xperience may very well be the key to life. It makes us better human beings. It makes us better artists, workers, leaders, etc. And one of the most vital elements of experience is failure. Failure sucks. No one tries something new in hopes of crashing down to earth, but us Robert F Kennedy once said “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
When I first met Mishka Shubaly in 2008, he was a different man than he is now. He was on the tail end of a full speed face first crash into the shit stained New York concrete. The reciprocal energy of that descent would eventually propel him forward.
I was working for New York’s now defunct lesser known alt weekly NY Press. Before my time, the paper’s masthead included such writers as Jonathan Ames, William Monahan, and Dave Eggers, but by 2008 the paper was shrinking and providing fewer thrilling reads until we published Mishka Shubaly’s Bad Dreams in March 2008. Bad Dreams was a first hand account of Shubaly’s experience with a powerful opioid known as Opana. His detailed account was gritty, depressing, funny, and most of all immersive. For my shy, inhibited self, Shubaly read as an admirably fearless, if also reckless, man willing to face the consequences of experiencing life. Like a voyeur with a new telescope, from that point on I looked forward to every piece of gonzo journalism he submitted to the publication.
At the same time Shubaly was getting his first real break as a writer, the best band he was ever a part of was destroying itself from the inside. With Shubaly on bass, Mitchell King on drums, and most importantly Shilpa Ray on harmonium and providing vocals, Beat The Devil was one of New York’s fastest rising bands. Possessing a raw intensity unlike anyone in the scene, it shouldn’t have been surprising that the band would burn out before achieving widespread success. They ended up playing their final show on March 22nd, 2008 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. As he tells it, Shubaly later woke up on the street with his head bleeding and crawled home.
Just over a year later, Mishka Shubaly left behind the drinking and drugs that had for a long time fueled his life and various self-inflicted misfortunes. He came to term with his demons, cleaned up and improved himself. I could try to go into detail about his newfound love for running helped him beat alcoholism, but he’s already done that far better than I ever could in the best selling kindle single The Long Run.
Since going sober, he’s become a best selling author with his series of Amazon Kindle Singles, and he’s even taught writing classes at Yale. But as much as writing is a huge part of his life, music has maybe been his greatest passion since he decided he wanted to be a “wandering minstrel” at age six after hearing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. The story’s a lot more interesting than that, but it’s far better to read it in Mishka’s words (in the excellent Beat the Devil) than mine. Throughout his years in New York playing in excellent bands (most notably Freshkills, Beat The Devil, COME ON) and working at influential clubs (Knitting Factory, Luxx), Shubaly watched peers skyrocket to success while his own bands and solo career couldn’t catch a break.
When still a bit of a mess in 2008, Mishka holed up in a squat in Long Island City and recorded the bare bones of his “new” solo record Coward’s Path onto a 4-track. The self-deprecating outlaw country relics of his former self remained untouched for approximately five years until he decided to put the rough tracks in the hands of longtime friend Erik Nickerson. Nickerson’s touch was exactly what Shubaly’s music needed. Once told by Robert Christgau, “Mishka, you can’t sing. At all.” his voice was once an obstacle I also couldn’t get past to appreciate his 2007 release How to Make a Bad Situation Worse. As time passed, my tastes changed, and his gruff voice began to have more appeal to me. And while it’s not his greatest asset, that weathered vocal tone does actually prove to be well suited for his broken down tales of failed love and misfortunes. What really makes Coward’s Path tick is undoubtedly Shubaly’s storytelling ability which remains brutally honest and self-reflective throughout the record.
