INTERVIEW: Mishka Shubaly
New York singer-songwriter writes the most depressing songs EVER... and you'll love him for it (Mishka Shubaly's web site)
By: Alex Steininger
"God you're so beautiful, it's like you're fucking deformed," cries New York's Mishka Shubaly in "Home", off of his latest EP, So Long (self-released). "I can't bare to stare at your perfect body anymore," he continues in the song. "I've taken too much, still I can't get enough. You're so pretty, I feel like shit. Can I use your toothbrush?"
It's lyrics like this, delivered in the most honest-to-God voice, littered with pain and regret, that makes Shubaly the magnet of the fucked up, fucked with, and just fucked individuals of the world. Those lost souls trying to find something, anything, to grab on to. Some turn deeper into drugs. Others become born again Christians. While some just participate in recreational drugs and sex, go the local bar, unwind, and discover someone like Shubaly, who speaks to them, the power of the alcohol controlling your every move.
However, Shubaly's voice, which can be off-key, but right on the mark, speaks louder than anything, singing to the most lit individual in the room and, to even the most stone cold sober guy in the room, making complete sense.
Shubaly got his start writing songs in his mother's rented duplex in Colorado at the age of seventeen while he was the night manager at the local fast food joint, Sonic Burger.
"My dad had just left us, our house had gotten repossessed, and my mom and I were totally broke. I didn't have a dresser to keep my clothes in so I just brought a bunch of green pickle buckets home from work and kept my clothes in them. It worked fine, but I always smelled - strongly - of pickles," he says in his trademark humor, telling the most depressing of stories, and somehow making both you and himself laugh in the process.
"I wish it was all made up. Just a long, bad dream," Shubaly tells me of the stories behind his lyrics. "Unfortunately, all of the songs on my records are from first hand experience; most of 'em are one-hundred percent autobiographical."
And then comes the humor, trailing the set-up like a punch line.
"Unless that information would prevent anyone from inviting me to crash at their house, in which case I am a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen in good standing, and I think consuming spirits is a despicable vice and I never touch the stuff," he says without second thought.
To hear his music is to love him. To see him live, as he tells stories (and jokes) behind every song, is to fall in love with him.
Self-releasing three records on his own - An EP, Thanks For Letting Me Crash..., To Hell With You, and a new EP, So Long- Shubaly is the epitome of do-it-yourself. Last year he quit his job as the esteemed booking agent for the hipster rock club Luxx (based in uber-hipsterville, Williamsburg, NY), Shubaly gave up his job to tour non-stop, giving it a to become a full-time musician.
"When I took the job at Luxx, I told myself that I'd do it for a year and work as hard as I could to make it kick ass, and then evaluate what to do," he says when asked why he left Luxx. "In April of last year, I went down to a little indie festival in Athens, Ohio and hung out with The High Strung, a band I knew from New York. At that point, they had been living in a short school bus for about nineteen months. I rode back to New York with them and we did a bunch of speed and talked all day and I knew then what I had to do. Speed is good for that."
But, when asked if there were any high moments he'll never forget about Luxx, Shubaly needs no time to answer the question.
"Walking out the door my last day was a highlight," he says without any irony or regret. "Keeping many of the friends that I made while I was there has been great. Also, seeing many of the bands that I tried to help go on to do great things has been very gratifying."
He pauses for a bit, before continuing.
"It is really hard to deal with," he says of watching bands develop under his wing as the booker for Luxx, "when I'm playing shows to two people and one of them is the sound guy."
If Shubaly's life was a comedy, he'd be a slapstick master, somehow always finding himself in the most fucked up of situations, coming out laughing, despite a new scar.
Before booking Luxx, Shubaly did a lot of carpentry work. One of his clients was none other than infamous writer Robert Christgau, who currently is on staff at the Village Voice. Shubaly, a good networker, took the opportunity while working at Christgau's home to give him a record for review. Christgau reviewed it, but not too favorably. Christgau wrote, "Mishka, you really can't sing. At all." To which another Village Voice writer wrote, "Bob Christgau says Mishka can't sing, and the boy assuredly cannot. This grand tradition, recently choked by emo whiners, has been revived by this gruff chronicler of fuckups and fuckovers. He smothers the bullshit out of fractured folk."
