Shotgun Jubilee: With their debut album finished, the boys are ready to go big
Shotgun Jubilee releases their debut album Saturday, June 18. Hear their story, as told by Michael Bennett.
When the crux of a band's creation story revolves around eBay and MySpace one would not expect the wonderful outcome such auspicious beginnings would yield.
Yet Shotgun Jubilee came into existence through these very means. If it hadn't been for the auction website or a now comic social networking cesspool other natural forces would have brought its members together.
Ryan Bartosek is not a diminutive man, not in his physical presence, his opinionated nature, his business acumen nor his musical talent.
The bass player of the group, Bartosek is the man who put together the band.
He responded to an eBay auction for guitar pedals and other random equipment that happened to be posted by his future lead guitarist Paul Schillinger.
At the time both were guitar players, and rather than discussing the sale, the pair ended up jamming together.
"He didn't even end up buying anything. Cheapskate," said Schillinger.
Although no money was exchanged there was an exchange of musical ideas. Bartosek brought in high school classmate and drummer Steve Powell to round out the sessions. The trio dubbed themselves The Intergalactic Grip of the Cosmic Squeeze.
"The band started in the living room of Steve's parents' house, then we ended up moving it into the garage," Bartosek said. "A garage that had a heater that we weren't allowed to use in the dead of winter."
Meager practice space aside, the band was playing and learning and developing; a trait that was honed in a cold garage continues to be a base that reaps benefits for a band with a heated basement rehearsal space.
"It was totally a garage band beginning, five-hour practices where we accomplished nothing," Schillinger remembered.
"It was chop building basically. Getting our shit together," Powell recalls in a more positive light. "You need to know we were under the heavy influence of Phish at the time."
Whether the band was developing chops or just dicking around in the garage the way Phish does on stage, something was happening. Whether through their musical skills, or more likely Bartosek's developing band manager skills, the band started playing gigs.
"We played Docksider a couple of times, and the Beer Mug always opening for bands," Bartosek said. "We played Chaffee Gathering for our last gig."
"Yeah, Chaffee's was our last gig," Schillinger said. "Then as we're walking off stage Ryan says, 'See ya, I'm in a new band.'"
Bartosek released himself from the clutches of The Cosmic Squeeze to join Yankee Zydeco Company as a bass player. A week later Powell was brought in as the new drummer.
If The Cosmic Squeeze was all fun and games Yankee Zydeco was boot camp. This was a professional group that played professional paid shows, sometimes for six-hour stretches. The days of "Red Bull and rum" as Powell remembered it.
After a time the rigors of playing zeydeco and the departure of the accordion player led to the band's break-up.
This led to the re-formation of The Cosmic Squeeze.
"I got Steve and Paul back together just to keep jamming and keep moving forward with music," Bartosek said. "I learned very quickly we needed a true front man for the group.
"So I ended up going on MySpace-- this was in the days before Facebook-- and I found a classified ad that Dom posted," Bartosek said of his first connection with Dominick DeCecco. "He had just moved back here and was really right up my personal alley as far as the music I was into at the time. I went to his page and he had some acoustic demos of original songs with him singing, and I as soon as I heard his demo of 'Good Girl' I was like, 'This guy's got to be in our band.'"
Just when it seemed the forces had finally conspired to bring Shotgun Jubilee together Schillinger left the group.
"He was more interested in drinking beer and hanging out with his buddies," Bartosek chided him.
Schillinger, aside from drinking and hanging out, played in a couple of other groups, but mostly played in his room pretending to be Trey Anastasio.
In the meantime, DeCecco showed up "barefoot and with a dog," Bartosek said.
DeCecco had left Erie after high school for Pittsburgh then found himself in Colorado and was now back in his hometown looking to make music.
The new trio began with DeCecco on guitar and vocal, Bartosek on bass and Powell on drums, but this time they had material to rehearse.
"What really made it all come together, Dom already had a handful of songs," Bartosek said. "We actually had material to work on."
DeCecco is a talented songwriter and instrumentalist. He writes his soul through his lyrics and picks his heart along the strings. He can be an aloof, withdrawn bordering on shy artist and then a smiling, bombastic happy-go-lucky soul without a care in the world, depending on the day, or even hour, or even perhaps the minute.
While the group had songs to play they were still unsure of what sound they could best interpret them through.
"I remember at one point Dom and I had a conversation about buying shit tons of foot pedals and effects and being like an indie Portishead or Tortoise kind of thing," Bartosek laughed. But the band decided to follow the nuance of the lyrics and stay rather traditional.
"I think in retrospect, we started doing gigs way before we were ready," Bartosek said. "We were playing as a three-piece at the time. We did some decent gigs; the songs were good and everything, but we would have gotten more mileage from playing coffee shops or something as opposed to bars."
But it was the pesky forces of nature that pushed the band to bars rather than coffee houses. The band was still a member short and they weren't going to find Schillinger in a coffee house.
