Music: Lovemaking Permitted

It's all 'pleasant company' for Louisville/Chicago Indie band Shipping News

Shipping News grew out of a series of compositions band members recorded for NPR's This American Life.

For Avant Rock trio Shipping News, music and travel are inseparable. Geographically split between Jason Noble (bass, keyboards) and Kyle Crabtree (drums) in Louisville and Jeff Mueller (guitar) in Chicago, practice and recording sessions come in increments. More importantly, it's on the road that the band — both the artists and the art — is most at home.

"Our band is the way we travel," says Noble. "Because we tour, we have a chance to meet people and see what their lives are like. This experience has changed many elements of the way we think. It's opened us up, challenged us to avoid set patterns, assumptions about culture or politics, even the idea of 'How comfortable should I be or want to be?' "

Recorded with help from longtime friend Bob Weston (Shellac), Shipping News' sophomore album, Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company (Quarterstick) was released in January 2001 to mixed reviews. The band's evolution in the years since their acclaimed '97 debut, Save Everything (Quarterstick), includes a greater vocal presence and more diversified journeys in the aural auras for which they've become known.

Their most recent project is a three-part EP series, RSMN.

Each of the albums, released in limited quantity and artful handmade covers, contain solo songs from each of the musicians. Noble calls the series a "rough sketchbook for ideas that need to be chewed on for awhile."

Shipping News grew out of Mueller and Noble's recorded compositions for the National Public Radio program This American Life in 1996. Shortly after, they recruited Crabtree on percussion. Veterans of the Louisville scene, Mueller and Noble played in beloved early '90s crew Rodan until Mueller turned his attentions to making noise with June of '44 and Noble to the subtle instrumentations of classically-tilted Rachel's (of which Crabtree is also a member).

Listening to Very Soon, I find myself distracted, scribbling poetic musings rather than punching out a story. My mind is prone to the tangent, and moody atmospherics are perhaps not the best tonic for my focal lapses. I pause for a listen to my favorite track, "Quiet Victories." Climaxes come in low volumes and melancholy vocals amid kaleidoscopic crescendos of pulsing rhythms, distorted guitar swells, crashing cymbals and swirling piano grooves. I consider this instrumental music, despite the presence of vocals. Contributed by all (at times, indiscernibly), the vocals are merely one more element.

I listen to the words and drift:

"A ship arrived with eggshell sails/You can't make out its name/Flying a careful flag/When you swam out to the ship/Your hands were filled with gifts/Why did you trust them/You'd never seen skin like this."

Questions are posed, answers not supplied. It's frustrating at first, then oddly soothing. Unpredictable bass lines drive and suspend. Tense guitar staccatos explode into stormy distortion. Abstract rhythms intimate. Whispered vocals mesmerize. Dynamics abound. Time signatures are either absurdly elaborate or boldly absent.

Noble and Crabtree were happy to indulge me in e-chatter. So read on — the "lovemaking" bit is yet to come.

CityBeat: I haven't read (Annie) Proulx's novel — care to elaborate on the decision to name the band after the book?

Jason Noble: When we were making our first record we had a sheet of paper tacked to the wall with potential names. (After) a few weeks, everything but "Shipping News" got crossed out. At the time, none of us had read the book, but the name got us looking around. We found hundreds of newspapers around the world called "Shipping News," usually with the name of the port or city attached. We liked the name enough to borrow/steal it, and then realized, 'Man, we better love that book.' Which I did, and I hope Annie Proulx will forgive our trespass. I haven't seen the movie yet, which is funny 'cuz I like the folks who made it — I'm just irrationally afraid of it.

CB: I'm always boggled by the classification of music as "inaccessible" simply because it doesn't follow familiar patterns. Any words on "inaccessible"?

JN: I think almost any music can be considered "inaccessible" by some listener. I frequently equate the term with not being open-minded. Like, why can't you listen to gamelan music, Modern Classical, Hip Hop and Black Sabbath with the same love for each?

I also think that some people use the word in relation to our band as a nicer way of saying "this is boring," which is a byproduct of us playing long, slow, sad songs quite often. Also, some people don't like listening to us yell/scream/get rowdy, which is understandable.

CB: Do you think most of your songs find some sort of resolution, and what form does this take?

Kyle Crabtree: It's a case-by-case situation, although it's a particular challenge to write music that has no kind of resolution at all. The push and pull is necessary and, if you leave it open at the end, then the lack of resolution is a resolution in itself. But for us, it isn't always quite that cerebral of a process ... sometimes spontaneity makes up for abstract things like conflict and resolution.

CB: What are your favorite cities to play? Heard you were a little disappointed the last time you played Southgate ... something about an exhibitionist sideshow on the balcony competing for attention. Maybe that's a compliment — I've certainly never witnessed anything of the sort in that venue.

JN: Places — Louisville, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, Portland, NYC, Camber Sands, U.K., Catania, Sicily. The show at Southgate House? Well, we've been announcing from the stage for 10 years that "love-making will be permitted during the set," so ... we asked for it. That's right: Two people had sex as we played on a balcony directly above us and we weren't in on the joke ... whoops. I do find it strangely flattering. No disappointment with (Southgate) — we love that venue. But we're bringing a futon and ornamental screen for the audience next time.

CB: If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?

JN: If that question allows spiritual traveling, then Screamin' Jay Hawkins. I'd also like to play with Cannibal Ox and a Louisville band called Second Story Man.

KC: Cat Power, because I've seen her a few times, and she makes me crazy. I can't help but want to figure her out. Flaming Lips: Because they pull off things that most people can't. Also: Jimi Hendrix Experience, Outkast, Neil Young, Nirvana, Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker.

CB: If you could put on a show for one person in a particular state of mind, what would be their mood and how would you affect it?

KC: Their state of mind wouldn't matter, but the affect would be to hopefully "elevate the moment." The most I can hope for from someone listening is for them to say to themselves either: "Hell yes, I understand, that's the truth," or "Fuck no, I didn't want to hear that ... get away from me."

CB: What's the best compliment Shipping News has ever gotten? The worst?

JN: Can I start with the last part? Worst actual review: "Shipping News ... is suicidal-leaning seascape-ish Gloom-Rock — I can't understand why this was ever made." Or one review that suggested we were "cashing in" (on what, I'm still baffled ... "Man, we thought seascape-ish Gloom Rock was going to be bigger than Nelly"). The best: When people tell us they make things while they listen to our stuff. Like a guy just told me he wrote for the first time in a long while when he got one of our records. That's amazing because that's what we do with our favorite records. Did I mention people having sex is good, too? Within some sub-moral framework.

CB: What can fans expect of the upcoming tour?

KC: A slow sonic beat-down, a friendly smile, blood and guts, and dainty little flowers.

SHIPPING NEWS performs on Tuesday at the Southgate House with Seluah and Ampline.