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river shook cover

before we can forgive one another

we have to understand

one another

Emma Goldman

Gravitas.

My Uncle Gordon had it. One of the last times that I saw him alive, he walked into my folks' living room and I knew everything would be ok, even when everything was falling apart

This moment affected me profoundly.

 

How did he do that?

Authenticity

Trust

Integrity

Emotional Intelligence

Courage

in my opinion

My last conversation with River was almost two years ago.

..an open exchange, propelled by River's insightful, astute observations based on their own vivid lived experiences.

we talked a lot.

About their upbringing.

Play.

Rebellion.

Intergenerational trauma.

Their band, Sarah Shook and The Disarmers. 

Addiction.

Sobriety.

Emotional intelligence.

this was one of the last things River said to me as we got ready to wrap up the podcast

"I feel like if you are a very empathetic person, it can feel very lonely, but it's important to remember that there are all kinds of people out there who are every bit as introverted as you and who are struggling every bit as much as you're struggling with how overwhelming life can be and we're all trying to be better people, be better at listening, be more compassionate and more empathetic."

Gravitas.

   in convers-    ation

 

 

w/

 River Shook

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21 February 2024

giles 

just wanted to give you my condolences on the death of Dexter Romweber. Losing him was obviously a big deal for you.

river 

Yeah, it was. Blake and I went to Nashville this last weekend. He had a couple of days in the studio tracking guitars for a project and I kind of treated it like a writing weekend. So I brought a guitar and my notebook. My plan for the first day we were there was going to be writing or working on some songs. And the second day, I was going to go see my family for a little bit and then get back to writing. But the night we got there, we went out and saw friends and we were just planning a low key evening at the hotel after dinner. We got back to the hotel, and I think it was around 8 or 9pm. And that's when I just randomly opened Facebook. And the first thing I saw was a statement from the Romweber family saying, you know, we've lost Dexter, so I found out Friday, which was the 16th. And there are still honestly moments where I just can't think of him gone. He was such a force and just so larger than life. And it's really, really hard to get there. I've had some moments of grief and mourning, and then just kind of vacillating between that and wondering how is that possible? But I woke up Saturday morning and made a post and I was going to pay him a little honour before I started on my writing day. And then somebody from WUNC hit me up and said that they had seen the posts, and they're like, "we're putting together this article of friends of Dexter, and NPR is probably going to pick it up, so can you send us some words about Dexter?". So that ended up taking up most of my morning, and I think that it's very fitting that Dexter disturbed everyone on his way out and rattled everyone's plans, because that's what he was, he was a disrupter....{laughs}...and I'm grateful for it {laughs}

giles 

We recently lost Geordie Walker. An absolute unique guitarist, no question one of the most influential in my lifetime. He was so young too (64). These losses cut deep.

river Yeah, yeah, and you mourn the person when they go and, especially when they're younger, you mourn the potential, you mourn what music could have been made, what records we might have had if they had lived another 10 or 20 years. It's a very strange thing. And being on the public figure side of it, too. I know that Dex could be so crotchety {laughing}. Oh, my God. He just was a guy who loved music and wanted to live in the moment. And if people came up to talk to him about his music, then I have seen him in those situations be very tolerant. But I have also seen situations when, if he catches a whiff of pretension, or motive or agenda, immediately he will just like shut you down in the strangest way possible, and just like march off into the darkness or something {laughs}.

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GILES 

As we're talking here, we're just over a month away from the new record coming out... how are you feeling now?

photo courtesy of Brett Villena

river   I feel really good. I'm really stoked about the record. It has been a really challenging year, year and a half.

 

Touring Nightroamer last year, I felt like I was coasting on fumes.

 

 

 

It was just such a strange thing to make a record, have to sit on it for two years because there's a pandemic. And then when touring resumes, it's still not the same as touring was before the pandemic.

 

There's still so much uncertainty and disorganisation.

 

So it was a really challenging year of touring. And then, you know, we go in the studio in August, and we make this absolute ripper of a record and tour for a couple more months. And then our bass player and pedal steel player left at the end of the Europe tour.

