KENOSHA -- Having shuttered their Zion-based studio and record label before the failing businesses destroyed their friendship, the three guys from the power-pop band Shoes know firsthand how brutal the music industry has become.
The conventional wisdom says you can't make money on CDs anymore because who still buys physical product? It also says you can't make money touring if you can't line up more than a few dates, preferably with sponsorship support.
Common sense says if you've been around since the '70s and haven't released a studio album in 18 years, you've probably lost a step or three.
So what were Gary Klebe and brothers Jeff and John Murphy, all now in their late 50s, thinking when they decided to record "Ignition," the first Shoes album since 1994's "Propeller"?
"There's no one to make this record for other than ourselves," Klebe said in the low-ceilinged basement studio of his house in Kenosha. "And it hasn't been that way for a long time."
"The record companies are gone, and airplay is gone, and MTV is gone," Jeff Murphy said, "so you just make the music that you like."
July 3 was a momentous day because a box arrived at Klebe's home containing the first shipment of the "Ignition" CDs, released that day through the band's website, shoeswire.com, with an official release via outside retailers scheduled for Aug. 14.
"The main reason you do this is for that moment when you can hold it in your hands," Klebe said, pulling out the first discs featuring the eye-grabbing cover, which Klebe and John Murphy designed, showing a Photoshopped John Murphy blasting into the sky with an ancient-looking rocket on his back.
"Traditionally I think Shoes fans have been the kind that want to hold the hard copy," Jeff Murphy said (though the website also is selling downloads of the album). "They want to own the packaging, because they're like us. We are record fans, record collectors."
Shoes are old school in more ways than one. Their music now spans five decades (albeit skipping the first 10 years of the 2000s); the indie debut "Black Vinyl Records" was released in 1977, with "Present Tense," the first of three albums for Elektra, following in 1979 and then four studio albums in the '80s and "Propeller" in the '90s.
Yet for all of the cultural and industry changes that the band has endured, time has kind of stood still for these guys. They started out worshipping at the altar of '60s melodic rock, particularly The Beatles, and through their self-taught playing hit upon a classic power-pop formula of crunching guitars, sweet harmonies, big choruses/refrains and tales of love and heartbreak. All three key members, with their almost-matching draped locks and doe eyes, take turns in the songwriting and singing. (Gary and Jeff are the guitarists, John plays bass and some guitar, and there's been a string of drummers.)
They're unassuming guys, never boasting the swagger and showmanship of Rockford pop-rockers Cheap Trick, but they also never experienced that band's ups and downs. Which is to say Shoes lacked a true crossover hit beyond the occasional FM play of "Tomorrow Night" or "Too Late" — or the frequent airing of their videos in the early days of MTV — but they sure came up with a lot of hooks.
The current shock for the band's devoted if specialized fan base may be twofold: one, that Shoes made another album after so many years, and, two, that it not only doesn't represent a "diminishing return" (to quote a John Murphy "Ignition" song) but actually feels more vital than anything since the Elektra days. It's a reaffirmation of what they and their fans love about this sort of punchy, tuneful music.
"Boy, they still sound 25, man," said Mary Donnelly, who has written a 500-page book, "Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes," for which she's eyeing a late-summer release. "When I first heard it, I was like, 'Holy crap.'" The Upstate New York-based author/blogger said she was "stunned" when she heard that Shoes were working on a new album. "I'm still convinced that this is them saying to me, 'Don't write about us in the past tense.'"
She's not that far off.
The band was filled with optimism in the early '90s. Short Order Recorder, with Jeff Murphy usually at the helm, had a steady stream of studio clients, including such upstart Chicago-area bands as Material Issue and Local H. The label, Black Vinyl Records, was releasing not only Shoes albums but works by simpatico guitar-pop bands such as the Spongetones.
Then everything collapsed: The studio business was decimated by the shift to digital technology and the rise of bands recording themselves, independent distributors went belly up and CD sales plummeted. Shoes members say they saw the studio's and label's survival as symbolic; as long as those two entities existed, so did the band. But they weren't making music; they were worrying about finances, a topic that can put a strain on any relationship.