Setting the foundation, album opener “Pickup Lines” begins stripped down to a few strums of the acoustic and Shubaly’s deep, self-degrading voice. Introducing himself with all his faults out in the open, he offers his companionship. As the song picks up, stomping percussion enters to carry the song forward through the junkyard. A bit over the halfway mark, the rough-edged country song transforms to an aching pop song with the entrance of a whistle and eventually piano. Nickerson has found a way to make Mishka’s alcohol drenched depression catchy, and it picks up further with “New Jersey Valentine’s Day Orphan Blues.” Written about former bandmate Shilpa Ray, it’s a twisted love song filled with misery and defeat. That overriding theme of self defeat remains as he sings “This is your last chance to snatch failure form the jaws of defeat” on the slow ballad “Your Stupid Dreams.” “Frankenstein Heart” references the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine” while dragging it through the junkyard sludge of New York’s back alleys. Another ballad of a failed relationship, “Taxes and Jail” stands out as the first song on Coward’s Path that’s completely stripped down to nothing but guitar and voice. Keeping the slow pace steady, “Ohio” drifts like an old tumbleweed as Shubaly provides a comforting embrace to another troubled soul.
Just past the halfway mark comes the anthemic treasure “I Can’t Remember When You Were Mine”. To a steady new wave groove that somehow reminds me of Blondie’s “Atomic,” the past is pondered over with a reflective tone that echoes the nature of which the album itself was pulled into the future from another part of Mishka’s life. The following song, “Depravity’s Rainbow,” plays out as a tear-stained waltz. “Alcoholism” acts as a direct letter to his former girlfriend Allison, and cuts through to the realization of a problem plaguing his life. Acting as the counter to the previous song, “Fuck Self Control” could be adopted as sing-a-long drinking song for any frat boy unwilling to read between the lines. Returning to the fully stripped down production of “Taxes and Jail,” “Eating Alone” explores full blown desolation with desperation oozing from every word. Closing out Coward’s Path perfectly, “Your Plus One at My Funeral” envisions a former lover at his own funeral with a biting sense of humor.
Shubaly’s mix of tragic down-and-out melancholy with a dark sense of humor could be a little unsettling for anyone who’s never been to that place mentally, but it’s heavily relatable for those who’ve been to a similar place.
And now on to the main course in which I convince Mishka Shubaly to revisit those darker times.
Mishka Shubaly: Alright. Come at me, bro!
Mecca Lecca: So, the chicken. You’re complaining about a chicken waking you up after all those years in NYC?
MS: Well, technically a rooster. But yes. The last six months in Greenpoint, the day-to-day NYC filth/ noise/ humiliation was really getting me down. In my head, I had this fantasy of California, which I knew was fiction, but still pined over it anyway. And now, I’m here, and yeah, it is a little bit like my fantasy. But also a fucking rooster in your ear before the sun even breaks the horizon.
ML: It’s just funny to me, since the quiet here (Santa Fe) is both serene and oddly made it pretty difficult to sleep at times. Is there anything you’re missing about New York?
MS: Well, I’ve been here less than a week so I still mostly just feel relieved to have escaped alive… but I already miss my friends. My boxing partner was sober like me, a recovering rock’n’roll degenerate like me, a writer like me, a fan of violence like me, unmarried and alienated like me… It’s going to be impossible to find another friend like that in Christian Republican military small-town California.
ML: Yeah, I can definitely relate. The constant hustle, the stench and all that has been easy to move on from, but there’s definitely some good people I left behind too. And meeting a making close friends is so much different as you get older.
MS: I love New York and I will always love New York. I didn’t leave it for lack of love. But it’s the people that make that town, at least for me, and that’s what I’m really going to miss.
ML: Reading that quote from Christgau about your voice made me laugh. I remember the first time I heard How To Make a Bad Situation Worse, I felt the same way. But I was also in a different place as far as musical taste. So when I gave Coward’s Path a listen I was pretty pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it.
You’ve got this great outlaw country style along the lines of Waylon and Merle. How much has that stuff influenced you?
