"Rome wasn't built in a day, but several Wet Shoelaces CDs were..." - Confucius
The True Story of Wet Shoelaces
We have had a little bit of fun over the past ten years inventing crazy stories about how this project came together and what it all means. Now it’s time for us to come clean. It all started when our spaceship crash-landed in Nevada….
OK, OK, sorry. Here’s the real deal. Once upon a time there was a man named Ken Briggs. Nowadays he’s best known as the bass player for the Night Train Blues Band, but back in the 90’s he used to host an annual private festival called Briggstock. Most of this festival was based on the kinds of banal cover bands we frankly detest (sorry Briggsy) but in 1998 there were two originals bands there, both of which featured Steve Gregory, later of Wet Shoelaces, on bass. The sound board was being manned by one Allen Bailey, also later of Wet Shoelaces. In between full-band sets, Allen came up and did solo acoustic readings of songs by folks like Robyn Hitchcock and John Lennon. Steve was impressed with the hipness of Allen’s song choices, and Allen was impressed with Steve’s bands and bass playing. A friendship was struck up.
Steve was married at the time to a woman named Cindy, who was also a bass player, as well as a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. Steve had zero interest in doing a cover band, and Allen had yet to write any original material, so Cindy was initially recruited as a bass player for Allen’s new cover band Queen Elvis. At a rehearsal at Steve and Cindy’s place, Cindy was having difficulty with a few of the tunes, and asked Steve to sit in. And that’s how Steve got sucked in to one of the few cover bands he’s ever played in.
This did not stop Steve or Cindy from busting on Allen about his lack of original material. Eventually, Allen ended up writing three songs that impressed Steve far more than he expected someone’s first three songs to impress him. Steve suggested that Allen procure a four-track in order to make demos, and offered his services as both bass player and “highly unqualified recording guru”. Allen did this, and a date was set for the recording session. That date was March 13, 1999, which has become the date we now consider to be the official birth date of Wet Shoelaces. We didn’t know that at the time, though. Steve tracked some strange sounds to demonstrate things like overdubbing and usage of the FX loop, and showed Allen how to track some sounds as well. The results were enjoyed highly by both of us. We kept saying that we should do it again, but it was about a full year before our second session.
When Steve arrived for the second session, he found that Allen had purchased a multi-FX processor, which became an essential component of our early sound and style. We recorded three tunes that day, two of which were of the type of experimental improvisation we have mainly become known for. The third was our first “novelty” tune, another side of us that has shown itself often over the years. Allen also procured some demo-length cassettes, and we began releasing our sessions on these tapes. The first session became the single “Michael, You’re a Shit Monkey” b/w “The All-You-Can-Eat Snatch Buffet” and the second session became the EP “Fiendish Masterpiece” and consisted of “Twisted Glory” b/w “Vicious Circles” and “High Every Day”.
The third session was about a month after the second, and it was then that Allen suggested the name “Wet Shoelaces”. He confessed that he had tried to name every band he’d ever been in “Wet Shoelaces” based on a strong aversion to touching the same, but every band voted him down. It struck Steve as a good metaphor for how any record label would surely approach their music: they wouldn’t even touch it. Perfect! Two pieces were created that day: “Mummy Tornado” and “Makes Sense to Me”. The cassettes we were using at the time were five minutes per side, and “Mummy” was over seven minutes long. A second batch of tapes was purchased, these 7 ½ minutes per side. This worked out fine for the rest of our early work, until we recorded “Vulva Rock Baby” and “Channel Surfing” all in one session later in the year. Both pieces were 11 minutes long, and we were soon looking for a new solution for releases.
Around this time, a technology we pretty much take for granted nowadays was first being offered to the home consumer: CD burning. This was the perfect solution to our time problem. We took all of the recordings we had made up until that point, including all the cassette releases, and collated them together on one CD (minus two songs which did not fit, “Residential Structures” and “The Ballad of John and You”, both of which ended up on the second disc). Initially, the disc was simply entitled “Wet Shoelaces”. However, after all the songs had been put in order, titled, and burned to disc, Steve was listening to it and heard a story line in the content. He wrote a “libretto” for the disc entitled “Stanley Crummins,” and the name of the disc was changed to reflect this. Only a few discs ever went out without this title. If any are still around today, they are now potentially worth… well, probably not a darn thing, to be honest.
During the sessions for what would become our second disc, a new Shoelace tradition was instituted, one that has remained central to our methods to this day: we began augmenting our basic duo with “special guests” on certain tracks. These guests are almost always given the same creative freedom that we ourselves enjoy, and the results are often quite enjoyable and serve to broaden our palette considerably. Our resulting second album was entitled “The Name of Number Four”, and it too received a “libretto” from Steve completely after the fact. This “libretto” also served as a sequel to the first. In fact, our third album, “Former Utopia is Carnage”, also received an “afterthought libretto”, and completed the trilogy, which has been nicknamed “The Dark Angel Trilogy”.
The biggest step forward for us around this time was a technical one. Our first two albums were recorded entirely on four-track. About halfway through the recordings that would make up our third disc, we replaced that machine with a 16-track digital recorder, which allowed us much more flexibility, not to mention fidelity. And none too soon, either. You see, this is the point when one Mr. Kreg Thornley approached us with a request to use a tune from our first CD called “Everybody Come Again” in a short film he was working on called “The Faith Healer’s Manual for the Slightly Inebriated”. We enthusiastically agreed, but when he attempted to mix the sound with the other soundtrack elements he was using, he found that our fidelity left a little to be desired. About two weeks after Allen purchased the new digital recorder, Kreg asked us if we had access to a digital recording facility. We ended up preparing a number of pieces for him. The one he selected was called “Involuntary”. It can be heard in the film, and also on the “Former Utopia” CD. This has led to a long and artistically fruitful relationship, and we have scored many films for him since, including “Chaos Monster and the Sun God”, “Fear Bear”, “Machine Skin”, “Stain Breakage (Skyscraper Primitive Blues)”, and “Ease Struck”. Our CD-R “label”, Umbref Records, even received permission from the other musicians associated with Thornley to release a soundtrack album to complement his DVD release “Lawn Chair Frontier”, which collects his first six films on one disc.
Another development related to our digital upgrade was the decision to finally share some of this stuff with the larger public. Partly, we felt responsible for providing some sort of cross-promotion with Kreg’s films, and partly we were simply at the point where the quality and fidelity were starting to merit wider exposure. “Former Utopia is Carnage” managed to garner some local airplay, as did our fourth CD “If Gods Were Stoned”. “Gods” was also honored by Metroland Magazine’s 2004 “Best Of” issue. However, we were starting to get the sense that our releases were a bit schizophrenic. “If Gods Were Stoned” veered from the extremely dark to the extremely silly, without much cohesion. This problem was solved somewhat on the next CD by focusing on collaborations with our longtime friend, supporter, and contributor E Aubrey Andrews. This led our fifth recording, “Fanfare for the Umbref King,” to be much more unified than our fourth, but we still felt that the era of doing one song at a time and then collecting them was over.
Frankly, we had become bored with our own creative process, and decided to open a new chapter in Wet Shoelaces history: from that point on, we would work on our music in terms of albums rather than songs. Steve suggested an album created by editing down some long jams, to be recorded in a single day with a large group of people. Allen suggested a symphony. Steve’s suggestion yielded “The Entropy Hot Dog Suite”, and Allen’s yielded “The Feng Shui Algebra Symphony” our sixth and seventh albums, respectively. These releases also instituted the Wet Shoelaces tradition of releasing albums in related, contrasting pairs. In this case, “Entropy” featured pure improvisation, and “Algebra” pure composition.
Composition was something that we had only toyed with a little before “Feng Shui Algebra”. Because we wanted to bring a new level of complexity to the writing for this, we decided to explore the possibilities inherent in MIDI sequencing. “Feng Shui” became the first WS album to feature sequencing, and to this day is the only disc that features sequencing exclusively. Sequencing has since become another central technique for our creative style.
But before releasing these new, album-oriented projects, we decided a retrospective of our early material was in order. One of the aesthetic mistakes we made early on was to release everything we recorded, good, bad, or indifferent. As a result, our early efforts were a little filler-heavy, and we wanted to boil those five discs (plus the soundtrack stuff) down to a solid two-disc collection. We finished out a very busy 2004 with “Nothing Is Ever Real: The Very Best of Wet Shoelaces”. This remains for us the definitive collection of our early material.
2004 also saw our 5th anniversary. Not wanting to let the date go unmarked, we had a celebratory, guest-laden session (similar in nature to the “Entropy” sessions) which was released as a collaboration with the DLF, a free improvisation collective that Steve is also involved in. The initials stand for nothing at all, although a new “meaning” is often invented on an album-by-album basis. Many DLFers had been guests on our sessions before, and many would continue as guests after, but in this case we all met on equal footing, with many tracks conceptualized by DLF members, and some tracks not even featuring Allen or Steve. Therefore, characterizing the session as a collaboration seemed more appropriate than calling it a Wet Shoelaces disc. Due to extensive editing, and maybe more than a little stalling on the part of certain participants, the resulting disc “Wet Shoelaces meets the Dynamic Lysergic Foundation: an Umbref Records 5th Anniversary Celebration” did not see actual release until 2007.
Despite our best intentions, we could not resist continuing to create a few numbers on a song-by-song basis. As this disc-in-progress grew, it became clear that we were facing a project with an even bigger identity crisis than “Gods”. Some tunes were very clearly coming from a dark place, and others were quite light and humorous. Rather than release another incoherent record, we decided to separate these tracks into two separate releases, in order to showcase these two extremes. After this initial division, we began consciously creating new tracks that would also showcase this dichotomy. The results were our eighth and ninth releases, 2006’s “Fear of the Dark”, and “Laughing at Maya”, respectively.
At this point, it is worth discussing the relationship between Wet Shoelaces and the DLF. The distinction between the two projects had always been a bit vague, and in 2006 it was more-or-less destroyed completely. Wet Shoelaces can be defined as either a duo project consisting of Allen Bailey, Steve Gregory, and the occasional guests, or it can be considered a loose collective co-lead by Allen and Steve. The DLF can be defined in similar terms: either as a core trio of Jeff “Bear” Bengston, Steve Gregory, and Steve Zone, or a loose collective lead by the same. It had been the usual practice up until this point to consider any experimental recording featuring both Allen and Steve to be a Wet Shoelaces project. However, in 2006 Bear conceptualized a project called “Death of the Mainframe”, which was based on sounds derived almost exclusively from extended techniques and found objects. These sounds were then used to create a tone poem about a future society that becomes completely reliant on computers, and descends into lawless chaos as those computers begin to break down. Allen and Steve were both extensive participants, but since the project was Bear’s brainchild, it was determined that the disc should come out under the DLF name. Still, in our hearts we consider this to be sort of a Wet Shoelaces project too.
After all of this high-concept stuff, it was time to get back to basics. Despite our status as a duo, we had been recording most of our music with extensive guest appearances, and extensive overdubbage as well. It seemed that the time had come to prove what we could do with just the two of us in duet format. A series of improvised duets was recorded, which was entitled “Essential Water May Think: The Duets Project”, and was released as our tenth album.
Around this time we were approached by Kreg with a new idea. He wanted to do a film with a punk soundtrack, and wanted us to do the music. We had never even come close to being rock, much less punk. But we recruited two long-standing WS auxiliary musicians to round us out, guitarist Jeff “Bear” Bengston and drummer Steve Zone (both of DLF infamy). Although the film project never materialized, the resulting sessions became our 11th release, the hysterical and rocking “Never Mind the Velcro, Here’s Wet Shoelaces” EP.
Our 12th and 13th albums constituted another pair. Released in early 2009, “Tiamat” is a single 60-minute composition, and “Chameleon” is 60 individual one-minute compositions. The latter is designed to be listened to on “shuffle” only, so that it becomes a new listening experience each time one plays it. While you could say that about any album played that way, the brevity and multitude of tracks on this recording make it truly a new journey with every re-shuffled listen.
For those of you keeping track, that brings us to the 10-year mark (1999-2009). Celebrations being in order, 2009 saw the release of “The Anniversary Jam”, a truly magical 47-minute improvisation recorded live-in-the-studio by Allen and Steve on their 10th anniversary. Second and third volumes of our "Anniversary Celebration" were also recorded, and are slated for release in early 2010. The second will be “Dark Angel Variations”, which will revisit our earliest, craziest styles, but with the superior recording and performance quality of our later material. The third will be an album of leftovers and rarities entitled "The All-You-Can-Eat Doggy Bag Buffet". Also in 2010, we plan on sessions for "Wet Shoelaces Meets the DLF II: The Umbref Records 10th Anniversary Celebration". Stay tuned, because this story’s a long way from over….