Shape-Shifting Soul

For most bands, a name change, an ever-evolving lineup, and a shift away from its tried-and-true format would portend certain death. For Southeast Pennsylvania’s Stable Shakers, however, everything’s looking up like never before. An instrumental, improvisational “cowboy jazz” band that operated for years under the pun-tastic name Sons of Pitches, core members Spencer Pheil, Tommy Hoy, and Jim Aguzzi have added both a pedal steel player (Dave Hadley) and a lead vocalist (Spencer’s wife, Brechyn Chace) and are acclimating themselves to their new name, booking a wide range of shape-shifting shows. When Folio Weekly spoke with Pheil last week, he was mid-charge in an eminent domain battle against an out-of-state company trying to put 29 miles of high-voltage transmission lines with 135-foot towers square in the middle of his small town’s farmland.

Folio Weekly: Sounds like you’re busy right now, Spencer.
Spencer Pheil: I am. I’m in full activist mode these days. I’ve never been one to do any sort of work like this—calling state representatives and county commissioners, knocking on people’s doors. Usually I spend my time playing guitar and playing shows, but now I’m trying to make sure this project doesn’t end up on our land.

You just debuted the newly rechristened version of your longtime band, right?
That’s correct. We were formerly known as Sons of Pitches, and what’s so funny about that is, at the time we formed, we were an all-instrumental cowboy jazz band that covered Chet Atkins and Charlie Parker. Across the pond in the UK, there was an entirely <a cappella> group called The Sons of Pitches. There was so much confusion; sometime we’d show up to gigs and the venue would have their poster up instead of ours. It was also an encumbrance getting into family-friendly festivals. A lot of people wouldn’t book us because they thought our name was too risqué. Once we started including female vocalists in the lineup, Sons of Pitches didn’t make a lot of sense anymore. We always thought it was a clever play on words, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to tour the country as much as we can. We didn’t want to have a name that would inhibit that.

Tell us more about Stable Shakers’ brand of “cowboy jazz.”
Well, that’s what we started as. We’re constantly changing. The bass player Tommy, the drummer Jim and I [the guitar player] have been playing together since 2004. We started out doing the jam band thing—Allman Brothers meets Phish meets Frank Zappa. Around 2010, I was in a band called The Hello Strangers; my wife, Brechyn Chace, is the vocalist. That really got me into roots music like bluegrass, blues and Americana. The “cowboy jazz” or “twang jazz” thing came from our pedal steel. But over the years, we progressed and didn’t want to fall into just one category. We’re a collective, and now that we’re adding vocals to the mix, we didn’t want to be shackled to a certain sound.

Is the foundation of the band the same?
It is in the sense that we’re still open to any style of music. We’ll pay homage when necessary; we’ll innovate when necessary; we’ll do unique arrangements of old standards, everything from Radiohead to Wes Montgomery, when necessary. The main thing is, we’re open to improvisation. We have a bond where we abandon our ego to serve the betterment of the song. Sometimes you need to play one note per bar. Sometimes you need to play a thousand notes per bar. It’s the economy of notes that counts—just playing the right note at the right time.

How has the addition of Chace’s vocals changed things?
I wanted to try something new. I’ve written hundreds of vocal songs in my life, but over the last three years with Sons of Pitches I haven’t gotten to play them. Here I am, with a Nashville recording artist for a wife. She can sing any style of music. She digs my songwriting—I didn’t have to sell her on it. And reinvention motivates you to create. That’s what prolific artists do. I live in Trump country out here in rural Pennsylvania, and there aren’t a lot of pro-level players. Jim, Tommy and I were lucky to find each other, and we have this philosophy that if somebody has an idea, before we verbally debate it, we try it, then open it up to remarks. That’s how it worked with Brechyn. Since we all trust each other, we can go on this journey together.

And what a journey it continues to be—you have two new albums dropping soon, correct?
That’s right. We’re fortunate to own a recording studio, so we can be incredibly busy. And flexible. We’re working on the vocal project right now, but our upcoming tour is the instrumental ensemble. Being able to scale up and scale down helps, especially as a fledgling band. We’ve opened for and toured with national bands, but we’re trying to create our own path. Next year, who knows where we’ll be or who will be touring with Stable Shakers? Whatever we’re doing, I can promise you that it will be engaging and honest. That excites me.

You’re playing Northeast Florida for the first time. Any impressions before you see it for yourselves?
We’re excited to play Blue Jay, because listening rooms are our favorite environments. It’s quiet, folks are there to hear the music, and the band can vibe off that energy. You tend to make long-lasting fans that way. And the listeners get the best kind of show. It makes you play as great as you can—everyone is waiting for that next note. As a band, we love improvisation, and all improv is is having the courage to go to the next note.