"We played a gig at Docksider and Paul saw us and fell in love," Bartosek recalled, again taking aim at the band's foil Schillinger. "Finally Paul was like 'I want to be in a band now,' and I told him the offer was still on the table."
He joined the next week.
"I think the main thing with any band I've been in that had success, no matter what kind of music you're going to play, if you can hang out and be friends with those people that is really key. We became friends," Bartosek said. "The first time we all got together as a group we spent part of it watching the Steelers and Browns game on TV and just hanging out."
"Who won that game?" Schillinger immediately retorted, getting in his jabs when he can.
"It was a rebuilding year," Bartosek, the embittered Browns fan said, his head hung low.
"The cool thing about our dynamic is that we're really tight as friends, almost to like the brotherhood type thing," Bartosek continued. "That comes in handy because none of us kiss each other's ass at all. Like in the beginning Dom and I butted heads. To the point where we had to separate music and business and who would be the heads of which one because we would overstep, well not over step boundaries, just piss each other off."
"We've settled into it in a real good way now," DeCecco said. "We definitely had the growing pains of starting off and getting to this point. I know I'm bad with business, I am, I'm like 'Sure man, I wanna play your thing.' It was a balancing act."
Nearly four years on, the band has found their place in music and with each other. After countless performances that have garnered an always-growing and devout fan base, Shotgun Jubilee is set to release their first album on Saturday, June 18 with a special performance at The crooked i.
The album is a tremendous accomplishment for the group. Fans of Shotgun will be impressed, and those who are new to the band may just be astounded.
More astounding is the fact that the album may never have been-- at least in the incarnation it now holds.
As the band practiced and played out, they were developing a sound but were never quite sure of themselves. They were searching for something they couldn't-- or rather hadn't-- found in themselves so they began to look for new members.
"The first person we brought in outside the four of us was Rick Sadlier," Bartosek said. "Dom was switching from electric to acoustic guitar and we were searching for something to beef up the sound. Rick is one of those phenomenal Erie musicians who's busy as hell, so that didn't work out. Then we brought in Charlie Meyer for the same reason and for the exact same reasons that didn't work out either. That could probably still be going on more than it does but we wanted a member of the band, not a hired gun."
While the band was looking to beef up their music sound, they were also looking for another voice on stage, a female voice.
Through seeing her sing back up for different local acts and an aborted side project of monumental catastrophe the boys had found their girl and her voice. And what a voice.
Tonya Byham is a divine songstress. She is a talented songwriter, but her talent is best exhibited through her amazing pipes. She has a range and power all her own. She can be sweet and smooth and steal your heart or she can be raunchy and real and punch you in the stomach all from behind the same microphone.
"Bringing the female presence was definitely a positive thing, it gave us a general likability," Powell said. "And she wailed. She has that powerful of a voice that we had to change the way we played."
The power of Byham's voice not only changed the way the band played it also necessitated an additional musical presence. Enter guitarist Chris Beiswanger. Beiswanger is a veteran of the Erie music scene, and other various and sundry locals. He is the mastermind behind the psychedelic improv group Mystic Flotation Device, although the brilliant Erie guitarist Justin Tapper may have something to say about that.
As a six-piece Shotgun Jubilee was a fiercely changed band. With Byham and DeCecco trading off lead vocals and providing harmony it gave the group a renewed energy on stage. The fullness of the sound was also apparent. The addition of a new voice and another guitar freed up the existing members to push their own talents.
DeCecco began playing more mandolin on stage. Schillinger was free to "noodle" his way up and down his guitar neck. Powell added even more flourish to his runs and Bartosek kept the bottom booming.
This was a good-time-party, shake-your-ass Shotgun Jubilee. At bars and festivals the opening licks of Schillinger's lead followed by the explosion that is Byham's voice literally pulled people to their feet to move with the music.
But the good times led to an excess of good times. The band had no problem being booked anywhere they wanted to play and packing the place with fans, but the additional music also brought additional voices off stage.
"I just think we were expanding with our members and what we were doing… It got a little out of control, not that it needs to be controlled, but we were scattered," DeCecco said. "Going into the recording studio as a six-piece band wasn't [moving forward]. We just kind of agreed upon our stripped down to our roots solidarity above more members and scattered opinions and directions."
Throughout the entire interview for this piece the band was at ease, joking, jovial, smoking cigarettes, and relaxed. When asked about the dismantling of the six-piece Shotgun the heads hung low, the mood changed and the conversation stopped flowing.
"It's an indescribable thing to me," Powell said.
"There had always been a certain goal going forward with it and I guess I can say that we weren't all on the same page and we had to evaluate who was on the same page and keep the band going in a healthy way," Bartosek added.
There is no animosity held between the original and previous members. They still can be seen cavorting around together, sharing jokes and smiles and in the case of Schillinger and Beiswanger sharing a bathroom.
