Joe Shuck sings with his eyes closed. When he does open them, for a passing glance at an audience or band member, he grins or raises an eyebrow, then slips softly back into his private world of strums and wails. This introversion, this self-imposed isolation, could be interpreted as off-putting affectation were Shuck not so disarming. But he looks like a nice guy, and the songs — well, they’re damn good.
Lanky and pale, acoustic guitar slung high, Shuck is mid-set at the recent One Spark Town Hall performance at The Florida Theatre in downtown Jacksonville. His six-piece band, Antique Animals, is jammed into a tiny corner of the red-carpeted lobby. Framed by a decorative arch, nearly elbow-to-elbow and too loud for such an intimate space, they’re pulling it off. The pre-meeting gathering is modest but growing, and most of the attendees are actually listening.
The ensemble moves smoothly through its set, a collection of songs that ranges from gypsy folk and ’60s hipster pop to sea shanties and moody acoustic ballads. Dressed sloppy-neat in muted tones, a beige dress jacket and blue suspenders his most eccentric features, Shuck is part Morrissey, part Nick Heyward. He’d probably deny the former comparison and is probably too young for the latter to have any resonance, but his voice is a roiling mixture of both.
The band is a mish-mosh of characters, each with his own aura. There’s Mike Boff, the blithe, ponytailed bassist; Milan Algood, the bushy-bearded and dreadlocked drummer; Angel Garcia, the jovial keyboardist; Daniel Hunting, the unassuming guitarist; and Sergio Valdez, the mild-mannered trumpeter. Despite the aesthetic disparity, despite the challenge of performing in such cramped quarters (they thought they’d be playing on the theater’s stage), the sextet easily coalesces musically. When the band breaks down for the sing-along section of “I Got the Joy,” they all join in, as does a good portion of the audience. During the ballad “One Chance,” a couple dances cheek-to-cheek.
Shuck seems oblivious, tangled up in each song, focused on each lyric. When he is asked by an event organizer to direct the onlookers into the theater after the next number, he happily obliges, then quickly huddles with the band to discuss what song to close with. A plodding kick drum signals “Gospel Song,” a dark, droney blues with a repetitive two-note figure that crescendos as the song progresses. Several fans politely wend their way through the crowd, which has turned its attention to casual networking, and surround the band.
The sound is big, bigger than anything the band has played so far, and Shuck growls like Danzig. Hunting rips a burning lead, Algood ratchets up the tension with buzzing snare fills, and Garcia, Boff and Valdez drive it home until the inevitable denouement. The resolution is satisfying, and though many have filtered into the theater for the main event, dedicated Animals fans are fawning over the band. Hands are shaken and backs are patted. Hugs are exchanged.
“Dude!” gushes a bubbly twentysomething, her enthusiasm contagious. “That last song? We were, like, whoa! You guys were, like, groovin’. Where did that come from?”
Shuck is wide-eyed with appreciation.
Any Band’s Story
It’s Tuesday night, and out on Forsyth Street, “Auld Lang Syne” wafts and tumbles in the chilly downtown air. Upstairs, in a spray-paint-laden and trash-strewn loft above The Letter Shop/Burro Bags complex, Antique Animals prepares their New Year’s Eve set. Along with the traditional musical toast, they’ll play John Lennon’s “Happy X-mas (War is Over),” The Beatles’ “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” and Eric Burdon’s “Spill the Wine.”
For a band that prides itself on its original sound, this is a rule-breaker. But it’s only for one gig, and the band is trying to nail the tunes quickly and get back to working their originals. After agreeing on keys that suit Shuck’s voice and playing the songs through for good measure, they do soon move on, running a new piece that puts guitarist Hunting on lap steel. There’s a bluesy Pink Floyd vibe happening, and the band rides it.
Though this is a relatively large band, Antique Animals is a minimalist ensemble at its core. Each member plays his part, never over-reaching or showing off. Everything is in its place here, serving the song, pushing the lyric, giving Shuck the space he needs to tell his stories.
Shuck is obviously at the helm, but what becomes clear over time is the affection these players have for one another and their shared objective of making art. During the slow growth of the band over the past three years — from a duo composed of Shuck and former Antique Animals cellist Alex Noll to the current line-up — each member has become more deeply involved in the process, and more deeply invested in the future of Antique Animals.
The evolution from folky duo in 2010 to today’s rock-based sextet was a natural one. Boff, who originally played upright acoustic bass, switched to electric in the past year, to accommodate the increased volume that attended the new members. Algood, too, switched from brushes to sticks when it became necessary to support electric guitar, keyboards and trumpet. The new instruments gave Shuck a greater palette with which to work.
“I’ll get the skeleton of the song together,” Shuck says. “You know, the lyrics and basic chords, but there’s still lots of room for all these guys. So I’ll bring the skeleton — and the heart, to keep on with this anatomical metaphor — and we’ll flesh it out. They’re always writing new melodies.”
When a songwriter like Shuck turns over his piece to a band, it usually requires a leap of faith, a depth of trust that normally exists between lovers or family members. But Shuck is completely confident in his band, and he should be. All of them are well-schooled on their respective instruments, having studied in the acclaimed jazz program at the University of North Florida. They were all friends before joining Antique Animals. Hunting and Valdez have been roommates for years.
