Bill Solleder, former Blue Meanies singer and formerly known as Billy Spunke, recently unveiled a new band called Holy Shakes. The group is based out of Hot Springs, Arkansas and also includes guitarist Bobby Missile, bassist Brian Lee and drummer Justin Castleberry. Last month they released their debut full-length, Feast or Famine, via Thick Records. We spoke with Bill and talked about how the band formed, what they sound like, where the new album was recorded and more.
Bill – After several years of not playing music, what made you want to be in a band again?
Bill S. – Well, the guitar player, Bobby Missile, we’ve been friends and we both do shows here in Hot Springs. We’ve done a bunch of stuff together and have just kind of hung out. I’ve done some side vocal stuff with another band that he was in called Church of the Snake. I’ve kind of been doing it a little bit, just real low-key, and then years ago we had a band that played two shows called Pop Vulture. So I’ve kind of always been in it, but with Holy Shakes I was kind of tricked into it to be honest. Bobby said, “Hey, let’s get together. I want to make this garage band.” I was like, “Oh, that sounds really fun, I could sing in a garage band. Who else is in it?” He goes, “I got these guys together and you should come out, it’ll be fun.” Then I started to quiz him a little bit, I was like “What do you mean by garage band? What kind of garage band?” The day of the practice he confessed to me that he didn’t even really know why he said garage band, but that he’d already kind of tricked me into coming to this practice. I said, “Alright.” He knows my deal is that I don’t want to do anything seriously. Well, I shouldn’t say seriously, I mean commercially. So I agreed to do it. I think it’s fun to get together and play, and really just fun to start singing again. I have a little extra time, so it’s something I can do two nights a week, get together and practice. That’s sort of how it started.
Bill – Who are some of the band’s main influences or how would you describe your sound?
Bill S. – After our first show somebody had chimed in with something and I always liked the way it sounds. They were like, “You’re like The Who on Dischord.” I love The Who and I love everything that Dischord does, so I was alright with it. There are some classic rock ‘n roll elements to Holy Shakes’ sound and kind of early garage styles, but it’s very aggressive and dissonant at times too. The other three guys are all southerners and I’m the only Yankee in the band, so sometimes we call it northern-influenced post punk, which is pretty funny. Basically there’s a lot of real just rock ‘n roll moments and there’s a lot of punk rock moments, but not punk rock in the sense of NOFX. It’s more like early style punk rock.
Bill – Would you say the lyrics on Feast or Famine share a common theme?
Bill S. – Yes, the number two title of the record was “Disenchantment.” A lot of the lyrics on the record are about being disenchanted with some big ideals, American dreams and things that you think are possible. Then you’re sort of becoming disenchanted with the whole idea of success or happiness or whatnot. When I first left Chicago and came to Hot Springs I went to work for Shea’s, (longtime girlfriend) dad. They were working in construction then, so based on whether or not there was a project, there was either money or there was not. A lot of people in this town work project to project, so a lot of people were saying, “Oh yeah, it’s feast or famine around here.” That’s kind of disenchanting to me. Sometimes you’re living high on the hog and next time you’re getting by on garbanzo beans. There’s a lot of that to the album. The record ends with “I’m OK,” which ends everything on a positive note. Throughout the record there’s a lot of not so okay stuff going on, just kind of scraping by. That’s the only sort of common theme.
Bill – Do you have a favorite song from the record?
Bill S. – There’s a song called “Mississippi Toes” that I really like. During the writing of the song the guys had come up with this idea and I had this image at practice and just started sort of free-forming lyrics and ideas. Just a couple years earlier the Mississippi had flooded really badly and it actually picked up entire farm houses and took them away. That’s sort of what inspired me to come up with the theme for the song. Arkansas of course boarders the Mississippi and Hot Springs is subject to, not from the Mississippi, but is subject to a lot of flooding because we’re in a valley and there are all these hot springs that are below us. It floods a lot and people often have sandbags in front of their doors to try and keep the water out. That song is one that really rings true to me. I don’t have a really close, close personal experience to flooding on the Mississippi. I have seen it, but it’s just a real occurrence that happens. When we started playing the song live people responded to it immediately. I like that song a lot. It really brings a visual in my head and tells a story.
Bill – What was it like recording the album with Lance Reynolds?
Bill S. – When the Meanies were playing, I don’t think we would ever play unless Lance was behind the sound desk. He was really an eighth member of the band. I know Lance and trust him and we understand each other. When I asked him to come down and he agreed I was so happy because I knew that he would put some extra effort into the record. Especially when it came down to vocal tracking, we already have a rhythm from working together for such a long, long time. It was great. We set up in Low Key Arts, which is an art space that I started here. Shea and I bought this building and started hosting rock shows and gallery shows. It’s like a community art space. It was comfortable to go to that space because I have so much blood, sweat and tears associated with the whole Low Key Arts project. I’ve brought so many bands onto that stage and now we’re going to record on the same stage, so that felt great. Lance came in and thought the sound in the room was wonderful. We set up and did a first take and it surprisingly sounded really, really good. It was a truly positive experience. After we recorded, Lance took it home to Illinois to start mixing. At that point he decided we should probably do a little more work on it, so we went to his father’s studio in Tulsa and did some additional vocal takes and some pretty close to final mixing. We all went home again and then through the internet had decided to do a few more tweaks. He continued doing some tweaking at his home studio and then ended up coming back here in March for a festival I put on called The Valley of The Vapors Independent Music Festival. So he was doing sound and he came in and we did even more final tweaks in the Low Key Arts space, which was pretty cool to finish where we started. I would have a hard time recording anything without Lance, because he and I can communicate without even speaking.
