I'm happy we can talk about your music. 'Shoes' was formed in Zion, Illinois around 1974 by brothers John and Jeff Murphy, Gary Klebe and with incorporation of several others. You knew each other from high school, right?
John: Yes, Gary and I met as sophomores in high school. We hung out with the same group of guys at the time and kept in touch after we graduated. Gary, along with most of the others, left for college the following fall but I stayed back in Zion and attended a nearby junior college. He and I kept in touch and eventually discovered that we liked the same kind of music. We weren’t musicians then but we would bemoan the state of pop music at the time. In one of our conversations, I mentioned that my brother had just bought a reel-to-reel 4-track tape machine that allowed him to overdub and build sounds one at a time on tape and that piqued Gary’s interest. Before we knew it, we were bangin’ around in my parents’ basement, using a beat-up acoustic guitar, an autoharp, maracas, wood blocks…anything we could get a sound out of, since we couldn’t really play anything.
Jeff & John on Christmas day 1973. This picture was used for the Heads or Tails artwork.
This was your first band and I have an actual information you didn't play any instruments, so you learned them in about a year?
Gary: When we decided to start the band, other than a few guitar chords, we knew very little about music. We learned to play our instruments as we learned how to write songs and record. Our tape recorder was an important tool that allowed us the freedom to experiment through trial and error at our own pace. I think that our limited knowledge was a blessing in disguise. We learned the power of simplicity and the true meaning of “less is more”.
John writing lyrics for a song on One In Versailles, in his room at U of I Champaign, IL in November of 1975.
Soon you started recording an album titled 'One in Versailles', which I believe was a private press. How many copies were made and where did you got them pressed?
Jeff: The original release for the OIV LP was 300 copies, which we had pressed at a record plant in Chicago. It was the first time we manufactured vinyl LPs and we learned valuable lessons that would help us when we released the Black Vinyl Shoes LP, 2 years later.
I would really love if you could tell us how did this recording sessions looked like?
John: Jeff lived in a tiny house, more like the size of a garage. The drum kit was set up in the living room and the tape recorder and mixer was in the kitchen. I was away at school when Jeff would record but I assume he played guitar along with Barry (our drummer then) to get the basic track and then built it up with overdubs. Most of my material was recorded when I was home for a week during spring break. Again, I would show Barry and Jeff the proposed song on an acoustic guitar and record it with drums and then add bass and a vocal with Jeff manning the tape machine. Then Jeff might add some guitar fills or we’d do some background harmonies. Our playing wasn’t up to speed in those days so we’d punch in right before any mistake we’d make and then play out through the rest of the track. We were still just thrilled to be able to sound like a real band, even though that band only existed on tape.
Jeff tweaks the 4-channel TEAC 3340S at La Cabane in 1975.
John plays some guitar at La Cabane in early 1975.
Jeff plays some guitar at La Cabane in early 1975.
John tries his hand at drums during the One In Versailles sessions in early 1975 at La Cabane.
Why the name 'One in Versailles'?
Gary: Immediately after we finished recording our first album “Heads or Tails”, I spent a year in architecture school studying in Versailles, France. In an effort to keep the flow going, John and Jeff recorded One in Versailles while I was gone. Concerned that I might feel left out or frustrated, they decided to dedicate the album to me. They sent me a cassette of the album while I was still in France. I was completely blown away. More than ever, I wanted to get back and make more music.
Soon you began working on your second album, which you released on your own little label called 'Black Vinyl Records'. You pressed 1000 copies and then you started selling them at local shows and through 'Bomp! Magazine'. How did you get signed up by such a major label as Elektra Records in April 1979?
Jeff: The BVS LP was originally released on our label, Black Vinyl Records in mid-1977 and from that release, it generated interest from BOMP! and other indie labels. Greg Shaw from BOMP! was very helpful in advising us about the industry and setting up a "Fan Club" PO Box for mailings and contacts. He also introduced us to our future publishing administrator, Dan Bourgoise at Bug Music Group, who also went on to become our manager. By mid-1978 the indie distributor JEM Imports from New York signed a deal to re-release BVS on their label, PVC/Passport Records and that was released in the fall of 1978. Elektra discovered us from that re-release and offered us a deal in early 1979.
I believe your very first release was 'Heads or Tails'. It was only made as an acetate. How did you progress thru years? Do you believe you progressed not only technically but also as a songwriters?
John: Oh, sure. We could see progress every time we completed a project. We knew the kind of material we wanted to produce, but it was a slow evolution to get there. As we got more adept at playing, we’d seek out a better grade of gear: guitars, basses, drums, amps, effects, etc. Through the years, as we could afford it, we went from a 4-track tape machine to an 8-track and then a 16-track and a 24-track with 2-inch tape and, finally, digital, always trying to better ourselves as musicians and improve the sound quality of our recordings. As songwriters, we learned by emulating the kind of music that drew us to this in the first place. Our influences are ingrained in us without even having to think about it so we use our instincts about what makes an interesting melody or a cool chord change or a memorable lyric. In the end I think it’s our voices, combined or alone, that put a personal stamp on our tunes.