 

So, there's this massive excitement and chatter going on about the record, there's some incredible press opportunities and like things that are going to be coming out in the next couple months. Just really levelling up on visibility and publicity in a way that's really healthy and awesome. 

RIVER 

So on one hand, we've got this huge surge of interest from big publications and we have the record to back it up - you know, it'd be one thing if I felt a little uncertain about this record, but I'm like, 'no, this is the time and all of these stars are aligning, it makes perfect sense - and then on the flip side we're trying to find not one, but two replacements for band members that are..... It's funny, I think that other bands that operate more like businesses have less of a hard time than I do finding replacements. For me, I don't care if you're the best bass player in the world, if you have an ego, you don't belong in our band. Our foundation is that, generally speaking, we're non hierarchical. We are working class people, we all load in, we all load out. It's all hands on deck. So, we're looking for people who are really talented and skilled, but also team players. And sometimes I think the music industry makes people not that way. 

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river   You know, it can be a very competitive mindset instead of collaborative. But, we're in a really good place now we've got a bass player locked in for the release tour - and probably beyond - and we have a steel pedal player locked in for the release tour and probably beyond. So we'll start rehearsing with them in early March. But it is nerve racking in that, you know, we're going into a release tour with two brand new players. When you hit the road with a band that's been together for a year, and everything is a known quantity, it's everybody firing on all cylinders, like that is a great feeling as a front person. You know, every night I know I can just get on stage and know that we're going to absolutely kill it. So having some elements of newness and uncertainty - especially having an ADHD brain that's telling me 'I need my routines, I need my normalcy and my comfort zone' - makes it really challenging. But, I feel like we're in a really good position, I'm really looking forward to sitting down with these dudes and just digging into the songs, and getting really sharp, like getting to that level of expectation, you know.... I guess I have, like, certain needs to be able to function so we have some van rules, for example, like my brain needs a lot of silence, and if I don't get a lot of silence, I get really stressed out. And so there have been compromises that I've learned along the way. Like I've learned to always have earplugs, I always have headphones with white noise on standby. On the band side of things, we don't have personal phone calls in the van, no loud conversations. The van and the green room are places to be quiet and reflective. If you want to be hyper and rowdy, that's totally fine, just do it by the van while y'all are smoking or whatever. I feel that the older I get, the more I learned how to proactively make compromises in the interest of everyone, and for the sake of keeping good morale throughout a whole tour - which is a challenge!

 

River Shook and  Blake Tallent

GILES

I gotta hand it to you!...I'm sure I'm getting massively crankier as I get older so I’m full of admiration for the compromises you guys make for each other....{both laughing}.... I saw one of your posts about the book by Mason Curry 'Daily Rituals', do you have your own daily rituals for writing? 

River Shook  

I've never been a daily or disciplined writer. I just kind of wait for it to hit. There are times that I'll sit down and I'll work on writing a song, but never have the expectation that it's going to be a contender. Anytime that I have to start from scratch - I call it a dry start, if there's like no inspiration, I don't feel moved, I don't feel the 'thing' - then I know that it's just going to be an exercise in writing, and I'm not emotionally attached to it. And I really don't expect anything to come of it. I've never written a song without that 'thing' moving me that's stood the test of time, or even made it on a record. So, I'm still learning a lot about myself. And, you know, I got diagnosed with ADHD in my late 30s. And to me, that was a massive relief. If anything, it was just like, 'Oh, my God, this makes so many things make sense. I now understand why I do this, and why I don't do this. But, I'm still learning and absorbing as much as I can about how my brain works. And one of the things about rituals, for example, is that I feel like I have been trying to put a square peg in a round hole for my whole life. Because, for most people and their everyday life, you find a routine, you find a schedule, and you stick to it. I am 38 years old and I have never been able to stay on a schedule my whole life, even when I've had a day job and a schedule has been forced on me from the outside. I am militant about timeliness. Like I will always show up to work five minutes early. But you know, my bedtime fluctuates, my rising time fluctuates, sometimes I wake up with 15 minutes to get ready to leave. So, not having any structure in my day at all, having no day job to speak of, when I'm off tour, and I'm home, I'm still figuring out strategies for productivity, where it's a productivity that makes sense to my brain, and I'm not trying to be like, 'Okay, from 9 to 1030, I'm going to do my bike ride and my walk and my yoga, you know, it's like, I have massive time blindness, I cannot adhere to a schedule that's reliant mostly upon time as a marker. So I'm learning different things that have been really useful, just like, you know, set a timer for 30 minutes and just clean something, I think that taking action like that is a huge thing. Not even just for people with ADHD, but for people with depression. Because you have.... what is that term? Decision paralysis, where you don't know what to do, you don't know how to start doing something. So you just do nothing. And you just lay in your bed with your blankets. So, just making a decision to do something and start somewhere and then setting a timer - if I don't set a timer, and I start cleaning something, at some point, my brain will go into hyper focus. And the next thing I know, it will be like 10 o'clock at night, and I will have a very clean house, but I will have accomplished nothing else!

