The abrasive, angular, and constantly shifting hustle of New York City has long established itself as a fertile artistic inspiration for those that can adapt to it’s pace. It should seem perfectly natural then, that a band like Shake The Baby Til The Love Comes Out would be found lurking in it’s sprawling and at times utterly chaotic atmosphere.
Originally from Seattle, STBTTLCO’s familiarity with metropolitan levels of cacophony is obvious within seconds of hearing their 2018 debut In A Pretty Suit. Notably bizarre songs like “Mine is Viscera” and “Someone for Everything” show off the duo’s ability to weave outrageous mathematic themes into cathartic exchanges of rush-hour traffic patterns. The crooked and intoxicating “Utility Myth” skitters into a heavy, downright melancholy descent of dense, textural grunge. Thankfully, these seemingly tumultuous, busy-bee roots make an additional appearance in Shake the Baby’s tireless work ethic as well.
Pretty Suit was recorded in October 2017, and released a mere three months later in January. It’s a lot of work to cram in such a small amount of time, but it’s a workload the band seem more than happy to maintain. As the band gears up for another US tour and prepares to release their new album Growth and Healing Through Bringing Others Down, Niko Wood and guitarist Fiona Gurney were also nice enough to share a few words with us about cartography, the importance of microwave meals, and the time Taylor from The Brankas defiled their van.
You two are some of the absolute hardest working people I’ve ever met, in a field that constantly requires more of independent artists. With the extra time this go around, would you say these songs carry that same quirky energy as the ones on the first album? What was tracking like?
Niko: It’s a lot different than the first, thanks foremost to the amount of touring we’ve done with this material. We recorded the first album only four or five months after our first show. We had a big 37-show tour ahead, as well as another three-week tour by which we would move to NYC. So beyond the material being new and a little uncomfortable, we had a strict timeline, and made for some quirkiness. Some of the songs on the new record have over 100 shows under their belt.
Fiona: Hard to say! In a Pretty Suit was recorded in a very rushed manner. I think that some of the quirky energy that originally piqued folks’ interest was born out of that. The new songs are, across the board, more tightly crafted since we’ve been sitting on them for longer.”
Performing as a duo can pose a challenge for some bands when going for a full sound, but Shake the Baby seem utterly at home in any dynamic. Does the challenge of using two instruments total ever factor in what the band writes? Or is that the kind of thing you laugh off?
Niko: It’s challenging, but liberating. With all the space to fill, I have a good excuse to busy-up my parts without annoying Fiona too terribly. She’s also really good at getting low end out of her guitar. Some pieces of the new record almost sound like they have bass, but that’s just Yones nailing it. As a duo, it’s also easier to remedy our mistakes when we’re playing live. I’ve learned to just thrash around when I get lost, until I can find Fiona again. We probably couldn’t pull that off if we had a third. When we’re laughing at each other on stage, it’s typically because we just royally fucked up a part. Which happens a lot. We’re not very good.
Fiona: Yeah, I mean we work with the tools we have. There are certain sounds we simply can’t make without more equipment or more people. And I still can’t play half the songs we write as is. So the thought of adding more components isn’t even on my radar. We just write songs that are fun for us to play. And sometimes maybe they’d sound better with bass. But like, fuck that.
Laughter seems pretty key to the band and a lot of the song titles as well. How would you describe each others humor?
Fiona: Our humor is repetitive and mean.
Niko: “You guys are always either fighting or yelling jokes,” said our good friend and recording engineer, Burgess Carleton, while we were in the studio. The two are one in the same, really. It’s all love.
Sometimes a joke is all it takes to break those pesky silences, either when you’re tuning your guitar or humping your kick drum back into place. Have either of you thought about ditching the whole music thing and trying your hands at comedy?
Fiona: My sister does comedy and I admire that. But I definitely don’t have plans to follow in her footsteps. Music is hard enough.
Niko: I don’t think either of us are very good behind a microphone for sustained durations. Probably a part of why were instrumental. My peak was in Amarillo when I leaned into mic while Fiona was tuning and simply said “Big Tex”. The whole bar laughed for some reason. I don’t think there’s a bit in there though.
Your tours are fairly well known for their frequency and length in the math rock world. But you even published a map that is used far and wide between bands you’ve played with. Is one of you a secret cartographer? Was that one or both of your ideas?
