Brotherhood of the (Sad Baby) Wolf
I guess we have to talk about The Shins now
From the get-go, the publicist just rubs me the wrong way. He calls a couple of times, and I can't figure out why. I'm already working on a story about Sad Baby Wolf. I don't need any more convincing. Finally, he corners me. I answer my phone one morning, and there he is. It's later in the day in his time zone, so he's got the alertness edge on me.
He wants to talk about the Albuquerque music scene as it was in the late ’90s when he lived here. You know, the good old days, the golden era: In the Year of The Shins, that kind of thing. He wants to tell me about how the scene today is flat in comparison. I say what I always say in these tired conversations, which is that things are just different now, not worse.
The industry's wheels are coming off, its springs are shooting into the badlands. Everyone can record. Everyone can post (and steal) songs on the Internet. Everyone can tour. Everyone can be anything; you don't need permission. And this desert is home to a thriving DIY scene.
Maybe another side effect of this decentralization is it's a little harder for a local band to become the next big thing—if that's even what the band wants to do. I wonder if The Shins' story is still possible, or if they were among the last to rise in the Age of Indie Giants. One thing's for sure: The problem, if you want to call it that, is not that the musicians around here are shittier than they used to be, or that the scene is a sad, shriveled version of its former self. You can find a super-sick show any night of the week if you know where to look.
Finally, I straight-up ask this publicist guy why we're talking. Essentially, he's angling for a big fat cover story about Sad Baby Wolf, in particular that two of the dudes in the band were once members of The Shins, and now they're opening for The Shins at a couple of shows. The Shins, The Shins, The Shins.
I cringe as I imagine asking the questions: So, about that band you used to be in that's all famous … Will you always be defined by your old band? … Hey, you know that big-deal band that you're not in anymore … ?
Let me tell you the story I want to tell you about Sad Baby Wolf.
The drummer, Maury Crandall, used to write songs with his wife Connie, and they performed around town as the Giranimals a couple of years ago. It was ’60s-influenced, catchy stuff, unlike most of what was here at the time, with sweet melodies and surprising chord choices. They were keyed into that side of pop-rock that's friendly and contemplative. Maury's a sensitive drummer, never just laying down a generic backbeat, and he played tastefully on any one of his three vintage drum kits. Connie tickled a Fender Rhodes electric piano and strummed a guitar. They had to stop playing gigs, he says, because with three kids (now four), Giranimals outings were eating up all their babysitting favors.
Bassist Sean McCullough hails from The Oktober People and The Bellmont, and he's captured the audio of a ton of bands in these parts. He's made their albums. He's done live sound at local rock clubs. My guess is that McCullough's ear, trained from fine-tuning both minutiae and the big picture, is what makes him such a good bassist. He recorded and mixed the Sad Baby Wolf album—still unreleased, they're shopping it around—which has an unusual feeling of space and depth. And, as with every perfectionist recording and mix engineer I've ever met, he wishes he could redo the entire thing. McCullough's also got a new baby at home.
It's these guys who made me want to write about this band. Turns out, the rest of the dudes are all right, too.
Three Guitars, One Band
When I sit down to interview all of Sad Baby Wolf, they're funny and unpretentious. They arrive directly from band practice in the North Valley. They just completed a short tour that's like any local band's, with some shows that are bigger than the ones back home and some that are smaller. They're not signed to a label. I ask if they want to be. "Yeah, that'd be cool. Know anybody?" jokes Marty Crandall, drummer Maury's brother and … an ex-Shin.
Sad Baby Wolf started naturally, with no expectations. This is not the tale of formerly famous guys scrambling back to the top of the heap. Three guitarists—Marty, Jason Ward and Neal Langford—got together to write a few songs for a one-off performance. (Oh yeah. And Langford was also in that other famous band.) They were playing an October 2010 benefit in Albuquerque for an old friend, Greg Nelson, who had cancer. Maury got roped into drumming.
So is it hard to orchestrate three guitars? The trio of axe-masters shake their heads. Drummer Maury pipes in, "Well, they would say no, but … ." All three are given their moments to shine, Langford says, with the guitars laying down textures, not ripping wicked solos atop one another. Langford provides a dissonant chime. Ward's pulling out some low-end fuzz. And Marty's the jangly, delay-loving guy.
They were invited to a couple more gigs after the benefit. After running sound at one of those shows, McCullough leveled with them. "You guys need a bass player."
Did they name their band Sad Baby Wolf—a mental picture so cloying and cute—so no one would ever be mean to them? They laugh. No. It's taken from a long-running joke. Inside Star Tattoo, a shop at the mouth of Corrales, there's a page of sad baby animal flash art that struck the band as funny long before they formed.
Eventually, they recorded some material, getting together whenever they could. It's a scheduling feat with families at home: Ward's a father, too. "Everything's got to be planned in advance," says McCullough. But the songmaking comes easy. "Things sounded good," Langford says. "We were like, Wow. I hadn't played, basically, since I got out of The Shins."
OK. Here we go. Let's talk about life and music as it relates to The Shins.
Ward had to lure Langford and Marty out to pick up their guitars again, he says. "They were in little corners, hidden, and they didn't want to play. I'd give them little treats. It was like E.T."
Marty says it was hard to come back to playing music after getting kicked out of The Shins. "I was just kinda pissed about the whole thing. I'd done it one way for so long. I got in my head that it'd never be like that again. Which now that I look at it, it means nothing. If you love playing music, you keep playing music."
Another stroke of luck, Marty says, is his bandmates. He's got good friends and a brother to make music with.
Marty and Langford's relationship with The Shins’ main guy James Mercer has been patched. Plans are in motion to release all the old proto-Shins Flake Music material. And Mercer invited them onstage at Red Rocks to perform a song not that long ago. "He's pretty excited that we're in another project now," Marty says. And Mercer is down to help them in little ways, like inviting them to open a couple of shows. "For us, it's huge. They’ll be by far the biggest shows we've ever played."
Friendship triumphed in the end, says Maury. "It's like water under the bridge now."
"There's no sense in hanging on to anger," Langford says.
Ward adds: "And we've all moved to a space where we're happy with what we're doing.”
Sad Baby Wolf
Opening for The Shins
Thursday, Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m.
Inside the Convention Center
401 Second Street NW
Tickets: $33 to $43
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Caroline Reese • country, folk, rock at Tractor Brewing Taproom
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