Since spotting him over twenty-five years ago, sitting on a bench in an oversized G ‘n’ R shirt, long curly hair tendrlling down over his acoustic guitar, I’ve treated Mishka Shubaly, despite him being only marginally younger, like a little brother, minus all the protect a support parts. For reasons best explained to a theoretical therapist that I really should get around to seeing one of these days, I’ve mocked Mishka, fought with him, whined when he chastised me for being an hour late to band practice, denied him like Jesus when he was too loud at the bar. I have the distinction of, long before he was a six foot forever, built for speed MMA silver fox or a best-selling Amazon author (profits from which he bought his mom a house)/Yale writing instructor, being jealous of Shubaly early, when he was just good at fighting and drinking and picking up ladies but his resume was otherwise pretty thin, and acting accordingly. I even egged his bed. And how has Shubaly responded to a literal lifetime of crapulence and bitter misdirected rage? He’s protected me from bullies, helped pay my rent, saved my bands, gotten me published and helped, with steady guidance and clear eye of what makes writing “good,” make sure what did get published didn’t suck. What a weirdo. I would have pushed me over the porch railing years ago.
Not particularly inclined towards contrition for its own sake, I’m delighted that I like Mishka’s new album, When We Were Animals, very much. It’s a catchy collection of overwrought and wrought-just-right, doom and zoom power ballads. Written over the course of years spent on couches and vans, in out of love, pre and post sobriety; the songs collectively form a bracing portrait both of a man honestly assessing himself and the characters who habitually orbit the type. Sure there’s self-loathing but, and maybe it’s just me, there’s fun and empathy to be had. I’m just saying that everybody on the album gets it in the end, but the givers are afforded their due credit. With a boogie tilt , guest appearances from Cait O’Riordan from The Pogues and Star Anna, this is, god save us, Shubaly’s most mature and compelling work to date. He maintains the balance of pathos and wry humor that is signature in his non-musical writing but the “outsider” rawness of his earlier albums is, to my mind thankfully, shed. Also, Mishka sings high notes a few times and I dig it.
Shubaly was kind enough to answer some impertinent questions about the record and about his process. I started off by giving him shit for his press kit. Old habits die hard.
Sooooo….. this record is framed as depiction of a misogynist struggling to become a feminist. In 2018, that’s pretty fucking convenient timing isn’t?
Damn you, Zachary. Well, no, not really. I keep trying to quit music. In 2005, I tried to make a perfect record, or at least a cohesive record. It kinda flopped. “Coward’s Path” (2014) was intended as sort of a ‘last call’ for my songwriting career that never was. So this record started as another last call– clearing out all the songs I had finished so I could move on with my life. Once a record’s done, that’s really when you can look back at it and sort of analyze what it’s about. I do think this record shows some growth, some forgiveness… and in between that, some of the darker shit that merited growth and that merits more growth. So no, I didn’t set out to make a record about moving past misogyny. But when I listen back, that’s some of what I hear. Evolution is a long, slow, ugly process.
Ah, that makes sense. That’s (another) illustration of the dangers/merits of attempting to set a narrative for a piece of art after the fact. So is this sort of a Worst Of (emotionally) Mishka? I’m not trying to be glib, just get a better handle of how you see the album as it IS rather than what it might be taken as…if that’s even possible…
It’s funny, after an infinite number of listens to a seemingly infinite number of mixes, the words feel so old that I don’t even really key in to what’s being said. But that’s a cop out… each song has its own lyrical vision and they’re drawn from different times in my life. Yes, there is some genuine ugliness here. The opening track concludes with a revenge suicide– the narrator killing himself in his girlfriend’s bed. But then, he’s effacing himself throughout the song, so that makes sense narratively. He embraces casual misogyny, stylized misogyny through quoting a Raymond Chandler line, and literal fear-of-women misogyny. This is a song I started writing maybe 11 years ago. The sentiments in it are at times flip, at times sincere for that moment, for the man I was at that time. Do I have some reservations about putting it out into the world? Sure! It’s not something I’d want an impressionable mind to encounter and think “ah, this is what makes a man.” But hey parents, they’re your kids, not mine.
When I was completing the lyrics for this record, whenever I had an opportunity to edit the words, I always pushed myself to be emotionally true to how I felt in that moment, instead of how I think I should have felt. The results are dark and problematic at times, but that’s preferable to me than something socially acceptable and insincere.
