pure SHIFTER back at 7th St Entry: A conversation about songwriting, “heads-up moments," and dark secrets of the Kitty Cat Klub
Flip Rushmore and pure SHIFTER are playing Minneapolis’ legendary 7th St Entry with Denim Matriarch and VIAL on Friday, January 17. Find tickets here. Alex got both members of pure SHIFTER (John Genz and Doug Deitchler) on the phone to discuss the show and whatever the hell else.
As a member of Beasthead, Doug has "crossed paths" with various members of Flip Rushmore and Denim Matriarch in the past. Friday will serve as a chance to reconnect, as well as a chance to show off the difference between pure SHIFTER and Beasthead.
Alex: When you start a new project, there’s always a reason. So what was pure SHIFTER gonna allow you to express differently?
Doug: You want to take that one, John?
John: This music is pretty much all my stuff, and Doug came on to help me reign in some of my … how do I put this … Doug helps to organize the music and put it together. He’s an arranger, in a way.
Doug: We’ve actually had a little bit of confusion with this recently. Just with The Current and City Pages. I’m from Beasthead. And John and I brought Mitch Miller from Beasthead on the drums, so it sorta seemed like because there were two members (that it was a Beasthead project) … but the actual genesis of this was, this is John’s music. We just made songs out of it. And I don’t think I’ve picked your brain about this, John, but are the songs we’re playing right now, were they written in the past few years on acoustic instruments? This is sort of a rewrite of all those songs with different genres and newer tastes involved? I stepped in last spring to reform his songs and give them some new life. Making a live band and a show out of it.
You’re taking John’s original arrangements and reworking them. But are you sitting down together and doing that? Or is Doug just going into the lab and coming back with something?
Doug: When we got together last spring, John had all of this done. Pretty much all written.
John: A lot of was done, but sort of in imperfect form. The beats would be sort of made and laid out, and the songs would exist, but sort of, like, they’d just be a couple loops, maybe a chorus. Very little fully-formed stuff. Or it would go on for 10 minutes and nothing would change. Doug would be the guy who would say, “Let’s think about the average attention span here.”
Doug: He played me a lot of these nine-minute “blob ideas,” and I was like, “I can hear the 15 percent that’s usable here. Let’s carve out some songs. Early on, we ran into some things, like, you’re gonna have to rewrite this. Or rewrite lyrics. Figure out a different synth. And sort of against my instincts, any rewriting that comes up, I’ve purposely been uninvolved. Just to keep the core of it in the same stylistic vein … It’s interesting doing that with songs that I technically didn’t write, but did everything else for.
I’ve listened to the four that are officially released on Bandcamp. You guys did these A-side/B-side releases this year. They’re all pretty different from each other. (Flip Rushmore) tries to do something different with each song, too. Then you have bands that have a very specific style. You can tell it’s them immediately. But pure SHIFTER seems to be more of the former. You don’t know what’s gonna come next. Did you have a huge pool of songs, and you picked four unique ones? Or is this something you’re trying to do with each song you make?
John: We’re definitely trying to think about it in terms of that. Eclecticism has always been part of the goal. Each song is like an island. I want to make them all have their own individual reason to exist. Each release, we definitely think about, okay, what makes these songs go together? If we do two, why do they have to go back-to-back? Sometimes that reason comes after you’ve decided on the songs. But it’s very deliberate, I think.
Doug: With the starting point being you writing and reworking older songs into this electronic format—which is relatively new for you … it’s a combo of stuff you’ve tried in the last decade on your own, and the stuff I’ve tried in the last decade on my own. Bringing that together and finding common moments. When we listen back to something, I refer to it as the “heads-up moment.” If there’s a lyric or a sound where your head snaps up, “Oh, that’s it!” I’m watching for when we both do that, and seeing what the crossover is and maybe why stuff ends up sounding kind of different. With the core of it being John’s songwriting and creating some kind of backbone or the thing that keeps it from going off the rails completely.
So if you’re making new material, it stands to reason that you’d be starting from square one together once you exhaust everything John has previously worked on. But when you’re working on new stuff at this point, is it still going to be the same process? Is John still gonna come up with something and bring it to Doug? Or will it work differently?
Doug: We haven’t talked about it. Maybe now’s a good time!
John: There’s just so much stuff, still.
Doug: I feel like if you just kept bringing stuff to the table, and on the backburner, started from scratch writing new ideas. I feel like that process of constantly putting things on the backburner (in a queue) and then bringing things in … we could probably do this forever.
John: The way we make music is bound to change. It’s already changing. We just finished tracking a new single we’re getting mixed now. And for the first time—it’s still an older song—we decided to use the vocal manipulator that Doug uses onstage, as part of the tracking process. So for the first time, Doug is actually playing something in the recording. So it’s already starting to happen.
