Rollicking & Roaming & RubberBanding
Rollicking & Roaming & RubberBanding
A Q&A with Ryan Shupe
By Geoff Gehman
Ryan Shupe surfs a different wavelength. He’s a snowboarding, singing, song-writing, fifth-generation fiddler with a shaved head and a seriously sly sense of humor. For 18 years he’s been fronting the RubberBand, an elastic quartet that specializes in a hemi-powered hybrid called PostHeeHawFunkadelicNewgrass. The RubberBanders are Mormons who don’t perform concerts on Sundays because they want to devote more time to their families. Shupe is so devoted to his wife and four children, he participated in the interview below during a family bicycle trip, stopping the Q&A only to answer a spousal question and to calm a crying kid.
Shupe and his RubberBandmates will perform their rollicking, roaming revue on July 19 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, a favorite Northeastern joint for the Utah residents. Expect dashes and flashes of Johnny Cash, the Dave Matthews Band and AC/DC, three of Shupe’s favorite acts. On his bike he discussed everything from the unexpected rise in popularity of popular Mormon bands to the unexpected elevation of his corn-dog song to an anthem for show and school.
Q: You know, Ryan, I’ve been interviewing musicians for 34 years and you’re the first one who happens to be Mormon.
A: Really? That’s pretty unbelievable. Lately, there seems to have been quite a surge of popular Mormon musicians. The lead singer of Imagine Dragons [Dan Reynolds] is Mormon; so is the lead singer of the Killers [Brandon Flowers]. The Neon Trees are making pretty good headway, too. “Mormon rock ’n’ roll stars” seems like an oxymoron but, you know, whatever.
The concept of a popular Mormon musician is strange to some people. I’ve come to this funny conclusion that anyone east of Colorado thinks that Mormons are Amish. They ask: How did you get here? Do you drive? You’re actually allowed to play instruments? [laughs]
Q: You and the other RubberBanders don’t play concerts on Sundays. Is your decision largely religious?
A: Outside observers may think the Mormons are very strict. “Oh, they really crack their whip on members.” It’s not that way. It’s more like: Here are some guidelines; it’s up to you whether you follow them to the letter or not. Most everyone comes to the same conclusions on their own. Some Mormons might like to play gigs on Sundays. We take off Sundays because we want to spend a little more time with family. Playing gigs is what we do the rest of the week.
We also have Mormons who are professional football players. A lot of them are strong, devoted members who have to play NFL games on Sundays because they decided that’s their job.
Q: When you were a tyke your father, who’s also a fiddler, would wake you up at 5 a.m. to practice the fiddle for two hours. He also organized and supervised a band for you and other young musicians, the PeeWee Pickers. What’s the best lesson he taught you about balancing music as love and music as livelihood?
A: My dad is very persistent, and he has no fear of doing anything. The thing that he really drummed into my head is the mentality that everybody’s going to sit around and tell you how you should do it, but there are not many people who can actually do it. I remembered his advice when I started the band [in 1996]. Everybody said [incredulous voice]: “Start a band?” Their skepticism made me think even harder: “Yeah, I’m going to do it.” Musicians ask me: “How do you get from Point A to Point B?” And I tell them: “Just get in there, work hard, and keep going.”
My dad has more energy than anyone I know—even me. He has two young bluegrass groups, one with members between the age of 15 and 17 and the other one from 12 to 14. He’s had more people who’ve adopted him as their pseudo-music dad than anyone I know [laughs].
Q: Can you put your finger on a favorite memory of playing in the PeeWee Pickers? You certainly covered the waterfront from bluegrass fests to a gig for President Reagan.
A: I do remember playing for Reagan. But one of the most fun things we ever got to do was to play in Europe. It was great being able to travel around and see all the different cultures. We were just a bunch of kids on the train, going to different cities, having our senses opened, having a ball.
Q: I’m curious about the genesis of two songs on the RubberBand’s most recent record, “Brand New Shoes” (Tydal Wave Records, 2010). What the hell were you thinking when you wrote “Baldy,” which is the only song I know about the wonders of a cat.
