Confusion sets in upon first hearing Shotgun Party’s self-titled debut. As the first track rolls, all the trappings of an upbeat and rather harmless western swing trio come through—the guitar chop-chop-chopping the rhythm, the cheerful thwapping bass leading the way, a throaty fiddle egging them on from the side. An earthy, rootsy sound, sure, but we’ve heard it before, no? Are they going to break into a lilting version of “Orange Blossom Special” or “Sweet Georgia Brown?”
And then lead singer Jenny Parrott opens her mouth. What was a sleepy Sunday country tune suddenly sends a zap to your gut and snaps your eyes open. The volume goes from five to 11 without you touching the knob. You forget whatever you were supposed to be doing later or what you just did. You listen, appalled, pleased and unnerved.
Every now and again a voice can change the sound of a band completely—make it something else, perhaps even its own genre. In most ways Shotgun Party’s sound is a rather raw modern-Americana and then some, showing off the devastating fiddle work of Katy Rose Cox and the buttery percussive bass of Andrew Thomas. But it’s the bizarre juxtaposition of Parrott’s languid, jet-black vocals and lyrics (an open-wound heartbreak ever present), over their smiley toe-tapping western swing framework that sets Shotgun apart.
And man, these are some of the weirdest lyrics I’ve heard in some time. Maybe Talking Heads meets The Clinch Mountain Boys meets Mae West. Suddenly Shotgun Party’s cryptic band slogan “One foot in the tumbleweeds, one in outer space,” starts to make sense. Take the first verse of the first track. “Gladiola” sounds like a tale of a bored Texas housewife who has just been possessed by an unnamed force. Or maybe she and her favorite flower are ready to lead the sexual revolution directly from her cul-de-sac:
I’m going to conquer something in my living room/I’m going to conquer something between the couch and the door/ ‘cause there I spot a-living/where I can grow things and think free/and there I can interpret/all my new freedom religiously…
The band is not as polished as some fiddle-dominated groups, a problem that seems to be remedied on their upcoming album. And while it may appear that most of the band is on the sun-kissed earth while the singer is yowling from the darkness of the moon, it works in this case in the same way that Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison or Iris Dement’s poetic oddities force us to unpack the meanings of their songs ourselves, thus making the act of listening more personal.
I caught up with the lovely ladies of Shotgun Party, Jenny Parrott and Katy Rose and tried to get to the bottom of things:
SPLICE TODAY: I am often amazed at how power-trios make so much noise. Do you guys think that there's a certain subconscious "little fish expanding its body into a big fish" thing that goes on when you guys play live?
KATY: Sure. I think three people are all you need. Each of our instruments can be percussion, play the chords, or play melody.
JENNY: I am not sure about the fish imagery, but it sounds nice and cool sitting here in 103 degrees. I think the neat thing about the Shotgun Party sound is that Katy Rose, and Andrew (like Chris Crepps before him) play totally inventive melodic lines around the songs that really fill out the songs, and contribute as much to the overall sound as the simple backbone of the songs themselves.
ST: Being a huge fan of "Hot Club of Cowtown" (another Continental Club favorite), I was struck by how you guys seemed to have subverted the fiddle-dominated string-band concept into something far more edgy and out there. Do you think your lyrics drive your music into darker directions? Your site says, "Back porch poetry" and that seems about right. How would you describe your music?
JENNY: We have been having a laugh lately describing our music as "western swing pop." But it is really more than that. We have a traditional instrumentation, but a completely non-traditional approach to the original songs we perform. We have never sat down and decided to be a certain genre, but rather when we are arranging the songs, everyone gets to put in what they hear and write their own parts. I think this non-traditionalism makes us more edgy than most traditional bands. Also, our lyrics are often "more out there,"; they are less linear and often imagery based. They often use abstract ideas to tell stories instead of more classic straightforward language.
