Rank Your Records: Piebald’s Travis Shettel Picks the Lemons Out of His Band’s Catalog

David Anthony

The frontman plays favorites with the on-again-off-again band's five LPs.

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

Formed in 1994, Massachusetts’ Piebald never fully aligned with any one scene. Starting as a hardcore band that would be considered a peer of Converge and Cave In—even releasing a split with the latter— Piebald had largely shed their aggressive sound by the release of their first album. Instead, they found themselves working toward something more melodic, bridging the gap between the scene that bred them, and the still evolving emo scene.

After five records and countless tours, Piebald broke up in 2008. And while a brief reunion in 2010 made it seem like the band was back, it’d be another six years before Piebald hit the road again. But over the past two years, the band has been reactivated. “I think we’re better than we’ve ever been,” says Piebald frontperson Travis Shettel, noting that they are going to continue to play shows for the foreseeable future. But even with Piebald back in action, Shettel still has trepidations about working on new material. “I’m not gonna say no to new songs, but it does scare the crap out of me, in a way,” he says. So instead of discussing what scares him, we instead looked back, having him reflect on the band’s five studio albums and give us his rankings.

Travis Shettel: The main reason this is number five is that I don’t feel as though my voice was as good as it got to and I don’t feel we were as good at songwriting. I feel like it was a figuring-it-out album, you know? We were in the middle of things, kind of came from a more hardcore thing, then Weezer and Sunny Day Real Estate influenced us so heavily it pushed our music in another realm. And we were figuring out that realm. I cringe when I listen to me singing on that record. And it’s not that I don’t like it or don’t appreciate it, it’s just the bottom of the five.

Noisey: It’s an interesting record as it kind of splits the difference between the Boston hardcore scene and what was happening in emo then. Is that what you were hoping to do with Piebald from the start, or was this just a natural evolution?
It’s not that we were trying to, it’s just our musical tastes at that time changed. We heard new things—Weezer and Sunny Day are the two that immediately come to mind—that were heavy influences on our music at that time. They were a change of pace, say, from the hardcore roots, and the bands like Bound or Converge, these things that were absolutely where we came from, but we felt like there was another route we were going to head in. It was natural. It’s not like we were trying to do it, it’s just what we wanted to do and what was naturally coming out of us.

This record came out on Hydra Head, which was releasing almost exclusively heavy music at the time. What was it like to release an album so brazenly melodic into that scene?
It seemed natural at the time, but I do remember when Lemons came out we would play a lot of songs from that album and people would be bummed that we weren’t playing as much stuff from Sometimes Friends Fight. I know that kind of happens to bands, where you put out a record and they want to hear your old songs. Then you put out another record and it’s the record before that they want to hear songs from. It’s sort of an ongoing loop of people always wanting what you were focused on before. People always want what you sounded like on your last record; Not always, but it is something. I remember it was met pretty well, reception-wise, but I do remember people being bummed we were playing more songs from Lemons and less from the early EPs and Sometimes Friends Fight.

When you were preparing for the recent tours, did you listen back to this record? Was there anything that jumped out to you that you felt particularly proud of?
You can’t take anything out of the Piebald catalog. It all exists, it all came from us. But I do feel like it was more of a growing time than us fully recognizing ourselves. I’m sure there are people who will say that When Life Hands You Lemons… is their favorite Piebald album. Which is fine, you’re allowed to have that opinion, as it’s probably based on a moment in time, or when you first heard it, and you have some sort of visceral memory connected to it. But I think it was a growing period for us, especially looking back on it. I’m sure when we were there we loved those songs and felt really proud of them at the time. And I look back on it and it was a step in a direction, and we were still figuring out that direction.

We tried too hard on that one. That’s like the best way I can put it. We tried too hard. It was following in the path of a record that we weren’t even thinking about when we made it and it was just kind of magical for all of us. Then we were like, “Holy shit. We’ve got to really work on this one.” We did too much. The production of it is too much. The songwriting of it is like, “Okay. You guys have to relax a little bit.” Like, what the fuck? We hadn’t put this much effort in before, and we just needed to write songs, we weren’t going to reinvent the wheel. We were just a band. While we were probably more productive and creative than we’d ever been, I think that actually weakened that album and everything about it.

Did you feel like you had to work so hard because people loved We Are the Only Friends We Have so much?
I fully think that was a pressure we had put on ourselves from the good reception we had of Friends and from all of that. And we didn’t know how to hone it in. It was the thing where, Friends, it was magic. It was an unattempted magical moment. And when you do that and then have to figure out how to remake magic, especially when you just did something and then it happened, you’re in this whole new ballgame where you can set yourself up for putting in too much effort, trying too hard, overdoing it, underdoing it, playing too many notes, putting too many bells and whistles on the recording. We tried too hard. And that’s okay. Shit, it’s better than not trying at all, but it is heard in that record.

Maybe this is how I can say it: You’re missing the sense of urgency that needs to be there. I felt like with All Ears All Eyes All the Time, I felt like we knew too much; having to live up to something and feeling really judgmental about the whole thing and knowing other people are going to. I think it backfired on us. And again, it’s not a failure of a record, it’s just, to me, not the top Piebald record.

