The Tao Of Shags Chamberlain

SINCE Shags Chamberlain left Melbourne a few years ago, he’s popped up playing in Ariel Pink and Weyes Blood’s live bands and has been making a name for himself on the LA scene as a studio production wizard and a DJ about town.

I was curious to trace Shags’ journey here, all the way back to Port Fairy: the very quaint, little Victorian seaside village where he grew up. I visited Shags in his rambling Highland Park house where he lives, high among the San Rafael hills in northeast Los Angeles. This is where the Shags studio magic happens. We drank some tea, listened to records, and got into some deep vibes.

(Below is the edited transcript of a soon-to-be-published podcast called The Witching Hour.)

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Thanks for coming out to LA to find me. That’s what you’re here for, right?

It’s why I’m here. It’s what’s brought me here to the hills, the beautiful surrounds. We can see all these amazing mountains and hills out behind your kitchen. I wanted to ask you a little bit about what brought you here to Los Angeles and about the work you’re doing here; just connecting the dots all the way back to Port Fairy, if we can trace that journey … Were synthesisers and keyboards your first instrument?

No, actually. Here’s where we can try and trace my steps, my musical steps, all the way back to Port Fairy. I pretty much didn’t start playing music until I was around 21. I moved to Melbourne and was at art school. I just started teaching myself guitar, every night after school, and would pretty much just play until I fell asleep.

Back when I was still in Port Fairy, I noodled around a little bit just because some friends had bands and things, but nothing too serious. I was a music fan, importantly. Like a real crazy fan. I was already a record collector back then. That informed my musical direction, I guess.

What sort of records were you collecting back then?

Back then, it was still a little bit of everything, but it was probably geared to more psychedelic rock, I guess. I’d kind of started with The Rolling Stones, which is a great place to start for music. You can branch out into a lot of different genres from there and discover a lot of bands. I just kind of, at that point, gravitated towards the more ’60s psychedelic stuff. That eventually leads to Pink Floyd, of course. Pink Floyd leads to prog rock and then prog rock leads to international prog rock.

From there, you discover a hell of a lot interesting things. Once I would discover a whole band’s catalogue or a whole genre, I would then pick a country, then I would discover the pop-rock and jazz or whatever of that particular country. I was just a crazy fan.

"[I've] always been sober. It actually dates back to that critical time, 15 to 20, when people start experimenting with things and I just couldn't. For my health, I just couldn't."

You were actually collecting records geographically?

Geographically and I still do … I think it worked out pretty well. Now, as more of a touring musician, you get to go to those places and go to the record stores and just straight up ask them for local stuff from particular eras with particular sounds and usually turn up a lot of really interesting stuff.

I don’t know if this is part of the origin myth of Shags – I might not even have the story right at all – but were you a budding sportsman when you were younger?

I was, actually. I guess I still am to a degree. I was pretty athletic. I played basketball, football, tennis, badminton, athletics, long distance running. All that sort of stuff. That is kind of true. I never got to fully see the potential of all that stuff. I got really sick when I was a teenager. I got chronic fatigue syndrome. That really just knocked me out for a good five years, not really being able to do much for a good five years, from like 15 to 20.

Well, that’s a pivotal age to be so debilitated for such a physical person.

Yeah, it was devastating, but art was always a big part of my life. I just focused more on that as what was going to be a future. What was going to get me out of my hometown, get me off the farm. That’s kind of what happened. I got into art school. Health just slowly improved from then until now and eventually gravitated more towards music.

Actually, during that time was actually really pivotal, when I was sick. It drove me into music exploration to the maximum … The kind of stuff that was actually a lot more relaxing and meditative because that was the situation I was in. That’s kind of what I needed. I didn’t want a crazy – well, actually I was listening to crazy music as well. Music was actually pretty therapeutic for me during that time and quite healing, I would have to say. Yeah, [it was a] pivotal time that shaped my musical future and musical tastes.

Is there any music that relates to that time?

It’s kind of the obvious things. It’s like when Pink Floyd started doing extended jams and doing more experimental and expressive music. That had a huge impact on me and everything that came after, like ambient music after. They would have a whole side of a record that is just ambient music. You’ve got the German bands that were completely influenced by that and then they invented ambient music.