Doug: Maybe the less and less finished stuff you have in the future, we’ll have more room to mess around. But he’s got more than enough to keep us busy for aware.
But doesn’t it always go, like … you could have the largest backlog ever, but then you’re still gonna have this new idea that’s better than anything else you’ve been working on. Do you have any other outlets, John? When you come up with the next great American song, is it a pure SHIFTER song or does it go somewhere else?
John: I don’t know. There’s a weird disconnect. There’s stuff in the catalogue already that wouldn’t fit as a pure SHIFTER song. So I don’t know if they just get discarded or not. I’m not sure about what makes a song work for pure SHIFTER or not. There’s still some debate about that between us … Right now, we’re such a new band … we’re trying to figure out … even this conversation, it’s helping me figure out how we’re perceived. And how we sound. I’m still gathering data.
Doug: I keep forgetting that we’ve only been playing for 6 months. I’ve been busy doing something or other for years, and I keep making plans and plotting things and blah blah blah. Our first show was back in July.
How long have you guys known each other? Did you meet through music? School?
Doug: We figured this out when we were chatting at Radio K. I think it was just high school. We went to the same high school over in St. Paul. We were acquaintance friends running into each other on and off over the years, and, when was it … last January or February? John ended up at our Beasthead studio in North Minneapolis.
John: There were probably drugs involved. That’s how it happened.
Doug: We were up late, let’s say, with everybody showing each other what music they were working on. I had heard John’s stuff over the year. He used to make random acoustic GarageBand demos, and I’d keep them in rotation in my car. They were really good. Over the past decade, I’ve got two or three of these.
John: Oh, shit.
Doug: Anyway, he pulled up some stuff (that night) and was like, “Check this out.” And I’d always known him as this GarageBand, acoustic, DIY guy. It was very foggy in the morning, but I remember waking up and thinking, “Some of that slapped.” Played it back on my computer, and was like, “Oh dang, this is super good.” Within a week, we started meeting up two or three times a week to work on music. And went from acquaintances to bandmates within the week.
How long did it take to come up with the name?
John: Oh, man. I had that already. It was imported from another thing. I was trying to do sort of a … rock band that I was trying to get off the ground. We played one show ever. We practiced one time. The whole idea was to be super loose with things. pure SHIFTER was supposed to be emblematic of, “Oh, we’re gonna change our sound all the time. We’re gonna change our approach. We’re gonna change our band members. We’re not gonna get pinned down. We’re gonna be totally open." That’s part of what the name was supposed to signify. So we had the same right away. Cuz Doug was like, “Yeah, whatever you wanna call it.”
The stylization is a nightmare. You guys have, like, four different versions of what the name looks like ("pure SHIFTER," "PURE shifter," "pURE sHIFTER," "UrPE IFTshit"). If there were an absolute official version of the wording, what would it be?
John: Ideally, there wouldn’t be one, but we’re going with the one everyone tends to use, which is the capital "SHIFTER", lowercase "pure." We had a long discussion about which one we would use.
Doug: I think we had a few different ideas. We were bullshitting about that for so long. But we had to pick one to start with for a flyer for a show we were doing. And then, I think we talked about switching it up and being goofy with the capitalization and the spelling. But early on, it occurred to me that we’re a little too new to be doing that. You should probably play more than two shows before you start switching how you spell the name. I still think it’s a pipe dream. Once we get more shows under our belt. Pure Shitter. Fuck around with what the actual words are.
It all comes back to branding and marketing, man. That’s what’s gonna steal your joy.
John: That definitely sucks, but that’s the lesson you have to learn. That’s what Doug brings to the table. Knowing when not to fuck around if you actually want to get somewhere with your shit. That’s something I had to learn through Doug.
Doug: It’s been a cool exercise, too. Just hearing you talk about what where the name came from. Its first iteration. It’s interesting finding what your boundaries are. They’re always changing. You can be a band that fucks around and does goofy things with their name or with their sound or what you’re hearing on stage. I’ve worked at a music venue and I’ve seen thousands of bands. Occasionally someone on the fringe will make an impact, but there’s so many people who think they’re being original. It loses its originality if you get too loose with it. It’s interesting, being in an electronic band—which is pretty rigid—that on the flip has a lot of different sounds between each song. Figuring out what you can and can’t get away with, and play with it. Electronic bands steer away from that. But the rigidity of being an electronic band is something (other types of bands) steer away from. So finding that mix and balance has been part of what’s interesting and fun about playing in this band.
