Shinobu Has Been Too Unappreciated for Too Long

After 12 years, four full-lengths, and countless complications, the Bay Area’s influential yet oft-forgotten indie stalwarts just released their best album yet.

Jan 26 2015, 5:30pm

I heard about Shinobu long before I actually heard their music. A friend caught their set at a house show way back in 2004 and explained to me afterwards that it was absolutely one of the craziest things he’d ever seen: instruments hammered with savage disregard, bodies careening all around the stage, spastic screams ripping through the PA — in other words, a calculated chaos that eventually culminated in guitarist Matt Keegan slamming his guitar into my friend’s chest before diving into the crowd. “But I’m left-handed!” my friend frantically protested. “It doesn’t matter!” Keegan shouted back as he disappeared into a sea of sweaty onlookers.

Imagine my surprise when, upon seeing Shinobu for myself some time later, I discovered they weren’t a punk band and that their notoriously frenetic shows weren’t born of anger or aggression but rather, a sort of whimsical abandon. Instead of mindless party rock, they played thoughtful acoustic ballads full of existential musings and driving, bouncy indie pop with wildly off kilter drumming and angular art rock with distinctly fractured guitar riffs. They were at once all things and nothing, easy to love but impossible to classify—which, unfortunately, might explain why they’ve existed only on the fringe of DIY music culture for all these years.

Still, Shinobu’s enduring influence is undeniable. Their 2006 album Worstward Ho! marked a turning point for San Jose’s Asian Man Records, arguably paving the way for other acts that eschewed punk’s sound but not its ethics—bands like Lemuria, Cheap Girls, and Andrew Jackson Jihad. Their South Bay practice space became the only place worth playing for underground bands looking for shows near San Jose—a city typically overshadowed by Bay Area counterparts Oakland and San Francisco. And perhaps most importantly, for a certain type of kid growing up in California, they were an inspiration. That friend from before, for example, grew up to play bass in a band called Joyce Manor.

Thanks to jobs, geography, and even love, Shinobu may never be a full-time band again. Fortunately for us, they’re still making music whenever they can, and their most recent album, 10 Thermidor, is arguably their best yet. I caught up with singer/guitarist Mike Huguenor and bassist Bob Vielma the morning after a pair of record release shows to discuss the band’s history and what, if anything, the future might hold.

Noisey: First of all, how were the shows?
They were both really, really fun. It was mostly just friends’ bands playing and everyone played really well, you know, people came out—it was great. Joyce Manor ended up playing a secret opening of the show yesterday too, so that added an extra, like, intensity to the show.

I actually remember back in the pre-Joyce Manor days, them being like, “We’re gonna go to the Bay and record with Shinobu!” And that was back in... 2006, maybe?
Something like that, yeah. We knew Barry [Johnson] long back, and like, both The English Work Standard and Fever Kids, I remember trying to set up shows with them.

How long has Shinobu actually been a band? Over a decade, right?
It started I think either late 2002 or early 2003. It was shortly after I finished high school. I just wanted to start a band that wasn’t a punk band. I’d been playing in punk bands since I was like 14, and I kind of wanted to try something a little bit different.

Vielma: We did our first tour in the summer of 2003—that was when Matt joined because our original guitarist didn’t want to do the tour. And yeah, we just kind of did a tour every summer, the tour’s got gradually bigger and bigger. The first one was like a week, and then we would do ten days, two weeks, three weeks, and then the last big tour we did was seven weeks in 2007. And then kind of fizzled out in 2008 for a while. People just moved away. Me and [drummer Jon Fu] moved to Japan, Matt was in New York, Mike was in Chicago for a little bit, Matt’s in Australia now…

Even if it never really worked out, it sounds like there was a point in the band’s history when you really went for it.
Yeah, definitely. We were starting to get our feet beneath us before [Worstward Ho!], and then on that record, tried to tour as much as possible. It was really like a serious thing that I was trying to do and was really hoping would be what I did for a really long time, and then it was painfully clear for a while that not that many people were that psyched about it, so… [Laughs]

Vielma: I think maybe that’s kind of what we were hoping for when we were doing our tours, but none of us ever quite took the plunge, you know? We were all kind of hedging our bets, going to school, and we would do tours in the summer.

So is that, in your minds, why Shinobu never totally took off? I feel like a lot of the essential ingredients for success were there.
By the time we maybe had the opportunity, we weren’t all quite on the same page. You know, we were just kind of at a crossroads in our personal lives, some of us, but also just in terms of like the music scene overall, bands that would have made sense for us to be playing with didn’t appear until the point where we were all kind of going our separate ways. I think about bands like Cheap Girls, The Sidekicks—bands that ran in the punk scene but weren’t trying to sound like Dillinger Four. The stuff that we fit in with didn’t appear until we were on our way out.