Pink Floyd [was] when I first worked out what a delay pedal was. I was like, “I’ve got to get a delay pedal before I even have an instrument.” Some of those really warm, synth pad sounds were from Pink Floyd records. That inspired me to want to buy a synthesiser. They have electronics and their lead synth sounds with delay. I wanted to be able to make those sounds, too, and be able to paint images with sound as much as just wanted to rock out on a guitar.

It’s funny that you talk about Pink Floyd because they’re kind of the stereotypical teenage stoner band that a certain type of kid gets into.

Yeah, well we’ve gotta give the stoners some credit for being able to tap into it. I mean, there’s some legitimate respect for Pink Floyd on that level.

Absolutely. Music history is full of people who’ve accessed visionary places through drugs and alcohol. You, yourself, are sober or have been a lot of the time that I’ve known you.

[I’ve] always been sober. It actually dates back to that critical time, 15 to 20, when people start experimenting with things and I just couldn’t. For my health, I just couldn’t. A lot of the time, physically, I probably just couldn’t. Whether I would have, who knows? I’m still a pretty crazy guy even without that stuff.

So you’re going to art school and have picked up guitar and synthesisers and…

I picked up guitar and, eventually, I kind of taught myself how to play keyboard just from what I knew on guitar. I was just like, “Okay, that’s those notes and there’s those notes on the keyboard. Cool.” I would just learn to play my favourite songs just by ear, basically, and the occasional guitar tab. I was training my ear from right away, basically. Eventually, music just took over. What did I do? I got onstage with The Smallgoods one day and then I’ve just been in bands ever since.

That’s when I first met you when you were playing in The Smallgoods.

Yeah, I couldn’t play. I was just making it up as I went along, even back then, but it worked out okay.

You were almost on vibes in The Smallgoods. You were adding these textures. They seemed like something extra that you brought to the songs.

Yeah, true. I guess I’m still doing that to this day, really. In any band I’ve ever been in, I usually just instinctively bring balance. If it’s too rocking, then I mellow it out a little bit. If it’s too mellow, then I make it rock more. It’s something that I’ve done.

"I always say that people who are really, really good mixers are probably really, really good at chess. It's like every little move effects everything. It's like a ripple in a pond kind of effect."

On the way here, when I was coming to interview you, I had this sudden memory of a flyer. We always used to hand out flyers in those days for shows. In the pre-internet days. There was a flyer for a DJ night. It would have everyone’s names. It would have Ben Mason (Smallgoods), Joe McGuigan (Ground Components), and then it had Shags (Shags).

 

Actually, I remember that. Yeah.

That always seemed quite emblematic to me that you were kind of your own category.

Yeah, I guess that’s true. I just bring my own vibe to the party.

There were a series of great Melbourne bands that you were involved with Pikelet, Lost Animal, Sophia Brous…

Yep. What else did I do? Pets With Pets. Produced their record, recorded that … The Ca$inos, which at the time I thought was the best band that I would ever be in.

With the dollar sign as the ‘s’.

That’s right. Yeah, really good musicians in that band; Gus [Franklin], Donza [Ben Donnan], and Ben Browning. That band has actually spawned a lot of stuff. Everyone in that band is pretty well established in many other things now. Gus, who was in The Smallgoods as well, Architecture in Helsinki, and a good producer and solo artist in his own right. Ben Browning is now in Cut Copy.

Mark Wilson before that as well [from] JET… I remember I got some offers for big bands as well. Quite a lot of interesting things. Of course, Donza is Donza from Donza.

I think the reason we’re both sitting here today in Los Angeles is Ariel Pink. That was the first time Ariel worked with you and collaborated with you was when my partner Ash and I decided to bring Ariel to Australia.
I remember that very, very distinctly. We were at a gig. We were sitting at a table and you said to me, “Hey Shags, give me some music to listen to.” I was like, “Okay. You got it. How about you check out Le Orme, this Italian band.” I don’t know if you ever checked them out … Also Ariel Pink. I was like, “You’ve gotta check out this album, Worn Copy.” Not long after that you were like, “We’re going to start a label [Mistletone] to put out Ariel’s music, and we’re going to bring him out here.” And I was like, “I want to be involved.”

That set us both on different paths, both on life changing paths.
That’s true. The meeting and collaboration and friendship with Ariel Pink is another crucial point in my life … [We] got along really, really well. We’re both crazy music fanatics.

And he had asked me back then to move to LA around that time – in 2007, 2008 – he was still relatively underground. It wasn’t such a sure thing if just dropped everything and came out here. So I stuck around, stuck around Melbourne, and did my own thing for a while.

