The story starts with The Naked and The Dead, the Norman Mailer-monikered pop-punk combo that Shuyler Jansen and drummer Mike Silverman formed while still in high school. In the heady college rock feeding frenzy of the late ’80s, TN&TD caught the ears of Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and very nearly signed to Seattle’s famous Sub Pop label. “We didn’t have management, we didn’t have an agent, we were about 18 or 19 years old and Giant Sand sort of sent all these labels to come calling,” Jansen reminisces. “You can imagine approaching a bunch of 17- or 18-year-olds who are just smoking weed all the time and trying to do business with them. We just weren’t mature.” A deal with Henry Rollins’s New York-based Imago Records fell through when the label folded, and the other deals went the same direction.
“The Sub Pop thing didn’t work out because we didn’t get along with the A&R girl they sent us,” Jansen elaborates. “We just didn’t like her, there was no chemistry there, and, hey, that’s the way things go. When you find these moments of chemistry, things really work.”
Chemistry is a concept that Jansen brings up frequently, and it seems to have guided his career path ever since that encounter. Jansen has released two solo releases, four acclaimed albums with Edmonton roots-rock stalwarts Old Reliable (undeniable chemistry there) and has contributed to numerous other recordings. For a father of three with a new baby, a new record (Today’s Remains) and a major tour to start in a few short days, Jansen sounds remarkably calm and focused, not to mention mature. This is reflected in Today’s Remains, which features a slicker sound, some highly polished instrumentation and full-on string arrangements courtesy of producer Steve Dawson (Zubot and Dawson) and his stable of trusted studio musicians.
“They’re finesse players,” Jansen says. “In the past I’ve worked with more meat and potato kind of guys, like myself. I could hear that it was going to be a little slicker, but I think that really came out in the mix. We thought we’d go for something a little more polished, but in the big spectrum of things, I’m gonna put out a lot of rough and jagged records.”
Underneath the slickness and strings are 10 great songs with plenty of heart, soul and laid-back honesty. “This record’s been slammed by a couple of people who only listened to it once and thought, ‘Oh, it’s too slick’ or ‘It’s not my thing,’” says Jansen. “It’s interesting, but I think if they’d taken a closer listen they might have liked it. I know that artists who are going to put out a lot of records in their life are going to get criticized and praised over and over again. You just can’t read all the reviews.”
It will be interesting to hear how the tunes from Today’s Remains translate live. For the tour, fellow Saskatooners The Deep Dark Woods are serving as both Jansen’s opening act and backup band. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, with Jansen filling in on baritone guitar during their set. “We figured if they were going to learn all my songs and be my band, I might as well contribute to them. I love their record, and there’s elements of it that really remind me of Old Reliable.”
Once this latest round of touring is behind him, there are plenty of new projects in Jansen’s future. He hints at a more rock-oriented record, “some pretty out-there stuff” he’s working on in Vancouver with John Collins and Dave Carswell, or JC/DC (Destroyer, New Pornographers). As for Old Reliable, they still are exactly that, in spite of the two key songwriters being split between Edmonton and Saskatoon. “Mark (Davis) and I have been working on songs,” Jansen says. “He’ll come here, or I’ll go to Edmonton. We’re hoping to get an album out next year, I don’t know when, but we’ve been demoing songs. We just want to really take our time and make a really great record.”
- M.D. Stewart