At a Don Giovanni Records showcase a little over a year ago, Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females cried and sang along to every one of Shellshag’s songs as if reciting prayers in church. Jennifer Shagawat pointed at a flock of birds with her drumstick, waving it like a magic wand. I never wanted to be a musician so badly: Shellshag makes you crave wearing a big coat and loading into a snow-dusted venue in New York City in mid-December. They’re like Christmas.
Shellshag released Why’d I Have to Get So High last month through Don Giovanni/Starcleaner Records. The New York duo—Shagawat and John “Shellhead” Driver, who formed Shellshag in San Francisco in the late-1990s—spoke with me before a recent show in Providence, Rhode Island. We untangled a beautiful, overlapping dialogue in a corner while bands loaded in, discussing San Francisco, the pipe dream and big hope of New York, and the complexities of property, all of which illuminated their new album.
How did you two meet?
Jennifer Shagawat: We met in San Francisco. I’m from New Jersey. Shell is from Texas. I ran a warehouse space in SF called Starcleaners. Shell would roll up with his band 50 Million…and they’d play in front of the warehouse trying to get in to do a show. I’d be working the door.
John “Shellhead” Driver: I think we also met when my brother took me to Leather Tongue Video, where Jen worked.
Oh my god! I am obsessed with San Francisco during the ’90s. My aunt was the first openly queer person, specifically lesbian, in my family, and SF in the ’90s was integral to her identity and therefore to my adolescence, because she was the only regularly dating person in my family. Tell me more?
JS: In SF in the ’90s all these incredibly strong women ran all the businesses and employed all of us. I feel like a lot of people would say that SF in the ’90s was a lesbian renaissance. My friend from Tribe 8 put it that way and it was wonderful—strong, beautiful women, and they accepted me. They taught me how to get all the meat out of the avocado, so to speak. Eventually, I figured out how to work and how to take care of myself.
How did you end up in SF?
JD: Jennifer went after college with a group of friends and found space to do art. They were hippie and they were punk. They were total squares, into indie rock, shoe gaze. Everyone was welcome into the space. It was a perfect bonding of humanity. I finally saw people extend their minds out of their “genre.” It was beyond fashion. We connected by spirit. No more judging people for combat boots, we wanted to desegregate.
I went there to play in a band with my brother. I could barely play the guitar. I played in a band called Corduroy and my brother put us all in 50 Million. No matter what I wanted to do my brother had a really anti-corporate, anti-rock ‘n’ roll mentality. We’d play out in the street with no amps.
JS: People would meet each other through newspaper articles. People would come alone and be scared, but they’d stick around. I watch old videos and it was amazing to see people alone.
There is something about people by themselves at shows; what do you think it is?
JD: It was just awkward enough for people not to know what to do. If you didn’t know them you would stare people down and be totally suspicious. Until 1994 or 1995 it was a very different scene in San Francisco.
Gentrification managed to trick us into crushing our own ceiling and we left SF. The Latino community was still managing to give them—the tech gentry—the finger, but we didn’t own our shit and we ended up crushing ourselves.
Wow, the DIY scene in San Francisco before Twitter. What happened?
JD: Gentrification managed to trick us into crushing our own ceiling and we left SF. The Latino community was still managing to give them—the tech gentry—the finger, but we didn’t own our shit and we ended up crushing ourselves. Jenny had squatters in her place. People started to turn on each other and we crumbled our own scene.
JS: There were so few of us. The history of the Mission in San Francisco is so interesting. I was from New Jersey and had no business being there. But, there was Juanita who lived next door to us and housed everyone. She was the mother of everyone, and Raul was the father of everyone. They were teaching us kids what the Mission meant. I was 22 when I was there and I thought I was so old and grown up. When our community crumbled in the late 90s, they all died. I thought this was interesting. There was something about it.
JD: We gained so much perspective about how things come and go
Yeah, seems like you’ve ridden into wormholes of time and space or something?
JS: Some things are total vortexes. Now we are living completely after this experience in SF. This building we’re talking about is a completely different shell. And before our DIY space was there, it was a nightclub!
JD: We reference this building in like nine of our songs on the new album
Then, when we had this space finally, and we owned it, the entire community turned against us and called us landlord fucks.
Yeah, I guess DIY had so much more of an emphasis on physical space prior to the Internet being another space for punk to harvest. I mean, every show space is just as integral and necessary, especially in the day and age of Vice displacing DIY music venues. But, yeah what does “land,” mean to your history?
JS: With everyone wanting to own land in SF, we were a home to a lot of people who wanted more than just physical space. You know, my landlord loved me because I met his son on tour in Portland, Oregon, and we bonded. I told him to come back to his son. The landlord was so happy that I reached out to his son. He became really helpful in me buying this show space building. He bent rent for me. We found the paperwork that I needed. Then, when we had this space finally, and we owned it, the entire community turned against us and called us landlord fucks. I find it very interesting in 2015 when people are really excited about people like us owning land because that means more security of a space.
JD: We tried to talk about it and foster community. But, most discussions of community sounded like a trick that no one was going to benefit from. And when we needed something from people, they got so suspicious. Most of the people we knew and respected really stepped up, but you only need a few people to get rid of us.
Wow. property is San Francisco is violent. It’s like that Audre Lorde quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” How were you all paying for the house? And what did you do with the squatters in your place?
JS: So, we went and painted houses for wealthy people to pay for the rent. We paid the squatters with visa checks to get them out. We eventually had no money and were losing what we were fighting for. So we had to sell the building because we were in so much debt.
[Tears in my eyes] Then what?
JD: Then we went to New York!
That’s what I did in high school! When I could forecast being priced out of the Bay Area by the designers of Scrabble apps! Then what?
JD: Initially, we didn’t find a community, mostly because we weren’t trying. We moved to New Jersey, just staring at New York out the window like a television. We ended up going back to the West Coast. We were able to mend some of our relationships and friendships. Then, the towers fell. Then we went back. In the end, we were trying to leave one of our favorite places on purpose. We saw our friends changing their lives and we left but it was positive.
JS: We made peace with a place. That was important. We went on tour for a year. We decided that wherever we were most welcome, we would stay. Ironically, that was New York—in a house that looked like a house in San Francisco.
JD: The Mink Lungs, this band we became really good friends with from Brooklyn, they took care of us for years. Our first nine months back to NYC was from 2005-2006. It consisted of us throwing some stuff into a room then going on tour.
JS: The beauty of it all is that we left something that was not working out. And, I found my people. One of the most impactful survival tips from the Bay Area was from Maddy Love. She taught us, “Maybe you just need to get out. Try something else.” We had expended our dream. We just had some insatiable dream out in San Francisco. Now it feels really good because the whole world is our home. We didn’t lose San Francisco; we gained everything else.
I cannot believe that this interview about your new album has let us to this point. How do we eventually get to Why I’d Have to Get So High?
JS: This album is everything we just talked about.
JD: This is the first record we wrote 50/50. Jenny writes at a different pace that I do. But we each wrote eight on this one and took the best 16 songs we had. It feels good to have an equal amount of songs.
JS: We called it Why’d I Have to Get So High because we recorded with the band Vacation and people in that band were 12 years old when we started, so it tied together to so many loved ones that we lost from drugs. We aren’t memorializing, but it is about time. The last statement that we would have on a lot of stories is “Why’d I have to get so high?” There is a clarity we have in older age where we are wondering why we did so much. Everyone would do something differently in hindsight.
What was it like recording with Vacation?
JS: I think they had a feeling and knowledge of what we are. In the ’90s, we had this problem of thinking a lot about “The way it was.”…With them, we got to think about, “The way it could be now.”