Words by Andrew Fetter
Back in July 2019 (which seems like such a long time ago now), I saw The Life and Times open for the legendary Jawbox at The Metro in Chicago. Frontman Allen Epley has a special history with Jawbox as frontman for the band Shiner. And even though it was a different band, it still felt like the 90s post hardcore world had come full circle.
Jump to 9 months or so later and there’s a new Shiner record in the world called Schadenfreude. A world that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. A world where new music might not be on the forefront of everyone’s minds. And at the same time having a record like Schadenfreude probably makes the most sense. Opening track “In The End” is Shiner’s version of “the world-is-ending life is so hard, we all die alone, but I’ve got you and that makes all the difference.” Which despite it being written months prior to the world entering its current state, it seems all the more fitting.
Off Shelf: When I saw you open for Jawbox with The Life And Times I have to ask: did a lot of memories start coming back, given Shiner’s history with them?
Allen Epley: Definitely. It’s strange to have such a long past with each band honestly. Besides it just being a great show, it was kind of a surreal moment for multiple reasons. By that time we had already been working on the new Shiner record. At the same time The Life And Times were playing shows, since we had just re-released our second record, Tragic Boogie, on vinyl, which we never had a real chance to tour behind unfortunately.
OS: So given that the process had already begun, at what point did the four of you decide it was time to start making new music?
AE: We had been able to do so many reunion shows over the past 5 or 6 years, when we were re-releasing all of our old records on vinyl. So we had a chance to get used to playing together again, just remembering how it felt. And then at a certain point we thought “should we try and write something?” But then you figure out how to do that across three different cities.
So the first song we wrote was called “Paul P Pogh”. That set off this spark between Josh [Newton, guitar] and I, then we were sending things back and forth through the internet. And we then ended up with the first song on the record “In The End”. And so I was able to take that and wrote this middle part that was very Stravinsky-esque. Well, more Wagner actually.
And so we kept having those really successful moments and we realized “well shit, we could actually do this.” So we started getting together in Champaign, Illinois at our buddy Matt Talbot’s studio. Matt was the singer in the band Hum. We would just go there for 2 or 3 days at a time and just practice and write. A lot we ended up tossing a lot aside. Good conversation starters for sure, but just not strong enough to hold our interest. We ended up with 6 or 7 songs that we really liked. We didn’t want to just release an EP. It’s tough to get enough press, unless you’re a bigger band or you have another full length coming up behind the EP. “Swallow” and “O Captain” ended up being written to round the whole record out and tie it all together. And we recorded “Swallow” in those three different cities, it was a good use of all the technology that’s available.
OS: One of the first things I noticed listening to Schadenfreude is that it doesn’t pick up where you left off with The Egg. It sounds like the record Shiner would have made in 2020 if you had still been a band for all these years.
AE: Yeah, I think we would have been fools to try and write a follow up to The Egg. It would have been impossible, we’re in such different places now. It’s smarter to pull on where we’ve grown to.
OS: Right, because The Egg was this really technically complicated riffs and beats and this record has a lot more of a slower almost darker feel.
AE: I think the record is dark. I feel like it’s not too heavy handed with the darkness. There is always this brightness at the end of a lyric that can sometimes be ironic, sometimes not. I don’t feel that it’s dark for darkness’ sake. I’m not trying to write horror rock. It’s just not how my thought process works. I want this to be a record you can put on in the morning or late at night and also driving from point A to B. And I think a lot of the lyrics will resonate with these days.
OS: You started a podcast last year called Third Gear Scratch, in which you talk to other people in the arts and how they make a living, and quite often it’s not the stories you would expect. What sparked your interest in telling those stories?
AE: People should know that great things happen in the arts. I’m still continuously amazed with all the experiences I’ve had and what other people that I’ve been in contact with have had.
I guess I’ve always carried a certain chip from college; you know, your business major friends always ask what the fuck you’re going to do with a music degree or a theatre degree. Because there are plenty of great jobs in the arts, many of which pay very well, but you’re not going to see them on the cover of Rolling Stone or on the red carpet. And on the other side, there are people in the arts who you would think are rich who actually are not. Just because you see an actor on a Netflix series, they could still be picking up a brunch shift at a restaurant in LA. I feel like it was important to explore the real lives of real artists. Figure out the how and why and also how they supplement it. I mean, I have two bands and we make money, but only when we’re on the road. Or if there’s a newly released record and there’s an influx of downloads. We don’t tour constantly and I do have a family to support. I play with Blue Man Group in the band and I also bartend at a pretty cool whiskey bar called Longman & Eagle. Those other gigs give me a really flexible schedule to do band stuff.
So I started talking to people in a similar situation but also doing really great things. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have been in Blue Man Group. It’s a well paying gig, but people jump off because they don’t want to do it for the rest of their lives. And then they come back and do fill in or bench work. To them that’s their “day job”. I’m just exploring how these people live and how they got to that point. And it’s a totally different world now. You can do more to create a brand, if you will. All you need now is a decent YouTube following.