Chris Shaffer has just started a set of new music with his potent new band at Kilroy’s in Bloomington. After finishing his first number, an attractive brunette college student approaches the stage with a request.“Do ‘Lack of Water,’” she says, referring to the FM hit of 1996 Shaffer did with the Why Store, his former band. Shaffer blanches. He’s not trying to escape his past successes, or even necessarily exceed them, but even this is a bit too much.
“Do you mind if we play a few more songs, hon, before we get to that one, or do you want to hear it now?” he asks into the mic.
The woman says she’ll wait and the band continues playing songs from Shaffer’s upcoming self-titled CD. A few songs later, instead of “Lack of Water,” he plays Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party,” a song about a musician running into the brick wall of his audience’s expectations.
“I’ve learned my lesson well,” he sings. “If you can’t please everybody, you’d better please yourself.” That’s exactly what Shaffer is trying to do. After being part of arguably the most successful Hoosier band of the 1990s and tasting success on a national scale, he’s rebuilding his career from the ground up and getting rid of the past. In the process, he’s made some of the best music of his life. His gravelly, whiskey-stained voice is more expressive now and his new songs, recorded in collaboration with Paul Mahern and Blue Moon Boys guitarist Kenny Taylor, take fierce looks back at his life, as well as outlining a manifesto for his future.
In a song that sounds like it could be addressed either to his former band or to his ex-wife, Shaffer sings, “I couldn’t give you what you wanted, again,” and tries to make peace with that fact.
The music is harder-driving than the Why Store’s laid-back indie-pop groove. It’s crisp, with a different kind of energy than his previous work and takes him into new territory. The addition of Taylor gives the band a sound that’s modern yet rooted in the past and moves Shaffer beyond the Why Store and into the 21st century.
It’s almost a concept album about the dissolution of a relationship, with each song picking up on the theme. “Sellin’ My Love Back To You,” “Save Me” and “Just Over You” directly address this relationship. Other songs, such as “I Like To Sleep” and “Roll Like Thunder,” sound more like the Shaffer of old. “There are strange, brief moments where the music sounds like some strange mix of Crazy Horse and [proto-punkers] Television,” Taylor says of Shaffer’s current sound. “It’s quite exciting.”
The Why Store is gone and probably never coming back, Shaffer says. The other band members have moved on to their own careers, although Why Store drummer Charlie Bushor appears on the new disc. Shaffer’s not especially eager to discuss the past, especially the band’s breakup, in detail, but the story boils down to this: After becoming an Indiana phenomenon in the early 1990s, the band was signed to MCA Records, supposedly the dream of every local band. After their first MCA album yielded a minor hit in “Lack of Water,” the group was dispatched to open shows for national artists at amphitheaters around the country. When the second album failed to yield other radio hits, MCA started pressuring the band to change. They wanted Shaffer to cut his hair and for the band to sound more like Blink-182. Failing that, MCA released the band from its contract in 1999.
Shaffer says that not only did the band not become rich from all of their hard work, they left owing MCA several hundred thousand dollars. For a man with a college degree in marketing, “I don’t know shit about business,” he says, laughing. The band returned home to find things had changed and broke up as a full-time unit when the other members took day jobs and drifted away from Shaffer. His next group, Shaffer Street, flourished for a while but disintegrated along with his marriage. He took some time off to write new songs and rediscover what it was he loved about doing music. We sat down with Shaffer for a brief discussion of his past and his present.
Shaffer: I never, ever considered getting out, no matter how much money I’ve lost. No matter how much I’ve spent. Never, ever. It’s been a growth period for me. Whatever I’m doing now is because of where I’ve been. But I think I’m a much better songwriter. I’m much more mature in what I do than I was before. With the Why Store, I was kind of embryonic. I was just learning my craft. It’s been a natural growth. When I write now, it’s more like, “Here I am,” and you can take it or leave it. But even if I had to busk, I’d do it. Being a father has changed the way I write, too. My daughter is so innocent in what she brings to me, it makes me look at things totally differently. I look at things from a 7-year-old’s point of view. She’s so innocent and so pure. She’s not jaded. She’s not turned around with craziness. It makes me want to write songs from her subjective opinion.