"They turned on each other, and there was some bitterness there for a while," Donnelly said.
At any rate, they couldn't see recording a follow-up to "Propeller" under such conditions. "It was like we didn't want to see it thrown to the dogs," Jeff Murphy said.
Finally they decided to let go and sell the studio, which happened in 2004. The weight removed from their shoulders, Klebe and the Murphys concentrated on their day jobs: Klebe and John Murphy work at a Zion catalog company, and Jeff Murphy does tech repairs in Kenosha.
All three have lived in Kenosha since the 1990s, but when Klebe moved into a new house in 2009, a historic 1948 home that sits across the street from Lake Michigan, he decided to build a recording studio in his basement. He poured thousands of dollars into a mixture of analog and digital equipment so music could be recorded with old-fashioned warmth and then mixed on state-of-the-art computer equipment.
Did he do this to record a Shoes album?
"Yes," Klebe said. "Yes."
"He surprised us," John Murphy said. "We didn't know. He didn't tell us."
In true "Field of Dreams" fashion, he built it, and they came.
"To give credit where credit is due, Mary writing this book got us thinking about this more," Klebe said. "When you're forced to talk about your past life in this business, you start to get a little bit teary-eyed about the good times and (wonder) why aren't we doing this?"
Said Jeff Murphy, who pronounced Klebe's studio superior to Short Order Recorder: "As soon as we started recording, it was like, God, that was fun," he said. "There is nothing like creating a song from nothing, from zero."
Despite the long lag between albums, the band members hadn't been stockpiling material; they wrote to order. They began recording in the fall of 2010 and had John Richardson, the crafty powerhouse drummer of the band's 1990s and 2000s live shows, come down from his Menominee, Wis., home to lay down the first drum tracks onNew Year's Day2011.
The studio is a small, windowless room, with no parallel walls (all the better for recording drums), adjacent to the control room. The smell of a nearby cat box and scratch marks on the wall treatments add to the homey vibe, and occasionally during recording the black, mellow Psycho and gray, more temperamental Buzz would check out the action.
(This day's big drama came when Psycho escaped through a partially open front door, prompting bandmates, reporter and photographer to scour the neighborhood calling, "Psycho! Psycho!" before he was located beneath a neighbor's porch. Upon his return, a ticked-off Buzz growled and hissed at him.)
There are subtle differences among the singer-songwriters' voices and approaches on "Ignition," yet the songs are all of a piece, unmistakably Shoes.
"We're really more each other's influences than anything else," Klebe said, noting that they still don't know music theory or even necessarily what chords they're playing. "It's really kind of a moat around us."
As they chatted in the control room with unplugged guitars on their laps, they were at a loss to play any of their new songs.
"We never learned them," Klebe said.
"We would have had to have weeks of rehearsal," John Murphy said with a laugh, "for an impromptu jam."
Asked to attempt "Tomorrow Night" instead, the three picked at their guitars until they found the verse chords; it all fell apart on the bridge, but they were able to rebound for the subsequent verses, Jeff Murphy singing, "What will you say?" and John Murphy and Klebe responding in tight harmony "Tomorrow night," before they nailed a clean ending.
"We haven't played together for over three years, a single song together, since Japan," Klebe said with a laugh afterward, referring to a few shows the band performed overseas in 2009. Before that they played an afternoon concert in Millennium Park in August 2007.
Yet even with their first album in 18 years, they have no plans to perform live now.
"We all have to deal with our schedules," Jeff Murphy said. "It has to be something that we want to do. We're not going to go out just because we're supposed to."
"Playing live is a losing proposition," Klebe said. "If you leave Chicago, it'll cost us money to do it."
What about Chicago, though?
"The problem is it's hard to do just one show," Klebe said. "You need more than one show." There's also an underlying fear for a band that has been inactive for so long: "We're afraid no one would come," Klebe admitted.
Yet with strong initial response and advance orders for "Ignition," the band members remain hopeful, even as they realize the rule book was long ago deleted.
"We don't know what we're doing," Klebe said. "We know as much as we did around 'Black Vinyl Shoes.'"
At least they know this: Accomplished power pop never dies, and Shoes are present-tense again.
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