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Plugging in on Stage: The Other World Of Trip Shakespeare

September 11, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Trip Shakespeare has been living on the road for three years. The van rides are long, the hotels look the same but business hassles are left to others.

It doesn’t feel bad compared to what the Minnesota-based band was doing before, holding onto part-time jobs and making the rounds at the local clubs. No one’s longing for that way of life.

Trip Shakespeare is happiest on stage, when they can open up to each other, learn a few things about themselves and create a world a little prettier than the one they come down to once the instruments are unplugged.

″That is almost the ultimate goal for us making music,″ explained bassist John Munson. ″That’s something we want to do in performance, create a different world, a place where everyone can be, where the audience can be, forget the drudging pains of life and bill collection and so on.″

Fitting for a band that numbers Dr. Seuss and Rocky and Bullwinkle among its influences, Trip Shakespeare includes plenty of fractured fairy tales on ″Across the Universe,″ their first album on a major label, A&M Records.

″The Slacks″ is a naughty dance song about a one-eyed lady from France with a fatal weakness for magic trousers. There’s also ″Snow Days,″ a call from indoors to poor Mrs. Braintree, a Minnesota schoolteacher and chilly northern woman stranded in a winter blizzard, and ″Pearle,″ whose lovely heroine meets her fate along the gullies by Deegan Curve.

The love songs are open and painful, with no trace of bitterness or hardened acceptance of loss, only a childlike grief over something so natural being taken away. Just listen to the ballad ″Drummer Like Me,″ when the singer slips into a gentle falsetto on ″Oh listen, some drummers have shaky time,″ his voice full of doubt and fear. ″A lot of people that come to see us are pretty wide-eyed, there’s not a lot of cynicism,″ Munson insisted.

″Because we jam a lot, do it differently every time, there has to be a level of trust between the band and audience. And the audience is of all different sizes, shapes and colors. They’re open to what we’re saying.″

″One thing that the songs have in common is they are works of the imagination,″ added guitarist-pianist Dan Wilson, who spoke of ″Honey Tree,″ another ballad.

″The honey tree is someplace beyond this world. The garden where that romance takes place is other-earthly. It’s real, in the same way that a dream is real.″

Trip Shakespeare formed in Minneapolis in late 1986 as a trio, the members including Matt Wilson, Dan’s brother and who also writes all the lyrics, Munson, and drummer Elaine Harris. Dan Wilson joined a year later.

There are no rap songs or exotic drugs or summer arts festivals called Trip Shakespeare. The band members simply made up the name one night and liked the sound of it, literary and humorous at the same time.

They released a pair of albums, ″Applehead Man″ and ″Are You Shakespearienced?,″ on independent labels before signing with A&M. The sound is, appropriately, not quite of this world, a combination of garage bands, folk harmonies and oldies albums sold on late-night television.

″Somebody came up to us and said, ‘I know, the Left Banke and Jeff Beck,’ ″ Munson recalled. ″And then someone will come up and say the Zombies and Mott the Hoople, or, ‘You guys sound like a cross between Peter, Paul and Mary and Led Zeppelin.’

″A lot of things about the band just sort of developed organically. We never sat down and said, ‘Let’s cop a folk sound,’ or ‘Let’s get on that alternative music jag.’ ″

Records are made with live shows in mind and it works in the other direction. The same way movie studios preview films to test audience reaction, Trip Shakespeare experiments with its material on stage, bending notes to the roar of the crowd.

″The road I travel is not divine,″ they sing on ″Turtledove.″ The routine these days is pretty simple: hit town, set up the equipment and play, try to give the audience and themselves and a world of honey trees in the sky and blessings on the ground.

″About a year after Dan joined the band, we were in Iowa City playing to about 250 people in a small room,″ Dan Wilson said. ″We took one song and wrestled with it on stage.

″We stretched it, pulled it at its edges, and ran off on tangents for 25 minutes, just exploring the contours of the song with each member taking off in different directions. That was a moment when we realized something special was happening.″

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