Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ Sidelong is Record of the Year at North Sea Scullery. In fact, it’s record of the last who-knows-how-many-years … We catch up with firebrand architect Sarah Shook.
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ blend of punk and country is cut deep into North Sea Scullery. We had a Slash Records sampler back in the 80s and anything from Sidelong could have been on it. That’s not to say Sidelong sounds old, not one bit – it sounds timeless. It wears all its influences well. It’s new.
“I’m head over heels for music from the heyday of country and punk,” Shook says. “Hank Williams Sr. is one of my fav songwriters and singers right up there with the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon. Whatever is honest and true, that’s what I like best.”
And one of the truly great things about Sidelong is that it’s proper guitar music. Fierce, firing, alive like vintage Blasters:
“I taught myself guitar when I was about 16,” she says. “I’d been writing songs on piano for a while but was looking to take up an instrument I could cart around more easily. A good friend loaned me an Oscar Schmidt acoustic and I got one of them big posters with chord shape and finger positions and had at it. Still have that guitar too.
Chet Atkins was a big influence on my guitarists, Eric Peterson, and his talent is incontestable. But Big Mama Thornton’s fervored smokin’ style, any rock n’ roll type licks that are infectious, that’s what gets me. That’s where it’s at.”
The Disarmers are barnstorming backing. They fuel the lizard-sweat honkytonk of Sidelong like a cross between The Tennessee Three and Let Love In Bad Seeds:
“Eric and Phil Sullivan (pedal steel) were with me in my first band for about 3 and a half years,” she says. “When that band broke up Eric and I muddled through together for awhile until forming the Disarmers, adding John Howie Jr. on drums and an upright bassist. Aaron Oliva is now our bassist. And, of course, Chapel Hill in the 90s being what it was, Eric, John, and Aaron played in a band together a million years ago as well. So there’s a lot of musical history and relationships from way back that create a really cool, united vibe.”
This vibe is plain to hear in Sidelong, which right from the very first listen has a Clash-first-LP kind of smash and grab immediacy:
“Sidelong was indeed tracked live with the full band playing in unison in 4 days. That’s it. We added final vocal tracks and the random brief overdub on the fourth day, but recording that thing was do or die. Breakneck speed. I think Ian (chief engineer at Manifold Recording Studios where Sidelong was recorded) achieved well and above what he set out to do with this record, capturing the reckless, wild, blistering nature of a band’s live performance.
Recording first album Seven was actually our intro to Ian Schreier and Manifold by way of an intern named Mario Bianchi, here from Italy for two internships, one at Manifold and one at Carr Amps, a boutique tube amp manufacturer in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Mario was supposed to wrap up his internship at Manifold with an 8 hour mixing session but insisted he be allowed to record his friends’ band, Sarah Shook & The Devil. Since we only had one day we figured we’d track the band live and I think Ian was pretty intrigued with the concept and pleased with what Mario got energy wise and sound quality wise.”
When we reviewed Sidelong, we made an attempt to pick out favourite songs – the truth is the whole album is bloody brilliant. But songs like ‘Fuck Up’, ‘Dwight Yoakam’ and title track ‘Sidelong’ in particular make clear that Shook is a fantastic songwriter, someone who captures the ups and downs and heartbreak & travel of life with genuine skill:
“Ugh. Life. Real life. The worse it is the better the songs so I guess that makes even my worst day good for something. My subconscious seems to collect impressions, notions, fragments of ideas along the way and then piece everything it’s been collecting together in a very visceral way. My songs are almost always done in 15 or 20 minutes with some definite exceptions. The title track off our latest release, man I had the verses and the bridge completed in about that amount of time but it felt incomplete to me. So I tucked it away and forgot about it. About a year and a half later I was drinkin’ a beer on the porch and the chorus hit me in its entirety right there and the damn thing was finally done.”
Shook’s writing is what No Depression accurately called “the real damn deal” and her songs often have a kind of forlorn beaten-down but fuck-you-I’m-getting-up-again attitude that is basically life-affirming. These songs are distilled from the days and troubles of ordinary folk in the small heartsicknesses of the bar-room but they’re as truthful and real a thing as writers have grappled with for years:
“My favorite books in no particular order are East Of Eden by John Steinbeck, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy,” she says. “Steinbeck and Hesse are my absolute favourites, I’ve read almost everything they’ve written.”
And speaking about books – this is North Sea Scullery after all – what about cookbooks? Does she like cooking, does she have a favourite?
“I love to cook,” she says. “It’s my second greatest fulfilling pastime next to music. But I rarely use cookbooks, I go off my cuff and a good 20 years of inventing food on the fly, BUT Thug Kitchen is highly recommended. The recipes are simple and super flavorful and the author’s incessant use of profanity in the oddest ways will have you rolling.”
So, what’s her favourite dish to make?
“Oh man no way, it’s too hard to just pick one! I make make a mean walnut meat taco seasoned with cumin, chili powder, and garlic powder, and topped with diced local tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, spring mix, and homemade cashew sour cream. Serve that up on a warm flour tortilla? God. When I die please lay these tacos on my grave. I can do without flowers.
Then there’s a kind of hash, pan fried diced potatoes with red onion, red bell pepper, a smidgen of chili powder, salt and pepper, and Tofurky’s Italian sausage sliced into medallions with spicy mustard sauce. This dish works any time of day, just as good for breakfast as it makes for a midnight snack.”
Whiskey features big on Sidelong. From instant classic ‘Dwight Yoakam’ (‘Drinkin’ water tonight cos I drank all the whiskey this mornin’) to the ‘heapin’ dose of trouble’ in ‘Nothin’ Feels Right But Doing Wrong’, whiskey and beer fuel the stories.
So does she have a favourite dram?
“I like Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace,” she says. “But am also known to drink the lowest shelf whiskey in the place.”
We’ll drink to that. So what next?
“The next album is recorded, mixed, mastered, and in the artwork and layout stage,” she says. “I’m really truly proud of it and I can’t wait to be able to share it with you! We’re looking at an early 2018 release and DEFINITELY looking at some touring in the UK. Thanks so much for havin’ me.”
As she sings on Sidelong “the days are shorter and the nights are long/the hours go crawlin’ by’ – we can’t wait to see Disarmers over here.
Sidelong is out now from Bloodshot Records & it’s a beer-cool thing of rowdy-fragile, slow-furious beauty.
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers Pic: Don O’Neil
Many thanks to Josh at Bloodshot Records!