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GILES 

It feels like it's becoming much more evident that societal rules have been created and reinforced over centuries by those that have always had the power in a way that makes sure they keep the power. It's the power heirarchy, isn't it? Like there would be not a hope in hell that someone who is outside of what they deem to be "normal" could reach certain societal circles or be considered for certain job roles - and it's also that their definition of 'normal' is so narrow as to exclude huge swathes of people. But I feel now that there is a growing resistance to those rules, like 'they don't work for me', or 'they're your rules not mine'.

RIVER 

Exactly, and in keeping with what you're saying, I do wonder sometimes if the decision paralysis that we see a lot with anxiety and depression, with OCD with ADHD, I wonder how much of that comes from a subconscious thought pattern that's just like, 'oh, well, I'm going to do it wrong, because I'm not like other people'. And 'what seems to work for everyone else doesn't really work for me'. So there's like something wrong with me. And I think when you get into a pattern of overcoming that inner critic, or that inner voice that's saying, 'you're gonna make the wrong decision', I think part of it is accepting that your brain is different and reassuring yourself that whatever happens, it's not going to be as disruptive or terrible or chaotic as you think it is. Like you can actually decide that you're going to fold laundry for 15 minutes first and you're going to be okay, you're going to do what you set out to do. And then you're going to feel a little bit better because you accomplish something. 

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GILES 

With the level of interest in the new record and the band - which is so completely deserved - do your previous records each feel like a stepping stone or progression to the next level?

river 

Yeah, I mean I really love Sidelong and Years. Those two records, we tracked live, because one of the things that I believe is the true magic of the Disarmers is our live performance. No matter what the lineup has been, there's always been a chemistry, there's like a little extra something there. But the idea of recording live was to really capture that and kind of build on it. So we tracked everybody live, but you know, it was done in such a way that if Eric Peterson flubbed a solo, he could go back and redo it. So it's not 100% live but it still kind of captures that live essence. When we made Nightroamer, I was really against the idea of working with someone new, not out of anxiety or fear as much as I was just like, 'Dude, we we just made two records with the same system, with the same people and they're fucking fantastic'. 

river

Like, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That was my mentality for that.

river 

And the consensus among the partners was that working with a bigger name could provide bigger opportunities, this and that. And I reluctantly agreed. And I think one of my one of my biggest reservations about that system was that I knew it was going to be recording in a more traditional way where it's track by track. And to me, for our band - not necessarily for other bands - that just seems so sterile, it seems so unnecessarily sterile. So, I came around to a place where I was just like, 'okay, I will be open to this. Let's see what shakes loose. At the time that we went in the studio to record Nightroamer, I was pretty newly sober as well. I got sober in July of the year before and we went in in January, so I wasn't even a year into it.  

river 

I feel like there were a lot of compromises that were made between me and the producer. But there were a lot of head to head moments. One of the things that I really don't like about Nightroamer is how much auto tune is on the vocals.

