Upon seeing the band Shoulders perform, Ira Robbins of Newsday wrote, “Led by guttural singer Michael Slattery, the raucously amplified acoustic group - imagine a street band celebrating Mardi Gras, Halloween and St. Patrick's Day simultaneously - stoked its bonfire with Kurt Weill and sea chanteys alike; its literary lyrics ran the gamut from Hemingway to Hammett.”
The first songs of Shoulders co-founders Michael Slattery and Todd Kassens were conceived over bottles of generic gin in run-down Los Angeles apartments and New York walk-ups, and were taped on a True Tone cassette recorder, with additional percussion provided by the irritated pounding on the floor above or the ceiling below, and with sound effects provided by the blowing horns and screeching brakes on the streets outside their open windows.
By the mid-1980s both were back in Austin, Texas, where they had originally met, and where they resumed their exploration of poetry, music, and performance without much knowledge of or concern for how “successful” bands were supposed to sound. After winning free studio time in a battle-of-the-bands contest, they discovered (along with first-time drummer Molly Stevens) that drums were actually supposed to be tuned, like guitars. Unsure of how that applied to the broken appliances and pipes they were beating on, they evolved to more traditional instruments such as parade drum, trombone and tuba, or with beats and noise from Roy Christmann’s synthesizer when nothing else could augment the surreal storytelling.
“The music of Shoulders carries a hint of the eerily surreal – an insane, incandescent, gut-level beauty.”
Shoulders’ first audiences were populated by expressive modern dancers and fearless punk rockers without preconceived pigeonholing notions of genre-constricting categories that the band needed to fit in. With the addition of Alan Williams on drums, Chris Black on bass, John Hagen on cello, and Max Crawford on accordion and trumpet, Shoulders segued from taco shop patios and basement bookstores to premiere Austin venues including the Continental Club, Cactus Cafe, Liberty Lunch, the Hole in the Wall, and La Zona Rosa. The early 1990s also saw the group win four consecutive Austin Chronicle Music Awards for Best Avant-Garde Band, after which the category was abandoned as the music was here to stay.
“A raucous band with poignant, ‘thinkable’ lyrics and something heavy to say.”
Riding on the success of 1989’s self-produced Hungry Man’s Dance, Shoulders signed with the French label Musidisc, releasing the albums Trashman Shoes and The Fun Never Stops to radiant reviews and expanding audiences won through many tours of Europe and the U.S. (shows with The Pogues in the early 1990s remain among the band’s most memorable). Notorious performances known for improvised musical storytelling, youthful acrobatics, heart-pounding rock, and heart-breaking ballads increased the band’s popularity with audiences and promoters everywhere.
Questionable label dealings, drifting musicians, health issues, family comedies, and real personal tragedies unfortunately crippled the band at its apex. And during the first decade of the 21st century, the band rarely performed.
In 2013, Shoulders - now made up of Slattery, Kassens, Williams, and veteran bass player Hunter Darby - returned with new songs and renewed vigor to challenge the musical landscape once again, armed with 12 new and never before released recordings for the appropriately titled CD Another Round. Another Round features the talents of Slattery, Kassens, Williams, Darby, Hagen, Crawford, and Black, along with very special guest Christian Hervé (on accordion).
In 2016, Kasslatt Music, in collaboration with Coffee and Language Productions, unleashed CENTAUR - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by SHOULDERS -- a collection of 12 Shoulders songs that have never before been released in the digital world for downloading. Some of these recordings appeared on the band’s early CDs, some were culled from live performances, a couple came from the dusty archives, and one was an extended version of a track from their last album. All of these songs feature prominently in JP Allen’s wonderful, inspired, independent film CENTAUR (Coffee and Language Productions). The movie is a riveting character study of a man who makes a video journal about his plan to commit a murder of revenge. One critic described the film thusly: "Seductive, voyeuristic, discomfiting, meditative and darkly hilarious." We really like darkly hilarious. The songs on this soundtrack album are presented in the order in which they “appear” in the film, in hopes that the listener might get a somewhat accurate feel of the film’s dramatic movement. The recordings are decidedly lo-fi, so please crank up the volume and enjoy the aural “movie” that is the soundtrack of CENTAUR.
Discography (full-length albums): Local Zoo, Hungry Man’s Dance, Love is My Crime, Trashman Shoes, The Fun Never Stops, Another Round, CENTAUR - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
“The band is literally bursting with personality, playing a twisted, inside-out brand of blues, discordant jazz-inflected folk, ethnic jigs, dance tunes, and just about everything in between.” -Luke Torn, Austin Chronicle
“The music of Shoulders carries a hint of the eerily surreal – an insane, incandescent, gut-level beauty.” -Alvaro Rodriguez, The Daily Texan
“A raucous band with poignant, ‘thinkable’ lyrics and something heavy to say.” -Memphis Star
“Trying to describe Shoulders is like trying to describe how something tastes: you don’t know why but you like it.” -Michael Toland, Pop Culture Press
“Michael Slattery est un excellent songwriter qui ecrivait des pieces de theatre et qui aimerait, a l’avenir, publier des romans et vous comprendrez que nous n’avons pas affaire aux enfants de choeur d’Indochine mais que nous sommes face a un nouveau bastion virtuel du rock’n roll, mi rustique, mi litteraire!” -Luigi Checcozzo, Sortir
[Translation: “Michael Slattery is a great songwriter who has written plays for the theater and who will, in the future, publish novels, and you must understand that we are not dealing with altar boys in Indochina but what we are facing is a new virtual bastion of rock ‘n roll, half rustic, half literary!”]