’s still got that Backlash sloppiness to it.
OM: So it’s a Backlash reunion of sorts?
Ames: It is, and it’s also a JD Nash and Red Circle reunion.
OM: The record seems to be dominated by two major influences in your life, Brian McGuire, whose death earlier this year you’ve mentioned several times, and your wife, Julie. Can you talk about their role?
Ames: I was always hoping after backlash ended that Brian was listening to my stuff because I always valued what he had to say. He and I would go toe to toe about things in the studio. He was my go to guy, like the Lennon to my McCartney. I was always hoping he was listening and I found out yesterday that he has likes on his Soundcloud that were my stuff so he did hear some of it. But the whole album is surround by death, and it was inevitable because I was recording the album while he was dying so it came up in things.
As far as Julie, my wife, after it’s all said and done and nobody’s calling for gigs and nobody’s buying your music, she’s the only one left as the dust settles. And I couldn’t be more appreciative of the fact that somebody’s stood through this crazy trip and is still here. There’s a song on the album called “Hold On” about her uncle, who was dying from cancer that came out of nowhere, and it was me writing to her saying just hold on, just stick with it, keep your head above water.
OM: Hypothetically, let’s say you “made it” and became this wildly famous huge rock star, how would this, your final record, be different?
Ames: The only thing that would be different is I would actually have somebody to press all of these buttons for me so I wouldn’t have to get up and down. But it would never have gotten to that point. If it had gotten to that point I would be making music to serve some dollar sign and this way I have total freedom. I think the music would be the same because I’d be saying the same things.
OM: To the uninitiated, how would you categorize the record?
Ames: Indie rock. That’s all I can come up with, there’s a little bit for everybody. It’s just music.
OM: Let’s get the story behind a couple of songs. How about “Treat Her Like a Lady”?
Ames: That came from a porn video. I was watching a porn of this guy that goes into this bar in Czech Republic with these spy goggle things and he’s macking on this waitress. I don’t know if it’s real or not but it looks real. And the guy says I’m gonna pay you this amount of money, we’re gonna close the shop and we’ll do it here, and she says no I got a boyfriend blah blah blah. And this woman, she’s beautiful she doesn’t need all this stuff. So finally they’re doing it and he does all of the stuff most pig men will do he’s slapping her around and stuff and I’m thinking, this gal supposedly really loves her boyfriend. Don’t treat her like a piece of shit, treat her like a lady. So then I escape into my bathroom and i won’t tell ya what I was doing in there… it’s not what you think! And i just came up with this stupid “treat her like a lady” sixties style thing. And I went into the studio and just laid it out. I was thinking it had to have this classic Fender sound and it’s gotta have kind of a Motown thing. and it came out like that.
OM: What about “I Just Can’t Loving You”? That’s my favorite song on the record.
Ames: I can’t tell you.
OM: What? What the fuck?
Ames: I can’t name any names.
OM: It’s not some kind of true story is it?
Ames: It is!
OM: No fucking way!!
Ames: It is. Every piece of that fucking story is true.
OM: Well, you have to tell me something.
Ames: I will but I can’t give you too many details because I’m still really good friends with this person. And I still love her to death. I’m sure once she hears this song she’s gonna take it the wrong way. It’s all based in memory, but the things I say in that song actually happened and this is the gal that I one hundred percent fell head over heels in love with and I followed her the entire life we spent apart. The red hotel is something she created. and back when we first got together there was a fourteen year wait until we got together again and she said we’ll meet again in another fourteen years. And it just so happened that the fourteen year anniversary was the day that I visited Brian’s life memorial. So it wouldn’t have happened anyway. But did she remember, is what I kept wondering? And I kept getting madder and madder and I wrote this thing out.
Like I said, this is my last record, and I told her, there’s this song on there that only you’re gonna know about and it’s gonna hit you like a hammer, but i had to get it out. I had to get it out of here because it’s been fucking up my life for thirty years. She’s the reason I drink so hard. It’s all this stuff I’ve got pressed way down here. And she’s as happy as can be, she’s got her shit together and I still love her. That’s what I’ve had dragging on my ass since I met her.
The bit at the end is from a movie called The Philadelphia Story. The scene is Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, where he’s about to tell her he’s in love with her. We used to have these conversations where she would quote the line from that movie. When I asked her what our relationship was like she said you’re the Jimmy Stewart character in this movie.
I just had to get it out, it’s like something that’s just sitting there in the back, everything that I’ve written over the course of all this time is in some way or another been about her and i just can’t shake it.
OM: So what are you gonna do now?
Ames: I‘m working on remastering JD Nash’s two albums and I’m gonna remaster the Backlash albums.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping will be unveiled on Ames’ Soundcloud page on October 31, 2015.
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