Bill – What do you like best about playing with the other guys in the band?
Bill S. – I’ve been talking about this a bit recently. When Bobby got us together, everyone in the band was just sort of acquainted, but not really friends. I’ve always been friends with Bobby, but we just went on this tour to Chicago and New York and all points in between. I was really nervous about going because we’re all going to jump in a van and even though we’d been writing songs, recording and performing here and there, personally we still have a lot of growing to do. It’s just like we get to practice, we play, and then have a beer and leave. It’s not like we’ve been bonded since childhood. So I was nervous about it, but when we went on tour it actually turned out, personally, not even creatively or musically, personally to gel really well. We all got along great, there was no fighting. Everyone in the band is really funny and personable. We’re still growing together and now after that tour, we just played a show last weekend, we had more fun hanging out before and after the show than actually playing the show. We’re beginning to grow as friends, which is nice. The playing part has always instantly worked. Everyone is listening to each other and trying not to step on each other. It’s such a departure from the Meanies, because the Meanies when we were practicing we were writing complicated forms out on a dry erase board, trying to work all these things out and trying to work seven different pieces into one thing. Everything had to be exact and calibrated and calculated, but in this band things sort of flow out more naturally. Holy Shakes could write a song in one practice, where almost always the Meanies agonized and argued over a song for months, just to try and get one song. It’s a much different approach. Both approaches were positive and successful, but Holy Shakes is a more organic and natural idea.
Bill – How did you go about teaming up with Thick Records to release the album?
Bill S. – Thick putting something out, which was the first time in five years, is more of an illusion. It’s a classic boutique idea. We had already recorded the record and had the financing together to press it. We were done with the record and making final tweaks on the artwork when Zak, (Thick Records owner) said, “Hey, do you want to go ahead and put a Thick logo on there and you can distribute it through our channels?” Zak was just kind enough to help us out with the distribution for the vinyl. Thick is just supporting it. It’s the highest compliment for Zak to have listened to the record and say, “I’ll put my logo on that, and the first time I’ve done so in five years.” It’s a high compliment.
Bill – What were some of the highlights from your recent tour?
Bill S. – Chicago was a real highlight, just because every chapter of my life, from grade school to high school to college to my neighborhood friends to my music friends, somebody from all of those worlds was there that night. There was a lot of love in the room and it felt really good. Of course Chicago was great. A lot of guys in Holy Shakes and in the Foul Play Cabaret burlesque troupe too, a lot of those folks had never left Arkansas or left the bordering states of Arkansas. When we came into Chicago, to see the faces of those guys pressed up against the van window looking at the skyline, it made me feel proud of my hometown. It was also a reminder of how huge and magnificent Chicago is. You forget about it after you live in a small town for a while. Of course that was a true highlight. Going to Brooklyn and playing Death By Audio was a real thrill. There are venues across the country that are sort of essential and you’re always going to talk about Death By Audio in Brooklyn. It’s like the heartbeat of the hipster world right now.
Bill – What are some of the main things you learned during your time in the Blue Meanies that you hope to apply to this band?
Bill S. – I’ll answer that by saying I haven’t written music actively in 11 or 12 years. The Meanies ended in 2001 and at that point we had just finished recording and touring, so we probably hadn’t written since 1999. It’s been a long time. During that time, from the time the Meanies stopped till I started writing with Holy Shakes, I spent a lot of time unlearning the things I got myself into with the Meanies. It all just comes down to trying to keep it fun. As a band gets together, the first practice is always so much fun. Your heart is racing and it’s all about having a great time, but then as the band grows it’s almost going to happen where the business part of it comes in. It’s a fine line between keeping it fun and keeping your business straight. Of course the Meanies always had fun onstage. That hour onstage was always a thrill, but it got to a point where it was big business. We had to keep our receipts and know how many tickets were sold and get an accountant, and money this and money that. It can, not in all cases, but it can really squeeze the life or the fun out of the band, or out of anything that you love. I spent all that time unlearning that and when I moved here it was nice to look back on Billy Spunke and the Blue Meanies and laugh about arguments over how many medium t-shirts we should order. It’s like who gives a shit? Now I host bands all the time and it’s almost fun and laughable for me to see bands come in and see what’s really important for these bands, whether it’s what song they’re going to play first or who’s going to wear shoes or who’s not going to wear shoes onstage. It’s just funny to me. You can’t tell a band to relax and just to have fun, because it’s all so important to them. I guess what I’m saying is that with Holy Shakes, the most important thing I’m trying to remind myself is just don’t get caught up. It’s just rock ‘n roll. It’s not that important in the scope of the world. At the same time, rock ‘n roll did save my life and it’s always given me somewhere to turn to or something to do. You just have to keep it fun. With Holy Shakes, in not even two years’ time we’ve gotten really lucky with getting Lance to do the record, getting Matt McCormack to make us a video and winning the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. There’s also going on tour, getting all this interest and getting Zak from Thick to put out the record, and then having fans come out and sing along and it’s all without trying. I have to remind myself that as much as Holy Shakes seems to be kind of snowballing towards what might seem like success, I just have to put a smile on and not worry about it sometimes. I learned that lesson real hard with the Meanies. That was a brutal breakup for me.
Bill – What’s next for Holy Shakes?
Bill S. – We just have some shows coming up. We’re going to go do the Arkansas Queen Riverboat show on July 6th. Then there are a few festival shows that we’ve been asked to play, but we’re just going to play a few shows here and there, no real serious plans. We’re already writing, which has just sort of come naturally for us. I can’t say that we’re working on a new record, but I guess writing means that is what we’re working towards. That’s really it. There’s not really any big plans, just play a few shows, keep it low-key and have fun with it.