I feel like we could have a two-hour conversation about that topic, specifically, but for the sake of everyone involved, let’s move on. I think it’s fascinating; trying to balance doing something interesting, having fun with it, vs. trying to gain traction. By the way: Which venue do you work at?
Doug: Kitty Cat Klub.
How long have you been there?
Doug: I’ve been there about four years. On average, two to four nights a week, with upwards of three to five bands a night. Before that, I spent two or so years on my own. I’d go to at least one show every night, and then hop to two or three after that. Every night for two weeks in a row, then I’d take a night off. I did that pretty regularly for months at time before I started working at Kitty Cat. But it’s been a long time since I haven’t been doing something at night involving shows and music and bands.
So you’ve annihilated your brain with local music. And you still want to do it?
Doug: It’s funny training in new people at that job, too. Especially if they’re younger. They’re like, “Oh, this is so cool. I’m working at this cool venue, and there’s all these bands.” I always am jokingly cynical with them, like, “Give it time.” And within two or three weeks, no joke, everybody I’ve trained … you see the cynicism set in. It’s funny to watch that process. So excited. Then, “Oh my god, I can’t stand anymore live music.” And then they come back around to not be cynical about it, but realize their taste has been well developed, and you can trust your instincts.
Were there times when you’d be working at the bar, and there was a band or artist that made you look up and say, “What? This is amazing!”
Doug: That ties back into what I was saying earlier. The “heads-up moment” in the studio. After that happened a handful of times at Kitty Kat, I was like, "Oh that applies there, too." Not that there’s bad music in the city, but there’s just so much music. The heads-up moment is cream of the crop. It doesn’t happen super often. But I remember the first 26 Bats! shows. Seeing some of the first Gully Boys shows. It happens. … We get a lot of music in there. A lot of people cutting their teeth. It’s cool to have those heads-up moments once in a while and see what they do with it in the years after that.
It’s obviously one of the more … prestigious isn’t the right word … but everybody wants to play there.
Doug: Yeah, prestigious is not the right word, but it’s an institution. I know what you mean.
Let’s talk influences. Your song “Relearn”—the style of the storytelling, at least—reminded me of Ben Gibbard, with the electronic aspects bringing me to the Postal Service project. You’ve got electronic music and dance influences. But I don’t know if you guys have particular artists you think of when you put this stuff together.
John: Ben Gibbard and the Postal Service. I’ll take that as a compliment. What I’m doing right now, is whenever someone makes a reference … because people will do that. That’s how we communicate. Shared references. Someone will be like, “You guys remind of this.” So I’m compililng that so I can figure it out myself. People will hear true influences that I have. I have no idea how it comes across. When I was kid—even now, fuck it—I listened to They Might Be Giants. I fuckin’ love They Might Be Giants. But I can’t imagine how that translates in this music. But people will say, “You like They Might Be Giants, huh?” And it’s weird. It’s in the DNA.
Doug: In the first couple years with Beasthead, we’d compile references people would make. And with this one, there’s a handful of ones you expect to get. We’re starting to get weird ones. John, didn’t someone come up to you and tell you we had Nine Inch Nails vibes? We’re just like, whattttt.
John: In the same breath, someone will be like, “You sound like Nine Inch Nails and Green Day.” We get LCD Soundsystem a lot. And that’s one I really love. That’s a real influence that, I don’t know if I planned to want to sound like that … but that’s the most explicit answer to your question, is LCD Fuckin’ Soundsystem.
With them, it’s such a unique vocal style, where if you’re trying to cop that, everybody knows. But there’s a lot of bands that use that influence—ours included; they’re a favorite—I don’t know if there are other bands in the past 15 years that have had as much of an influence on what people want to sound like.
I thought about them a little bit when I was listening to your guys. But maybe a good rule of thumb is … it’s cool when people tell you who you sound like, but if someone tells you the same thing every night, it will piss you off. I like your idea of collecting data on this. And hopefully people aren’t bringing up artists you hate.
John: It hasn’t happened, thank God.
Doug: We only have four songs online. They’re all pretty different. There’s some relatable common thread in them that holds them together. That’s great. But the perception of those vs. the video of our live show online has been vastly different. And I think eventually we’ll have enough content online that it’ll be closer to what the songs sound like … we tend to get a lot rowdier and drunker than (the songs online would indicate). It’s like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. It’s a lot messier and more fun and easier to get into. We’re still figuring out how to translate that to the recorded versions. That’s my backwards, over-caffeinated way to say to whoever’s reading this: Come to the show!
Support pure SHIFTER on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And check out Flip Rushmore's interviews with Denim Matriarch and VIAL before the gig!
Alex used to be a journalist. He still wants to be one, apparently.