Since I’m working on resumes, cover letters, and job proposals, et al., I’m not doing the writing that I’d necessarily like to be doing, but whilst digging about in my Google Drive I came across this old chestnut that I’d totally forgotten about.
The band The Shivers is one I was immediately obsessed upon hearing “Just Didn’t Need to Know,” the first track on their album In the Morning. When I heard Morning's followup, my pants were soiled from both ends and I thought “WHY IS PITCHFORK NOT FELLATING/CUNNILICKING THESE GUYS?” (It's a guy and girl.)
Apparently about a year ago Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame had them drive out to L.A. to perform at his wedding. (They drove because lead singer Keith Z. is too scared to fly. He’s also a 9/11 truther.) This is when The Shivers went to big radars. I still don’t think they’ve busted through.
Regardless, below is a little interview/gush-piece I wrote two years ago but which was denied publications because two different magazine editors told me they find it quite boring to publish pieces about white rock bands. I guess that’s understandable on a certain level.
But this band is incredible. I’ve been told this piece comes across as quite fan-boy-ish, but I’m tried of playing it cool when I really think something is amazing sans qualifiers.
Even More of The Shivers
I had been trying to arrange for an interview with the The Shivers for a couple months before I finally met Keith Zarriello, lead singer and principle songwriter, in a Williamsburg bar where Keith claimed to know a bartender who was a fan. (“We might get hooked up.”) But that bartender wasn’t there. On the slight upside, we met during happy hour, which consisted of five-dollar drafts as opposed to the usual six dollars, which we agreed is a totally bullshit excuse for a happy hour.
Keith walked in wearing a green flannel shirt and a bike-messenger backpack tightly strapped to his back. He’s of medium height but shortened by that forward-bending neck hunch most salient among angry teenagers with big headphones. His conversational mode goes between fixed eye contact and long periods of none whatsoever, usually when we’ve happened upon a topic wherein it seems he’s digging for articulations. But when we’ve gone eye v. eye, no matter how kindly and lighthearted whatever he’s saying might be, his speech gets that percussive, deliberate rhythm of annoyed math teachers enunciating a simple process to some glaze-eyed jock for the umpteenth time.
I’ve seen The Shivers play three times, but let’s just talk about those first two for the moment. The first was their second show after releasing their jaw-dropping new album More. Before this show, I’d only really listened to their fourth album, In the Morning, but the band was so tight, Keith so on his game, Jo (the female keyboard player/vocalist and only other steady member of the band) bemused and radiantly present, that I almost didn’t want to hear songs I’d heard before. The show opened with a tune called “I Own the Stage,” during which Keith sang while half-heartedly dancing with a baseball bat.
At the Manhattan Inn, a month or so later, The Shivers played a set comprising only Jo on piano and Keith’s vox. She sat at the bench and began playing, at which point Keith, wearing the early 70s’ de facto rock uniform — black jeans, black shirt, black leather jacket, and sunglasses — crawled out from under the piano with a rose in his teeth and once again, blew away the standing-room (or sitting-on-the-floor-room) -only audience, more than slightly reminding me of Van Morrison in his prime.
I find out that Keith’s come fresh from the bus station after a jaunt up to Boston, where his new-ish girlfriend lives and teaches English. The tale bears repeating:
"I went over there on Friday to surprise her. And we’re on the phone and I’m walking to her place and she’s outside in her little yard. I’m outside, and I’ve been waiting in the park for her for like four hours because she was at work. I’m walking and talking on the phone and finally I’m like, ‘I’m here,’ and she can’t see who’s on the other side of the fence, and she gets really spooked and calls the police.
"I’m outside her house waiting, and two cop cars come out of nowhere and they fucking apprehend me. It was crazy, but I told them my story and they’re like ‘Well if she I.D.s you, then it’s okay.’ But I mean this girl is great, man. I never would’ve thought. Never ever. What are you gonna do? Gotta go with it."
The fact that Keith doesn’t give pause to punctuate his arrest story, something like, “Crazy, right?,” before launching into how much he loves this girl I feel is quite telling. More than any recent songwriters that I personally think deserve recognition, Keith can write the shit out of songs about love, which is not to say a love song. He also writes anti-love songs, breakup songs, mournful songs, but always centered around ideas of love and longing.
In “Irrational Love,” off More, the narrator is basically breaking up with someone with whom he’s grown too comfortable because he wants to go out and find a crazy, enrapturing fling, to feel the rush and tumble of fresh love, which is really all he wants from love in the first place. In “Love is in the Air” the singer treats abstract love as a cognizant, but very dumb, kind of child or pet:
Love doesn’t know that there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to go
Love doesn’t see, that you’re not still in love with me…
Love has no eyes, no tears to cry, and love doesn’t understand goodbyes
Love doesn’t care if you prance around in your underwear…
NB: The mention of girls in their underwear is not a rare thing on More.
My favorite Shivers anti-love song, a song from a turning point in a presumably bigger love story, is the first track from In the Morning, “Just Didn’t Need to Know,” wherein the singers reveals in the chorus parts:
There wasn’t room in your tomb for a bride and groom
I know that you been fucking other boys, I just can’t figure out whom
I learned so many things about you I just didn’t need to know
But I can’t help myself, I’m sick, I still love you so.
