When Patty Hurst Shifter played the release party for their first album, Beestinger Lullabies, in 2002, Skillet Gilmore--who previously told PHS guitarist Marc Smith that he would never be in another rock band again--was behind the drumkit, even though he didn't play on the record. When the band takes the stage for a two-night release party for their sophomore album, Too Crowded on the Losing End, Jesse Huebner--who met Skillet when they played in the Tres Chicas' backing band together--will be behind the bass, even though he recorded for only two of the album's 12 tracks. "Hopefully the only thing that's new to the next record is a keyboard player," Gilmore says. "Hopefully I won't quit and Jesse won't quit, and we'll all be here."
On a Saturday afternoon, they are all here at Mitch's Tavern on Hillsborough Street. Gilmore and guitarist/vocalist Marc Smith are sitting at the bar, talking about lead singer J. Chris Smith and Huebner, who lounge in a corner booth in the back room, also talking about their other half.
Independent Weekly: The band has gone through several line-up changes, so were you used to that when Jesse joined the band?
J. Chris Smith: The primary dynamic for us is amongst the members, somewhat emotionally and especially when we're onstage doing music. The songs are simple, they get delivered, and we leave a lot of space for divine intervention. Especially Skillet.
Talk a little bit about Skillet.
[Chris excuses himself for another beer and passes the question to Jesse, saying, "Don't get me started on Skillet."]
Jesse Huebner: I met Skillet a year prior to playing with these guys. A friend asked me if I would be interested in playing bass with Tres Chicas. It was really cool, and I got to know Skillet pretty well. He's definitely a unique individual [laughs]. When all of this happened with Johnny [Williams, Patty Hurst Shifter's former drummer-turned-bassist], he asked would I be interested in checking it out. I wasn't real familiar with them, but I had heard a few songs. There's definitely forward movement in this new stuff that I was excited about. We got together and played a few times, and it was weird at first being the new guy.... By no means are Marc and Chris hard to get along with, but obviously I was nervous walking into this. To be able to go into it and know I could look over and Skillet would be playing with a goofy grin was very reassuring. It got easier once we started playing gigs.
You said Skillet is a "unique individual."
JCS: I've never met anybody that was genuinely ... gregarious like Skillet, but there are plenty of gladhanders in the world that are full of shit. But he's always willing to get along with people, and he's a born bartender. Skillet can find something to talk about with anybody. He's fucking inimitable and enigmatic. I've never met anybody that remotely reminds me of Skillet.
Meanwhile, back at the main bar, Gilmore doesn't quite comprehend Chris' description. But, as always, he laughs about it. And so does Marc Smith.
Chris said you were "fucking inimitable and enigmatic."
Skillet Gilmore: Me?
You. He said he'd never met anyone remotely like you.
SG: I don't know what that means. Marc called me "The Frostman" once, but he was drunk.
Parts of Chris' songs hit me in spades when I first hear them, like the line "If I shed enough blood in the name of love, would it shed a little light on you?" from the new record. How about you?
SG: I think I'm too close to it to know for sure, but that line is one of my favorites. I think if you're in the band and around it that much, it's like listening to Tim by The Replacements. You're too emotionally involved. But I have been shocked by his songs when I've seen him by himself.
MS: Sometimes things hit you later as opposed to earlier. When we're playing, I'm paying attention to other things, like chord structure and melody. At practice, I can't understand Chris in a little teeny-ass room with a crappy PA. But it sinks in. A lot of times I'll be doing backup vocals after we've played it a few times, and I don't even know the words.... But, when I see it on paper even, I think Chris is a great songwriter.
How did Jesse come into the band?
SG: I told the guys we needed to look into him because: a) he's a badass; b) he's got his own gear, and it's good; and c) he's a really nice guy. He just slid right in.
MS: To me, the thing about playing with someone is you have to be friends first. And that was easy because he's a really nice guy. And he's a better musician than anyone else in the band.
SG: There's that, too.... It's like sitting in a big comfy chair playing with Jesse. I always know where he is; he's very accepting to me and my freak-outs behind the kit.
MS: Also, he can write and read music. He showed up at the first band practice with everything charted out.
SG: And we beat him up.
MS: ...and we were like, "What the hell is that? Let me see." It's gibberish to me, but it was great to be like, "Oh, that's what this looks like."
Patty Hurst Shifter plays a two-night CD release stand at Slim's in Raleigh on Friday, Jan. 27 and Saturday, Jan. 28.