By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
When Prisonshake released its last full-length, The Roaring Third, unleaded regular gas sold for $1.11 a gallon. Bill Clinton had recently taken the reins in the White House, and Whitney Houston's soundtrack juggernaut The Bodyguard topped the Billboard charts. The year was 1993, and back then the quartet was a gritty staple of Cleveland's local music community. Formed in 1986 by hardcore-scene vets Robert Griffin and Scott Pickering, Prisonshake both reflected and subverted the city's classic-rock worship, underdog-punk pedigree and decayed-glam sensibilities.
In the fifteen years between Third and this Tuesday's release of Dirty Moons, the band's new two-CD/LP collection, nothing and everything has changed for Prisonshake. Cofounder and guitarist Griffin moved himself, his band and his label, Scat Records, to St. Louis in December 1994. Vocalist Doug Enkler (who originally moved to St. Louis with Griffin) also remains from the original lineup, although he now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and works on a horse farm. The other two members of Prisonshake — drummer Patrick Hawley and bassist Steve Scariano, both of whom also play in Finn's Motel — joined the group not long after Griffin's relocation.
But Moons doesn't feel like a new beginning as much as it feels like someone released the pause button on Prisonshake's career. The double-album references and echoes (but never quite aligns with) a certain genre or aesthetic — something that always made Prisonshake stand out from its regional peers, whether they were scabrous Chicago post-rockers, strident Washington, D.C. tech-heads, Detroit's grimy garage denizens or Cleveland's scuzz-punk lifers.
"We were only ever an indie-rock band in the sense that we were a rock band on an indie label," the silver-haired Griffin says as he stretches out on his back porch on a recent summer night. The drone of cicadas nearly drowns out the 42-year-old as he chats while smoking American Spirits and drinking Belgian beer. "That's something that people used to say to us in the early days, even with Scott [Pickering] and Chris [Burgess, original bassist]. We'd go on tour, people would say, 'You guys really aren't that weird, but I still couldn't necessarily imagine you on the radio either.'"
That's also an apt description for Moons, whose accessible elements are somehow rendered just slightly askew, whether they're jazz rhythms, bellowing stoner-rock riffs, grimy power-pop howls or moments of abstract noise. Hints of other artists — like Dinosaur Jr, the Stooges, Shellac, Guided By Voices, Bowie, Superchunk, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath — pass by but never linger, forming an oddly alluring, haphazard patchwork quilt of textures and sounds.
That Moons feels somewhat stitched together is logical, considering its genesis. Although the collection was mixed at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, recording sessions and overdubs took place between 1995 and 2007 in different places with different people. (These include Urbana, Illinois, with Adam Schmitt; in Union, Missouri, with J. Christopher Hughes; and in Benton Park with Douglas Rayburn, who's known as the flautist/mellotronist for local legends Pavlov's Dog.) A few songs — including album opener "Fake Your Own Death" — were constructed using recordings of the same tune from different eras. Adding to the homespun feeling is that Moons is 100 percent analog — save for some "digital tomfoolery" on disc one's "Scissors Suite," a five-part interlude of circa-1995 field recordings captured using eight-track cassettes in various spots around St. Louis.
Cobbling together a double album from so many sessions and eras might seem like a daunting process, but Griffin has a simple explanation for how Moons finally cohered.
"It's just lots of listening, over and over in my head," he says. "[I also had] several years away from it. I didn't listen to any of it or think about any of it at all, for a good three or four years. Once I became interested in it again and I could hear it with fresh ears and be a little bit more objective about everything, then it started to become clear how it would all come together.
"I can't describe it, it's just like puzzle pieces finally fitting into place. Before, I was trying to jam another part of the puzzle in there, and it didn't go. But then stepping away, it's like, 'Oh! Done.'"
The reasons why Griffin needed to take time away from Prisonshake aren't quite so easily defined. For starters, he wasn't happy with the initial recording sessions that took place in Urbana in 1997 and 1998, finding flaws in a chorus here, or a wrong tempo there. "I felt like we kept having these good ideas, but then in execution, it didn't really work out," he says. "We recorded 60, 65 takes of twentysomething songs, so I came home with all these rough mixes. It was just overwhelming listening to hours on end of this stuff." At the same time, vinyl sales were down, a few Scat releases didn't break even and the once-fertile underground music scene which had nurtured Prisonshake became a creative wasteland.
"It wasn't inspiring, like, 'Oh, you know, our friends are putting on this festival in Washington, we gotta get another record out before then so we can go' or whatever," he says. "It felt like everybody in our generation either retreated — or rock music was not of interest."
Griffin's personal life also started to take precedence over music. His wife Marla's fledgling independent-show-booking career started to become a financial liability — which became problematic because the couple had a young daughter.
"It was just a bad time for me personally," Griffin says. "Even though there were all these joyous things happening, too, I was not able to suspend disbelief in our music. I was hearing it as if I were a rock critic listening to their thirtieth album that day, after two straight weeks of nothing but that, just cranking out record reviews. I've sat in that chair, and I know how much you can start to hate music and be completely unimpressed by everything you hear."
When he finally revisited the older material in early 2003 with fresh ears, though, he had a far different response.
"I loved it!" he says. "[I thought] 'I was fucking crazy, this stuff's great! We just need a couple more good songs — we need a good version of this, redo that one, and we're done.' It took four more years," he laughs, "but that's the gist of it."
Prisonshake's first show in St. Louis in more than two years — and only third overall since SXSW 2007 — is Friday, September 26, at the Bluebird. (Griffin estimates they've played out less than ten times overall since moving from Cleveland in 1994.) Perhaps fittingly, he says the amount of rehearsal time for the gigs will be minimal — thus preserving Prisonshake's spontaneity and mystique, and the potential for a gloriously unhinged concert experience.
"Unless I get ambitious with something, I don't anticipate more than three practices," Griffin says. "That seems to be the perfect number.
"There's an ideal amount of preparation. Too little is not good, too much is not good. You don't want to play the songs so much that you don't feel them anymore, or they don't feel fresh. If they're too rehearsed, then you start playing them the same all the time. And I don't like to do that."