Yeah. And I promise we’ll talk about the actual music in a sec. I wonder A LOT about these sort of lyrics, and a lot of my own lyrics and fiction, where the narrator/us is portraying this kind of “god how terrible I was/am as a man” and how one avoids that being a sort of reverse bragging. Like, man, I sure was powerful and sexy enough to hurt a lot of people…. Conversely, what can we write about, if not what utter shits we’ve been? Making stuff up is hard…
I agree, it’s a conundrum, and it’s a sticky one. I think a lot of folks are disappearing their personal narratives into abstraction as a means of evading accountability. There’s a phrase in AA, “the piece of shit in the center of the universe,” which I think sadly describes the affliction I suffer from, a combination of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing. I mean, it’s all narcissism. And… it’s what I’m best at! I don’t say this as a means of avoiding responsibility for anything I’ve said or written but, for me, songs can feel like dreams: just stuff that comes out of you when that you seem to have little control over and, in the moment, it’s difficult to understand what it means. I don’t intend for any of my music to be inspiring or uplifting– that feels like new age propaganda or music for a Nike commercial or something. I feel like my lyrics are more like pumping someone’s stomach, like “well, let’s find out what finally killed him.” There’s ugly stuff there, but I’m more comfortable with ugliness than I am with dishonesty. I will point something out, too: the song “Animals” (which ended up supplying the title for the album) is not written just from my voice or from a male voice. It came directly out of conversations I had with songwriter Star Anna while we were on tour together. I don’t think I could have written it without her friendship, and I don’t think I would have recorded it without knowing that she was going to take half the vocals. And it came out of conversations I’ve had with ex-girlfriends and old lovers. You know, you get together for coffee one weekend after a couple years of not speaking to each other and rehash all the shit you did to each other when you were young… and then you laugh. Because it is monstrous and it is evil and it is degrading and dehumanizing… and also, in our circle of friends, well, that was just our 20s. We were fucking animals.
I think that’s an important point. When you were doing work on your memoir, I remember you did a lil apology tour by phone of exes and were a little deflated when a lot of them were like “well…you weren’t THAT bad. You were a good time and I was a mess.” Gotta allow motherfuckers a certain amount of agency in their own fuck ups. Even if that fuck up is you. Plus, the line where you call your dick “the world’s smallest violin” is pretty funny. Do you think of what you do as belonging to a particular folk or country or, god help us, punk tradition?
Having had a couple years to think about it obsessively, yes, I’m grateful to be sober and proud of the changes I’ve made and I feel incredibly lucky that people have around me have been so gracious and forgiving… and yeah, though I may have been the worst person in the world in my head, my social transgressions fall solidly within the realm of normal human shittiness. I was relieved and disappointed to find out that I wasn’t a monster, just a drunk. But also, one of the things we’ve discovered on social media is that women are often more forgiving of women being treated badly than men are, simply because women have had to forgive bullshit since they gained consciousness. It’s fucking sticky, Zack, it’s deep and it’s dark, it’s an abandoned coal mine in the middle of an oil slick at the bottom of the ocean.
One of the things I find that always affects my lyric writing is just base survival on the road. We were talking about progressive liberal comics who tend to chastise people for their politics rather than delivering laughs. I once asked a comic “Have you ever backed away from talking about something political because of the room you were in?” He said he hadn’t, and I told him that he was a better person than I was. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not and I’m not going to sell myself or my values out… but there have certainly been nights at the end of a long tour where I haven’t played a song or done a bit because I needed to not get punched and instead just sell a couple of T-shirts and get the fuck out of there. I’m not proud of that, but that’s the bleak reality for a songwriter on the road. Comics gotta get laughs. Musicians gotta deliver hooks. I try to do both while doing the least amount of harm possible. This ain’t a perfect world.
That particular song–“World’s Smallest Violin”– yeah, I’m proud of that one as it’s a send-up of all the shit we just talked about: men self-obsessively pitying themselves for being so pitiably self-obsessed. It’s a love letter to John Prine and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. I think I would lump myself in with “outlaw country” if outlaw country didn’t just feel like a racist way to sell bourbon. I like the outliers, folks who don’t really fit in. Our touchstones for this record were PJ Harvey, Mark Lanegan and JJ Cale. Each of those artists sort of fall in to a genre… but don’t disappear into it, they’re larger than the genre itself.
Well, I respectfully disagree with your comedian friend. I think the people we inhabit space with’s feelings have as much value as whatever “true” thing we feel compelled to share. But I guess it depends if one is talking about a room full of Trump fans or a room full of women who don’t feel like hearing a rape joke. Like you say, it’s sticky and I don’t know that hard fast rules help anyone. “Read the room” as they say… ANYWAY, as a sober person, do you get any visceral pleasure out of writing about drinking and drugs? Like, it’s always struck me how much a movie like Leaving Las Vegas makes me want to drink or how Jesus’ Son made me want…whatever it was he was doing…
Ah, yeah, to be fair, he was talking about liberal proselytizing, not rape jokes. I’m not friends with many folks who tell rape jokes.
(and I don’t tell rape jokes OR abortion jokes cuz it’s not my turf)
Yes, I fucking love thinking/ talking/ writing about the bad old days. It took me a long time to get there. I was really reluctant to return to playing a lot of these songs after I got sober because it felt like they ran counter to my life now. When I was a kid, my mom always said “you don’t need alcohol to have a good time.” She was right. Also, you don’t need alcohol to have a bad time, Mom, if that is your real name.
