Thursday, February 8, 2001
In the world of rock, there are nearly as many types of music fans as there are genres of music: casual listeners, snobbish elitists, studious devotees and pretentious critics. But no listener typology would be complete without mentioning The speculator ï¿½ those for whom the "what ifs" are as intriguing as the "what weres." Shaking Tree's Dain Estes is a speculator.
"Could you imagine if The Backstreet Boys came out with a psychedelic album like The Beatles did?" he asks during a recent interview. "No record label would stand for that, but back in the '60s, The Beatles were a boy band and they helped change music."
One could speculate that Shaking Tree's own goals aren't dissimilar.
The original incarnation of Shaking Tree began in Lawrence in 1996 when Estes recruited a motley collection of local musicians for a one-off basement recording project. Those sessions became Shaking Tree's 1997 eponymous debut, though the band hadn't fully gelled yet. Songs like "Darker Days" are fully realized ï¿½ containing the group's patented pop sensibility, shimmering guitars and gift for harmony ï¿½ but the lack of cohesiveness is apparent.
"I just wanted to start something, but I didn't have a clear set idea of who to play with," Estes recalls. "I had something like two band's worth of musicians. The guys that are in the band now are basically the best of whom I was playing with, and we got along real well, too."
The solidified lineup (Estes on guitar, mandolin and vocals, drummer Aaron Hetherington, bassist Ian Burns and violinist Tom Waddington) soon found itself in Estes' basement again, recording Shaking Tree's sophomore effort, "Sound of Rain," which more effectively captured the band's sound. Tracks such as "Misunderstandings" find the band expanding its sound, adding subtle instrumental and vocal touches that lend the album an airy, effervescent quality.
After extensive touring, the quartet signed to indie label Knot Known Records and headed off to Memphis, Tenn., to register its first sessions in a real studio. In only 10 days of intensive recording, Shaking Tree had finished its third ï¿½ and best ï¿½ record to date, the masterful "Matter of Choice."
"That was the best experience we've had as a band," Estes remembers. "We just felt like we could play and have fun. I think we were really worried about going into a real studio with an actual producer, we were kind of nervous. After the first day, though, it was totally cool."
The Memphis sessions marked a big step forward for the Lawrence-based band. Not only was the songwriting more mature and thoughtful than previous efforts, but the group had finally captured its sound on tape. From the opening chords to the closing moments, "Matter of Choice" was an immensely satisfying work that was light years beyond the first two records.
"I think songwriting-wise, things have gotten a lot better," Estes says. "I don't want to say 'complex,' because that's not really what we're after, but the songs are more involved. As players, we've all gotten better. Basically, it's a much better version of what we did on the first album. I've taken less and less responsibility. On the first album I wrote all the bass lines ï¿½ I don't do that anymore. So it's more of a group effort."
Though Shaking Tree's sound is a radio-friendly mixture of Dave Matthews Band, Counting Crows and Matchbox Twenty with a heaping helping of the band's own groove-ready aura, you probably won't hear it on your car stereo anytime soon. Not quite pop enough for mainstream radio and not quite alternative enough for college stations, Shaking Tree has mostly fallen through the cracks of the airwaves.
"Commercial radio won't take a risk on anything, and college radio takes risks less and less," Estes says. "College radio used to make their own rules, and they don't as much anymore. We get the charts back from the stations that are playing us, and we're charting with like The Barenaked Ladies or whatever. It seems like there's no in-between anymore. College radio is either really mainstream or way indie."
As for the local music scene, Shaking Tree ï¿½ like many area bands ï¿½ has a fairly devout audience but little in the way of compatible venues. Though the band members are all Kansas University graduates (Estes has a degree in history) who still live in town, they try to maintain a low profile locally and only play here a couple times a year.
"I'm so far removed from it," Estes says of the regional scene. "Lawrence has a lot of really cool bands ï¿½ The Band That Saved The World, The Sugadaddies ï¿½ but there's really only two strong venues. The Bottleneck and The Jazzhaus are the only places that are consistent ï¿½ none of those places are doing disco nights. Kansas City, we're really removed from. I think a lot of bands in Lawrence probably feel that same way, too."
Rather than oversaturating its home base, Shaking Tree has opted to build a reputation on the road, averaging more than 200 out-of-town shows last year alone. Though most gigs are well-attended, boisterous affairs, there are always exceptions. For example, on the night before the interview with The Mag, the band played a show in Crested Butte, which touts itself as "Colorado's Last Great Ski Town." No such thing according to Estes, who is clearly not fond of cities that sell more lift tickets than concert tickets.
"We hate ski towns," he declares. "They're fickle. There's a lot of really snooty people in ski towns. Last night this local guy walks up to our bass player and says, 'Do you smoke dope?'
Ian says, 'I have before but not anymore.' We're kind of over that, we've been on the road a long time and we're over the whole getting wasted all the time thing.
And (the local) says, 'Have you ever seen a Grateful Dead show?'
Ian says 'No.'
And the guy says, 'That's all I need to know.'
Then he walked out. He wouldn't even listen to us."