There was another release called 'Bazooka' released only on cassette. What can you say about this?
Gary: When I returned from France, we immediately began recording Bazooka in Jeff’s living room studio. Since we only had three months before school would start again, we had to do it quickly. John and Jeff had recently finished recording One in Versailles, so they were somewhat depleted of songs by that time. Since I had been away for so long, I had more of a stockpile of material to work with. We started off recording my songs first while the other guys wrote new songs. Just as before, as soon as we finished, it was time to go back to school. We were completely tapped out of money by that time, and couldn’t afford to have the album manufactured. By the end of the school year, our minds were set on recording our next album, Black Vinyl Shoes.
What would you say was your influence at the beginning and do you think your influences changed during the years?
Jeff: Our core influences were initially most things from the British Invasion of the mid-60's; Beatles, Stones, The Who, Kinks, Moody Blues, etc. But by the early 1970s other influences like David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust), T.Rex, Big Star and even bands like the Move, ELO, early Elton John (Yellowbrick Road) and Fleetwood Mac had an impact. The Beatles were perhaps, the biggest influence.
You have pretty much a new album out titled 'Ignition'. Would you like to present us this album?
John: Well, there’s quite a range of material on Ignition. There are more crunchy, driving tracks like Head vs. Heart, Hot Mess and Nobody to Blame; some upbeat folk-rock numbers like The Joke’s on You and Wrong Idea; the surging psychedelic feel of Sign of Life; the wistful Maybe Now and the jugging groove of Heaven Help Me. We’ve got a collaboration called Say It Like You Mean It that has a silky, organic patina to it, which we all take turns singing lead on. There’s the pensive wordplay of the hypnotic Where Will It End, the cascading wash of guitars and vocals of the heartrending Only We Remain and the galloping lilt of the springy I Thought You Knew. And there are some songs that are a little tougher to categorize, like the evolving, atmospheric Out of Round and the brittle Diminishing Returns. There’s almost an hour of music on Ignition and we feel it best represents our strengths as songwriters and producers.
Was there any different approach as far as songwriting goes?
Gary: We began the project with a common understanding that we were making the album for ourselves. There was no concern about following any particular trend or style, or to cater to any particular group. We felt an overall freedom to extend our boundaries through experimentation. Our song structures, themes and lyrical content wandered somewhat beyond our normal lines, while still staying true to our pop sensibilities. We felt no pressure to please anyone other than ourselves.
If we go back. Where was your touring territory at the start when you were still a local band and how did it changed during years?
Shoes on stage at the Rock Around the Dock festival in Chicago in early August of 1978.
Jeff: We have never see ourselves a a touring band, as our true love is writing and recording in the studio. It's where we were born as a band! But over the years we evolved and started playing shows. Mostly in the midwestern US. In and around the Chicago/Milwaukee/Minneapolis/Detroit area. But in the early 1990's we ventured off to the east coast and played Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC and to the west coast and played in California in Hollywood, Long Beach and Malibu. In 2009 we were invited to do a brief tour in Japan, so we headed over and had a fantastic time! Now, if the right opportunity arises, we consider all options to play out.
How would you describe scene from your town. Were there any good bands worth mentioning?
John: When we began there were mostly just cover bands in our area, doing radio hits by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bad Company and KC & the Sunshine Band. But a band that stood out that had a look and sound all their own was Cheap Trick. They influenced every band in a 50-mile radius at the time. They played the club circuit then and you could catch them 3 or 4 times a month, if you wanted to make the drive. We immediately fell under their spell and seeing them in those days gave us the incentive to construct a live show, which we really hadn’t done yet.
What are some of your future plans?
Gary: We’ll continue to promote Ignition. We’ve been very busy doing interviews and social media for the past few months. The reviews have been great so far. There are videos in the works as well. Reconnecting with our fans has been the best part of this whole experience. We have been entertaining the possibility of playing some live shows. Nothing is certain, but anything is possible.
Thanks a lot for taking your time. Would you like to send a message to It's Psychedelic Baby readers?
Jeff: First we'd like to thank It's Psychedelic for doing this interview! But we'd like to reach out to your readers, especially the folks that lived through those early days of The Beatles and the British Invasion and let them know that we didn't forget about them. We identify with them and feel that, too often the music industry ignores older listeners and targets the teeny-boppers, just to try and make a quick buck. But we feel that the true music fans are ageless. Music transcends age! We get the same thrill in writing and recording now that we did when we first started 35 years ago. There is nothing as satisfying as hearing a great song and we will continue to do our best to make and deliver Shoes music for the fans, because we too, are still huge music fans and feel the rush of new musical discoveries. Good music never gets old!
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2012
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