Fiona: I think we were going to start some sort of spreadsheet for ourselves to use. I didn’t even know there was a map feature on Drive, that was Niko’s doing.
Niko: We started building it to make booking easier for ourselves. Mostly scouring people’s tour posters to find venues in random places. At one point it got a little obsessive, and the next thing we knew there were more cities listed than we could ever get to, so we figured we’d share the resource. I’m glad it’s been helpful to people! A few folks have suggested we turn it into an app to sell, and have even offered to help us build it. Fuck that. Everyone should be able to experience the country, especially if they have art to share. Tour’s intimate and vulnerable and will challenge your perspective.If anyone wants access, just send us an email — email@example.com
Some of the best footage available of you guys in action is from a Two Piece Tuesday event at the Tonic Lounge in PDX. Are there any two-pieces that have inspired the band over time?
Niko: SEA MOSS, who we’ve played with at two of three Two-Piece Tuesdays, are pretty inspirational. Massively creative. Fiona’s tried convincing me to put some contact mics/triggers on my drums, and doubled down after seeing what Zach does in that project, but I’m void of understanding when it comes to anything electrical. I just hit things. (Those two also host workshops in Portland on electrical engineering, specifically wiring pedals/mics/instruments — maybe I should take a lesson). I should also mention that Thomas Mansanti of the band Rows of Teeth (another TPT alumnus) took that footage. Check out his band and his photography. Brilliant.
Fiona: I don’t think we base much of what we do together off of other two-pieces, specifically. I think our music still just comes from what we were playing along to individually in our formative years. But that will probably change with time. I love seeing how other duos choose to fill the space. Watching people feel comfortable with their instrument as just that, and in relation to whatever the hell their bandmate is playing, is rad. That’s something I try to take away with me. So I guess I find all of them inspiring.
Two-piece or not, who was the last band you played with that blew you away?
Fiona: Wasabi Fox here in Brooklyn for sure. I had only seen a little live clip online and couldn’t really tell what they were all about. Turns out they are full-fledged performers, super skilled musicians, so entirely locked into each other and complete with a nice flashy stage presence. Jannae has moves. I want those moves.
Niko: For me it’s been The Brankas, out of San Francisco. Another duo that we had the privilege of touring with for 7 days this past September. Studying their set every night and trying to understand what they’re doing is an exercise in futility. They’re sadists with hearts of gold. And Taylor threw up in my van. Blew my pillow away — right into the trash. A great time.
Sometimes when you’re booking, another band helps you out with support, and you end up meeting bands you otherwise might not have heard about. Sometimes, bands you might not even have time to check out before the show! Was there a time you ever got a soundcheck and a band or artist was totally unlike what you thought they’d be?
Niko: It happens a lot. When finding bands to play with your only basis is their recordings, which can be out of date or misleading. There’s a certain degree of going in blind every night (and it’s the same with venues), which can be exciting and keep you on your toes. My favorite is when I find a band that only has a short, low-quality live video clip of gnarly shredding, and no other recordings. I pester the hell out of them to play with us. 38-Barbies in Louisville would be one such example. Two storied old rockers making wildly inventive noise music. Old rockers are the best rockers. All guts, no bullshit.
Fiona: I go in blind most nights, really. I have an extremely limited memory for these things. But yeah, as Niko kind of said, when we can, I think we like to be surprised, and book the band that has nothing on the internet either due to how new the project is or how old the members are. Those gigs often turn out to be the best.
During your travels, have you ever struggled to replace a favorite snack or meal while away from your hometown? Which foods do you miss most when you’re on the road?
Niko: We’re at the point now where any hot meal is a delicacy. The rare occasions that we splurge on a motel are almost solely for the microwave meals. Paired with Food Network voyeurism and some Evan Williams, we’re probably close to a Michelin star.
Fiona:Yeah I would have to second anything warm. In New Mexico once we had to get a Motel 6 and were so excited to have a microwave meal, only to realize there was no microwave in the room. So we tried to thaw the meals in the shower which, as one might expect, did not work.
Could you possibly shed some light on the song title, “Also, Vomit?”
Niko: We had a live-session on Vashon Island and on the ferry ride we quickly named the four songs we were playing, since they were untitled. Fiona came up with the title, “Also Vomit”, later, but under similar time constraints. I think the album ended up fairly guttural, though I’m not sure what is meant by that. A pukey mess? The titles are much more intentional on this new record.
