on this story
Southeast Showcase with the Shaken Babies, Zed, Boy Genius, and Mustard
Thursday, Aug. 3 at 10 p.m.
Five bucks, 18+
The Shaken Babies are touched by the rock 'n' roll muse
by Mike Gibson
Steven McBride doesn't look much like a rock 'n' roll singer; gangling, graying, professorial, with rounded silver-rimmed specs and a shy, awkward carriage that belies a voluble, hyper-animated core, he has less the aspect of a fervid front-man than that of an introverted CPA.
But then McBride's band, the Oak Ridge-based Shaken Babies, doesn't sound much like any other rock 'n' rollers in the Knoxville area. Melding Beck-ian cut-and-paste aesthetics with Zappa's off-kilter pop sensibilities and flourishes of funk, reggae, even techno, the trio generate a species of quirk-rock unbalance that truly stands apart from the derivative squawk of other local r'n'r outfits.
"When I started writing my own songs, something clicked; they were just coming out and I don't know why," says McBride, speaking from the patio of his Oak Ridge home. Dubbed "The Institute" by McBride and co., the well-appointed A-frame is a virtual shrine to its owner's musical and creative fixations, replete with books, paintings, tools, and thousands of dollars in musical and digital recording equipment.
"I'm baffled by it," McBride continues. "It's too weird to describe, and it may disappear at any time. I let each song just find its own deal, its own sense of rhythm and tone and color. You start with a musical idea, then hammer it head-on with technology. It's the dialogue between the two where the energy lies."
McBride's personal reconfiguration as a songwriting svengali was as unexpected as it was strange. Once the bass player for local outfit the Tennessee Kingsnakes, McBride was drifting ever further musically from the 'snakes' swampy southern stomp when he began recording his own songs in the basement of his home. He was soon joined by Kingsnakes drummer J Miller, who now acts as producer, arranger, and bass player for McBride's idiosyncratic rock divinations.
"Steven just suddenly started writing songs like a maniac, recording his own stuff, and it was good," says Miller, who was at the point of moving out-of-state when McBride's creative vision seized his attentions. "To this explosion of creativity that was Steven, I brought a more analytical side, moving things from the scratch pad stage to the performance stage."
For months thereafter, the pair performed as a duo, switching off between guitar, bass, and keyboards in a vervy stage show that added comedy and costumed theatrics as seasonings to McBride's singular songs. Then, in late '99, the two discovered a percussion-playing soulmate in Kenny Smith, drummer for local heavy alterna-rockers Alpha Zulu and a graduate of the prestigious Berklee School of Music.
Smith witnessed the Babies at a local club, a show at which McBride and Miller were decked out in Hawaiian leis, grass skirts, and coconut falsies. He was stricken instantly, as much by the pair's exuberance and keen wit as by the cleverness and complexity of their musical ideas.
"Their approach to the whole thing was awesome; I fell in love with them as soon as I met them," says Smith. "I either found myself laughing, or just plain staring. There's a lot of depth and originality there. Whenever they play a new place, the audience is caught in the headlights for the first three songs. By the end of the show, everyone is always smiling and dancing."
"The feeling between us and Kenny was very mutual," adds McBride. "We didn't necessarily want a third member. What we did want was Kenny. His skill as a drummer really made J and me feel like we had to step up."
The resultant collaboration must be heard to be understood, or even believed. Suffice to say that the Babies' upcoming self-produced CD, featuring such pathologically twisted nuggets as "Hose the Monkey Clown" and "Smoking My Dead Friend's Weed," is an eruptive masterwork of psycho-nerd genius and bent rock instincts.
The Shaken Babies' only real objective is to continue traveling that strange path, preferably in such a way as to support their efforts without the financial buttress of day jobs. And they're not far from achieving that goal, as their performances have grown ever more frequent as word of their singular madness has spread.
"Our goals are big; we want to do world tours," says Miller, with only a hint of irony. "As far as just being able to hold our heads above water, we're not that far off."
"We want to do music as our living forever and ever," adds McBride, speaking, as always, in a voice and with a sentiment all of the Babies seem to share. "It's wonderful being a musician. We really love this job."
August 3, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 31
© 2000 Metro Pulse