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Shipping News - Interview w/ Jason Noble
By Holly Day
(more articles from this author)
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Shipping News started in the fall of 1996 when longtime friends Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble wrote and recorded music for the NPR program "This American Life." They were joined in 1997 by percussionist Kyle Crabtree, and suddenly, the part-time recording project became a full band. Their first album, "Save Everything," was recorded in Louisville and mixed in Chicago by Bob Weston in 1997, followed in 1998 by a split EP CD with the band MetroSchifter.

Since then, all three band members have been busy with other music projects (June of 44, Rodan, and Rachel's, respectively), delaying the release of a new Shipping News album until this year. Released on Quarterstick Records, "Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company" is beautifully gloomy, brilliantly assembled, and only proves that you just can't rush genius. As in their previous release, "Save Everything," "Very Soon…" is more about sounds than lyrics, and brings in the talents of Rachel's Christian Frederickson and Edward Grimes on viola and vibes, respectively. Much like the E. Annie Proulx event the band appropriated its name from, this album works much like a novel, starting off hushed and slow, building louder and angrier—and scarier—from one song to the next, until it gets so thick and tense you can hardly bear to sit still, then sliding back down to let you off peacefully with the last two more subdued tracks, "Contents of a Landfill" and "How to Draw Horses." I spoke to multi-instrumentalist Jason Noble about the new album, and all that came before.

[Holly Day] How did you get into playing music?

Jason Noble How did I get into it? Well, actually, that's an interesting question for me, because I kind of sort of slowly started recording and doing music with a few of my friends—me, Greg King and Jeff Mueller. We just did four-track stuff and just kind of, just played around with tape manipulation. We didn't really concentrate so much on playing instruments. Greg played piano, but he was the only one out of the three of us that could really play an instrument. And so we started from there, playing just a few instruments on these songs where we were basically just having fun messing around with a tape machine, and it sort of just grew from there, to be honest. We didn't' really think in any kind of sense of, oh, we're eventually going to be a band. I was definitely mystified by people that were in bands; it seemed like something I would never get a chance to do. But that's not the way things worked out.

[Holly] So how did you eventually become a band?

Jason Actually, the three of us played shows in high school—I guess that's when we first started doing that. Some of it was very tongue in cheek, but it got more serious as we went. I don't know. We just kept doing it, and eventually, Jeff and I were doing a band called Rodan, and we traveled a lot, spent a lot of time with people, and I don't know. It just became more comfortable. During that same time, I was also playing music with other people, and being in a band started feeling like a natural thing. I guess we were all hams to begin with, so we didn't feel too freaked out getting up in front of people. But it definitely was a sort of freak-out to shift from being just a fun, party band to being a lot more serious about it, and going out and touring, and doing all that. Over a few years, we just got the feeling that it was the right thing for us to be doing, and we just went for it.

[Holly] So what was your first band?

Jason The first band that I was ever in was actually a rap band, with Jeff, called King G and the J Crew. We played our first show at a talent show at our high school, and we actually, eventually, put out a record. That was kind of the first really big recording project we ever did. It was actually quite educational, and we still listen to it, to this day. It's one of the few records from our past that we can listen to consistently. Go figure. It was kind of a Louisville-specific kind of thing, and had all our friends involved in it. It definitely had the same philosophy of, like, let's experiment, let's have a lot of different people from different bands contribute, all the same type of thing we do now. It was a blast, actually.

[Holly] Can the record still be found?

Jason Yeah! It can, actually. It's available through a few small indie distributors, and sometimes we take copies on tour with us. People are vastly confused by that record. In fact, Jeff and I frequently, to this day, send each other raps that we've written, and we also frequently discuss the fact that we somehow need to find the same amount of energy that we used to have when we played those first shows, because we used to freak out. Now, we have to stay still just a little bit more so that we can actually play our instruments, but it was somewhat customary for there to be a lot of dancing at those King G shows. I don't know if people generally associate lots of dancing, and/or dancing on tabletops, with Shipping News, but that's something we're trying to bring back to our shows.

[Holly] So what were your rap songs about?

Jason They were about all kinds of things. One thing we didn't try to do was to posture ourselves as gangstahs. A lot of it was based on stuff that we liked, and what we liked was Run DMC, and Public Enemy, but we also liked stuff like Curtis Mayfield, and Sly and the Family Stones—stuff that had a strong instrumental arrangement background to it. So we got into these unusually dense arrangements, and had a lot of people playing with us at shows, and the stuff that we sang about was taking road trips with our friends, and a lot of political things that were egging us on at the time. There was a fair amount of humor in it, too. We were sort of aware that we were pretty goofy. But it was a serious thing as far as trying to really pull it off. Some of the technical end of it, like learning how to record stuff, and working with the samplers, and the really rudimentary, early drum machines that we still use a lot today—it was sort of like our class in recording. We really look up to a lot of the engineers and producers for dance and rap and hip hop stuff, because some of the music is still some of the most inventive stuff that you hear, because there's really no boundary to what you can do. I think it gets viewed on a very surface level as not being really technically sophisticated, when in fact it's incredibly sophisticated and really hard to make well. I don't know how good we were at doing it, but we definitely have been inspired by a lot of it.

[Holly] Do you to prefer to use "real" instruments or samples?

Jason I definitely have a really big preference to "real" instruments, just because the community and the human element of playing with other musicians, especially like in Shipping News, it's the three of us trying to communicate as much as we can by playing off each other. I still make a fair amount of music that's electronic music, or sample-based music, and a lot of times, it is actually nice to have that sort of control and build this music collage exactly however you see fit. But it's a totally different thing. It's like the difference between theatre and filmmaking. The same sort of basic elements are there, but it's a totally different, human thing when you play a show with other people. It's your body, and a couple of other people trying to generate something that's got spirit to it. But I do like having access to recording as a creating medium that sort of stands alone. And Shipping News, we use the studio quite a lot, but I think we're still a trio, and everything in the band kind of functions in that way.

[Holly] I was looking through the liner notes, and I noticed that Jeff Mueller's listed as playing a sweater. What is the sweater?

Jason The sweater is what Jeff refers to as—I may be misquoting him here, but I believe the sweater refers to "a bed of sound that wraps around everything in the song," such as three or four guitar parts that are just ambient noise.

[Holly] What about the buckets?

Jason They're actual buckets that Jef instructed us to drag around while he was doing some other recording, so that they were so much as junk moving around in the background of the song. During the recording, he was getting out these large cases that had metal clamps and things, and just sort of making a ruckus. So anyway, it's a figurative sweater, and real buckets.

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