Home Is Where You Hang

Virgil Shaw and Yuji Oniki inject new life into the singer/songwriter genre by writing about places they've been

At one point in time, being a singer/songwriter was a high-minded calling. Troubadours across the country told of political unrest, the rights of the oppressed, and how the times they were a-changing. Now that the times have a-changed, many contemporary artists are hesitant to be categorized as singer/songwriters for fear of being stigmatized as — gasp! — folk singers. Under the impression that their music should be more an expression of art than a forum for delivering personalized political views, these artists shy away from such discomfiting labels.

But two new records by local musicians Virgil Shaw and Yuji Oniki are helping to cast the role of the singer/songwriter in a new light. Following years of experience working both solo and in bands, these two artists have crafted atmospheric, highly involving albums that tackle the craft of song head-on. And while the records couldn't sound more dissimilar, they share one palpable connection: a sense that environment and culture are all-important and all-informative.

For nearly 10 years, Virgil Shaw has been collecting songs that didn't fit in with the more exuberant, country-punk fare of his regular band Dieselhed. Recently, when his group ended up with extra recording time after finishing its new album, Chico and the Flute, Shaw volunteered to use it to tape some solo material.

Because of its “accidental” nature, the resulting album, Quad Cities, contains an audible spontaneity and lack of stylistic trappings, allowing the delicately crafted songs to sparkle. Following in the tradition of Elliott Smith — who also countered his band's thrashier material by recording a collection of more down-tempo, introspective songs — Shaw delivers carefully constructed, country-tinged songs that focus on honest lyrics and high, lonesome vocals.

Shaw cites Tom Waits and Bahamian early folk-blues guitar player Joseph Spence as two of his biggest musical influences. But it might be his background in painting that best gave him the tools to weave his songs. Quad Cities is peppered with lyrics that seem to be simultaneously telling a story and speaking about nothing but a feeling, leaving the listener to ponder the meaning of the song long after the track has ended.

Although Shaw was born in San Francisco, he spent most of his formative years in the Marin County town of Bolinas. Long known as a haven for recovering hippies and urban dropouts, Bolinas provided Shaw with an eclectic cast of characters, some of whom found their way onto Quad Cities. One character — a legendary trust-fund hippie who lived in a cave and crafted hand-shaped surfboards — was the inspiration for the song “Surfboard Shaper.”

“The last time anyone ever saw him, he was paddling toward a ship he saw on the horizon,” Shaw recalls. “I guess that's kind of a spiritual way to go.”

“I think a lot of my imagery comes from the North Coast,” says Shaw, who went to college at Humboldt State. Contrary to the region's reputation as a place that supports only the diametrically opposed hippie and timber cultures, Shaw says the underground punk scene thrived there in the early '90s.

“The punk days were exciting because I was young, and the music and community were friendly and underground,” Shaw says. “Punk is similar to what I am doing now. … I just can't jump around anymore.”

Much like his songs about the more rural North Coast, Shaw's references to San Francisco touch on personal experiences rather than public landmarks, such as the friend in “Volvo” who “drove and drove around … looking for some parking and then drove right out of town.” Because of the personalization of his lyrics, Shaw's imagery paints the city in a more dreamlike state than a literal one. “A lot of my songs happen in San Francisco, but it's not necessarily a real San Francisco,” Shaw claims. San Francisco is more specifically represented by the musical help he enlisted on the songs, including members of Mr. Bungle, Dieselhed, and the Mommyheads as well as renowned local producers Jeff Palmer and Greg Freeman.

Place also plays an important role in shaping Yuji Oniki's music. Although Oniki has lived in the Bay Area for over 10 years, he was born in New York City to Japanese immigrants. Taught to speak Japanese by his parents, he was exposed to the culture from an early age. Even now, Yuji pays yearly visits to Japan and makes his living by translating manga comics published by Viz.

“I believe the various idioms [of Japanese living] were imprinted onto my memory,” Oniki says. “I was exposed to a kind of parallel matrix from Japan through its news, magazines, comics, and music.”

After Oniki's first record, Shonen Blue, was released in 1990, he dropped out of music, did some traveling, and dabbled in filmmaking and comics. Then, one night in a San Francisco bar, Oniki found out that he had not, in fact, faded into obscurity. After an introduction to Oniki, Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard expressed an appreciation for Shonen Blue and an interest in collaborating. Soon, Oniki was fleshing out songs for Orange with Gillard and members of local acts Beulah and the Moore Brothers.

His childhood influences are evident on the record, which is his first for Future Farmer Records. Unlike Shaw's lyrics, which focus more on storytelling, Oniki's songs are “rampant with fragments” and lend themselves to mood instead of narrative. This self-confessed “incoherence” is exemplified in the Japanese and English versions of “Tokyo Clover,” a song that both opens and closes the album.

Oniki is skeptical of trying to divulge the true meaning behind song lyrics, stating, “While words provide meaning, I think they can get in the way of grasping the essence of a song.” Audible influences from songwriters such as Badfinger's Pete Ham abound on Orange, and Oniki seems intent on creating melody-laden pop songs that use words almost as another instrument. “I tend to focus on impressions instead of meanings, atmosphere as opposed to sequence,” Oniki states. Oniki's lyrics do not attempt to tell a story within the song. Rather, they work in concert with the music to form the foundation for a complete piece. “To me it's the listener that completes the song, not the singer, just like how the reader completes a book,” Oniki says.

True to its influences, Orange is a journey of atmospheric sound, with '60s-era pop melodies wrapped up in horns, keyboards, and Oniki's sweet and lilting vocals. Like many other indie-rock acts today, the specter of the Beach Boys' classic album Pet Sounds casts a long shadow over the proceedings. In fact, Oniki cites Brian Wilson as one of his biggest influences and says he would love to work with him if he wasn't “comatose crazy.”

Oniki is now getting back to his roots by recording with other Japanese musicians, including members of Rovo, an instrumental “organic rock” band that includes a member of Boredoms, and Sakana, a pop band that features heavy use of the violin. Oniki says one of the reasons he enjoys working with Japanese acts is because “the texture of contemporary culture in Tokyo is different — there's a simplicity to the pop over there.”

Virgil Shaw plans to record another album and would like to rent a house “maybe on the North Coast” and experiment with sound in different rooms. He would also like to tour again, having recently completed a 20-day, 20-gig solo electric tour of Europe with Wammie nominee Granfaloon Bus, which he felt was invaluable in terms of his growth as a musician.

Like many artists in the Bay Area, however, Shaw is starting to feel more and more alienated by the growing anti-music culture. Although he is privileged to be in one of the last legal rehearsal buildings in San Francisco, Shaw admits, “I don't feel too good about being here [anymore]. Everyone works at a different pace, and it's all about money. I feel like an endangered bird.”

Oniki, on the other hand, is based in the East Bay and has not been personally affected by the changes. But now, with Future Farmer head Dennis Mitchell facing an outrageous rent increase for his apartment (and the label's office), both artists may lose their musical home.

Perhaps a move is for the best. Perhaps Shaw's and Oniki's songwriting, which is so heavily informed by the cultures they've absorbed, the places they've been, and the sights they've seen, will thrive with input from new surroundings. Shaw tries to put a positive spin on the changes by comparing them to Beale Street in Memphis, which declined into nothingness from its former glory as a live music Mecca.

“Every place has a life span; things have to change. Maybe it's good that everyone has to reinvent themselves. I think San Francisco did pretty good for a while. … It's time to move on somewhere else.”

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