Not in a necessary 'you were flat or sharp, so we had to auto tune it', but in a stylistic way. There is so much autotune on that record. And what's on there right now is half of how it was. I had to talk him down to the level is that now.

river 

And to me, my biggest takeaway from that making that record was that I don't ever want to make a record again that doesn't sound like my voice. My voice is grossly imperfect and raspy and weird and sometimes a little flat and a little sharp. And I'm okay with that, because that is my authentic voice. I'm not trying to doll it up or make it look pretty, because it's not those things. And every time I set foot in a studio, like from hereonout, I want those imperfections to come through. Because, to me, what's important is creating an honest representation of who I am and your voice is an extension of you.

river 

So, some of the production choices with Nightroamer ,coupled with the fact that mentally I was in this really new and kind of uncertain place. So when conversations started about where, how, when, why to make Revelations. I was just coming off of producing the Mightmare record, and producing Izzy Ryder's full length debut record. So, I had kind of dipped a toe into production and playing the producer role.

river 

There were a lot of things about the recording process itself that were really frustrating. There were some really slow going moments that I was not anticipating. It was not as smooth and seamless as recording in the past was so there it was definitely more challenging logistically just having some people on the team that were just really, really, really slow and disorganised. That was really frustrating.

river 

I felt - and still feel - that this batch of songs is the best writing I've ever done in my opinion and to really give these songs the interpretation that they deserve, I want to produce it.

 

And everybody was on board. And then, you know, we started hammering out the finer details, the when and the what studio. We went with Fidelitorium, which is here in central North Carolina. And it's Mitch Easter's place. And it was really interesting.

river 

But that being said, you know, I feel like I kept my cool and kept us on track as best I could. There there are things about the record that I wish were a little bit different. And I wish that some people had been more prepared before we got into the studio. But the end product, I think it's something really special. The passion of the musicians comes through their playing - and it comes through remarkably. I feel like it's a record that's full of feeling and passion.

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giles 

That's a very honest synopsis with lots of challenges, especially as you're stepping into a new role (producer) alongside songwriter, band member and the "face" of the band. How did you kind of manage that? Was it tough to wear all those hats, keep your cool and bring the vision together of what you have for the record?

river

Yeah, I don't feel like it was tough to keep my cool. I realised when I was really young that being emotionally volatile when you're in a situation that, you know, you just can't control, when there's just nothing you can do about it, I've always felt that's kind of pointless. So while I let myself feel my feelings of frustration, and what have you, I'm not a fly-off-the-handle kind of person. So, to me, it was just like, getting information, understanding where we were at, and resigning myself to like, 'Okay, well, you know, some people did not prepare as well as others. So this is what we have to work with. And my job as the producer is to take what is given to me, and make the very best of it that I can. But, yeah, it was frustrating. But, as you know, we're always our own harshest critics as musicians. So when I listened to this record, there are absolutely imperfections on everybody's part. When we were going into the studio, that was a conversation, just like 'Look, I never set out to make a perfect record. I'm setting out to capture that thing that we have when we all play together in a room. Which I do think we did. I think we captured that.

giles

What themes and influences are coming through on the record...lyrically and sonically?

river

I feel like this record is more expansive lyrically. I feel like lyrically Nightroamer really entered the next level of expansion and I feel like with this record, the writing is massive in that it covers a lot of ground. It's a very working class record. There's a lot in there about you know, working for a living, being overworked and underpaid. There's there's stuff about the end of the world being the great equaliser: like the only reason that we have the societal problems that we have - racism, homophobia and sexism - is because we have society and when the fabric of all that falls away, and it's literally just survival, those things that separate us don't seem to matter as much. And I feel like that's a theme that's been explored a lot in the last few years with movies and TV shows; how living in sort of a post-apocalyptic society is a great equaliser in a way. There's a song that talks about homelessness and domestic violence. And, there's a song where I talk a lot about - I mean, I don't think that most people would gather it just from listening to the song - my struggle with being a public figure and how I really started out on this journey, dragging my feet and kicking and screaming. I just didn't want to do this for a job at all. 

