Diehard Shakedown fans will be thrilled to learn that the Nashville-based quartet is back this week with 11 new songs. It’s considerable news because, though the Shakedown has shared stages with gigantic rock acts as varied as ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon since lead singer Tyler Bryant and drummer Caleb Crosby formed the band roughly nine years ago, they have only released one full-length album and two EPs to date. It’s been nearly five years since the release of the 13-track Wild Child, and two since the band’s seemingly significant signing with John Varvatos Records under the Republic Records umbrella resulted in The Wayside, a six-track EP. Since then, the Shakedown have traveled much of the world while touring with AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses, reaching larger and larger audiences as they earned their stadium chops…but still, there was no new music. Finally, the Shakedown announced this summer that they were leaving Republic and signing with Snakefarm Records, part of the Finnish Spinefarm Records. Soon after, the band also announced their new self-titled album, out November 3.
It’s been more than five years since this journalist got her introduction to the Shakedown at a headlining Viper Room performance in Los Angeles. That evening, bassist Noah Denney was still a relatively new addition to the lineup, and the band as a whole was young and hungry, with guitarist Graham Whitford in the midst of his 21st birthday celebration. In the years since, the band has struggled to find a label in the music industry that not only shares their vision but will put in the work to help the Shakedown reach their goals. Regardless of the business realities that modern rockers like the Shakedown face, the band remains as committed to and enthusiastic about rock ‘n roll as they were five years ago. “I truly believe that our band is one of the hardest working rock ‘n roll bands in the game,” Bryant recently told Blues Rock Review. It’s a hard stat to measure, but with the band’s hectic touring schedule, record label resilience and a self-described songwriting addiction, the Shakedown is definitely a contender for the title. One week before the release of Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown, Bryant spoke with us from his home in Nashville to answer our questions about the new album.
What were your goals for this album when the Shakedown first started working on it?
To focus more on the songs than anything else. It’s so easy with Graham Whitford or me or any of the other guys to show off what we know. Graham and I could easily get into guitar heroics, but after touring with AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses, [we learned that] the most important thing to get as many people involved in a live show is to have a great song. We found ourselves in these massive stadiums, basically getting a lesson on songwriting every night. I think it’s one of the best things to happen to this band.
We came home right after the AC/DC tour and started writing new songs. We had a couple old ones that we reassessed. The plan was: let’s go in with the best songs we can. The day we started recording the record, we got offered the Guns N’ Roses tour. So we were like, “All right, we’re going to see if these songs work in a stadium.” At that point we’d written “Don’t Mind the Blood,” and that one went over incredibly in those types of venues.
How have listeners been reacting to the new material during shows?
We were only playing a handful of tunes; we’d play “Weak and Weepin’,” “Don’t Mind the Blood” and maybe a few others, and you’d see hands going up in the air or people jumping. It’s never been hard for us to reach the first few hundred people, even thousand; but when you’re in a massive arena or stadium, there’re people in the back buying beer, and they’re talking to their friends and they’re taking pictures with their girlfriend, whatever. You want those people to turn around and pay attention. It was about trying to get the songs that could do that. But lyrically, this feels like more of a personal album than anything we’ve done. It hits a little closer to home for me than anything we’ve done so far.
I hear strong hints of “Lipstick Wonder Woman” in “Ramblin’ Bones.” What was the evolutionary process behind that song?
I moved to Nashville when I was 17, and when I first moved here I was very unsettled because I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a band, I didn’t really have any money or anything. After about six months, I had met Caleb and I knew we were going to start a band. I was starting to feel more positive about living in Nashville. I remember the first time I went back home to see my family, it was after about six months, I started singing “Ramblin’ Bones” as I was driving back to Nashville. It was like, “I’m heading back to my city now, and I’m going to be a touring musician.” I’ve always known that this is what I was going to be doing, but I was affirming myself, I guess.
I started singing the chorus, “Ramblin’ bones, keep me running.” I had someone at the time who was setting up cowrites with me. There’s this artist in town named Shawn Camp, and he mainly does country and bluegrass. So I went in with him–we’d never met before, and I’ve actually never seen him again. I pulled out the title and said, “I’ve got this title ‘Ramblin’ Bones,’ I think the chorus would go like this.” We wrote the rest of the song in 20, 30 minutes.
But we wrote it as a country song; it would never be a Shakedown song. Over the years, we’ve tried to record it three or four times, and it’s just never happened. We were like, “It’s cool, but it’s not that cool.” Somehow, it eased into our live show, and we decided to just go into the studio and play it live. In our shows, we play it very stripped back with my resonator guitar. It turned out really cool.
“Poor Boy’s Dream” and “Lipstick” and all that stuff, I have an old ’31 National resonator, and it’s got a very signature sound. All those songs I’ve played on this guitar. It’s all pulling from that Muddy Waters blues, Robert Johnson open tuning slide stuff. I love having one song that tips the hat to my blues roots.
