There are plenty of musicians who write music with dark themes; a lot of it just comes from overactive imaginations. Then there are musicians like Shaky Shrines songwriter Braden Faisant. He, uh ... actually works in a cemetery all day.
"I've written all the songs there," he explains. "It's a cool thing because a lot of my job depends on riding around on a tractor, and zoning out and listening to a lot of droney music helps: Wooden Shjips and Spacemen 3, a lot of stuff that just lingers with you. And it helps me to figure out a lot of what I want to do, musically, melodically, instrumentally."
It explains a lot about Shaky Shrines' sound and aesthetic. The five-piece, which is releasing its first full-length with (of course) a Halloween-weekend celebration, deals in heavy psychedelia and heavy ideas. Psych music from the '60s and '70s is a clear antecedent, but not the bright-and-cheery stuff.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Faisant notes, "it was Rolling Stone reporting on the West Coast, and hippie flower-child stuff, and CREEM magazine was reporting on The MC5 and Iggy Pop. It was either working-man hard lyrics, very straightforward lyrics, or it was like, California dreaming. And we're definitely not a California-dreaming band."
But they're not precisely like the Motor City crowd either; Faisant notes that he listens to '70s psych from around the world — India, the Pacific Islands.
"My favorite part of psychedelic music is when everyone took the Eastern influences — the sitar became really popular in the U.S. and U.K. — then it was exported back to those countries," says Faisant. "What came back then is what I think is really interesting. Music from Singapore; psychedelic cumbias from Peru. That kind of music is more interesting, because the West took their music and gave it back to them, then they took it back, but still made it sound Western."
Faisant, who grew up in the South Hills, played years ago with Shrines guitarist Nate Hanson in math-rock band Science Is Dead; they got back together as Shaky Shrines after that band parted ways. The rest of Shrines consists of members of other old locals like October. The band's first EP came out earlier this year, and was followed by a three-track release and a few videos — like the one for "Everybody Knows," which employs op-art animation in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner. (It was made by artist Sievert Arsta, who also designed the band's goofy, graveyard-themed website.)
You might feel a bit uneasy when you throw on Shaky Shrines' full-length, Mausoleum, even before the music begins. It's by design. The death-comes-for-us-all vibe starts with the cover art (pictured above), which depicts the band's members attending what appears to be bassist Nate Campisi's funeral. Then take a look at the track titles: "Strangers' Eyes," "Dark, Dark Houses," "Someone's in the Basement."
"I like to think of this album as bad-trip psychedelic music," explains Faisant. "We take that '60s mentality, then combine that with people's everyday paranoias — things that people go to Internet message boards and talk about, maybe. Their compulsions and paranoias, things that you could think of as psychedelic, but people don't. They just think of it as someone everyone has."
Though Campisi is a recording engineer at Mr. Small's, the band doesn't go in for the bright-and-shiny sounds. "Nate tells us what's going to sound good on tape and what's not," notes Hanson. But most of the recording work is done in a relatively do-it-yourself manner, and with a certain amount of experimentation. Hanson and Faisant recorded the band's earliest output between the two of them, sampling their own repetitive playing, then manipulating it. They're suckers for different sounds. "I love awful-sounding guitars," Faisant says, with barely a hint of irony.
"When we were recording [demos] in my basement," says Hanson, "Braden recorded each drum on the computer — we didn't have microphones, just an old Mac, and we just used Garage Band. And because of how terrible the speakers were, it would blow it out, and we got this great distortion. Then we got to the point where we were in an actual recording studio, and wondering how we're going to make the solos sound like that, get that disgusting sound. We ended up running the amp through the computer, then into the board."
It can take some work to get the right bad sound — but it's worth it. The full-length runs the gamut: "Can't Quit" is a far-out take on a basic surf-rock tune, while "Everybody Knows" sounds more post-punk. What might be the album's coolest moment comes during "Dark, Dark Houses"; the song as a whole is a sweet pop number, but the chorus finds Faisant's vocals distorted almost beyond recognition by a delay effect. It's like a nice beach tune, if the beach you go to is on the moon.
"We live in an age of weird, Tea Party-esque paranoia," says Hanson. "That is in everything. And even though we're super-connected with all this digital stuff, we're still isolated. And that creates this sense of the other that overwhelms everything else.
"And the thing that everyone's most paranoid about — it's not even paranoia, really, because it's true — is that we're all eventually going to die."
That's something that Faisant is, of course, well versed in. He got a degree in elementary education, but took the cemetery job rather than pursue a teaching job right now. It seems to fit him well.
"I wanted a job that would let me do physical labor and also — it's called the ‘death-care industry,' and I love that. Your job is to help grieving families. Every aspect is very personal and unique to that family."
It also helps stoke the creative fires.
"The imagery, to me, just fits so well — it's this darkness, and it's a taboo kind of thing. Everyone says, ‘Oh, it's really creepy; you work in a cemetery.' You have all these ideas of what it's like, and what my job is. It's not, and it's exciting — it's the perfect place for it."