Owen Matthew Fitzgerald
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For The Shivas, the show has always been the thing. That thing being a bombastic, explosive and thoroughly communal live rock and roll experience where barriers between the performers and their audience seem to dissolve into the sweat and sound. The band is releasing its fifth album, Dark Thoughts, but it’s the stage—or the basement, or the living room—that’s The Shivas’ true element. It’s their raison d’etre. It’s their religion.
That live urgency may have been born in 2006, when the band’s young members—who began booking West Coast tours while still in high school—waited without fanfare on sidewalks or in parking lots, before being rushed onstage for their sets at 21-and-up clubs. Maybe it developed a little later, as The Shivas blasted their way through Portland’s storied and unsanctioned mid-aughts house show scene. Whatever the origin of their famously kinetic live experience, it’s the show that keeps them coming back after over 1,000 performances spread over 25 countries in 13 years.
In those 13 years, The Shivas have grown tight-knit as a group. Guitarist/singer Jared Molyneux, bassist Eric Shanafelt and drummer/singer Kristin Leonard have all been with the band since its earliest days; guitarist Jeff Boyardee joined in 2017. Together they’ve learned to thread a seemingly impossible needle: They’ve honed and tightened their performances without sacrificing the element of surprise that makes each show special. And despite touring and recording for most of their adult lives, they speak about their project with humility, in the DIY vernacular of their Pacific Northwest upbringing. They talk up their own favorite bands, play all-ages shows whenever possible, and bring a sort of blue-collar humanism to the live performances they relish so much. “We just want to make people feel good,” Molyneux says.
“We want them to forget they have to work tomorrow.” Kristin Leonard elaborates, “The live show is all about facilitating catharsis—in ourselves and in everyone who comes out. We’re creating this safe space where we can all let go. Where we can exhale. And it feels really good to have that power.”
Recording, though, can be a less instinctive process for The Shivas. Where live shows are ethereal products of the moment, albums last forever. It’s a lot of pressure. The band confronts that pressure by making its recording process as similar to a concert experience as possible.
Where some artists make their records piecemeal, then figure out how to perform them in concert, The Shivas take the opposite approach. They track the bulk of their recordings live, together in-studio, replicating the live experience as best they can before adding any studio-enabled magic tricks. And while the band’s discography is loaded with gems that blend punk energy and psychedelic/ garage rock production techniques—The Shivas’ sonic baby pictures put a lot of full-grown bands’ early recordings to shame—they insist that it’s hard to find the catharsis of a live concert in a recording studio. What has historically intimidated them, Molyneux says, is that where a live show is all potential, a finished album represents the end of possibility. “It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror in the morning after a long night,” he says. “It’s coming face-to-face with a blunt version of yourself. And sometimes it works. But sometimes you’ve got to start over.”
And sometimes you’ve got to start over... again. It took three full recording sessions to finish The Shivas’ ambitious and mature new LP, Dark Thoughts (the band’s first release for the Tender Loving Empire label). The first two recording sessions were unrealistically short, bringing out the band’s most self-critical tendencies. Entering the studio for a third session was daunting, but The Shivas gave themselves an open-ended recording schedule and leaned in to their own intra-band support network. They faced their insecurities and demons: One of the many reasons the album is called Dark Thoughts. The third time turned out to be a charm. “We took our time: We probably spent over 50 days in the studio,” Molyneux says. “We did overdubs, and tried a lot of new things—we experimented with different ways of mixing the album and gave it the time it needed to be the album it really wanted to be.”
This time out they worked with Portland producer Cameron Spies (Radiation City, Night Heron), who invested himself just as deeply in Dark Thoughts as the band did, encouraging them to think about structure and process. He “cultivated a vibe,” and it helped The Shivas stop worrying over the finite nature of recording. “Now I try to think of an album as this cool little snapshot in time,” Leonard says. “It’s never going to be perfect, and it really forces you to face your demons.
It’s like therapy, where all of a sudden you can’t avoid them anymore. You put it all on the table.” Putting it all on the table, confronting your demons, the growth that comes from fearless self-examination—those are the themes that resound throughout Dark Thoughts. It is a sweet and sinister album, and it can be hard to tell where the light ends and the darkness begins. Opener
“Gloria” is a parable about the elusiveness of success wrapped in sultry, dirgey blues-rock—majestic and sleazy at the same time. “Playing on the Radio” is a meta side-eye of the same subject matter, tearing down the sugary pop song from within a sugary pop song. And the album’s most revealing track, “If You See Me”—a pensive, tender doo-wop-adjacent number with a lyrical structure influenced by Fats Domino—finds Leonard’s melancholic croon tackling deeply personal themes.
Dark Thoughts is the sound of a tight-knit band whose members have learned not just how to perform together, but how to grow together. They’ve traveled the world, meeting new fans and friends from Belgrade to Mexico City. They talk about those experiences with immense gratitude. Touring has expanded both their world view and their conception of the role they play as musicians. “Being adults now,” Leonard says. “We’re starting to talk a lot more philosophically about why we do what we do. Some of my favorite music came from people needing to find a space—like blues music that could be very taboo. Music is just such a visceral place to find a release.”
That’s what The Shivas are here for: to help people get free, if even just for an hour.
If they drop a few great albums along the way, so be it.
Owen Matthew Fitzgerald of Promm
117 West Main Street
Durham, NC, 27701