Sorry, where were we? Right, yeah, it’s fun to recall staying up till 5 drinking a bottle of tequila and doing a ton of blow and then getting up two hours later to go to work when I was 23… because I can just remember the little parts of it I want and not remember the other parts where I literally prayed to a God I don’t believe in to send down a lightning bolt like Zeus to kill me just so I could stop shitting. I have a more holistic approach to my life now. I understand that I couldn’t be who I am without having done all the shit I’ve done. One thing I’ll say in praise of alcoholism and addiction is that it really taught me empathy. Before I got really bad, I would see people on the street and think “Man, how the hell did you get there?” Now I understand very well how someone could get there, and that’s made me more compassionate.
I will say this (and the sober folks will hate this): I do not regret a single drink or drug I took. That’s how I feel right now, I’m being honest and it’s true. In three minutes, I will regret every drink I ever took, every drug I ever took. It goes back and forth. I’m not going to say “Yeah, it was abject misery, every single day of those long 17 years…” No, man. Some of it was really fun.
I feel like a total hypocrite sometimes telling people not to drink, like “Don’t drink or do drugs because if you do… you may turn those mistakes into a career as a successful author and get away with it entirely!” But then, hypocrisy is a normal human condition, a dish best served all the damn time.
Yeah, I consider hypocrisy the most forgivable of sins. Though, I guess that’s pretty fucking convenient for me. I want to talk about your (singing, not author) voice for a minute…
First of all, before I stick the knife in, I LOVE your voice on this record. You do things you’ve never done and the high stuff and screaming gets me real REAL good. That being said, you have a pretty distinctive voice. The mekons lyric “You said my voice sends shivers down (put splinters in) your spine/The sound of failure and cold water running” comes to mind. It’s a raw thing. Seeing as how these songs were written over years, was there a lot of thought put into how you’d sing them? How do you see your singing?
Oh man. I feel like I’ve done too many hallucinogens because at this point in my life, I can see many sides to any argument. I loathe the sound of my voice. On a good day, I think it sounds like a bull walrus dying slowly. And some people like it so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Probably the most succinct comment I’ve ever heard on my voice (and I’ve heard this several times) is “your voice… it’s not good.” I don’t care. Singing brings me joy. Or the closest to joy I am capable of experiencing.
I think it was Karl Rove who said “you fight the war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.” I understand that my voice is technically limited so I worked on this record to put the songs in keys that made my voice sound good. We almost succeeded. Almost.
Yeah, it’s strange to me how, in this music world that’s ostensibly so indebted to punk and no wave, people still want vocals that sound like a pillow (even if it’s a loud shouty pillow). Everybody can and should sing. Is there different weight put, by you, on your lyrics than the song that support them? I guess by saying “support” I’m already putting my thumb on the scale, but you may feel different!
I often spend a lot of time on lyrics. I started writing “World’s Smallest Violin” in 2005. Yeah, that’s more than ten years for a three and a half minute dick joke. In my mind, yeah, it’s the lyrics that carry my songs, not my voice, not the instrumentation, not the arrangements. I’m indebted to James Sparber for the arrangement/ production work he did on this record as I’m indebted to Erik Nickerson for the arrangement/ production work he did on Coward’s Path. But to be honest, I think both of those guys would tell you that I came in with catchy melodies and good chord progressions, strong bones for each of the songs. We grew up around a lot of really talented musicians and I always felt deeply insecure about my own lesser gifts… so I worked really hard at it. It’s infuriating now to go and learn a song by Fred Eaglesmith that’s three fucking chords–never even changes for the chorus!–that’s better than anything I’ve ever written. You never get there, I guess.
Well, self loathing aside, you must feel as though there’s worth to what you do. I’d hate to think you were intentionally wasting all our time. And lest you start to feel smacked around… I REALLY DIG THE RECORD
Music has made my life much harder than necessary. And I love it like I love nothing else. And dude, I felt smacked around from the first question, you prick.
Never should have forgiven the money I owe you. I’m free, baby! But, I guess what I’m saying is that you’re brutally honest about your own flaws so shouldn’t that encompass your gifts as well? We both come from a background where all the bands we loved were wildly self-depreciating but Isn’t that equally important? Or is that spelled out in the plain fact of releasing music into the world?
When my ship came in with Amazon, it made me really happy because I honestly felt like “if this can happen for me, it can happen for anyone.” Seven years after I first “got lucky” with them, many of my friends whose writing I esteem far beyond my own are still struggling to make ends meet, even occasionally having to borrow $200 from old buddies. Without my honesty, I feel like I would disappear… so yeah, I will reluctantly cop to being able to put an unlikely hook together and occasionally write songs that move folks.
So do you think of yourself as writer first, musician second or vice versa or do you not think that way?
Until I’m forced to decide between them at gunpoint, I won’t.
Mishka Shubaly is currently on tour in the US and UK.