In the coming weeks, we will feature an in-depth conversation with Michael Shepard, frontman and visionary behind Lovedrug, an Ohio-based band who shone brightly as a “next big thing” thanks to their excellent debut album, Pretend You’re Alive. Released in 2004, it was a surprise commercial and critical success, and rightly so; it’s a beautiful, nuanced record that holds up nicely a decade later. The following interview took place in 2007, shortly before they released their second album, Everything Starts Where It Ends. In preparing for my forthcoming chat, I revisited this interview, and thought I would reprint it here in its entirety. Enjoy!
I first heard Lovedrug‘s debut, Pretend You’re Alive, at a friend’s house a few years ago, and I thought, “This is an interesting band.” Slightly melancholy, slightly rock, but all in all, an impressive debut for a young band from Ohio. Little did I know that this band was skirting with mainstream success; like former label mates Copeland, Lovedrug took the heart and the souls of young America by storm, partially due to their sensitive, intelligent songwriting. Their newest record, Everything Starts Where It Ends, is a much more lush, pretty affair. Though it continues along the path laid down by their debut, this album sounds like a band ready for the spotlight, with songs that could easily reach and connect with a larger audience. Lead singer Michael Shepard is a quiet, thoughtful young man, as you’ll read below, and it’s hard not to wish him the best success with his new record. I ended my conversation with the impression that if he could spend some time recording and writing songs for himself, by himself, he’d be more than content.
Your first album was a critical success and a commercial one as well–an impressive feat for an unknown band from Ohio. Did the album’s success take you by surprise?
Yeah, we were really surprised. When we released the album, we had no expectations. It was our first record, and like you said, we were an unknown band, to some extent. We didn’t really have much of a plan. We put it out, and it was a record I felt represented what I felt at a certain time. I wasn’t trying to cater to anyone, and I didn’t really have an audience to consider. So yeah, for those reasons I was really surprised that it caught on.
That’s natural, though. It seems like artists disconnect from their album; from the completion of the record to the time it is released, they have an idea of what they’d like to happen, but they have no way of knowing what will. The music on the new record, it’s much more lush and meticulous than the debut. Did you want to make a record that was bigger and less raw than the debut?
As things progress, songwriting matures, and for me, personally, I wanted to accomplish something different. I wanted to spend more time on my songs. I wanted to make them sound better, so a lot more time and energy was spent on making it, focusing on the technical end of things. With Pretend You’re Alive, that was a situation where I had all of these songs, and the band rehearsed them, then we rushed into the studio, the band knocked them out, and we were done in a week. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with working like that; that’s a great way to accomplish things, and certainly some classic, eternal music has been created that way. You definitely get a specific type of aura in a recording when you do something like that. With this album, it was much more orchestrated. And I wanted it to be that way. I had something very specific I wanted to come across on this record, that didn’t come across on the first record. These albums, they’re two very different things. I feel like there were elements of ambiguity on the first record that I wanted to erase, I wanted this album to be a little more clear and specific.
With you having a desire to make this record in a different fashion than before, how was the experience of making this record?
There were some hardships. Probably the hardest thing for us to deal with was that we were in the middle of touring so much for the first record, as we were attempting to start writing and recordings our second record. There were situations where we’d go up to the studio for a month, and we’d spend time trying to iron things out and start tracking and then when we’d get ready for that, we’d realize, “Oh, we have to go out and play shows,” and then we’d leave the studio, load up our gear, come back two weeks later, and it turned into a hodgepodge of sorts, with pockets of time in the studio to work on new material. It was really disorienting in a way, but I think in the end it turned out to be a real blessing, because it gave us a little more of a clear-headed view of what was going on, because we would have time away from what we’d just done. We could walk away, come back, and hear things in a different way, in a way we simply couldn’t have if we’d been in the studio constantly. It was a good thing, eventually.
To me, the first record sounds rushed–there’s an immediacy to it, and it sort of feels like a live recording, which isn’t surprising, considering the way you described the recording process. There’s immediacy to the new material, but it’s different; it doesn’t feel as rushed. Did you spend any time on performing these songs live before you recorded them, in hopes of making them stronger?
It’s interesting how it played out. Almost all of the songs, except for one or two of them, were written in the past. I’d say from over the past two or three years–since even before Pretend You’re Alive. Many of these songs had been collected from when I’d work on them whenever I had a free moment to work on them. What it turned out to be was almost like a musical journey over the course of the past few years, and we got to the point where we had all of these songs collected, but then we went through a period of transition. Our drummer and bass player at the time decided to leave, so when we went into the studio, it was the first time the full band was together in the studio. We sat down together, said “here’s the new material, let’s just jam on it.” We worked with our producer to iron things out live in the studio, and then we took it from there.
With a new rhythm section, did you hit it off immediately, and did you get the feeling that thanks to them, Lovedrug’s sound would be changing?
It didn’t feel like a change, really–which is pretty weird. I think I was surprised by that. Yet I felt like it was going to work. I didn’t get the feeling that the band would explode because of them, which was a pretty good indication that it would work. So no, it wasn’t a difficult transition for us.
Some bands spend a lot of time in the studio, but when they go on the road, the music takes on a new dimension, and it feels like two bands exist: the live band and the studio band. With your music taking on new textures for the new record, do you see any duality like that developing for Lovedrug, or do you think that with the new album, the two elements are coming together?
Hmm…good question. It’s interesting; in the past, I felt very much in tune with trying to make the live show sound as close to the album as possible, but not in such a way that it’s…I mean, I hate it when people come out to see a show, and then they’ll say, (cynically), “Why did I spend my money to come to see this? I could have just popped my CD in at home and heard the same thing!” Then again, I was always striving to try and be technically perfect on stage, performing everything exactly like it was on the record. But as time went on, and as we progressed and grew, I think we took on a new mentality, and even recently, as we have started to play some of these new songs live, we’ve had a new take on the live show. We’re kind of letting loose a little bit more, letting the live show be something more of an interpretation of what we’ve done in the studio. We try to incorporate as much as possible. Honestly, if we had tons of money, I’d bring a string section with me, and extra musicians to pull it off. That’s not feasible for us now, though.
You do the best you can. You try to be respectful of your recordings, to uphold the quality of the studio work.
Absolutely! That’s the beauty of a live show. When you’re in the studio, you record your guitar parts, and if you mess up one little nuance, you can redo it a hundred times to make it better. At the live show, you’re playing it, and if you screw up, you screw up, you move on, and you live with it. That’s the beauty of playing live: you’re running with something; you respect what you’re doing, because you can’t change it midway or alter it on a whim. It’s almost as if it’s a living, breathing thing on its own.
With the success of the first LP, and the downtime between now and the album’s release, do you feel like it’s the calm before the storm? Are you prepared for the possibility that this record’s success might be ten, twenty, or a hundred times greater than what you experienced the first time?
I feel like I’m ready for that. I’m not really…like the last record, I don’t really have any expectations, because the success of the first record was a hundred-fold of what I’d expected. I want as many people as possible to hear the music we’re creating, not just for our own success, but because I feel like when we sit down and write a song, we’re not writing a song simply because it’s what we think “the kids” want or because it sounds popular or because I want to change the trends or anything like that. I wish to get back to a place of a little more honesty. Like, “hey, this is us; this is our personality, if you like it, that’s great!” That’s all we’re wanting. Music could change again and get back to a place of more variety. If I could get to be a part of something like that, and make music interesting, I’d be content.