Huguenor: We were a little bit disillusioned because we just never really fit in anywhere. Everyone wanted either quiet or loud and nothing in between. We’re playing lots of feedback and fractured sounding, fucked up, punkish songs at shows where it’d be like a band with a synth and the drummer’s playing like a nice disco beat, or like playing soft songs at a show where everybody else is in drop C the whole time and screaming. We couldn’t really fit in either way.

Do you feel like the DIY scene in the South Bay is stronger now than it was back then, and do you think Shinobu might be somewhat responsible for that?
I hope so. I remember I moved to Japan in the summer of 2008, moved back in the summer of 2009, and the first show we played when I came back, there were over 100 kids there to see us, which was unheard of. And I think it was kind of younger kids who’d grown up maybe hearing about us as like a “cool older band” and they’d finally started going to shows. A lot of them were the kids I’d see now actively playing in bands. I’d like to think we played a little bit of a part in that.

Huguenor: I think to a certain extent I can see it. I know some bands for sure looked up to us. We were the first band on Asian Man during kind of like the new stable of bands.

Now that the band is a little decentralized and you’re busy with Hard Girls, how did your new album 10 Thermidor actually come together?
We actually recorded it last December [2013], which was the last time Matt was in the US. We knew he was going to be here for Christmas, and I’d been working on a decent amount of the songs and then had ideas for a couple of the remaining ones but didn’t really have them totally figured out yet, and so just when I knew he was coming, I was like, “We’ve gotta do it then.” And it helped put the pressure to help get the last couple songs really, like, clicked together.

A couple song ideas came out of just having an hour ahead of practice to drive down to it and think about what I wanted to do, and then I’d figure out the rest of it really quick at the beginning of [practice] and start to put together a song that we’d start to work on. It ended up being, everything we had just kind of just started getting tied together around a narrative a little bit, and then that made writing the record a lot easier once we had kind of like a theme and sense of what the record was about.

The title at least is a reference to the French Revolution, right? Where did that come from?
10 Thermidor was the day Robespierre was killed, and everyone who supported him was also killed, they were all just beheaded. And, you know, the French Revolution was about emancipation and equality, and obviously it did not go perfectly by any stretch of the imagination, but it was this opening that presented the possibility of a world that was radically egalitarian and radically free and radically equal, and it ended in violence, it ended in kind of modernity being born out of it and the modern day almost like oligarchic democracy being born out of it.

We think that we’ve come so far, and in certain respects we have, but mostly it’s because America exports violence. Production and capitalism are inherently violent, they do violence to people who can’t afford to do better for themselves because... someone has to lose, basically. That’s the way the structure works, and a lot of times, we just export the losers. To me the album is mostly about all of the violence that you don’t really see in modern civilized society but that is exported to other places and that gets covered up and that doesn’t really get acknowledged.

So is Shinobu still an “active” band or just a once-in-a-while project?
At this point I consider our new album to be the best thing we’ve ever done. I think it’s easily our best record and the one that is the most how I’ve always wanted this band to sound, the most realized. And so I’m hoping really that we can be more active than we have been. My concern is that, I don’t like playing as a three-piece. I feel like we really need all four of us to fill out the songs and to give the songs the range of sounds that they need. And realistically, Matt is gonna move back to Australia in a couple of months, so… Once you start getting to this stage of playing music, it becomes so much harder just because there’s so many more things tethering you.

Kind of sounds like Matt is just fucking this up for everybody, basically.
Yeah, yeah he sucks. [Laughs] I mean, Matt is a very essential part of the sound of the band, I think. He’s the only person who plays guitar the way I want to hear it, you know? I feel like what’s great about punk is the energy and the restlessness and the sense that anything can kind of happen, so when it falls into a genre and everything just kind of moves according to the prescribed steps then it loses that vitality. And Matt plays in a way where it’s like, I’m surprised by what comes out, I never really know what it’s going to be, and I think that’s absolutely integral to Shinobu.

In a way, it seems like 10 Thermidor and all the extenuating circumstances surrounding it perfectly encapsulate the band’s history. This great piece of music made under stressful, imperfect circumstances that are just not sustainable—that sort of seems to be Shinobu in a nutshell, unfortunately.
Yeah, it kind of is. It’s very much indicative of how the band has had to exist. But it’s still... you know, I feel like it’s the best thing we’ve ever done, so if this is how the band has to be, it’s how it has to be. As long as we still keep making music that I think is interesting then that’s all that matters to me.

So we will see more of Shinobu, in some form, in the future?
Things are pretty ambiguous, but I’m definitely open to [touring] if something cool comes up. I’d love to play some shows. I’m open to whatever comes up, but definitely no stress. There’s no reason for us to grind at this point because we’re not trying to “make it,” we’re just having fun. That’s my main priority: having fun.

Huguenor: I’m really hoping so, and I think so, for sure. I have a lot of ideas—especially after this last record. It really opened up a lot of new configurations of sounds in my head as far as what we could do, and so, it’s made me more aware of what Shinobu could still be, basically. I think we have a couple interesting album ideas in us, and I’m already starting to think about them.

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