Sure, it’s a Jetsons/Flintstones dichotomy. But in music’s new high-tech, digital-download age—when kids can record a debut disc on their bedroom-based computer, overnight—there’s still something to be said for doing it caveman-primitive old school. Because it doesn’t really matter if you use a Zippo or rub two sticks together—both fires can burn just as brightly. None of this is lost on the decidedly anachronistic guitarist/vocalist/producer Jeff Murphy, who, for nearly four decades now, has overseen Shoes, a brilliant little DIY power-pop combo from Zion, Ill., with the same core members—his brother John Murphy on bass/vocals, and guitarist/co-vocalist Gary Klebe. The simplistic way he operates would make Barney Rubble proud.
For instance, when the recently reconvened Shoes was assembling its press mailing list to notify the media about Ignition, its first new studio album in 17 years, Murphy didn’t assemble some who’s-who database of crucial outlets. They merely sent the CD to journalists that they’ve known and trusted over the years, then hired an old Midwest rock journo chum—Cary Baker, now running his own music publicity firm, Conqueroo—to fill in any overlooked blanks. “We read a lot, and if you see something where you really agree with the writer, you remember the name and they make our list,” explains Murphy, who— along with his bandmates—has moved, but not very far, just across the border to Wisconsin. “Like ‘That’s one of the guys that we’ll make sure we talk to at some point, because they get it—they’re coming from the same camp as we are.’”
This, then, is Shoes’ strongest asset: They exist in an insular, small-town-congenial vacuum. Always have. Their sound—full of feathery, layered harmonies, oblique Crowded House-clever hooks and chord changes and synth-metallic guitars that buzz like an angry bumblebee inside a Mason jar—hasn’t changed since the band’s 1977 breakthrough Black Vinyl Shoes. When the L.A.-based power-pop movement revved up in the late ‘70s with sugary combos like 20/20, The Pop, Code Blue and The Knack, the outlying Shoes was ready to take the wheel with three definitive efforts for Elektra, 1979’s Present Tense, and Tongue Twister and Boomerang (1980 and 1982, respectively). Ignition, frozen in “My Sharona” time, sits perfectly on the shelf alongside those earlier volumes.
Shoes was once major-label-feted with posh studios and their choice of producers. Instead, they launched their own Zion location, Short Order Recorder, and produced themselves, post-Elektra, on homemade discs like Silhouette, Stolen Wishes, and their last work in 1994, Propeller. And although they shuttered the studio shortly thereafter, Ignition was home-tracked as well, at Klebe’s new posh facility he’d quietly constructed in his basement, aptly dubbed Cellar Dweller Studio. And from the opening “Head vs. Heart”—which opens on a cheerful chugging riff, then tumbles off balance into a delightfully skewed chorus—it’s comfortable, heartwarming, like Shoes hasn’t been incognito for nearly two decades.
Each member (backed by John Richardson on drums) brought sunny, chiming ditties to the table—Klebe’s “Sign of Life” and “Heaven Help Me,” John Murphy’s “Wrong Idea,” “In on You” and Jeff’s “The Joke’s on You” and the delicate dirge “Out of Round,” a cut he penned after a friend’s untimely passing that got the band back into recording again in 2010.
“His widow was telling these stories that were the most heart-wrenching testaments to a relationship and deep love that really moved me,” recalls Murphy, who’d also cut a 2007 solo album, Cantilever. “So I wrote that song and demoed it and gave a copy to John and Gary and said ‘See if you can come up with anything on this.’ That’s when Gary said ‘Hey—you wanna come over and see my new studio? I just finished it!’ And I was like ‘Holy cow!’ It was a real studio, with top-notch gear and great mics, monitors, compressors. So he and John made some pretty drastic alterations to the song, and this lament took on a Fleetwood Mac kind of feel. So that went really well, and we were all so happy to be recording together again that we just started writing and continuing.”
The patented Shoes approach didn’t change—why should it? Murphy asks, rhetorically. “When you’ve done this for a while, you develop sounds like compression that are part of the arsenal, part of the color palette.” There’s only one change he saw as evident. “We self-edit better now than we used to. There are too many good ideas when the three of us are together, so which idea do you turn down? So now I think there’s more of a careful plotting, and we’ve really stripped back—we went back to just making things sound natural.”
Murphy is a music-biz veteran, and he’s not afraid to show his scars. He had front-row seats as the industry collapsed in on itself, and Black Vinyl Records almost got buried in the debris. Formed in 1987, the imprint started signing other artists and employed several national distributors to get its product into stores. “But as the business started changing in the mid-‘90s, it kept condensing, where distributors would go bankrupt or get bought out by a bigger distributor,” he explains. “And by ’97, I still remember this huge semi showing up and the driver going ‘Well, here are your returns.’ Here was $100,000 worth of CDs we’re not gonna get paid for. We were witnessing firsthand the changes in the record business, in a way that we really didn’t want to. And it really bummed us out.”
Now, Murphy likens Shoes to a small campfire that never quite sputters out. They still undertake various one-offs—a Cheap Trick cover here, a quick tour of Japan (where they’re adored) there. But they only record multiple songs when there’s a clear album-project goal in sight. Yet there’s a momentum pushing Ignition, a Shoes Renaissance; Some early pre-Black Vinyl Shoes sessions will soon be released, and Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes—Mary E. Donnelly and Moira McCormick’s biography of the band—is being published by PurePopPress.
And Ignition is still old-school. Self-produced, it was engineered by Jeff Murphy and Klebe (who was also responsible for the “Rocketeer”-ish cover illustrations), and John Murphy handled the art direction. John, in fact, works for Klebe at a successful high-tech company Klebe owns—hence his deluxe studio. “He’s got the funding now, because he’s not relying on music to make a living,” chuckles Murphy, who also maintains a straight job to put food on the table. “I do electronic repairs on musical instruments,” he admits. “Having maintained the mechanics and wiring of Short Order Recorder for over 20 years, when it came time to venture back out into the workplace, I thought ‘Well, this is what I know, and this is what I do.’”
This Flintstone’s only frustration? The advanced Spacely Sprockets equipment he’s been tackling lately. “More and more, the stuff is getting so complicated,” he sighs, not that he can’t handle it. “It’s basically just a computer in a box, and it’s all made in China, not American design. But the stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s looks like it was made in a basement, because it was. The wiring can be crazy and you can laugh at how sloppy it is, but hey—there were some pretty cool designs back in the old days!”