MS: It’s funny that you mention Waylon and Merle as those are two dudes in that scene that I don’t really know that well. John Prine is probably my favorite songwriter ever. I started listening to Johnny Cash and reading Bukowski when I was 16 and those two jerks are probably responsible for destroying most of my relationships from that time forward. In the last couple of years, I’ve been listening to a TON of JJ Cale, old Jerry Jeff Walker (who should be getting as many props as Townes Van Zandt does…) Guy Clark and far too much Kris Kristofferson. Yeah, lots of coked-up, weird old man country over here. But I should clarify that all the stuff on Coward’s Path is old. Those are all songs that I wrote before I quit drinking in 2009
ML: Absolutely. John Prine is incredible. And Bukowski’s influence has also shown through your writing.
MS: Someone said that it sounds like Bukowski singing, which is a weird compliment that I’ll totally accept. Someone else said that my appeal was that I was like “the creepy uncle that you kinda WANT to molest you.” Which is even weirder. But I’ll accept that, too.
ML: How could you not love a compliment like that. I’ve always admired the grit and honesty of your writing. That first story you wrote with NY Press, Bad Dreams, was such a wild read for me. In some weird way I admired your fearlessness and recklessness to go for it with the Opana, since god knows I wouldn’t do it to experience it for myself.
MS: “Experience” is still my drug of choice… but I try to be less cavalier with my welfare these days. I really had no idea what I was getting into with that drug and it turned out to be the beginning of the end for me. Which, from my current vantage point, I will say was a good thing– I had to stop drinking/ using. But instead of ending with me suffering to get clean in my apartment, well, it could have just as easily ended with my landlord making a very sad phone call to my mother.
ML: I guess sometimes you have to really fall hard to emerge as something better. Sort of the whole rule of physics about equal and opposite reactions. And that’s probably a good place to get back Coward’s Path. It was originally written during that period when things were probably at their worst. How hard was it to go back and revisit that material to finally release it?
MS: It was harder than I thought it would be. By the time I tackled finishing the record, I was nearly 5 years sober. And I’d been writing a lot about the wasted years both for Amazon and for the new memoir I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You that will be out on PublicAffairs in March, so I didn’t think there would be any surprises there. And I was wrong. That’s the thing about music, is that it’s both sub- and supra-lingual. Listening to and living in those old songs brought me right back there. But I’m sober and I was still sober when I got in that time machine so I experienced it in 3rd person instead of 1st person. Like “Jesus, this guy is a real asshole… but he’s in serious trouble and I hope he doesn’t die.”
ML: Haha. The lyrics were already pretty self-reflective and self degrading, so I imagine being so far removed heightened that even more. The album has a way fuller sound than anything you did in the past. Was that decision related at all to transforming that past or simply aesthetic.
MS: Two words: Erik Nickerson. I’ve been friend with Erik since I was 16 and we’ve been talking about/ bickering about/ annoying each other about music for the last twenty years. I had started making the record in a condemned building in LIC with no heat, etc., just guitar and vocals onto an 8 track reel-to-reel. 5 years later, I knew what I wanted but I knew I didn’t have the strength or focus to bring it all the way there. So I drove the tapes down to Erik, we tracked some additional stuff and then we just went through the songs individually, talked about the vibe, what I heard, etc. And then I left him alone with it. The record I got back was far, far more than I could have done on my own. And far more rewarding than if I had been lurking over his shoulder, trying to be the puppetmaster. The best thing and hardest thing to do in life is find people you love and trust and then leave them alone to do what they do best. But the results are worth it.
ML: Absolutely. Creative people are generally also total control freaks. The album sounds great. Are you playing these songs live? And how weird does that feel?
