The fact that singer-songwriter Shelby Kelley is in any band, let alone one of the hottest local groups of the moment, is a surprise to him.
Last year, he recorded a 7-inch single by himself, playing virtually all the instruments, and released it under the name Creepin’ Charley. That was supposed to have been it: a catharsis and an outlet for his songwriting.
But once the record came out, it inspired his musician buddies to join him in live performances.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could make a recording,” Kelley said. “But a few of my friends helped bring me out more, because otherwise I would have just stopped with the 7-inch. They inspired me to rock more and to play shows and write more songs.”
Those friends included some of the most accomplished players in the area: Jeff Kleindorfer on guitar, Chad Pollock of the Hypnotic Velvet Propellers on bass, Andy Fark of The Jabs on drums and former Transportation member Angie Walker on backup vocals and percussion.
“The band just kind of happened,” Kelley said. “We had a bass player, a guitarist and a drummer, so why not do something together?”
Although Kelley has a background in music, having played in groups in high school, he’s better known as a self-taught freelance illustrator (and frequent NUVO contributor). His friends urged him to pursue the music.
“His material was too good for him to not do anything with it,” Pollock said. “I told him I’d play bass, Jeff would play guitar, and we instantly had a band.”
“It was just something that was fun for me,” Kelley said. “I didn’t expect all this to happen, but now I’ve been inspired to write more songs so this band can play them.”
When the band made its live debut last summer as part of the Midwest Music Summit, the audience was so receptive that the group started to book other live shows.
Musically, Creepin’ Charley is all about Kelley’s sandpaper-rough vocals and the punchy, hard-nosed rhythm section of Pollock and Fark. Walker’s ethereal voice gives the group a slightly softer edge, while Kleindorfer’s guitar leads cut through the mix and give the band a hard-rock feel.
In songs such as “Barfly” and “Rapture Song,” Kelley assumes the personas of a hardcore alcoholic and fundamentalist Christian, respectively. His storytelling style, combined with his rough-edged vocals, has led to comparisons — both positive and negative — with Tom Waits.
“I’m not going to deny that influence,” Kelley said. “I obviously like Tom Waits. But I’m not trying to do an impression of him or imitate him. But I’d rather have that comparison than ’N Sync or some crap like that. I’m honored if people see that.”
The band’s name, in fact, is derived from a cryptic message in the liner notes of a Waits album. “I think the comparisons come from our vocal styles,” Kelley said. “But I don’t think we sound like Tom Waits. We have other influences.”
“I think somebody made the comparison once and it stuck,” Kleindorfer said.
So where does his lyrical inspiration come from? Kelley seemed puzzled at the question. “It’s all spontaneous. I really don’t sit down and try and write the lyrics first or the music first. It comes however it comes. I’ll start rambling some words, and whatever halfway makes sense, I stick with. Later I’ll realize what a song is about, but when I’m writing it, I have no clue.”
Walker said, “His songs paint characters. The ‘Rapture Song’ totally reminds me of a rattlesnake-toting Southern Baptist minister. He makes characters.”
“In my [solo] songwriting stuff, it was more about my views on things,” Kelley said. “But Creepin’ Charley is a blurry, distorted view of how I see things. Most of the times it’s not even how I see things; it’s these characters popping up spontaneously.”
Another aspect that sets Creepin’ Charley apart from other local bands is the harmonic interplay between Kelley’s and Walker’s vocals.
“Ever since I heard her, I’ve been in love with her voice,” Kelley said. “Once we got together, I could tell that our voices would mesh really well together. Her voice deserves to be spotlighted, which I think it will be in our new material.”
“Every band that I’ve been in, for the most part, the members have been super-talented,” Walker said. “I’ve been lucky that way. And this group is the least rambunctious group I’ve been involved with. I enjoy being in this band and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The punky drumming of Fark, a former co-worker of Kelley’s, gives the group a garage-punk sound that puts it miles beyond Waits’ musical experiments.
“He really gives us a certain element that adheres everyone together,” Kelley said. “Plus, he’s an expert at networking and promotion. I don’t know what we would do without him.”
After several memorable shows, “We’re slowly becoming the band that we want to become,” Kelley said. “I write the songs, but when I take it to the band, it becomes something totally different.”
While he’s a perfectionist in his songwriting, Kelley gives the band wide latitude in their parts. “I want to let them be themselves, to play what they feel like playing over my lyrics,” he said. “What’s the point of me trying to force them to be something they’re not?”
Besides Saturday’s show with his friend Rev. Peyton, Creepin’ Charley has booked a Feb. 10 date at the Melody Inn. And Kelley plans to bring the group into the studio to record as soon as possible.
The material that Kelley has already recorded is now available on CD. But, in keeping with the band’s unorthodox style, he’s not selling it. “If someone wants a copy, they should get a hold of me. I don’t care about selling albums; it’s all about the music getting out there to as wide an audience as possible. I just want people to hear it.”
Interested parties can sample the band’s work at www.creepincharley.com.
“We recorded it ourselves, so it’s not like it cost us thousands of dollars,” Kelley said. “So why try and put a price tag on it? You’re just trying to get people to hear you. You have to sacrifice, and I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”