Shellshag, a two piece from New York, is the heart and soul of rock n’ roll DIY. Comprised of Jennifer Shagawat and John “Shellhead” Driver, the band has put in more time than most bands out there. What makes it possible for them is their genuine love of rock n’ roll.
Shell first learned to play guitar from his buddy, Bob Taylor. “I was 22. He was my best friend in college. We had sculpture class together. He showed me how to play power chords and taught me this song, ‘Why Do You Wear That Stupid Toupee?’ and it’s just two chords… that was pretty much all it took, I was done. That’s still as good as I play guitar. But I really enjoy songwriting the most so this was all I needed.” Jen learned from her Uncle Jimmy. “I was probably 16 when I finally had a drum kit… I didn’t take it seriously and no one encouraged me, no one was behind it.” Jen had wanted to play drums from an early age. When she told her parents, they said a drum kit was “too expensive and too loud. They gave me a flute and a Jethro Tull album and then my friend Laura went and got a drum set so I got to play her set. Years later, when my family moved, she knocked on my door and brought me the entire drum kit. I still have her 1965 blue sparkle Slingerland snare… but I never took drums seriously and then I went to film school at Ohio State and that’s when I played in my first band.” Jen was the first drummer of New Bomb Turks but as she said, “I only went to a couple of practices and I never took it seriously … but then me and my girlfriends had a band called The Lovin Mouthful and that was the first band band,” in 1992.
Jen and Shell developed into musicians and as fate would have it, they both ended up in San Francisco. Shell recalls meeting Jen at Starcleaners (her collaborative music space) back in 1995. “Jen was working the door in a silver gown, it was love at first sight,” says Shell. “It’s true, but we didn’t formally get together until a couple of years after that,” adds Jen. “We were adamant about maintaining our individuality and independence and fearful of becoming a couple.” The two became close friends and started sharing music with each other as a bedroom project. “We would do that for hours together,” Jen says. While Shellshag, the actual band, didn’t start as such until years later, the duo played their first show on Valentines day in 1997. But this was just a “side project.” They were focused on Kung Fu USA with Danny Lovefinger on bass. “It was a heavy rock band, at least trying to be, but we did get to open for Iggy Pop and The Cramps at the Fillmore! Life changing shit. I felt so old then at 30 and Iggy, older than my dad, schooled us! It reminded me of what I love about music. I have not slowed down since that show and it surely motivated me to do everything I want without fear. Like Shellshag,” says Jen. Shellshag, the actual band, started in 2003 but they had been laying the groundwork for it all along.
The band is well known for their stage setup that features an amp pyramid with two mics in a V shape so they can play facing each other. When Shellshag began playing, Jen was originally playing a drum kit. “My friend does conservation work in Rwanda, Africa with The Columbus Zoo and her organization called PIC and she brought me back those bells that wrap around your legs and one day at practice it was like what do you really want to do and I wanted to jump around with all the percussion and stand up… and I wanted to face him and be more apart of the band, not trapped behind the kit,” Jen explains. Shellshag said they were also tired of looking at an apathetic audience so facing each other took them away from that. In the earliest form of the band they wore dress clothes as well, “we were doing anything to challenge the punks,” Shell says. Jen continues, “we were just in a place where we were mad at the so called community.” But the mic stand became really important to them because it kept them centered as a band no matter what was happening around them. Shell built the pyramid of sound amp, an entirely homemade sculpture and piece of equipment.
Now, Jen has moved back to the drum kit (at least for the time being). “I got a little bored, I like the 3 piece drums and standing because as soon as you get up there people think you’re gonna suck and I like the challenge of it, it’s really hard but it’s not as hard anymore… so I got back behind the kit and I could fly around the kit now. I got a little bored with just standing and no kick drum or cymbals… I like the power of the kit,” explains Jen. But it also switches up their set, Shellshag has been playing for years and this brings something new back to their live set.
The band relocated to New York in 2005 after disenchantment with the San Francisco scene. They toured for a year straight with their stuff in storage and decided to land in the place where they felt the most welcomed. New York was it and it brought Jen back closer to her family. She is from New Jersey originally and Shell is from Texas. Between the two of them, the couple has written hundreds of songs. Jen writes all of her songs on guitar and they almost never write songs together. “Now, in the band room, we have a huge piece of paper with just the Shellshag songs from all the albums just to remember and help us figure out what we’re going to play,” says Jen.
Since Shellshag has been at it for years, I wanted their perspective on how the music scene has changed. “It’s like two different planets.” says Shell. Jen continues, “In the 90s we had the art warehouse space so when bands were on tour we had a place for them. So I learned early on, If you’re helping people that way, you could go to their town to play. But there were less bands… Now, the underground is growing. Every town has a million bands and 9 out of 10 of them are phenomenal. This whole strong community is growing.” But continuing to tour and write music is quite a feat. Most musicians give it up after a couple of years but Shellshag continues to thrive. “It’s just what we do and we basically book around the friends we want to see the most,” Jen explains. “We had a booker for a minute, so this kid wrote us an email around 2007, and he’s like ‘you’re playing lame shows, come play our house.’ They were lame shows and we knew it. We went and did this house show in Brooklyn and all of the people from that house party are still my friends today. Each time we take a chance and say yes to an email like that, a whole new world would opens up.”
Shellshag’s reach spreads beyond their own music. The couple has been working on “Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits,” a new documentary telling the legendary story of one of the earliest punk bands. “Ari came into our life a few times before. My brother’s friend, Chris Lynch was managing her briefly and invited us to meet her when she was on a cable TV access show in New York so we went in and got to know her and by end of the night we were helping her out and got to know her son, Wilton, and we became friends. Then our booker asked if I would road manage The Slits but we were pretty hurt by it because we thought why can’t Shellshag be on this tour? We got over that and I went on the tour and had the time of my life because it was a bunch of ladies and me. Then they also felt screwed by their booker so me and Shell did everything that a booker would do for them and we took them to SXSW and took care of them the best we could… Ari was obsessed with filming everything. I guess we never thought of it as a formal documentary because Ari and I were constantly working on it but she died mid conversation…” 5 years after her death, Tessa Pollitt, The Slits bass player, decided this needed to be completed. Shellshag agreed and brought in director Bill Badgely to make sure it was done professionally and as perfectly as it could be. After another 5 years it was finally completed and premiered at The London International Film Festival this past October 2017. It will tour the USA in the summer and fall of 2018.
In 2012, Jen and Shell moved to Jewel Street where they launched Jewel Street Studio, a fabulous warehouse space in Brooklyn that is rented out for filming and events. They also shoot their own TV show there called Shellshonic Shag-o-vision, which is in its fourth season. It features acoustic cover songs in an unscripted psychedelic atmosphere with a wide variety of artists, like Marissa Paternoster, Mike Watt, Walter Shreifels, Laura Stevenson and most recently, Lung. But, also in the true spirit of the band, they generously host out of town bands passing through on tour almost nightly. The band continues to write new music and has plans for a new album in the near future. Any time Shellshag plays, you can guarantee they’re making a handful of new friends each night and through their spirit and enthusiasm, they’re encouraging young musicians and changing lives everywhere they go.