Smile Politely

Shipwreck: Once more with feeling

Though they may never have found the same level of out-of-town success as their peers (The Living Blue, The Beauty Shop and Headlights), Shipwreck had a devoted local following and left behind an impressive, if brief, discography. Their music danced the line between dozens of genres—referencing the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, often within the same song. They were a hard rock band with elements of Gram Parsons. They were a pop band that could suddenly lay down an Alice in Chains solo. A quick listen might call to mind elements of shoegaze and U2. And when their first full-length Origins came out, it provided reviewers with plenty of opportunities to namecheck artists, mostly because that’s what reviewers do. But by the end, with Rabbit in the Kitchen with a New Dress On, citing influences became unnecessary. They sounded like Shipwreck, a somewhat frightening pop rock band that was capable of playing very loud and writing surreal lyrics that still managed to hit you in the gut.

This Saturday night (July 31), Shipwreck will play a one-off reunion show just two years after they bid the world adieu. That’s not an incredibly long time, considering the normal period it takes most bands to heal from their wounded egos is at least a decade. But it’s much easier for a band like Shipwreck, whose members remained close even after the amps were turned off.

I recently spoke with 3/4ths of the band (bassist Vlad Brilliant, singer/guitarist Harman Jordan and singer/guitarist John Owen—drummer Chris Waage was unavailable) and they reminisced about their run with the normal amount of what-ifs and a surprising amount of contentment.

The band’s sound seems to have evolved organically with individual contributions becoming less important as the group became more confident with their sound and with each other. Though the band started as a way for Owen and Jordan to share songwriting duties, everyone influenced the music and by the end Brilliant was writing songs as well. Owen said that people tended to overemphasize the importance of the song’s singer on the final product.

Owen: I always considered myself a guitar player, so the songs Harman was singing on I felt like I had more freedom to influence those songs, building up these spooky parts. And I tended to sing on these songs with stripped down pop-structures and Harman would come with these whaling guitar parts.

While all the band members seemed to agree that Shipwreck did not produce any undeniable breakout hits, they did feel like they were making music as good as (or better than) many bands who made it to the next level of popularity. At the end, they may have been on the verge of bigger things. As they look back, they can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out differently.

Brilliant: Sometimes people just listen to stuff because it gets pushed on them. There definitely are bands that catch you right away, but you have to have some sort of machinery to make it work. I don’t think there’s a magical quality to all popular music. You can certainly have good music, but you need to find yourself in a place where you can afford to hype yourself. The only fair test for any band would be to be out there, get promoted well and then if it didn’t happen, then it’s fair to say your music didn’t equal anything. It’s kind of hard to say that a small budget band from Champaign that goes on a small budget tour had a fair chance.

Owen: Living in a bigger city may have helped us out, but I’m not sure we would have been able to afford practice space. In Champaign, it’s easy to go out and tour and play out because you don’t need that much money. But maybe you don’t make those connections and build your name the way you could in the bigger cities.

After Rabbit came out, the band’s progress mirrored many regionally successful bands who try to take the next step. They went out on their first real tour, playing venues around the country. Brilliant guesses they played fifty to sixty shows outside of C-U/Chicago and maybe ten of them had a decent crowd. Their sound was occasionally garnering buzz in out of town media, including a write up on Things generally seemed to be heading in the right direction.

Jordan: I just enjoyed for what it was—the energy of playing the songs. I didn’t expect us to make it work, but on a lot of levels it did. I went through the steps of the whole business mode and hyping ourselves and marketing and booking shows and getting press together. We probably had a certain amount of what it takes. We were getting better and better at songwriting. We could probably have done more and gone a bit further.

After completing the tour and assessing his situation, Owen found himself at a point in his life where he was ready to make a go of being a full-time musician. He felt that he only had a small window left to take a leap of faith and felt like there was a real chance to take the band to a higher level of success. Brilliant and Waage were on board, but Jordan could not take the plunge.

Jordan: There’s wasn’t animosity, but there was kind of a little disagreement at the end. John wanted to pursue Shipwreck full-on, and he wanted me to quit my job. And I didn’t want to do that, because I was getting to a good point with non-Shipwreck things. For the first time in my life, I had a good job that paid a decent salary. It was too big of a risk for me at that point.

An opportunity had arisen for Owen to take on a more full-time gig with Headlights, and he took it, knowing that his personal window for having any chance to be in a rock band was going to be ending soon. And just like that, with one final blowout show, Shipwreck came to an end. And while it did not end in a hail of name-calling and cricket rackets, it did take time for everyone in the band to accept the finale.

Owen: If I were talking to you six months after we stopped doing it, it would have been all disappointments and what ifs. But as time goes by you realize that we were all getting to that stage in life where other things were becoming more important. At that moment, it was Harman, but it really could have been anybody at a different point.

Brilliant: I don’t think any of us can hold a grudge about someone making a priority of their job and homelife. Looking back, I think we’re all pretty satisfied with the way things turned out.

In the last two years, members have moved on to new phases in their lives. Waage completed law school and now has a legal job, Owen will be starting law school in Berkley this fall, while Brilliant and Jordan now play in the Dirty Feathers.

Despite the way it ended, the three Shipwreck members I talked all deemed the band a huge success in their lives and recall most of the time fondly. In these cynical times, it’s heartening to hear that a relatively unsuccessful tour of the West Coast was a clear highlight. They had all realized a lifelong ambition of being in a touring band. Four kids who had grown up on rock ‘n roll, going to shows with bands from all over the world, were doing an actual tour outside of the Midwest.

Jordan: That was fantastic. Our trip out west was easily the highlight. It wasn’t even playing the shows, but just doing that whole thing as a unit.

Brilliant: It’s interesting to start something in a basement at somebody’s house without too much ambition. Then as time goes by, maybe we started taking things more seriously. And finally the four of us are in a van driving around the country. It wasn’t even necessarily the actual shows that made that tour great, it was just the sense that we had all gotten together and done this thing. We kind of willed ourselves to a place where we were going around the country and taking things semi-seriously.

Owen: I’ve come to accept as I’ve gotten farther away from playing music that you should enjoy yourself and make only the music you are interested in. Don’t try to fit into something else. Recognize that it’s okay to be good at something, even if you’re never going to create a classic with immediate buzz, like the Arcade Fire’s Funeral.

Yes, Shipwreck is another example of a local band that may have ended an album too soon or could have been better self-promoters. They might have found more success in a bigger city. And maybe things would be different if the timing had worked out better. But looking back, if there is any lesson to learn from the band, it’s that four friends could make interesting music together for almost five years and are still motivated to revisit that sound. In an era where most reunions happen because of a paycheck or another grasp at fame, it’s refreshing that this one is purely about four guys living in the energy of their songs one more time.

Shipwreck performs with A Light Sleeper, Take Care and Olde Scratch at Mike ‘n Molly’s (8 p.m., $5)

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