NUVO: What was the best part of the Why Store years? Was it the touring, the fame, the money or what?
Shaffer: This might sound corny, but the best part of being in the Why Store was the chemistry of the band. No matter if someone liked us, or didn’t like us, they had to give us the fact that we gelled. I saw this band the other night, Jet, from Australia. They had chemistry. The Why Store had it. For me, that was the best part. There was a show at Red Rocks that was a dream come true. Full moon. It was a wonderful venue we played with the Samples and Ben Harper. It was a great night. Just magic.
NUVO: So is the Why Store officially over as a band?
Shaffer: Well, I just got sick of them wanting to play one show every six months. I know some bands do that, but I’m a career musician. If something’s not growing and there’s no potential for growth there, I’m not with it. When the Why Store began, we rehearsed five nights a week. From the time we got off work until 2 in the morning. Then we’d go to work, come home and do it again. That was the work ethic we had. And then when we quit, and the band was done, I was the only one doing this for a living. It kind of rubs me the wrong way to think about us getting together and playing once in a while. I feel that unless we play and rehearse all the time, there’s no way we could be better. I feel like we’d be cheating the fans by getting up there and being mediocre. I feel like we should be the best we can be. I mean, I practice every day and I write every day. When I’m on stage, I try to give it 110 percent. I try to do a better show every time. And I don’t see the Why Store being able to do that playing once in a while. I feel like I really need to move forward.
NUVO: The new album takes on a lot of emotional issues that some people wouldn’t write about. It’s very personal and intense.
Shaffer: It’s very autobiographical. It’s a moment in time. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a period of my life that a few people know about. It’s a timepiece. It was therapy to record the songs and get them out of me. It’s an angry rock record about what I was going through at the time. The stuff I’m writing now is even harder, even further along those lines. But, yeah, if you go on my Web site and look at the message board, fans there call it the “divorce album.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but that’s what they say. I went through a lot of pain when I was recording the album. I don’t know if I would want to do it again. We blasted it out in two days. It was a lot of pain, and it was hard to get through, but I also felt better after it was done. And working with Kenny has really changed my music. He came in and became my mentor and the big brother I never had. He’s not afraid of showing me his tricks, and I’ve learned so much from him. The chemistry and the interplay between the two of us is wonderful. We kind of get into each other’s heads on stage. There’s a hillbilly aspect that he brings to our sound, but it’s also a rockin’ thing he brings as well. It’s not alt-country, that’s for sure. I don’t think he realized he’d get me back rocking again and get me to kick it up a couple notches.
NUVO: “Again” is a very strong, almost angry song where you’re talking about breaking up.
Shaffer: I remember the night I wrote that. I’d just had a little tiff with the ex-wife, and I was trying to chill out. I always use my writing as a therapy. It only took a half hour to write it. I knew we were getting close to being at the end of the relationship. But then again, there’s a little bit of hope in it. At the end, when I say, “Someone came over and wiped the tears from my eyes,” it becomes a song of hope. Kinda. I remember I tried to play it for her, and it just broke the poor girl’s heart. But I knew then that it was a powerful and emotional song because of the power that it had. It’s a very personal song about me trying to deal with the fact that I tend to fuck up everything. [Laughs] The album is a little story unto itself. I didn’t really mean it to be that way. At the end, there’s “Heaven’s Gate,” about letting life go and trying to live again. NUVO: And then there’s the song “Selling My Love Back (To You).” Shaffer: That’s like saying, hey, you know what? I gave you everything I had and now, if you want it back, I’m going to sell it to your ass. You’re going to have to buy it. I gave you everything I had and you won’t be able to get it for free this time. [Laughs]
NUVO: Do you think the hard-core Why Store fans will like the album?
Shaffer: I liken this to the Life On Planet Six Ball album we did in 2000. If they liked that one, they’re really going to dig this. This is rockin’, it’s got a lot of emotion and has some really good jingly-jangly sounds to it. I’m grateful, I really am, that people have enjoyed my music and I’ve been able to do this for a living for 15 years. I can be down and someone can say something nice and it’ll make my day. So I hope they like it, but there’s also an attitude of take it like it is, or don’t come if you don’t want to. I hope that doesn’t sound mean, but that’s just the way it is, you know?