Still, despite the pain and agony these write-ups caused Shubaly, he jokes about them, much like any other obstacle in his way.
"From the very beginning, when I was about fourteen and writing these horrible metal power ballads, I thought 'this is just fucking hopeless.' But I did it anyway," he comments, when asked about how Christgau's comment made him feel. "Over the years, I guess I replaced 'hopeless' with 'stupid' and now 'really, really tough.'"
He thinks for a moment before giving me the most honest answer he can.
"I do think what Christgau said is funny... probably because it hurt like hell when he said it," he tells me, a bit heartbroken, but all the better for it. "And I'm sure that Christgau knows better than I do that folks said the same things to Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk and Tom Waits. Johnny Cash told Roy Orbison that he'd never sell a record singing in that weird, high unearthly voice of his. Now, I don't have as much musical talent as one of Roy Orbison's toenail clippings, but I'm not going to let that get in my way. Maybe I'm just a masochist, I mean, I got my tires slashed in Georgia after a show, and that did more for me than all of the good press I've gotten put together."
That's right, he tells me, he got his tires slashed in Georgia and somehow he turned it into a positive. And though he's shared his amount of downs on tour, Shubaly keeps going for those ups, the moments that remind him why he's doing all of this, and living through the pain night in and night out.
"[For me, touring is filled with] hours of extreme boredom spliced with moments of ecstasy and terror. I played encores at back to back shows in Denver and Albuquerque, and I've had spontaneous applause in the middle of songs a couple of times. I've gotten stupendously drunk with total strangers. Had some incredible hung-over breakfasts. Made some great friends. Seen old friends that I never thought I'd see again. Seen old friends that I never thought I'd see again incredibly fucked up on bad drugs. Cried a couple of times. Punched a good friend in the neck. Had my vehicle searched twice by cops, once with drug dogs, and they didn't find the drugs either time."
Shubaly and I begin to talk about his humor. No matter how gruesome the story is, he seems to end everything with a joke, an uplifting comment that makes you laugh, if only uncomfortably, before sitting back and thinking, "Should I be laughing at this?"
"Maybe my concept of humor never evolved past the juvenile, Warner Bros. cartoons style of humor where every gag involves the roadrunner dropping an anvil on Wile. E. Coyote or the look of panic in Wile's eyes as he runs off the cliff and then realizes he's been walking on air just before he waves bye-bye and plummets downward," laughs Shubaly. "Nothing is funnier to me than my own misfortune.
"Maybe because it's usually me dropping the anvil on my own head?
"Laughter and pain are inextricably joined, to the point that sometimes they're the same thing. Someone once said 'every time someone laughs, their laughter is replacing a real emotion that's died.' Which I think is mostly bullshit, but there is a degree of truth to it. When I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, my life got really depressing and then day by day, it seemed like the bad news kept coming. After a while you get as down as you can get, and then you just start laughing about it and fighting back. I actually think the gags make the depressing stuff land better. You know, I say 'titty' and you laugh and then I say something not so funny and it's like 'oh shit, I shouldn't be laughing at this.'"
He pauses, setting me up for the punch line. Then he lays it on me.
"But you should," he says with confidence.
As for Shubaly, he just finished up another string of tours, and will be doing yet another full U.S. tour in February 2005, and hopefully re-releasing a new record around that time as well. He plans to write less autobiographical stuff, he tells me.
"I'm trying now to write more songs from the point of view of a different narrator because I feel like folks are getting sick of the 'woe is me, I puked on my shoe' stuff I usually write.
"At least I'm getting sick of living it."
In true Shubaly style though, the listener wishes Shubaly the best, all the while wishing he new grows out of living the 'woe is me, I puked on my shoe' lifestyle, for it is what fuels his songs, and are addiction to his music. You can hear MP3s at www.mishkamusic.com. Look for him on the road - soon.