Eventually, on a Lost Animal tour, we came down the west coast from Seattle to LA. We got to town the day Ariel started Pom Pom. He called me and told me to come down to the studio and I pretty much just never left.

What was your involvement with Pom Pom? How did that start? Had you had much experience with recording before?

Of course. Many, many, many records I have been involved with, but not quite as spontaneous as how that record was made. I think he probably only had shown the songs to the other dudes the day before, I think … I literally walked in and he was about to start a take and I just played through on the practice run on bass. The next one or two takes was the take…

That first song we did was ‘Exile on Frog Street’. All the songs were pretty much made like that. I think we only did about seven in that session. I think they were all the [Runaways founder] Kim Fowley co-write songs from that record. We pretty much just learned the songs really quickly and then just did a couple of takes. They were the bed takes. Over time, there’d be some more overdubs and more songs would be introduced. We’d record them in different places as we went along.

My involvement was pretty heavy. I was there most of the time except for when I came back to Australia for a little bit … Throughout the whole mixing process, I was definitely a big part of that. I did a surprising amount of vocals actually on that record. I’d only ever done backup singing in my bands before, but I think Ariel wanted to have more characters and things on the record and I can do a lot of weird character voices and stuff.

Whenever there was a blank bit in the song he was like, “Hey, get up and do something.” [Laughs] Everyone was free to just get up an try something. It was a real free flowing, very spontaneous record. I think you can hear that.

It comes back, maybe, to that intuitive way of playing that we were talking about.

Absolutely. It’s just much more fun doing it that way, too. When you have fun, most of the time you get better results.

Yep. Those are words to live by.

I live by them.

Then you became a member of Ariel’s touring band.

Yeah, yeah. We toured pretty much Europe nonstop for all of 2015. We came back to LA for a couple of weeks to a month and then went on tour again. That was a great experience. That was something I hadn’t done before. I toured a lot, but I hadn’t done really extensive touring, like 30 to 40 days nonstop. A new day, a new city.

That was a good thing to learn. It’s actually really grueling. You can’t just party every night. You can’t stay up all night because you get sick. When one person gets sick, everybody gets sick, and then everybody hates the person who got everybody sick. Everyone’s pretty much trying to look after themselves.

You need to look after your mental health as well as your physical health, right?

Yep. That’s true.

Do you have any wisdom to share about that? I feel like it’s such a huge issue for all musicians and for those of us who work behind the scenes, too, is keeping mind, body, and soul together and travelling and communing so much.

Basically, you get rest where you can. One of the good things about tour is you eat well. You eat well, especially in Europe, because there’s always so much food provided and it’s usually pretty good quality. There’s always water around. You’re always drinking water, you’re always eating pretty well…

In terms of mental health, I’m not sure. That group that was touring Pom Pom, there was such a great camaraderie. We were always having fun; always laughing, always telling jokes, and always record shopping. That’s good for my mental health. Record shopping’s a high priority. Every opportunity, we’d get to a new town 40 minutes before we’ve got to go to soundcheck, I’d be off, I’d have a map, and I’d already worked out where the good record stores were.

 

You’ve worked on the other side of the record store counter too [at] Licorice Pie.

Yeah. Another really important part of my musical development is just having so much access to all kinds of crazy records. Licorice Pie, what a great store. I’ve been all over, checked out a lot of stores all over the world now. Apart from Japan, I’d have to say Licorice Pie is probably still the best one.

Can we talk a bit about the work you’re doing now in Los Angeles and the records you’ve worked on? We’re sitting here in your bedroom studio where the magic happens. You’ve been mixing a lot of records?

Yeah, I have been. I guess after touring Pom Pom, there was a bit of time off. It was even up in the air what Ariel was going to do or who was going to be involved. Eventually, he’s like, “Yep, going to make another record. Pretty much just going to do it by myself with Kenny [Gilmore, guitar/keyboards] helping out. I’ll pull people in as I need them along the way.” That was like, “Okay, cool.” I just busied myself with other stuff.

Even during 2015, I was working on stuff. I was working on the Krakatau stuff … I don’t want to say they’re jazz fusion, but they’re kind of a little bit jazz fusion. [Laughs] A little bit funky, but very very good. What else did I do in that time? Oh, yeah, I mixed the Drugdealer record [The End Of Comedy].

Amazing record.

