MARK REDDING READ a book about early 20th century Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and was so inspired by the tale he decided to name his band in tribute to the Irishman whose penchant for overcoming odds knew few bounds.
Three years later, the story of The Shackeltons is starting to parallel that of the band’s namesake — even if Redding accidentally got the spelling of Shackleton’s name wrong in his haste to register a Web site name for the band. Where the original Shackleton defied common sense by navigating near-impossible treks, The Shackeltons have disregarded the usual reasoning that says small-town bands that play non-commercial post-punk music can’t hit the big time.
First, the quintet’s independently-recorded tracks got airplay on the independent-minded Seattle radio station KEXP-FM. That led to gigs in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but — more important — it got the attention of Sam Jones, owner of Seattle’s Loveless Records. Jones signed the band and co-produced The Shackeltons’ self-titled Loveless debut CD with Tom Biller, best known as the recording engineer for Jon Brion (producer for Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright).
Soon, the buzz about the band caught the attention of Spin and Rolling Stone, both of which gave the group positive write-ups. In a little over a month, the band will play several shows at the potentially-career-boosting South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. The Shackeltons’ anticipated CD hits the streets Jan. 29, a day after the band performs in D.C.
In all, it’s been a pretty good ride for a band that makes the kind of clanging, metallic racket your mom would definitely tell you to turn down.
“Our bass player [Justin McDaniel] loves Dischord label bands and German experimental music like Can,” says Redding. “And our guitarist Erik Fisak grew up influenced by The Clash, Nirvana and Dick Dale. The other guitarist, Dan Schuchman was influenced by bands like Interpol and Ladytron, so there’s a whole bunch of influences.”
The musicians’ divergent ideas about what the band should sound like resulted in a raw sound that’s been compared to early White Stripes, The Pixies and Joy Division.
And then there’s Redding’s possessed singing.
Most people would probably think his distinctive half-spoken style is drawn from typical punk rock influences like Iggy Pop or Lou Reed. You’d be wrong. Redding cites another Redding — Otis — as inspiration.
“I respect Motown-era stuff and Stax Records, what Otis Redding did — just how he pleaded in his songs,” says Redding, who is not related to the legendary, late Stax vocalist.
The singer also cites another left-field influence on his sound: the Philadelphia-based indie band Me Without You.
“I’ve only really seen them live — I don’t have any of their music,” Redding says. “[Singer Aaron Weiss] kind of spoke out his words in a poetic type of rambling. Since I’m not really a singer that kind of inspired me to use my voice in a way that was more fitting for me.”
Redding’s style is best exemplified on the band’s single “The Breaks,” released as a teaser before the new CD. The song, which was singled out for praise by Rolling Stone, uses a sometimes-dissonant dual guitar attack by Fisak and Schuchman as ammo for Redding’s near-hysterical diatribe on an affair-gone-wrong.
What’s interesting about Redding’s singing is his apparent sincerity. There’s no sense of the campy approach used by other singers, especially when you take into account Redding’s lyrics. Sample: “I’d rather see your soft heart than see your soft skin.”
In other words, Redding isn’t kidding.
“I’ve had a pretty dramatic life when it comes to parents with mental illness and parents dying,” he admits. “At the same time, I didn’t suffer greatly. I experienced all that but it wasn’t like I lived in this horrific condition. My mom was always a mother — of eight kids — and she always made sure the house was taken care of and we were fed. No matter what storm was going on, I had a place of refuge.”
The Shackeltons lighten up their presentation by wearing a regalia of military jackets and by placing flowers around the stage (no “Sgt. Pepper” jokes, please). It’s all a long way from when they were playing local church basements for gas money. Perseverance pays off, says Redding, who relates an incident from the original Shackleton when talking about his band’s own plight.
“Just when things would seem like they’d be getting better, they got worse,” he explains of Shackleton’s botched “Endurance Expedition” of 1914, when he and 28 men attempted to cross Antarctica by foot. “But they all stuck together and they did the unbelievable. I told the other guys in the band about the book and how it’s kind of a really great picture of life.
“Even though they didn’t reach their goal, the fact that they survived was a story of hope. ‘Wow, Shackleton’s men made it.'”
» The Red & The Black, 1212 H St. NE; with Skeletonbreath, Mon., 9 p.m., 21+, $8; 202-399-3201.
Written by Express contributor Tony Sclafani
Photos by Shana Novak (top) and Doron Gild