This is not to say there aren’t disagreements, both musically and personally, but resolution is usually swift.
“Conflict is helpful sometimes,” Valdez says. “It helps get things done.”
As the band considers a new ending for a song, this dynamic is put to the test. Unhappy with the out-chorus, members start tossing out suggestions. They run it without guitar and drums. A couple of heads nod, but it’s not unanimous. Fewer notes on the keys, maybe just a chordal pad. Not so much. Bring the band back in after a length of vocals only. No way.
After about 20 minutes of playing, retooling and replaying, the band decides — unanimously — to keep it the way it was. Even when, following a brief debate, Garcia is overruled regarding the tempo of a dirge-like tune, there are laughs all around. A little good-natured ribbing, a couple of inside jokes and then it’s back to work.
So far, this could be any band’s story, that familiar count-in to a thousand similar articles in a thousand different magazines. But, as is typical with the most involving of those rock ‘n’ roll tales, something ominous must occur, something that threatens the band’s — and the music’s — very existence. Something that shakes the foundation and sends the whole thing into a tailspin.
Getting one DUI sucks. Getting two DUIs — within a few months of each other — well, that really sucks. But that’s exactly what happened to Shuck. Hard partying, “celebrating life” as Garcia puts it, landed Shuck in cuffs in both July and September of 2011. The arrests, and subsequent protracted stay at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Jacksonville, nearly destroyed the band and left Shuck with a nasty taste in his mouth.
“I basically ended up with two DUIs in the same year,” says Shuck, head hung low. “Didn’t kill anybody, but in order to stay out of jail, I had to go to rehab for six months. I couldn’t leave at all for the first 30 days. I couldn’t leave the building, so it was basically jail.”
Shuck says though he has imbibed heavily in the past, he’s maintained control of his drinking, he insists he’s not depressed and that he is certainly not an addict. “Actually, things were going pretty well for me,” says Shuck. “It was really just having too good of a time, really. I mean, those times that I got pulled over, I was definitely having too much fun.
“I don’t consider myself an alcoholic, even though I was told every day for six months that I was an alcoholic,” he continues. “And I don’t think people that know me would say I’m an alcoholic.” A mental health professional would doubtless claim these are the words of a person in denial, a classic feature of an addict, but Shuck says even if he were an alcoholic, his stay in rehab would have done him no good.
Shuck appreciates the gravity of the situation, admits he made some horrible choices — “I did make two very, very terrible mistakes in judgment … it was colossally stupid,” says Shuck — but he can’t reconcile his lapse in judgment with the regimented, militaristic power structure of the rehabilitation facility in which he was housed. Shuck says he was berated and ordered about rather than counseled and offered strategies to overcome his “addiction.” He claims he was housed with crackheads and treated like a criminal, not a person in need of help. He says he despised those entrusted with his care.
But Shuck played along. While in rehab, he adapted, jumped through all the right hoops and kept a low profile. But all the while, he sank into bitterness, loathing the organization and its pious employees. “It was 100 percent Christian,” says Shuck, an avowed atheist. “I had to go to chapel every day. I had to work eight hours a day, for $8 a week. It was just a terrible, terrible experience. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
Salvation Army Major Ernest Steadham says the program is voluntary, that all needs are taken care of, and that no one is forced to stay. “That’s between him and his parole office,” says Steadham. “We have nothing to do with that.” Steadman confirms, however, that the program is six months long, and that participants are required to remain on Salvation Army property for the first 30 days, gaining more leave time as treatment progresses. He also confirms that all participants work a 40-hour week, but they are not paid for their service (sorting and processing donations). Steadham says the $8 per week is an “allowance,” spending money for sodas, snacks or other small items a participant might desire.
Steadman also points out that though the program utilizes an Alcoholics Anonymous-style sobriety class called Celebrate Recovery, related to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, no one is required to attend specific religious services. “They are free to leave at any moment,” he says.
Shuck wasn’t allowed contact with anyone during the first month of his stay in rehab, so he was convinced that the days of Antique Animals had come to an end. But shortly after that first month, when he was permitted to take brief leaves to tend to personal business outside the facility, he found his band members had waited for him.
“Once he was able to start getting out, here and there, and get a guitar in his hands, during that dark period, he wrote some songs that, had he not gone through that experience, those songs wouldn’t have been written,” says bassist Boff. Shuck nods. His resentment fueled the creation of a few important pieces for the band, including “Occupy,” “Gospel Song” and “Pale Green Wings,” a song that floored Boff and Garcia when they first heard it.
The band managed to record its eponymous six-song EP in the final months of Shuck’s rehabilitation. “I would come out for a few hours at a time to record my vocals,” says Shuck. “They had to track everything without me being there.”
The strain on the band was palpable. A few members bailed Shuck out on the nights of his arrests. They had to make time to shuttle him back and forth for rehearsals and recording sessions. It will be another four years before Shuck can get behind the wheel of a car again, and band members are still saddled with transporting their singer from place to place. It’s a testament to the band’s commitment to Shuck and his music. Says Shuck, “It was a big sacrifice for these guys.”