MS: I won’t lie, it’s fucking weird. To be sober, still in the long process of repairing my life and then to get up there and sing explicitly “get wasted and throw your life away” well… it feels a little phony, and a lot in bad faith. It took me a long time to get my head around it. But here’s the thing: I wrote those songs because I lived those songs. I own those songs, and they don’t own me. I took every drink I said I took. Heroin is noticeably absent from my songs because I’ve never done it. It’s who I was, and it’s part of who I am now. I’ll tell you this for damn sure– I wouldn’t be sober now if it wasn’t for all those drinks and drugs, you know? I don’t regret having lived that life as I don’t regret living the life I lead now. It took me a long time to realize it, but it was a choice. I chose to take every drink I took, I chose to take every drug I took. I am open and honest with readers and listeners about what my experience was and where I’m at now. Don’t destroy your life because of some dumb song I wrote! But, if you choose to destroy your life, well, I have a song or two you should hear.
ML: Yeah, I imagine it could feel like you’re performing as your alter ego which just happens to be your past self.
In regards to sobriety, there’s this common misconception that drugs enhance creativity (and it’s probably right to a certain point), but in contrast it’s hard to get anything done when you’re fucked up and miserable. So it’s pretty clear that your sobriety has made you incredibly productive
MS: Lucia Berlin once told me that Hunter Thompson never wrote under the influence. That makes perfect sense to me. I think about writing about my life as straight reportage. You know, I went and experienced The Experience, whether it was a birth at the zoo or a war or some lame music festival. If you’re a good reporter, you get your face right in there, you experience it to the fullest. But then you go home, you sit in a quiet room, you make a pot of coffee so strong it could strip the paint off your car, and then you sit down in front of a blank page and you suffer until it comes out. I will say, though, that I don’t think getting fucked up makes you creative. It gives you new perspectives, which enables creativity. But when I was fucked up, I created almost nothing beyond ill will.
ML: I’ve read that about Hunter Thompson as well, which provides a lot of perspective.
You’re heading to the UK for a couple of shows in a week. Are those with (Doug) Stanhope?
MS: Sadly, no. We’ve both been writing books so it’s been challenging to get our schedules to line up. It’s mostly just a press trip with a couple small gigs for the hardcore fans.
ML: How are the crowds over there in comparison to us Americans?
MS: More British? Less dumb? Dumb in a different way? Not sure the best way to describe it. My NASCAR jokes don’t hit as hard over there. But holy shit, do they EVER feel the drunken despair thing…
ML: Haha I bet they do.
You’ve toured pretty regularly with comedians. Would you say it’s different playing in front of a crowd there to laugh than one there exclusively for music?
MS: Absolutely. Comedy is now in the sweet spot that music was maybe 20 years ago where people go to see the thing– comedy– not one specific artist to the exclusion of all others. And they go there to laugh and participate and enjoy themselves, not to ‘make the scene’ or stand there with their arms crossed or something. So comedy crowds are great for that. And also… my shit’s kinda fucking depressing. I think it’s funny, too, but a lot of comedy people are there for dick jokes and levity and, well, my songs don’t have much levity. Music fans will drive 3 hours just to hang out and get depressed with me. So god bless those damaged fuckers, you know?
ML: I know what you mean. As much as my heart is with music, I’m probably more likely to just go see a random comedy show than a bunch of bands I know nothing about.
I’ve been listening to the record a ton, and “I Can’t Remember When You Were Mine” has really stood out to me. There’s a bit of new wave vibe. To me the song almost works as a metaphor for the album as a whole
MS: Yeah, that’s probably the song that’s undergone the most radical transformation under Erik’s hands. It was just this little hungover bedroom complaint and on the record it’s an amnesiac anthem. I’m proud of the song, which is to say that it still bums me out every time I play it. Some wounds just don’t heal, man.
ML: Not to rub salt further into the old wounds, but how’s it been seeing Shilpa (Ray) go on to work with one of your heroes, Nick Cave?
MS: Like salt in a wound, Jonny, just like salt in a wound. Having had some time to get my head around it, I can now see it like this: Shilpa was playing for 5 people the first time I saw her. It’s nice to know that Nick Cave has come around to my way of thinking and see her for what she is: an incredible talent. What I’m saying is that Nick Cave has no taste of his own and has basically plagiarized me by liking her music. I’ll see you in court, asshole!