A: It could potentially have been my dumbest song [laughs]. We were in Nashville, working on a country record, and [record executives] kept saying: “Your songs are too edgy or too smart for country.” One of the guys in my band then came to me and said. “Have you heard this song on the radio? It’s so dumb, it drives me crazy.” Well, within the week one of our contacts said: “You know, what you need to do is write a song just like this one,” and then he named the same song my band member was making fun of!
So I said to myself: Alright, I’ll write a country song. I started out with a story, and I threw in a country fair and trucks and cowboy hats and cowboy boots and the military and we had ourselves a country song. It was just friendly, tongue in cheek. [A sample line from “Baldy”: “And after radiation treatment she looks a lot like me”]
On the flip side, I do think country has a lot of potential and is one of the main kind of storytelling formats. It’s just not as innovative as I’d like it to be.
Q: How about the back story of “One of Those Guys,” your swipe at boring know-it-alls?
A: That’s another tongue-in-cheek treatment. Everybody knows somebody who insists they knew things were cool before they were cool. I always thought it was funny when I heard someone say: “Oh yeah, I liked that band before they were big, but now they’ve sold out and they’re not cool anymore.”
You know, we’ve probably played [“One of Those Guys”] in a show only once. We thought we’d get more of a rise out of it than we did. We thought for sure someone would either be offended by it or at least write about it. [Sample line: “He’s always jumping on the latest-greatest new-hip-political bandwagon/And he likes to listen to his own tongue on the waggin’”]
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you’ve released them to the great wide world. Is there a song of yours with a surprising afterlife?
A: “Dream Big” is an interesting case study [note: Shupe’s song became the theme of the 2005 TV show “Three Wishes,” hosted by singer Amy Grant]. I’ve had people tell me: “When I first heard it, I knew it was a hit.” And I go: “You did? “ I mean, I wrote that song, like, way back in ’94. It was kind of funny that I wrote it so long ago and it finally came into its own. Now, it’s probably one of our biggest songs. I always knew it was special but it definitely has continued to make its way in the world.
Q: Has one of your songs become a ritual at a wedding, a funeral or another rite of passage?
A: The corn-dog song [“Corn Dogs”] has taken on quite a life of its own. I originally wrote it as an experiment. I was playing a show at an elementary school and I wanted to make a folk song that would be easy for kids to remember and sing along. After all, all kids love corn dogs, right?
Well, it kept going and going. No matter where we go, we get requests for the corn-dog song. Fans bring corn dogs and sing along; it’s a ritual. We get emails from people at an elementary school or junior high school or a high school and they say: Every time we’re having corn dogs for lunch, they play a little snippet of your song over the PA. I once went to an elementary school where the whole place knew the song! I’ve heard of parents in the grocery store buying corn dogs and the kids will start singing “Corn dogs, corn dogs. “
All I can say is, well, mission accomplished. That song has perpetuated itself sheerly by word of mouth. It’s been ingrained—and ingested. Not that there are many corn-dog songs out there…
Q: For the record, do you and corn dogs agree?
A: Once in a while I’ll pop one out and eat it. I ate more corn dogs when I was single, in college. Corn dogs are always good; you just throw ’em in the freezer and they never go bad. It’s kind of like the song goes—they’re just a good staple food.
Q: What changes have you and your RubberBandmates made recently. I’m especially curious about Ryan Tilby deciding to play the banjo with tuning keys instead of fingers.
A: On our new record, “We Rode On,” we’re delving more into newgrass. It’s a little more rock ‘n’ roll, a little more anthemic, than our previous stuff. Most bands use the catchphrase “It’s edgier.” We’re not more edgy, lyric- or content-wise. We’re just trying to think a little more outside the box as far as sound is concerned. We’re spending more time, for example, on layering traditional instruments with non-traditional melodies.