Sarah shook and the disarmers

river

Songwriting is so therapeutic for me and oftentimes gets me out of my own head enough for me to be more objective about my situation, which is one of the reasons I love it so much as a coping mechanism and a tool. But I think that in the process of writing this song, just coming to the realisation that not only is this something that I can do, but this is what I am made for, this is what I'm meant to be doing. In spite of all of, you know, the traumas of my past, and the difficult things that I've made it through, and in spite of not really feeling that I want to be a public figure, these are the things that I need to do and I'm just going to do it and I'm going to do it well. I have that motivation, I don't half-ass anything, you know, I'm going to give it my absolute best. So that song is about coming to terms with that.

giles

Is your outlook for the world and for society positive?

river

I'm trying to get there. I'm not a negative person by any means. I'm a person who observes human behaviour. And I'm constantly baffled by it. I do not understand people who are motivated by greed, or ambition, or a desire to have attention or a desire to create drama. And I feel like those people are so common. People who are manipulative and deceptive, and self serving, I cannot understand them. My brain just can't fathom why people do the things that they do. And, you know, you can look at any modern conflict, American or otherwise, and see this sort of handprint of bigger things than us, where we're just like, the little guys, you know, down at the bottom, and we really don't see the whole picture, we don't understand, you know, all of the behind-the-scenes, political things that make massive decisions like entering into a skirmish or a war with another country. But I am trying.

river

I'm actually reading a book right now called, Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Breman. It tackles, not just the notion that human beings are generally good, but how the media has driven the opposite perspective, and how this idea that we're all depraved and two decisions away from burying our neighbour. It's really interesting. I have seen a lot of situations where people have come together in a crisis. And, you know, bad, disruptive things happening has actually brought out the good in people. And I feel like having witnessed some of those things firsthand, those are really good seeds of hope. But I'm also a realist and I would rather face an ugly truth about humanity - if it's the truth - as opposed to burying my head in the sand about it. That's the long answer {laughs}. The short answer is, I think that human beings have an incredible capacity for goodness. I really do.

giles

What you are saying is very much on my mind too. A lot. My partner has been studying the decolonisation of yoga practices and I've got really interested in the writings of Chomsky, Emma Goldman and other writers about anarchy and autonomous living - the theory and then practical stuff. And I can't help but look for the common denominator of why we have got into such a shitshow, and I keep coming back to capitalism. Those three prejudices you mentioned: racism, homophobia, sexism, each of those are fed from the top down through an all-powerful mainstream media, it's about keeping the lid on people, it's about dividing people to weaken them, keeping the power concentrated in the hands of the very few who are very, very wealthy. That's what capitalism is now doing. I hear you about the good in humanity - in regular people - but I'm really pessimistic about the power structure and how almost impossible it seems to be to bring it down. Having said that, we should never give up.

river

Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think that all of the the isms and the phobias that we experience, whether it's directed at us, or whether we're witnesses, or intervenors, those are tools. I'm on the same page as you as far as that goes. Like, as long as we are pointing fingers at each other, and, you know, fighting over scraps under the table, you know, because you throw in poverty and scarcity and consumerism for people who have the money to spend on things that they don't need. Every piece of our modern society, especially in the US, is designed specifically to keep us from peering behind the curtain of power, so to speak. Because I think that most Americans just don't even think about this stuff. Like they they don't think about, you know, 'do I, as an American citizen, think that it is moral, for a massive corporation to be able to make donations to a politician who is going to be making decisions that affect negatively or positively that corporation? Do I think that this is moral? Do I think that this is ethical?' People don't ask those questions, because, you know, they're too busy, beating each other up on Black Friday, over a flat screen TV. So, there is a part of me that can also step back and look at us more objectively. 