Fiona: I think I came up with that song title, some random thing pulled from my phone notes. But I do think its funny. There’s only a few possible contexts in which someone might say those words. Makes me chuckle.
How about the band name? I can’t help but imagine there is a story behind it but I also can’t help but imagine it being fairly gruesome.
Niko: We had five songs and our first show booked, but no band name. I was walking around one day talking out loud to myself, as one does, and somehow came to speak the phrase. Fiona was hesitant about it at first, but we talked it out. It’s intended to regard an ironic futility in the addressing of personal or societal issues. A similar allegory might be “Drive a Prius Til You Save the Climate”. Shaking a crying baby won’t cultivate love. It may stop the crying, but it will completely side-step the actions that caused distress in the first place, and ultimately cause fatal harm. Driving an “eco-friendly” hunk of metal, plastic, and oil won’t solve our present crisis. The root of the issue is completely avoided, while the driver suddenly feels as if they’ve done their part to save the planet, simply because their car now has an insignia of a leaf on it. Because their baby is no longer crying. Or maybe it’s just a dumb phrase I once misspoke, that we’ve since tried to justify with a long-winded explanation. You tell me!
Fiona: Niko’s dad liked it, the ultimate stamp of approval. I said okay.
Have you given any thoughts to a concept album? Or would that not be something the band was interested in?
Niko: This new record is actually a bit of a concept album.
Fiona: Seems like a hard thing to get across with no vocals. But, yeah, I think Niko’s right.
When you’re recording an album, do you try to surprise each other or do you try to stay within the defined boxes and patterns?
Niko: When we play live one of us will often do something weird to try and mess the other up. We’ll throw each other a wrench to keep it fun. That’s not something we can do doing that while recording, hearing ourselves, trying to focus on nailing the parts. We haven’t spent much time seriously recording our music, relatively. Doing it comfortably is a new thing we’re still figuring out.
Fiona: Boxes and patterns. Recording, unlike playing a show, is not a carefree experience for me. I can barely listen to myself. I hope to shake a little bit of that every time we do it though.
Were there any surprises or mishaps during the recording? I found a dead rat at Robert Lang Studios once. I thought it was our drummers cast, but it was an actual decomposing body!
Niko: In a similar vein we found a bunch of big dead bugs in and around the studio. We ended up putting them together and incorporating them in the album art. The cover of “in a pretty suit” is a mummified rat my mom found in her firewood pile. I guess we’re opportunists.
Fiona: The day we arrived at the studio someone told us the tap water might not be good to drink. And then we ran out of bottled water like 3 days before leaving and didn’t really think to do anything about it until the night before we left, when two of us went to the store with the sole intention of buying water, only to forget about water entirely and just bring back beer.
What is the hardest thing about balancing your personal lives with touring forever? Is it a thing that just calls to you?
Niko: We’re both in the service industry so in terms of work it’s easy enough getting time off. Or quitting and finding another place to work when we get back. I’ve learned to be content with being broke. What’s tough is cultivating friendships and relationships when we’re always going away for extended periods. That’s something that can also encourage codependency between the two of us, since we’re all the other has while on the road — something we’ve become more aware of and active in working against. Seeing our good tour friends helps. Those relationships are fun to cultivate because the hangs are so short, few, and far between. Cherished.
On the last date of a tour, in the last minute of your last song, what’s going through your mind?
Niko: Stoked to see our friends, and with our own beds in sight (unless you got a subletter and have to crash in the basement for the last week of the month — oops). But sad it’s over. And the next couple of weeks suck. Tour withdrawal is a motherfucker. That’s when we usually start mapping out and booking the next run.
Fiona: “Dang, what the hell was I complaining about that whole time?”
When can we expect to hear the new Shake the Baby Till the Love Comes Out?
Fiona: November 29th, when you’re totally over food and your extended family.
Niko: And then a full U.S. tour. We’re much worse live and will be very smelly.
Friends and fans can pre-order Growth and Healing Through Bringing Others Down and stream the new song “For All The Days That I Am Happy” here. We were lucky enough to have gotten an early stream of the album, and we can’t wait till it’s fully unleashed. It’s quite the sludge-y beast.