SIMPLE MINDS: “Richard Brautigan and Jim Jarmusch were both doing things the way I like them done,” says Shoney (a/k/a Justin Shirah, left, with Doug Carter).
Let me take you back to 2002 in Daytona Beach. Late summer. Hurricane season. Shoney Lamar, an ex-new-metal guy turned folk-blues bard, was just getting things started, driving back and forth between Daytona and Orlando for shows. His friend Doug Carter was getting a degree in audio engineering at Full Sail University.
“There were two hurricanes that year,” says Carter. “One came and ripped all the shingles off my house; the second rained all over the roof. I lost my bed, that’s about it.” Sound under-devastating? Note that this was pre-Katrina, at a time where hurricanes operated more like a giant, windy apparatus of the FEMA state lottery.
“They ended up handing me $11,000, which was enough for a pretty pro recording set-up,” says Carter. Sweet.
I’m at the B-Side with Carter and Lamar (real name Justin Shirah) on a non-hurricany night, discussing the long trip up the coast and into the strange territory of music they’ve found themselves taking, quietly thriving on home-recorded demos passed out to drunk friends on CD-Rs. Bassist Carter has adopted an Ivy League look, with a sweater over a collared shirt and fluffed hair that maintains a kind of Kirk Cameron–esque float. Lamar, who sings and plays guitar, still looks every bit the Floridian, with a chain around his neck, perfectly messy hair that sort of recalls late-period Pauly Shore, and a pretty fly leopard-print-lined hoodie.
“I really don’t know what we’re trying to do,” says Lamar. “I like simplicity. Minimalism. There’s no era of music or art that I can point to, but people like Richard Brautigan and Jim Jarmusch, from totally different times, were both doing things the way I like them done.”
“Simple” would be a misnomer — the band’s recordings veer from stark vocals and acoustic guitars to nightmare alleys full of junked percussion and dissonant flutes. Lamar plays guitar in a shucking, rhythmic way that betrays his time put in under the flag of late-’90s metal. The songs are more or less straightforward folk and blues sent through a rusty modern radio filter — Lamar’s voice both ravages and exults in the past 10 years of the Pained Male Pop Singer, all growling blue notes and shuffled funk.
But Lamar drags it through some muck. He points to Tom Waits as a prime inspiration, and that shows up in scrappy harmonies throughout his work. Both “I Smell a Brat” and “My Pet Ghost” (which you can hear at the band’s MySpace page) take left turns with haunted-house back-up vocals. “Eat Red Meat” (on his latest CD-R, “Do It to Everyone”) somehow manages to fit in clarinets straight off the Residents’ Duck Stab.
“I’m not trying to be weird at all,” says Lamar. “I’m just writing music and putting things in the songs that sound right.”
Lamar and Carter arrived in Boston as a duo, Carter moving here in October of 2004 and Lamar following a few months later, set on doing something with a growing folder full of his own songs. The two lived on the end of Gardner Street in Allston for a year, throwing snowballs at BU brats from the porch and searching for a full band to play out with. They hit upon the notorious Wednesday open-mic night at the All Asia in Central Square, a chaotic free-for-all that’s developed a debaucherous indie scene that’s helped give rise to bands like the Shills, This Car Up, and 28 Degrees Taurus.
“I’m actually amazed with how many bands there are here, for such a small town,” says Lamar. It was through hardscrabble shows in that glass-windowed corner with the DIY PA system that the band slowly evolved into their current four-piece state, with Chris Peck driving up from New York to play drums and Lance Reilly playing a second guitar. Lamar still writes everything himself and, up to the point of the latest record, records everything before handing it to Carter for mixing — but the rest of the members are having their way more and more.
“We just work together into making everything sound like a real band,” says Lamar. “I’m honestly just playing the simplest, dumbest drum parts on the recordings. Chris can listen to the songs on his headphones on the bus and get to practice with a better idea of what to play.”
Theirs may be a work in progress, but its one that they’ve gamely put on display with a high degree of transparency — sort of like an ant farm. Carter has taken to describing their gigs as “the wildest show in town,” but it’s you never really know what to expect. Maybe someone should give FEMA a heads-up, just in case.
SHONEY LAMAR + JUSTIN WALKER + WATER FOR IVAN + JUSTIN SHOREY | Midway Café, 3496 Washington St, Jamaica Plain | October 14 at 9 pm | 627.524.9038 or www.midwaycafe.com