‘I’ve Got Nothing’
There was a time when getting a record deal was the ultimate goal for a musician, the brass ring of the music business. Landing a deal — a contract with a record label that might promise anything from an advance for the pressing of a band’s first record to years of studio, touring and promotional support — was what everyone talked about.
Bands boasted of “shopping demos to the majors,” “being amid a bidding war between labels” and “landing a development deal so we can work on our material.” The standard response when questioned about the legitimacy of such claims was, “We can’t really talk about it right now, but we’ll be making an announcement soon.”
The truth was, even if you landed a contract, there was no guarantee you’d get anything more than a huge debt to pay back after your first record tanked. If you beat the odds and sold the hell out of your first pressing, then, and only then, did you stand to make the big bucks. And you still had to work your asses off.
However, 15 years ago, the dream of landing a record deal still meant something. Not anymore.
With the advent of the Internet, the way music is marketed and listened to has changed to such a degree that huge labels have shut down or consolidated, file-sharing and cloud services (like Spotify and Pandora) rake in the spoils, and everyone, even The Beatles, has a place in the iTunes store.
So a band like Antique Animals, a group that in the late-’80s might have been romanced by an up-and-coming indie label and offered a small advance and a nifty college tour, has to do it all themselves. Couple that with the square-peg nature of their music — and the fickleness of Jacksonville’s live music scene — and the band faces a hard row.
“I think there are some people who are appreciating us — and some people are appreciating us a lot,” Shuck says, “but some people aren’t going to get a chance to see us because it’s not the easiest thing to pigeonhole us and say, ‘Well, they can open up for this giant band that’s on the radio,’ because we don’t sound just like somebody who’s gonna come on after us. That’s a little bit harder in our booking.”
The band has made inroads on the Southeastern circuit, playing Savannah, Charleston, Asheville and, of course, all over Florida. The reception has been warm, and their audience is growing. But as with any DIY outfit, there’s a host of other responsibilities that get in the way of making music. Shuck wants to find solid management, a person or organization that understands the Antique Animals vibe and can push them in the right markets. The band also wants to hit major music festivals with culturally diverse audiences more willing to go out on the sonic limb where Antique Animals resides. And they are pushing the social networking angle, making videos and posting them online, Facebooking shows and events and friending friends of friends to help get the word out.
If the band’s musical ideas are a little left-field, then Shuck’s lyrics could be considered, at times, off the chart. Not one to shy away from controversy, if his creative spirit takes him there, Shuck pokes holes in platitudes and takes to task the more conservative among us. In the sweetly bouncy ditty “I Got the Joy” he sings: “I can’t keep my hand over my heart/I don’t think America deserves that part … of me … so I can’t pledge my allegiance to thee.” In the harder, more abrasive rocker “Nothing,” Shuck rants, “No god, no peace, no light, no love, no lust, no sound, nothing/I’ve got nothing.”
“That kind of [conservative] atmosphere is ever-present in Florida — in Jacksonville, especially. We’re dominated by the church, and everywhere you go, you feel that dominance. First Baptist [Church] owns the entire city.
“I’ve always felt strange that we pledge allegiance and put our hand over our heart,” Shuck says. “I mean, I wouldn’t give my heart to a prostitute. I wouldn’t give my heart to America, ’cause she’s gonna do me wrong, you know?” When asked if he’d stand by his America/prostitute analogy, Shuck laughs: “America would be more of a pimp than a prostitute.”
Shuck, who was raised in a Christian home, had a “giant metaphysical crisis” in his second year of college and says it was at that moment that he disregarded his previous understanding of the universe and owned his atheism. Shuck’s band members, though they might not share his vehemence, are either atheists or agnostics.
Does this put the band in an uncomfortable place when it comes to growing its following in the Bible Belt? “I think there are certainly enough people in Jacksonville who feel the same way as we do,” Shuck says. “They will still support us.”
Looking for More
Antique Animals has just finished rehearsing. They do this once a week. Among smashed beer cans and empty Yuengling cases, cigarette butts and fast-food bags, they ply their trade, craft new art, smoke and laugh. Had they their druthers, they’d do this more often, maybe twice or thrice weekly. But life gets in the way. Though five-sixths of the band are working musicians, sound technicians and music teachers, Shuck mows lawns to make ends meet. And, of course, he can’t legally drive for another four years, which means someone has to lug him around — to rehearsals, to gigs, to the grocery store.
Shuck says the band is preparing to record new songs, possibly for a new album, and they’re in the final stages of editing the new video for the song “Chopping Block,” a period piece shot in the alley behind downtown nightclub Underbelly. And they’re booking more and more shows. It all takes time. And money.
But odds and expense are rarely something a serious musician considers. And the best bands, the ones that “make it,” are the ones that weather the storms together, facing the few ups and many downs as a family.
“As long as Joe’s still writing the music, and these guys are playing with me,” Boff says, “I will still be here. I wouldn’t walk away from this.”
“Yeah,” says Shuck to nods of agreement from the other members. “There’s no walking away.”