Andy Shauf Just Wants to Drink Dad Beers and Write Songs in the GarageMarch 06, 2020
Candian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf understands the power of storytelling. Across five studio LPs, Shauf’s gentle delivery and 70s soft-rock arrangements have served as a vessel to weave together songs that often double as character studies. Shauf’s 2016 breakout record The Party is told through rotating viewpoints of house party patrons throughout the course of one night. Each track offered listeners a chance to connect and relate to someone new.
Shauf returns this year with The Neon Skyline, a loosely autobiographical concept album following the trials and tribulations of a fictional regular patron at The Skyline, one of Shauf’s beloved haunts in Toronto. Shauf, who has previously described himself as “socially inept,” demonstrates a fine attention to detail, use of dialogue, and sense of comedy.
Ahead of a sold out show at Revolution Hall in Portland, we caught up with Shauf to talk dad beers, reincarnation, and why simpler is always better.
I recently found a Yelp review of the real Skyline Restaurant in Toronto. “Happened upon this place our last night in Toronto. Fish cakes, salt & vinegar fries, perfect asparagus for me and a fabulous burger for Pat. Would become regulars if we were not heading home to SF tomorrow.” What initially drew you to it?
I moved to Toronto four years ago. It’s an old diner. It’s been open since the ‘70s, but it re-opened right when I moved there. I went there for brunch once and saw the bar and all the booze. Figured this place is probably pretty awesome at night.
Are they known for having craft beer on tap?
That’s not really their scene. They have about six taps total. One of them is probably Guinness.
I imagine Toronto to have similar energy as New York. Fast and expensive. Do you find that environment motivating or draining?
In Toronto everyone's on their toes all the time. I like that. It’s so different from where I’m from. In Saskatchewan it was easy for me to get lazy. In Toronto I feel guilty if I’m not working all the time. I have the Skyline. It’s a super quiet bar for me to go and drink for hours in peace. It’s a great balance.
You’ve described Saskatchewan as the “Midwest of Canada.” What beers do you associate with that area?
There is a beer called Molson Pilsner. I still drink it. That’s what I drink at the Skyline. It’s just a dad beer. There is a craft beer scene there now, but not when I was younger, you know? A lot of Coors Light.
The craft beer scene in Canada has exploded. Do you pay much attention to it?
My roommate is really into it. I mean, I’m the kind of beer drinker who is going to sit down somewhere and have nine of them.
You’re not jumping from place to place.
No, no. I’m going to sit down and get drunk. Toronto has great beer, though.
What breweries are you excited about?
Blood Brothers is fantastic. Bellwoods Brewery. There is some interesting stuff. If I’m going to drink a craft beer it’s probably going to be a sour. We’re doing alright in that scene.
Do you try to seek our local beer on tour?
I don’t seek it out too much. Mostly because I hate hoppy beers. This Ninkasi I’m having is good. A little hoppy but more crisp. Everytime you put on your rider “local beer” you wind up with a double IPA and it’s like, “Fuck me—ah, this is not what I was after.”
IPA hangovers last me about three days now.
I’m starting in on my 30s now and nothing really matters that much. I’ve come to realize that life is way better when it’s balanced.”
Do you find yourself drinking more when touring solo vs. full band?
This tour so far, it’s our first bus tour. You can just drink. You’ve left the city and you’re drinking. So I’ve found myself drinking a lot more on this one. Solo tour, though….well, I just drink a lot.
You took a simpler approach to arrangements on Neon Skyline. Was it tough to not get carried away by larger ideas?
It was nice. It was a different process. I wrote this one on guitar and was trying to make it so that the songs were more focused on the songwriting than the arrangement. When it came time to do arrangements, I found it difficult because I was trying to keep the track count down. I was trying to use as little as possible, but still be effective. It was tough. I struggled with that.
It’s easy to just keep putting things on. Whether or not they stay on, it’s an easier way to get an idea of an arrangement when you just load it up and take small bits away. This one I did on tape so it was full passes, trying to figure out the moments that needed something.
Did a clearer sense of when a song was done emerge?
I think so. The moments where I felt like a song needed something else were more clear.
You played all the parts yourself. Was there ever a point where you were like, “Shit, I really want someone else to come add something”?