"My time in the band was some of the best music making I had ever experienced," Byham said. "I really felt that we had a connection and if you would have told me that at some point I wouldn't be playing with them I would have told you that you were full of it.
"I love writing music with Dom, which I will continue to do as long as he'll have me," she continued. "I will always look back on Shotgun Jubilee as the standard of comparison for any other project. As individuals they were really good people and as musicians well, if you haven't heard them you really should. I will always love them."
The growth and sudden scale-back of the band was not without benefit. The band learned from the experience in a very positive way. DeCecco has never been comfortable with his vocals. Bartosek even refers to them lovingly as "fragile." In the early days of Shotgun it almost seemed as if he was pulling a Bob Dylan and mumbling through his lyrics to hide their personal nature. After the time spent on stage with Byham, his voice is stronger. His confidence in his own abilities, talent, and lyrical quality has grown exponentially. His voice is an intriguing mix of whispered calm and driving blues and when he sings with passion and strength behind it, it is a true testament to his talent.
Schillinger was also freed by the experience. He is a phenomenal guitar player. The 'noodling,' as the band and he refer to it, is not just fooling around with notes; it is the development of sound and technique intertwined. The time spent with a rhythm guitar behind him allowed him to further grow into his own sound, rather than chasing after another's technique. (Powell recalls a period of months where Schillinger just listened to David Gilmore and was hence dubbed Paul Gilmore because of the change in his sound.)
Getting back to their roots as a four-piece, the band headed into the studio to record their first album. The lineup changes happened weeks before the initial recording sessions and everyone needed to set themselves right.
"It took a hell of a lot longer than we planned," Schillinger said. "We could have had a CD three months ago, but it wouldn't be what we have now."
"I took mine in two takes. I think I laid it down in 6 hours," Powell said of his recording prowess.
For the recording process, the band enlisted the help of soundman extraordinaire Tavon Markov.
"It's just a creative process that we had that started from the very beginning," Markov said. "The word 'organic' comes to mind. The way it happened, we didn't try to force anything.
"The initial tracking was done at Eric Buman and Mark Graziano's Maerick Studios," he continued. "We wanted a live studio where everyone could track and have visual contact the whole time, and to get Steve's drums in a really good live environment. I think we got a really good raw live acoustic drive on it."
With the bones of the tacks laid down, production moved to Markov's Horizontal Experiment Productions studio.
"I've done so many one-off recordings-- just put some shit down and then I just mix it and then that's it," Markov said. "When they came in and wanted to do this album… The passion I saw with the guys in the band was great. I actually took a role at some point in the recording process and said, 'We really have to do something with this album; it's really special.'
"The production role of it really took more of a hold as things progressed," Markov said. "When we first started tracking, we knew we were going to go back in and do guitar, and knew we were going back in to do vocals and acoustic and all that stuff but when we started doing it it became a whole animal that we just either had to tame or let go wild. So we just let it go wild."
Markov's contribution to the album cannot be overstated. The band considered him a fifth member during the recording process.
The production value is incredible. The album is not four guys nodding changes to lay down the track and then a few takes of guitar solos. It is a complete recording. Fans of the band will be able to make out DeCecco's lyrics in all of their subtle glory. The layering of banjo and mandolin and the superb guitar prove how developed and sophisticated the band has become.
The band also brought in additional musicians to further fill out the sound.
"Bryan Pietrzak, from Small Town Rollers, came in and did percussion on a couple things. Charlie Meyer came into play piano for us again. And Christian Sedelmyer of Nashville's Farwell Drifters came up to play fiddle," Bartosek said. "Those were all really loose sessions. They came in threw it down in one or two takes. Tavon did a great job recording us and then mixing it down. This is one of the accomplishments I'm most proud of in my life. The recording process, the way it sounds… everything about it."
The forces of nature have conspired to bring Shotgun Jubilee from humble beginnings in a cold garage to the point where they are ready to leave Erie and begin exploring the region and the country. They have truly made a brilliant piece of art.
"We owe everything to Erie, we love Erie, and Erie has shown us a lot of love," Bartosek said. "Erie has been supportive of us and that's awesome. I think for us as a band we've got to take what we've got going on and take it on the road. And hopefully get new fan bases, but I think it's important for Erie too, because we'd be taking a bit of Erie everywhere we go. Now that we have a CD you can go home and listen to it while we're out on the road."
"Then when we do play Erie you can sing along with Dom," Powell joked.
"That's our plan. To get mobile and onward for us," DeCecco said.
"As long as I can ride Shotgun," Bartosek followed.
A bad pun aside, there truly are forces at work in favor of this group. A cosmic jubilee of energy and spirit willing the music through them. The album is an incredible confirmation of their talent and their live act reflects the positive outcomes of all of their trials and tribulations. Shotgun Jubilee is on the brink of big things, the populace would be wise to take notice now.