river shook

river

When people like us get together and ask these questions, I think the real question we should be asking is why aren't more people asking these questions? And the answer to that goes back to everything we're talking about. You know, you have people that are working three jobs to barely make ends meet and still have to have food stamps supplementally and just the exhaustion of capitalism. I have been there, you know, I have worked three jobs. I have worked from 730 in the morning until 11 at night like four days a week, barely scraping by. And when people are either too exhausted to care, or too pacified to care, like on the other side of things, when you have like, massive consumption, it's like how do you reach people like that? And for me as an artist and a songwriter, you know, I think that it's a unique position to be in where, you know, I'm - and I think we might have talked about this the last time we got together - not setting out to change minds, as much as I am setting out to plant seeds. Because, I feel like when someone listens to a song that's calling out people for judging a young girl for staying in an abusive relationship, you see yourself in that role, but you see yourself objectively and you're just like, 'oh, wait, like, this kid really is the victim here. I'm directing my anger at the wrong person: this is the victim, not the villain'. I think helping people reposition their beliefs, with a more compassionate and empathetic bent, is a really good starting place. Because, as we've all seen, you know, ranting and raving on social media does nothing, except, you know, if anything, further entrenching people on whichever side of the argument they fall on.

giles

These are great points. This theory of meritocracy that's been espoused in the UK for centuries, but particularly aggressively by Thatcher in the 1980s, the idea that you will be more successful the harder you work, it's bullshit. It only works where you have privilege, where you were born with that privilege, where your face fits. There's a ceiling still to break through. And If anything, it's got worse for many more people. Equity just doesn't exist, never mind equality. There are swathes of people who are forced to work excruciating hours just to survive. And this leaves precious little time for the creative mind to think about a creative side hustle or whatever because you're working all possible hours to make ends meet. And this is exactly what those in power want. A creative, thinking mind is a risk to the system, which is why I think that voices like yours with your lived experiences of working to make ends meet, of prejudice, your self awareness, your empathy, your emotionally intelligent outlook is so important now. Putting those seeds out there and letting them germinate - as you said earlier. I think it's so important that we have those..

disarmers

river

Yeah, it is those voices. The quiet power of suggestion, when it comes to a lot of those topics, is a direct threat to the powers that be and that's why when, historically, we see dictators come to power, like artists are persecuted, and writers are jailed, and anyone who could be perceived as a dissenting voice is disappeared. It's really interesting to think about the flip side of that, too, which is how bizarre it is that a dictator, with a massive amount of power, is afraid of a painter. I think that a lot of creative people don't don't understand their own power and the power of creative thinking and the power of a creative voice. And if anything, you know, those people throughout history should be, you know, a pretty good example of, 'well, if we're not a threat then why are we jailed or disappeared?' Why is someone going out of their way to discredit them?

giles

I remember reading an article in this publication called Shado (a lived-experience led community of artists, activists and journalists fighting for social justice) about young Palestinians who are using a traditional Arab folk dance called dabke to create community positivity, resilience and resistance in small villages around Palestine. It's not too dissimilar to what music can do, but it's another art form that people could relate to. And, it's a kind of reminder as well of the power of art forms. It's something that gives people joy. As you were talking about the subtlety of messaging, I was just thinking that this dance is a joyful way to engage in a hopefully intelligent and respectful way.

photo courtesy of Brett Villena

river

Yeah, yeah. And dance too. I mean, that's a really good example of something that's been banned throughout the ages. It's just like, when something brings cultural joy and community in an unspoken way like dance does - dance is a powerful tool, and has been a powerful tool in all of its iterations from culture to culture. It doesn't matter what style it is across the board. We wouldn't still be dancing, if it wasn't culturally impactful, if it didn't bring that community spirit, that joy and that sense of togetherness and oneness. 

giles

 

I guess we'd better wrap up although I could talk for a lot longer with you, so is there anyone inspiring you right now?

river

 

Um, not that I can think of. I'm working really hard on myself as always, to grow, and to learn things.

 

And if anything, this year, especially, has been a year of learning how to depend on myself and gaining a lot more wisdom when it comes to my interpersonal dealings and just a lot of personal growth.

 

So, I'm inspiring myself with my slow trajectory {laughs}.

Revelations is out on 29 March 2024 and is available from

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