I enjoyed the challenge. I like being alone and trying to figure out ideas. As soon as I bring someone else in, I’m looking to them for their opinion a bit too much. If I’m just by myself, I have to really sit with “what do I think?”
How did demoing on a tape machine affect the process?
I demoned everything on a Fostex. You can edit, but you can't really. Unless you want to get the blade out and start splicing tape. You had to really commit to ideas and arrangement choices. Keeping everything simple. You only had eight tracks—I can’t double the vocal, it’s a waste of a track. Got an electric guitar for some of it and punched in a clarinet on the same track. Trying to be efficient.
What qualities in a song do you admire?
It’s really important to know how to pick your moments. Me and my friend Colin who did the string arrangements with me on the last record were talking the other day. People try to make these crazy, lavish string arrangements when simpler is always better. It’s always more effective. Simple gets a bad wrap sometimes. You can have interesting intervals and interesting changes, but keeping it focused, you are going to wind up with something way better than if you are just trying to really push it.
Lyrics on The Party explore themes of anxiety and inadequacy. There’s a lightheartedness to this new one. Does this reflect personal change or growth?
That is definitely reflective of my life. The Party I made in my 20s when I was anxious and weird. I’m still those things but I’m starting in on my 30s now and nothing really matters that much. I’ve come to realize that life is way better when it’s balanced. There is a heaviness to it always, but to sit around with your friends talking about all the heavy shit all the time? No way.
As a teacher, if my student’s can’t visualize where they are going, it’s very hard to make meaning of what they’re learning. Your lyrics paint a very clear picture for listeners. Who paved the way for you here?
The classic songwriters. Randy Newman, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell. You can picture what’s happening with their songs. It’s probably because they are picturing it happening while they’re writing it.
Is that happening for you when you write?
Yeah. It’s mostly fictional stories. I have a setting in my mind. I’m trying to picture someone doing something before I can write about it.
It would be tough to come back as an animal. All they’re doing is trying to get food to not die. I would go for a human over and over. Or a dog. They’re treated pretty well.”
Were you picturing the protagonist of this record drinking a specific beer?
Yeah, a pilsner.
You’ve stated that your own life seldom has intrigue. Have you always felt this way?
There was definitely a time where I was writing some pretty embarrassing love songs. Things about my feelings. I still do that to a certain extent. There is a thing that happens when people tour too much where they just start writing about touring or traveling. You’re like, “that’s just for you.”
Your writing process seems fairly methodical. Do you have any writing rituals?
I work best when I have a space that I work in. A lot of people say, “I’m going to go to a cabin to write” or “I’ll go on a trip and do some writing.” For me, I need to have an office. My studio is a little garage behind someone’s house. I don’t know who they are.
You don’t have to interact with them much?
Nope. They built a fence from their backyard to my entrance so I don’t see them at all anymore. It’s amazing. That’s what I do. I go to the studio and sit there and write. Sometimes I burn incense. It’s pretty dark in there. I don’t have any windows. It’s great except for the few times it's gotten too late or I’m too sketched out to walk home and I sleep on the floor and wake up and I have no idea what time it is, a little hungover.
Does beer enter the equation while writing?
Yeah. I’m trying to keep the beers out of my studio. I definitely smoke a little, drink a little. I was drinking a lot in my studio when I was demoing this record and there are so many bad recordings because I’ve finally finished the song after five beers trying to get the demo down.
The song “Living Room” centers on reincarnation and was inspired by a book you read. What was the name of the book? What made you want to convince others to read it?
I can’t remember what it’s called. There are many books on this topic, but it's a book about kids who are super young and they’ll look at a picture in some old history book or something and be like, “that’s me and that’s my friend Doug.” Their parents will be like, “what are you talking about?” Then they’ll look it up and they’ll know the guy’s name and some weird details that they shouldn’t know or would have no way of knowing. There are a bunch of cases of this in America and the parents are conservative Christians who don't believe in reincarnation, but the facts these kids are getting right are too crazy to ignore. It’s wild.
Thoughts on what you’d like to come back as?
It would be tough to come back as an animal. All they’re doing is trying to get food to not die. I would go for a human over and over. Or a dog. They’re treated pretty well.
Describe each album as a type of beer.
The Neon Skyline—pilsner. The Bearer of Bad News—Guinness. The Party—it’s a little fancy so probably sour. A little bit obnoxious, ha.
Top photo by Colin Medley.