Did you feel like you found your direction after Lemons feeling a bit more like a step toward a new sound?
We were grasping our voice and finding our place. We progressed just enough, but not too much. It was just a good spot for us. We loved being in the studio those ten days. I remember doubling guitars and thinking how mindblowing that was; production-wise we were going a little further. I think the songs were better, the lyrics were better, my singing was certainly better. We just developed a little bit more from Lemons and I think it shows. It was a step in a good way.

This record feels like when you found your voice as a lyricist, as you seem more confident and witty on this record.
I think it was natural growth as a band. I think that you can clearly hear, to me, a development and a growth from Lemons to Venetian Blinds. You can hear it in the lyrics and the songwriting, a little bit in the production, and the musicianship. To me, it’s a step above as a band. I know that I’m inside this thing that we’re talking about so I don’t have the same perspective as a listener or a fan, but I think it’s pretty clear.

With that one we were angry. It was awesome.

Why were you angry?
I think, musically, because of All Ears All Eyes All the Time. We put in so much effort for somewhat diminished results. With Accidental Gentlemen, I think it was, “We don’t care anymore,” and I think you could hear that. The songs are abrasive in a weird way, but you hear it and you still know it’s Piebald. It’s gritty. It captures the thing that we should have tried to capture with the record before. But we had to go through that to get to this one.

How quickly after All Ears did you start to feel dissatisfied with it and start thinking about getting back to something simpler?
I feel like we went on tour with All Ears All Eyes All the Time and it was night and day to when we were touring on the Friends record. Maybe it’s the record, maybe it’s when it happened, maybe it’s the audience changing, maybe it’s the world changing, but I think we were fighting. With this, we wanted to go back to a more raw, less planned Piebald. I don’t exactly know what that means when I say it, but I know the feeling that I have that goes with the Accidental Gentlemen record, and it was one of, “Fuck everyone.”

The band was kind of in shambles. Dudes were going to school, people can’t give as much time, I’m trying to lead this train that’s losing wheels, and it’s only going at the speed of everyone working together—which wasn’t very fast at the time. We’re coming off another record that A.) was three years previous and B.) we didn’t feel all that great about, given how much we put into it and how little we feel we got back. If there is an angry record in the five Piebald records that isn’t from our days of being in high school, it’s Accidental Gentlemen.

The band broke up a year later, so was it already feeling like the end of the line for Piebald?
It was definitely being felt at that time. It sort of seemed like, because of how tough it was to, schedule-wise and life-wise, make that record happen. I think the signs were pretty clear that we hit the beginning of the end.

Did that add any pressure? Or did knowing it was nearing the end feel somewhat freeing?
I think it took pressure away. We’d already done the album with a lot of pressure and overthinking, and that didn’t pay off for us. Maybe it is partially due to people already having one foot out. No one quit the band, it ended naturally, but you could tell people were less invested than they once were. I’m not saying that as a complaint, that is just the truth of what happened. Piebald could not have existed any other way. That’s the story.

You alluded to this one being your favorite because it came together so naturally.
It was very natural. We had a month of studio time, and we were working with someone incredible, Paul Kolderie. It was the first time we had a real studio at our fingertips. If we wanted to put a weird keyboard track on there, we did. In that moment, and with those songs, it really worked. I don’t know how the songs got made so effortlessly, but I think that’s also part of the beauty of it. We really didn’t know that we were making something that would turn out to be so special, it was just a thing that happened. I remember Paul Kolderie coming to our practices and he would listen in, maybe have a critique of a song, then he would come back to our practice next week and maybe do it again. That dude is an idol. He’s worked with so many amazing bands, and he certainly captured a magical moment for us. A lot of things aligned, and it worked out with strangely minimal effort. It just happened.

This is also most fans’ favorite album. Did you start to sense that pretty immediately?
I think even we knew something bigger than the sum of the parts was going on then. Two weeks into recording, I think all of us felt, “Wow. We didn’t know we were capable of this.” They were 14 songs that got whittled down to 12, but they were just the next batch of songs that we wrote. It was free and easy, and it worked out the best way possible. Paul really helped take us to another level.

Our life for the next year-and-a-half after that record came out, we’d never been more of a gang. The year after that record came out, we played over 300 shows. We were a family. We were all in it. We would go out there and just try to play our asses off every night. We wanted to bring the gospel of Piebald to people. I think, making that record, creating that record, working with Paul, having the response to that record, it caused us to step up our game. It united us. It made us better musicians, better friends, better everything.

You’ve been playing almost this entire album on your recent tours. It’s got to feel good to get up on stage, play the songs you love, and see people freak out over them.
That is special. To me, that’s a pretty solid batch of songs that were made really special in the studio. I’m really proud of them, and I’m happy they’ve had so much of an effect on people. You can see that through the audience, and that makes us even more pumped to play them.

David Anthony is on Twitter.