The friendship you and Caleb share is obvious in your live shows, when you feed off each other’s energy. Comparing that enthusiasm to the energy you bring into the studio, how do the performance processes of each differ?
Caleb and I have gotten to know each other so well musically and personally over the last nine years. For example, Caleb’s coming over today. I don’t know what we’re going to make; I really don’t. Most of the time it starts where we set everything up: there’s a drum kit that’s always set up, there are amps that are always set up. That way, whenever he walks in, he starts playing and I play around him, or he plays around me. It all depends on who has a vision. We play around until we find ourselves on the same page.
In the studio, it’s really not much different than onstage. When we recorded “Ramblin’ Bones,” I was sitting about five feet away from Caleb. We’re in the same room together, and it’s just easy. He knows what I’m going to do before I do it, nine times out of 10.
That’s why so much of a Shakedown show is improvisation. We don’t plan out a lot of things. We go, “We’re going to open with this song and then do this song, and then who knows where it could go.” That’s the thing I love about rock ‘n roll and blues, especially. It can be so spontaneous. Whenever you stumble upon magic moments, it can be really exciting. The first time we played “Ramblin’ Bones” as a band, I had played them a demo but we had never played it. It was in Telluride, Colorado in a gondola or something, for some filmed video session. I just started playing and the guys followed along, but we had never played it as a band before. That’s how we stumble across some of our best stuff: not really thinking about it, just trying to be free and follow whatever inspiration we can find.
People often ask–myself and other music journalists included–how songs are created, as if we’re trying to find the secret ingredient to a song that works.
I write songs pretty much every day. I do write songs every day when we’re home. When we’re on the road, it’s a little bit harder for me to get in the headspace. It never ceases to amaze me that I can sit down in a chair with my guitars or my drum loops or whatever instruments or creative tools I feel like using. I think of them like paintbrushes. You just throw paint at a wall, and at the end of the day there’s either something beautiful there or something not so beautiful; but at least there’s something. At least you showed up. For me, it’s about showing up and putting in the time and being open for something cool to happen. But whenever we stumble upon a song, it’s like, “Oh–where did this song come from?” You’re almost like a conduit for something to move through. I’ve just really fallen in love with songwriting all over again through this process. I’ve probably written 20 new songs since we’ve finished the record.
The Shakedown recently signed to Snakefarm Records. The band has had a few record labels over the years, including John Varvatos’ label under Republic Records. Would you say that finding a label that shares your vision has been one of the toughest parts of your journey so far?
I think Varvatos definitely shared the same vision we had–him personally. But he put his label at Republic Records. Theoretically, they shared the same vision as us, but we basically didn’t give them any songs that would fit on Top 40 radio. We’re not really a Top 40…well, maybe we are and we just don’t know it yet. But if you don’t have a song that works on the radio immediately, they’re going to put their energy toward Selena Gomez or whoever the big act is. For us, we were like, “This is a major record company; they have a lot of outreach, a lot of power and they can help us get where we’re trying to go.” We found ourselves on a world tour with AC/DC and we had a six-song EP out and seven songs in the can and we couldn’t release them. We felt that it was time for a change.
I’m still so close with Varvatos and I have no hard feelings. I don’t think it’s him; it’s just as much on us. We made the decision to sign with a major record label, and major labels are successful based on radio hits. We play rock and blues, and that can’t really be changed. I think our songs could definitely be played on the radio if people took the chances they say they’ll take. But that’s the thing: they signed us and said, “We see this band representing counterculture. We’re going to take a chance and we’re going to get this played on rock radio because this is real rock ‘n roll.” And then we delivered our record: “We’ve made a record for counterculture, something that’s real rock ‘n roll.” And they’re like, “Well, it doesn’t fit all these formulas.” We were like, “Real rock ‘n roll doesn’t fit any formula, buddy.” As you can tell, I get passionate talking about it. That’s why we got out of the deal. Varvatos called me; he was like, “If you want to move on, the last thing I want to do is hold you back.” He’s a true supporter of artists.
It is what it is. But through Republic, we met Dante [Bonutto] over at Spinefarm, and he started this new label Snakefarm. He kept going, “Guys, I love The Wayside–but why is it only an EP?” So we told him, “Well, it’s actually a full-length album; you should try to get the rights to release the rest of it in the UK and in Europe.” Right now, it seems like we’re actually going to be able to do that, to finally put those songs out.
When might that happen? At some point in 2018?
Yeah, at some point. Obviously we’re going to focus on this new record for a while, but we’re in the process of getting those songs back. Otherwise, they’re just going to sit on a shelf and not do anything for anybody.
I truly believe that our band is one of the hardest working rock ‘n roll bands in the game. We’ve always been resilient and we’ve always shown up. Like I said, Caleb’s coming over today; we’ve got an album in the can, and he’s coming over to write because we’re keeping our tools sharp.
Going back to the release of Wild Child almost five years ago now, what changes do you notice about the band’s development as a whole and your own as a musician?