Thank you very much. I’d have to agree. [It’s] very good. Mike [Collins], a great songwriter, did that. That kind of set me off as at least being known as a mixer. I was always involved with that sort of stuff in all the bands that I was in. I was always involved to a degree in the production and the mixing side of things, whether it was credited or not, but after doing that it’s like, “Okay, I can do mixing now.” I worked out how to do it solely, just on my laptop. I had enough good gear to be able to do a record start to finish, basically, independently.

You had no formal training in the dark arts of mixing?

No, no. I just learned stuff along the way. You just noodle around until stuff sounds good and then you work out ways of making stuff sound good. You work with someone who does something. They’ll teach you a new trick or you’ll observe a new trick and things like that. Eventually, you get to a point where you’re at a certain level where you can just do it.

It seems to me such an exciting part of bringing music into being. Whenever I watch people do it, it blows my mind. It must be a certain conceptual way of thinking, but still intuitive, to be able to manage and visualise all those different strands and how they come together to make the finished song.

It is quite a big operation and it is really, really exciting. It’s very creative, as well, which is good. You can be really, really expressive as well. You’ve just got so much control over the music, but it helps to have a vision. There’s always a lot of happy accidents, as well. You learn from that.

It’s an amazing thing. I always say that people who are really, really good mixers are probably really, really good at chess. It’s like every little move effects everything. It’s like a ripple in a pond kind of effect. If you’re working on a mix and the artist is in the room with you, they’ll say, “Can we turn this up?” It’s actually rarely as simple as turning it up. If you turn that up, something else is really affected, and then maybe several things are really affected … You’re always compensating.

You also work with another artist that I admire with all my heart who’s Weyes Blood. Did that come about through the Drugdealer connection or the Ariel connection?

No, not really. We actually met in New York when I first came to America for the Lost Animal tour whenever that was. It’s a long time ago now actually … 2013, I think. Almost exactly four years ago.

We just met in New York hanging out. Maybe it was only one or two nights, but then we exchanged emails and she sent me a record she was working on. There were some emails here and there. Eventually, we were both in Europe. I think we emailed a little bit, but we never actually crossed paths. She moved to LA. I’d gotten back to LA from a tour. We just started hanging out and just became good friends.

I think I might have already finished Drugdealer at that point where she sang on a couple of songs. She was like, “Hey, thanks for making my voice sound really great. No one’s ever really done that before.” I said, “Well, it was kind of easy. Your voice sounds pretty great.”

Can I ask you a little bit about living in Los Angeles. There’s so much mythology surrounding LA. What does that mean to you? The LA mythology.

LA’s pure mythology. It’s actually founded in a lot of very, very interesting stuff. You can see it on the surface for what it obviously is. There’s amazing people here. I think that’s probably the best thing about the city. It has incredible people.

Right now, there’s a great sense of community. I’m not sure if it’s always been like that. I guess there’s always been small, little communities all over because it’s a really, really spread out city. For some reason right now, a lot of people have moved here from all over America and, I guess, the world. There’s a lot of bands here. There’s a lot of collaboration going on, some really great music…

There’s also that very crass commercialism and moneymaking of LA as well, isn’t there?

Yeah. There’s a lot of industries here, but that provides a lot of opportunity.

It’s interesting to me that you have industry and money being made, deals being done, Hollywood, etc., but there’s also this epicentre of spirituality as well. It’s the home of the New Age gurus in music and in art, and also a lot of visionary stuff that comes out of LA.

California as well. It’s interesting. I can’t really explain why that is. It’s just a real can-do attitude here and maybe it just stems from that…

There’s also the natural beauty isn’t there? You look around, even here in the suburbs, every corner you turn, there’s breathtaking views.

Yeah, that’s the other best thing about LA. I like to say that no matter where you are in LA, you’re always 15 minutes away from nature at any point. It’s true. There’s always a canyon nearby or a lake or something. Even if you can’t really see it, it’s kind of hidden, it’s always there … There’s stuff going on in The Hills. You can feel it. You can feel that atmosphere. That’s a trademark of the city, as well. It influences a lot of things.

Well, thank you for sharing so much of your collection and your life with us Shags. Blessings for everything in Los Angeles. We’ll see you back in Australia some time.

Hopefully real soon.

"LA’s pure mythology. It's actually founded in a lot of very, very interesting stuff. You can see it on the surface for what it obviously is. There's amazing people here. I think that's probably the best thing about the city. It has incredible people."

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