And this, I think, is one of the things that defines Keith’s songwriting: this understanding of love as an irrepressible, inescapable demon possession, something that drives men to act in ways, to feel and say things, that they never would if sober of this overwhelming, otherworldly inhabitation.
I bring up Keith’s rapper alter-ego, Sad Eyes Zarriello, of which I’d read and heard only vague accounts.
Before moving on, I should stress that Keith’s songwriting style and voice have been reasonably compared to: Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Lou Reed. This is not a voice you expect to spit rhymes at you.
He placidly replies, “I have a new rap called ‘Chicken Face,’ and I really think that it’s going to sweep the nation.” He says this with such a lack of irony that when I crack a smile, he doesn’t reinforce the assertion with something like “I’m serious.” He just turns to the bar and orders his beer.
"I actually am a really good rapper. I think that I’m just gonna let it all combine. If The Shivers have another album, I mean, why can’t you put a sad folk song next to a legit rap song? I grew up listening to rap, and I’m not even saying I like rap, but I just somehow can do it. I’m probably the best white rapper that’s ever lived. I’m not even kidding. I’m like a thousand times better than Eminem.” This is either a really well-rehearsed joke or he’s being completely honest, and I wonder, if I were secretly the world’s sickest white rapper, would I be able to discuss this fact without cracking a smile?
I’m tempted to ask for a preview but don’t, which I kind of regret.
If Keith is anything, he’s torn between his lofty youthful dreams and ideals about capital-r Rock and the practicalities of being a struggling musician in the post-industry-dominated, social-media-obsessed musical landscape, which if you don’t know, can feel as oppressive as things must have felt for the weirdos relegated to selling home-dubbed tapes out of ratty suitcases during the record-label megalomania of yore. More is their fifth official album (Sunset Psalms, a scrapped but zip-available effort, and Keith’s solo album Truants from Life notwithstanding), and it’s a tragedy to me (and many of their rabid fans) that they’re somehow not rocking the charts.
On the difficulties of finding the perfect backing band, which is something that’s eluded The Shivers:
"I’ve given up that dream of a band of friends who grew up together and form this creative force. ‘Session player’ has always been a dirty word in my mind, but if you think about the session players on, like, Stax or Motown, those were the most soulful players that ever played. Everybody knows the rhythm section is the fucking band. You don’t have that, you don’t have shit."
On the current state of music:
"I want there to be bands today that I can worship like the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, Marvin Gaye and you can just pour your heart out and just scream, "I love you!" I try to stay current, but there isn’t shit in indie rock these days."
On the life of the artist:
"I’m on two parallel paths: one side is like ‘I’m an artist who’s all about solitude, political activism, blah blah blah,’ and the other’s just like, ‘Marry this girl, and love her and you’re not gonna change the fucking world.’ I feel that both feelings are equally valid and I think there’s a way to do both at once. Like be a revolutionary and at the same time have a wife and kids and just be a fucking plumber or whatever."
"However we’ve been doing things is probably not the way to do it."
The third and, thus far, last time I saw The Shivers was at an enormous 11-band house party in Fort Greene put on by The Señors of Marseille. The Shivers went on at around midnight or 1:00 (the last band went on at 5:00 AM, to give you a better idea of how long this shindig went on), and the technical difficulties were legion. Keith had fired the backing band they’d found through their friends, Deertick, and they were performing as a duo, with the addition of a drum machine Keith had preprogrammed for all the songs.
First the keyboard wasn’t coming through the P.A., then the drum machine, and all the while their clueless asshole of a manager decided he was somehow qualified to futz with the soundboard despite, and in direct opposition to, the highly qualified people working to solve the problem. The interregnum lasted a set-length When they finally started, they struggled through their first song, trying to keep in time with the stilted drum beat that didn’t quite fit; it was disappointing for the audience and visibly taking a morale-toll on the band.
A few measures into the second song, either Keith or Jo accidentally stepped on the RadioShack-quality wire connecting the drum machine to the P.A., cutting it off, which was clearly when Keith had enough. He swung the (borrowed) guitar he was playing into the (The Señors’s) drum kit (several times), screaming at the situation and his frustration and a little bit at Jo. Owners of respective instruments rushed to the ad hoc stage to calm him. More than a few hecklers could be heard, and even more than that were livid onlookers mumbling angry commentary among themselves.
Keith took a moment to calm down. He apologized left and right, suddenly so repentant that it seemed not unlike a blacked-out friend calling you up the next day to see if everything’s cool. He apologized to the audience. He muttered, “I have some anger issues that I’m trying to work out. We’re just gonna play one song and get out of here. Thank you. Sorry,” at which point they launched, sans canned drums, into the title-track from More, a bit shaky at first, but they got their feet under them and played one great song, though admittedly much of the crowd wasn’t won over.
The next day they flew out for a brief, completely sold-out UK tour. They recently played their first show in over four months at the Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint.