With several albums and EP’s to their name, The Shell Corporation have become a contemporary gem in the Los Angeles punk scene. After a bit of a break, they are back with their new and very powerful album called Fucked, which will be out on March 2, 2018 through La Escalera Records and Gunner Records. Editor Ricky Frankel caught up with lead singer Jan Drees and guitarist Curtiss Lopez to talk about the new album, the movie Network, their interesting album art choices, Jan becoming an airplane pilot and a bunch more. Read or listen to their conversation below or on iTunes. (Music from The Shell Corporation is featured in this episode, Brian Pretus's DownWrite.com Profile).
Photo Credit: Dr. Matt Grimmer
Why did you guys decide to put that famous clip from that movie Network the song "Ozymandias" the from your album Force Majeure and why should people watch that movie? I've seen it and I think it's very important, but I want to get a take from you guys.
Curtiss: Why did we decide to do that? Was it just that we had a space?
Jan: Well actually, we had the space first and we were looking for something to put it in. We had a couple of ideas. I don't remember who came up with it. Curtiss or I said, "What about that cool rant from from Network?
Curtiss: Yeah. That is an amazing movie, but we didn't have some grand idea to do it. It was just like, "Hey, there's a hole."
Jan: We need[ed] something there and it couldn't be a bridge or a melody, so that's how we came up with it.
Curtiss: I think it was either that or a guitar solo and I'm like, "I'm not fucking guitar soloing there."
I think that movie pretty much hit it on the head especially in the early 2000's. It was about 40 years ahead of ahead of its time.
Curtiss: Oh yeah. They recreated that sort of rant on The Newsroom. There's been like a newer version of it that I saw a couple of years ago and it was pretty great, too. But yeah, there's nothing like that one rant.
Jan: It's interesting how that movie holds up even though it was written and made in a time before the internet which changed media and news consumption totally. It sort of predicted a lot of things as well as stayed relevant even though the media landscape has changed so much in the -- however 50 years since it was made or however long it has been.
Curtiss: Well they were looking at the 24 hour news cycle, right? That was kind of like the beginning of all the downfall of media in general. That first cable news explosion.
Jan: Yup, Ted Turner and CNN.
I remember watching it in a political science class in college and just thinking, "Wow! this predicted a lot." You guys released a flexi 7-inch -- was it last year or 2016? -- with a cover of "Babylon's Burning" by The Ruts. Why did you guys decide to choose that song? Was that just something that you guys decided to put out just for fun?
Jan: Yes. We chose that song because our drummer said, "Hey, this is a cool song. We should cover this." And we said, "Hey, we agree. Let's do that!"
Curtiss: I never actually heard of The Ruts before that. He just was like, "This song's rad. We gotta do it." And we're like, "Okay!" I think Mike wanted it. Mike from Encapsulated Records was doing a series of cover flexis, right? We had met him because he had become our merch guy in Europe and he just offered to do it. So that was kind of the whole story.
Jan: And that since we never let (drummer) Jake [Margolis] decide anything, we decided to let him have that one I guess.
Curtiss: I never even put it up on a record player. Does it actually work?
Jan: Yeah, it works. It works fine. I mean I hope so because we have been selling them so… Well if your flexi doesn't work I guess you're shit out of luck, man. That's what you get for buying a flexi.
So let's get into the new record. It's called Fucked. It is out March 2nd via La Escalera Records and Gunner Records, if you're in Europe. This [record] is "totally you guys." I think it's fantastic. It seems a lot angrier. You guys have a really good way of putting a sense of urgency and panic into your music which I think is something not a lot of bands can do [well]. But I thought it was interesting, listening through it at least for the first time, was the song "Fighting For." That's definitely a deviation from where your sound is. So I want to know why take that route musically? Because it is a little bit more mellow than you guys usually are. And what is that song actually about? Because there seems to be some sort of story or narrative in there.
Curtiss: Well sonically, the funny thing is -- I know it's a departure, but that was actually just started as a reggae…
Jan: It was a full on reggae song the way I wrote it.
Curtiss: Yeah. Well it went from reggae and then it turned into a bluegrass song.
Jan: Oh yeah!
Curtiss: And then neither of those fit. So this was like the halfway point of making it kind of a slow punk song because most of the songs the album actually started is really, really mellow and I guess it was my fault that I sped everything up. Jan [did] the vast bulk of the actual writing and then I took everything and made it into punk songs. So that song just sounded right that way. There was no real reason for that other than it just felt right at that tempo and it felt right lyrically with what he was trying to do. As far as the lyrics stuff, that's Jan's call.
Jan: I just wrote it as a sort of a snapshot of taking a few individual stories and building a bigger picture of what kind of American life is as a broad cross-section. The first verse is about a guy who joins the army because he doesn't know what else to do. He's eighteen years old and he's like, "Fuck it, I'll join the army." And then he's 25 and we're still at war. He's still at war. The country has still got troops spread all over hell and gone for -- what was it? 2001? Yeah. That's 17 years just about. The second verse is about a really rich guy and he doesn't really give a damn what he's fighting for and he's fighting for money. He's got it made. He was born into money and he'll come out with money. The third verse is about a union guy and the line is, "His pension split with the company stock." It's sort of a play on words there. You know, when stocks split that's good for the stockholders and then the third split also [meaning] to get out of here. So I guess it's kind of a statement on what's happened to a good blue collar jobs in this country. Then the last line is to sort of caps it off with the death of 45 year old woman working stock in a shop and wondering, "What the hell am I doing here? I'm barely keeping afloat." It's supposed to be a story of the cross-section of what America is like and -- draw your own conclusions as far as what I'm trying to get at politically there.
Curtiss: You forgot about the 38 year old guy in a punk band wondering what the hell he's still doing playing shows.
Jan: Oh yeah! That's more of an autobiographical song. I'm still working on that one.
So aside from that, are those anecdotes more personal or were those just kind of like imagined by you?
Jan: Yeah. Not really personal. I mean I'm not in the union.
I mean are these people that you know?
Jan: No. Of course I know people that are like that, but it wasn't written about anyone in mind in particular. It was more of a set of characters and more of a theme that I was going for and less of a story about specific individuals that I know.
Curtiss: We write mainly to figure out where the biggest amount of money is going to go.
Jan: And we're not really good at it, you know.
Another song I also thought was a bit of a deviation from your sound was "Von Braun Waltz." That seemed pretty different. I actually don't know the reference you're making in that title. Why did you name it that? What's the story behind that song?
Jan: Wernher Von Brown, well he's the reason that we ever went to the moon. "We" being the United States. But he started off as an officer in the SS for Nazi Germany and he was an engineer. He designed and developed the V2 Rocket. After the war, the Americans basically made him a deal he couldn't refuse and he came to the United States to build rockets. And he always claimed that he wasn't a Nazi. He just happened to be in that position because of political considerations. All he ever wanted to do was to build rockets and solve this engineering problems. And so he had compartmentalized himself. He never really considered the terror that his rockets and all the ballistic missiles that he developed could bring about such potential destruction. He was basically saying, "I'm just an engineer. I just solved the problem. I just solve these problems. And once the rockets go up, who cares where land." That is what he is famous for saying. "That's not my department." That's where that line came from. So the inspiration for that was my granddad, who lived through the war under Nazi occupation and later moved to the US, and [later] was an engineer and got a job building helicopters for war. I always thought that was an interesting thing. That someone who could live through war and lived through a prison camp building weapons and then somehow compartmentalize that to come and build weapons for the right side in the United States.
Curtiss: And again, only the "money topics." Hahaha! We did online polling -- the kids these days are like, "What is it like to be aeronautical engineer?"
Jan: So that song is about these nuclear weapons and all this fearsome military might that we have that are used to kill people all around the world. They're not developed by mouth-breathing "MAGA" people. They're developed by very educated, very smart engineers who generally are apolitical or it's just not that important to them. It's an interesting thought to me -- like how does one justify building these things? And a lot of the law the answer you get is, "Well, it's not my department how they are used. I just solve the problems." So I thought Wernher Von Brown was a pretty good example of that and it's a catchy name.
Yeah. That's the thing, for those listening (or reading), if you haven't heard The Shell Corporation yet, it's intense and you can just tell there's so much that goes into their songs as you as you just heard (read). So your album artist is fantastic. I don't know who does them, but can you tell me how you found them, who they are and why you decided to choose their cover art for -- I'm guessing -- all three of your albums?
Jan: Everything we've ever done, right?
Curtiss: Everything we were done except the first seven inch because we just needed it so quickly, we didn't have time. But that's our buddy Luke Martin and he's goddamn amazing. He's just an old friend of ours and he's the kind of guy [where someone would say], "Oh man I love that painting. Let me buy that from you." He'd be like, "Here. Trade me your shirt. I won't take the money, but I'll take your shirt." And to this day we try to pay him. I just send him bottles of scotch as a "thank you" because he won't take a payment. He's just a rad guy. We don't tell him what to do. We just say, "Hey, the album is called Fucked. Do whatever you feel like doing." We've never been disappointed. He's just rad.
Yeah. I find myself as I've been doing this as a volunteer thing, album art seems to be pretty important. You guys seem to have that down quite well. I think especially for this album it portrays the title quite well.
Curtiss: The irony is that his job is creative director at iTunes -- something to do with Apple or iTunes and that's what he does all day. So painting is definitely not his main gig.
I know you guys spend your time in San Francisco and I know mostly LA, right?
Jan: Yeah, most of the guys are in LA.
What do you guys think of the current LA punk scene? To me it seems pretty scattered when at one time, like way back in the day it seemed pretty close knit. What do you make of that? What do you think of the scene overall? I've seen you guys play at The Slide Bar. I've seen you guys at the at The Redwood at least twice. So I'm curious as to what you think of it now.
Curtiss: It's hard. I mean, especially LA. In the 90's it was such a strong thing. It was such an iconic thing that me and Jan grew up in. And there's nothing since then that has been anything like that. So to say there's a scene here is even hard. I'm not even sure there is necessarily a scene. I mean there are scenes like when you get out to Pomona and San Diego, but in LA it's almost as if there's just a ton of bands who sound entirely different who barely know each other and they happen to play together once in a while.
Jan: Well there was a pretty good, tight-knit scene especially when Harry [J. Erkface] was doing The Redwood. I mean that was the spot. That's why everyone played there all the time. He did such a great job of bringing a lot of out of town bands through and everyone was really supportive. I mean that was the very definition of a scene with people turning out to see a friend's band coming to town and supporting the road bands. Since he doesn't work at The Redwood anymore -- I don't know. It doesn't seem like anyone's really doing anything in L.A. anymore.
Curtiss: Well a large part of it is places to play. There isn't a central place like it used to be, like where you go to Seattle and you have certain places that foment a kind of a growing a scene. LA has places, but nothing that "land."
Well yeah. I was going to say -- you know, at least Northern California has Gilman Street for what it's worth. I don't think I saw you guys play there, but did you guys ever play VLHS?
Curtiss: Oh yeah. A couple of times. And that felt like something special.
Jan: Yeah that was a really cool [spot], but that wasn't LA.
Curtiss: Yeah, for me that was about two hours away.
Jan: People would make the drive. That's a that's a far piece from LA. When I think of the LA scene, I'm thinking like The Redwood.
Curtiss: Yeah. We used to have The Cobalt, but that was kind of shitty, too.
Jan: It was a good kind of "shitty."
Curtiss: Yeah. It was.
You guys sort of took a break for about a few months to a year. On social media I saw you (Jan) flying planes. Are you an actual pilot? Is that what you do for a living?
Jan: I'm an actual pilot. And if I wasn't busy with this band, that's what I would be doing for a living. But the thing about pilot jobs is they expect you to be there and they don't like to give you time off for touring. I'm doing a little bit of professional flying, but not as a career yet. Not until this album is out and I can get these guys out of my hair.
That's really interesting. What's your overall goal? Do you want to do commercial flying? What do you want to do with that?
Jan: Actually I want to teach. I want to teach people how to fly which I'm already certified to do And then just whatever comes along as far as flying gigs. Flying airplanes is pretty rad.
Curtiss: Drug mule?
Jan: Being a drug mule would be awesome. A lot of low altitude stuff.Yeah, that'd be fun.
You get paid in cash.
Jan: Yeah, and they pay in cash -- tax-free. It's been a passion of mine pretty much my whole life and then I finally just decided to do it. I had a little bit of money and time and I only went out to get my private pilot license, which is the one that allows you to fly an airplane with your friends and kind of goof off and then I realized it was going to be a really expensive hobby, like way too expensive for me to afford. So I decided to get the certificates to allow me to get paid to do it so that it wouldn't be an expensive hobby and instead it would be a cool job.
Curtiss: And yet we still have not flown to a show.
Jan: No. And you probably never will. Hahaha!
Curtiss: When I first heard he was getting all pilot's stuff I was like, "Fuck yeah! Anarchy Airlines!" right? And he's like, "No, there's three of you and we can't put any equipment inside of a plane."So I was like, "Well what the fuck was the point of the whole thing?!"
Jan: To fly planes, man! Anarchy Airlines…yeah..right.
That's awesome. When the album comes out in March. What does the rest of 2018 have in store for The Shell Corporation?
Jan: Well we're going we're going to do a west coast tour in the third week of March. So there's that. And we're planning a European tour in May and then probably some more tours in the summer. Hopefully we'll get back out to like Denver and places we haven't been in a long time. And then Fest? Aren't we talking about doing Fest, Curtiss?
Curtiss: Well, we were. We haven't talked to them (laughs).
Jan: Right. We are on board to do Fest and now all we have to do is talk Fest into having us on board.
You guys are also playing Awesome Fest as well, right?
Jan: Yeah, that's the very next thing that is coming up is Awesome Fest. February 16th to the 18th in San Diego. And that's going to be as the title might suggest -- awesome! There are so many good bands playing it.
Is there anything else you would like to add before we end this?
Curtiss: No. Just thanks. I mean, Punknews has always been surprisingly nice to us (laughs).
Jan: Truth! Truth!
Curtiss: Thank you guys. It's cool. I just want to say thanks
(laughs) Oh god…
Jan: Yeah, Punknews can be pretty harsh and you guys have always been pretty nice to us so thank you. And where there has been criticism, it has been well deserved.