I think I feel less inclined to shred on the guitar all the time. I love shredding on the guitar. If you follow me on social media, I post guitar videos all the time. But when it comes to writing songs and making records, I’m feeling more comfortable as a songwriter these days. I think through each recording process you learn a little more, and me having a studio in my house is like an alcoholic living in a bar. I think we had 40 songs to pick from for this new album. We agreed on 11, so that became the new record.
Through the process I’ve learned a lot about engineering. For example, I recorded most of the record here in my studio; everything but the drums. It’s been pretty cool to take on the engineering and production roles. The whole band produced this record, because we wanted to agree on everything that went into it. Sometimes working with producers, you end up with one strong-headed guy, so we figured it’d be better to have four strong-headed guys.
Some of the press for this new album included a quote from you about how music has the ability in these strange modern times to melt the divides within a crowd. What does it mean to you to watch those divides dissipate when you’re onstage?
To me, it shows that it can be a little bit easier than we make it out to be. If you have music as a buffer, people are like, “Oh hey–I have a common thread with someone.” You can have a Republican and a Democrat standing next to each other, spilling beer on each other with their hands in the air to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and it’s all good, because there’s a common thread.
Rock ‘n roll has always been there in times like this. Think about Woodstock, “drop acid not bombs.” Rock ‘n roll has always been there. That’s when you get into the lifestyle of rock ‘n roll: it’s about finding those common threads and unity in the midst of all the division. There are songs like “Heartland” or “Don’t Mind the Blood,” where it felt like we just had to write them. It was like, “Hey man–if it happens to you, it happens to me and everyone I love, too.” That’s what America is about to me: it’s about people coming together. We are a country that does that, and I just wanted to reach everybody in the song without being preachy.
“Don’t Mind the Blood,” that’s just about people fighting for what they believe in. Noah brought it to the writing room one day: he was like, “Man, can you believe this? This woman at a Trump rally got the shit beat out of her.” She was there protesting or something–I don’t know the whole story. But wow–what an inspiration that she was there and didn’t even care about getting bloodied up. She was there to fight for a cause. [The song] doesn’t have to be political: it’s about a band jumping in a van for 10 years and fighting for rock ‘n roll. “I don’t mind the blood if it gets the job done.” Put me in, coach: I’m ready to fight for this. I don’t have any answers; it’s just something I think about a lot, so of course it ends up in the songs.
Your favorite song from the new album likely changes day to day, but is there one in particular that you’re drawn to today?
If you were here in my house as a guest, I’d probably play you “Jealous Me.”
Why that song?
I’m really proud of the production. Lyrically, it’s something I relate to. I think pretty much everyone can relate to that feeling of being jealous of something or somebody. I started writing that song with Graham’s little brother, Harrison. He came over and had purchased this little synthesizer; we wrote this song on a synth. I was feeling very jealous of someone I loved. Jealousy is one of those feelings, like eating poison and hoping that the person you’re mad at gets sick. It’s not really a healthy thing to feel. But I love the production on that song, the lyrics are something I can relate with, and I think a lot of other people will be able to relate, too. And Caleb played his ass off on it.
That was one that wasn’t meant to be a Shakedown song. It was just writing to write. That’s the same way with “The Wayside” on the last record–it was never meant to be a Shakedown song. It’s the same thing with “Jealous Me”: there was something we found in it that we liked, and getting all four of us to agree on anything is hard enough, but everyone agreed we should try it.
“The Wayside” is such a haunting song; it’s the kind of song listeners can turn to at certain moments in life and find within it lyrics that are incredibly relatable.
Because you asked about progression: for me, I was very insecure about putting “The Wayside” on the last EP, because we’d never done anything that vulnerable before. That was the most personal song, lyrically, to me on that project. But that was the song that everyone started singing. I was like, “Oh man–for our fans, this is a place they can come and be vulnerable in public. They relate to these lyrics, just like I do.” Our fans empowered me to write songs more about the way I actually feel. Songs like “Manipulate Me” or “Jealous Me” or “Into the Black.”
It’s easy to take on the persona of, “I’m here to party; I’m here to be a badass rocker. Let’s go.” It’s a lot harder to go, “I’m really insecure and completely jealous of this and I don’t even know if this is a real feeling.” And then you’re like, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that,” because you want to come off as this bulletproof entity. Sometimes it’s empowering to be completely vulnerable with the lyrics. You end up finding out that everyone else feels this way, too. I’m not alone.
Looking past the album release on November 3, what does the Shakedown have planned for 2018?
We’ve got some American tour dates planned, hallelujah–so that’s going to be good. It’s been working so well for us over in Europe and in the UK, so we’re planning a lot of stuff over there, as well. They really like rock ‘n roll over there.
We’re going to be touring. That’s been my goal since Caleb and I formed this band: make records, tour, make records, tour, make records, tour. We’re going to keep writing songs and keep touring.
Interview by Meghan Roos