KATY: It’s a crazy time in the music industry. Keeping things practical is really important to make money as a musician. So... touring with little gear, playing with a small number of people, using acoustic instruments is key. I started as a classical musician and then played in a bluegrass metal band in New York. We draw from several string band traditions like bluegrass, swing, early blues...but we also love pop music. I guess we are just doing what comes out.
ST: Tell me a little bit about your tour through the South. Anything inspiring some new tunes along the way? What’s it like down there right now.
JENNY: Well, we just came off of a five-week west coast tour and there are plenty of inspiring things to write about. We went through an earthquake, saved some dehydrated lost dogs in the desert, saw lots of friends and family and old loves, and drove about a billion miles. The first song I wrote when I got home was about the general blues and a conversation between the singer and the angels. It can be tough to come home after a huge tour like that without getting some depression.
KATY: It was amazing and hot in the south! And, as we booked 33 shows in 35 days, there was not a lot of time to write but I'm sure our experiences will make for some great new tunes once we slow down a bit.
ST: How do your songs come together? Lyrics first? Chord structure first?
KATY: Jenny writes the tunes and I help arrange and come up with harmonies.
JENNY: Melody first, sometimes with lyrics, sometimes with chords, then we arrange! Melody melody melody! Either vocally or on guitar!
ST: There seems to be a cheerfully snarky alt-feminist bent to your lyrics—am I reading into it too much? Any of you guys political?
KATY: I think we are just being ourselves, no statement. We just happen to be two girls (and one bassist boy) who make aggressive sweet music.
JENNY: We are all three varying degrees of liberal. Non of us are very politically active save for our voting records, but we listen to the news a lot on the road, and at home we try to be as positive a force in our awesome local Austin community. This involves playing benefits for HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), hosting our annual chili cook-off (benefits local businesses), and by often tying in charity drives to our bigger shows. I am totally a feminist, but I am not sure if that comes across in my lyrics. It is not a goal of mine necessarily. Perhaps we seem feminist because the band is 2/3 super tough bad ass female!
ST: What's a song that comes up on your iPods that gives you the chills right now?
JENNY: Anything from Back to Black! The Shangri-Las, Sam Cooke and more Sam Cooke.
KATY: I don't have an iPod but I just listened to Jimmy Martin's "I'm Homesick and going crazy,” then the chills came. Sweet harmonies. That dude was sincere in what he did, and he was wild!
ST: Any weird influences that we wouldn't expect? Lawrence Welk? The Ramones?
KATY: Sam Cooke, Bjork.
JENNY: Tons I bet! I was a huge Bjork fan as a teenager.
ST: Huh, that seems about right. So, has Austin become bloated with cool alt-country bands or is the scene just starting to really thrive? Any other bands we should know about?
JENNY: Leo Rondeau, Lonesome Heroes, Brennen Leigh. Austin is full of hard-working, creative musicians who bring all kinds of talent and inspiration to the table. Most of us work together and trade information because were all pretty new to this difficult, yet rewarding business.
ST: What's the worst show you've guys have played recently? What went wrong?
KATY: Usually bad sound puts us in bad moods.
JENNY: Maybe in Tacoma when we played to three people. But "worst" is a strong word. It is hard to play a big empty room, but in this case those three people all tipped, bought CD’s and had a blast. You can't really ask for much more than that. In my opinion, a bad show is one in which: the sound is bad, no one is there, no money, no place to stay, and the staff treats you like crap. We haven't had a show with all that going wrong for about a year, so there’s always something to make it worth it. As a starting out touring musician you have to look on the bright side as much as possible about road shows, or you'd never make it out of your hometown.
ST: If you could tour with anyone living or dead right now who would it be?
JENNY: Michael Jackson! It would be awesome to be his backup singer/dancer. I don’t know that’s a hard one.
KATY: Sam Cooke, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jack White, Hank III.
ST: What's next for Shotgun Party? Has the NRA begged you to make them cool with the young folks?
JENNY: Shotgun Party has a new record coming out on Sept. 3, and then we’re going to tour around to promote it. What’s next? A lot of hard work, fun and music,
KATY: We are going to take over the World!
Check out more from the band at their MySpace.