ML: Haha. You did a pretty great job of finding incredibly talented bandmates.
I know most of the bands you played in, but can you just give me a quick recap of the names of all the bands you played with over the years?
MS: Oh man. Okay, from like 2013 back to ’98: Freshkills, RIBS, Rumanian Buck, Beat The Devil, Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue, COME ON. There will be more. I feel like I have a couple good expensive mistakes left in me.
ML: So does that mean you’re still willing to take another crack or two at the band thing, rather than sticking to only playing solo?
MS: Oh yeah. Making music is like making love: best when it’s just you alone but occasionally nice to involve another person or two just to spice things up a bit and/ or bring them down with you.
ML: Lastly, I have to ask you about Los Alamos. The couple of times I’ve been there, it felt time I stepped into the past or at least entered a bubble removed from the rest of New Mexico. What was it like growing up there?
MS: I moved there when I was 8, so after the initial shock, I didn’t realize how bizarre it was until I was much older. I reconnected with one of my classmates and she was talking about the high school reunion and every single person was like “Well, just finished my PhD.” And I was like, shit, I went to my high school reunion in New Hampshire and everyone had just gotten divorced and was driving a forklift…
I absolutely love going back there because it’s objectively so weird… and also that much weirder because I’m plunging into the chasm of childhood memory. I may end up writing a book about it.
Coward’s Path will be released in the USA and Canada on Invisible Hands music on October 2nd. If you’re on the other side of the Atlantic, you can get it now. http://www.invisiblehands.co.uk/
For more information about Mishka, visit his website.
UPCOMING TOUR DATES
8/26 – London, UK – The Bedford Live – 8pm
8/31 –Boogaloo – 8pm
w/ Jt Habersaat and Ron Babcock
9/4 – Awesomefest 2015 – San Diego, CA
Also performing: Toys That Kill, Dr. Frank, Bad Cop / Bad Cop and many more.
9/5 – Phoenix, AZ – ThirdSpace – 7PM – free
9/6 – Tucson, AZ – Che’s Lounge – 6PM
9/7 – Bisbee, AZ – The Stock Exchange – 8pm – $10 (Labor Day Bisbee Bash!)
9/9 – Marfa, TX – TBA
9/10 – Austin, TX – Opal Divines Penn Field – 8PM – free
w/ Jay Whitecotton
9/11 San Antonio, TX – Blind Tiger @ Magic Time Machine – 10PM – $5
w/ Jay Whitecotton
9/12 – Arlington, TX – Sunshine Bar
w/ Mike Wiebe from Riverboat Gamblers, Brian Breckenridge, Jay Whitecotton, various other jagoffs
9/13 – Denton, TX – Rubber Gloves
w/ Ron Babcock, Mike Wiebe from Riverboat Gamblers, Brian Breckenridge, Jay Whitecotton, various other jagoffs
9/14 – OKC, Oklahoma – TBA
9/15 – Amarillo, TX – Leftwoods Bar
w/ Michael Dean Damron
9/16 – Colorado Springs, CO – Triple Nickel
9/17 – Denver, CO – Three Kings
9/19 – Salt Lake City, Utah – TBA
9/23 – Portland, OR – Dante’s
9/24 – Seattle, WA – Funhouse w/ Star Anna
9/27 – Vashon, WA – TBA
9/30 – Yakima, WA – The Seasons w/ Star Anna
10/2 – Brooklyn, NY – Grand Victory **with very special guests
10/3 – Brooklyn, NY – the Wick w/ GIRAFFES
10/5 – New York, NY – Hi Fi
10/7 – Ellensburg, WA – Old Skool w/ Star Anna
10/8 – Spokane, WA – Jones Radiator w/ Star Anna
10/9 – Portland, OR – Fluff ‘n’ Gravy w/ Star Anna
10/10 – Salem, OR – Level B Theatre w/ Andy Andrist & Eric Alexander Moore