Our music has always fit between Americana and Triple-A [Adult Album Alternative]. It’s a little too mainstream for mainstream Americana and not quite mainstream enough for Triple-A. Our booking agent told us: “Man, I specialize in bands that are unique, but you’re way, way more uncategorizable.” I think that’s great; that makes me proud.
When I went to Europe I was surprised that on the radio they’d play a punk-rock song and follow it with a Johnny Cash song. And I thought: That’s how it should be. We just play good music; we don’t care what category it is. That’s the whole point of art: Doing what you want, and creating what you think is new. I’m into anybody who’s an innovator, which is why I’m really into songwriters.
Q: Have you had any recent songwriting epiphanies, cloudy thoughts that after many years finally became revelations, characters that wouldn’t write themselves that finally wrote themselves?
A: I’m thinking of “We Rode On,” the title track of the new record [due out in early 2015]. It talks about times in the past and how we’re just moving forward. I don’t think I would have written that five or 10 years ago; as you mature, you find it’s easier to look backward and forward. I wrote “The Sun Will Listen” almost as if I was talking to my children. Obviously, I wouldn’t have written that unless I had children. Different angles come out when you have kids or when you’re a little bit older.
When I was in college I worked for the college newspaper. During a convocation we heard a speech by a journalist from Rolling Stone; after the speech, some of us went to lunch with him. Someone asked him: “What was your favorite interview?” And he said: “I’m so tired and sick of interviewing these 17- or 18-year-old pop stars who say they know all this stuff and I think: ‘You don’t know what you’re saying at all.’ Give me a musician who’s been performing and living for years, who has maturity.” And I thought: That sounds so interesting; here’s wisdom you can really use for years to come.
Q: What’s on your Bucket List?
A: Musical world domination—no, that’s a little too broad [laughs]. When I was a little kid, playing in the PeeWee Pickers, my dad told us: “What we want to get is a big tour bus.” When I became a band leader I added that to my own bucket list, along with playing at the Telluride [Col.] Bluegrass Festival and playing on [“The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”]. We got the first two things but not Leno, which was a pretty lofty goal. He’s retired, so that’s not going to happen unless he starts up a new show.
Oh, here’s another one for my musical bucket list: Playing on “Austin City Limits.” I’d also like to get on Garrison Keillor’s show [“A Prairie Home Companion”]. I know he loves humor and we have a little sense of humor.
Q: The way to really get to Keillor is through singing; I can’t think of anyone who loves singing more, or who can sing so many parts so well.
A: Hmmm. Maybe he’d like the corn-dog song.
Q: That could win him over. After all, he likes all those quasi-corny commercials that celebrate good ol’ American virtues–like corn dogs.
A: Well, anyway, “Austin City Limits” and “Prairie Home Companion” are big shows that, once you’ve performed on them, signify that you’ve reached a certain level of success. At least you feel you’re doing something right.
Q: And how about an item or three for your “Fuck It” List?
A: You’d think I’d be more bitter, but I can only think of one: I think I could lose White Castle burgers. Our bass player coaxed us into eating them for the first time and we all thought they were horrible.
Ryan Shupe: The Scoop
His first unforgettable song was the Police’s “Everything She Does Is Magic,” which he first heard as a 14-year-old member of a band whose older members dug the Police.
Two of his RubberBandmates, banjo player Ryan Tilby and guitarist Roger Archibald, played with him in String Fever, a Shupe family group directed by Shupe’s father.
He performed in Salt Licks, which won an international bluegrass competition sponsored by Pizza Hut, beating nearly 300 rivals, including the future bluegrass stars of Nickel Creek.
An amazon.com reviewer placed Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand’s 2002 “Live” CD on a list of 10 all-time favorite recordings, along with Yes’ “Going for the One” and Mahler’s first symphony.
He’s said that he learned a lot about people and writing songs about people during his two-year Mormon mission.
The narrator of his song “Banjo Boy” imagines himself as an unlikely rock star, “a cross between Bela Fleck and Eddie Vedder–but better.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Corn dogs agree with him–to a certain degree. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.