Here’s an interview that Virgil did with KBS Magazine Australia in 2021.
Alternative musician and California-native Virgil Shaw recently took time to speak with KBS Magazine about his career, legacy, influences and personal life. Shaw first rose to prominence in the late ’80s alongside his bands, ‘Brent’s T.V’ and ‘Dieselhed’. During this time, he collaborated with various artists from other counterculture groups such as Mr. Bungle, Faxed Head, and Sonny & The Sunsets. Since then, Shaw has seen an unexpected rise in popularity as his music has been rediscovered by younger generations who now regard his work as a gem within the underground music scene.
Your music during the 90s captures a certain unique color. How would you personally describe the Virgil Shaw, Dieselhed or Brent’s TV sound?
Brent’s T.V and Dieselhed were my bands in college and beyond. We all went to college in California, Humboldt State. It was really exciting because we were young and would hang out, cook, and run down to the tracks to play music like we were hobos. John Denery was the ring leader for Brent’s TV and still one of my favorite songwriters. He showed me that anyone could write a song. He has a great imagination and could really turn out a lot of tunes fast. Dieselhed was another group of friends. I was the singer and the band was born out of playing country-western covers and crazy dangerous house parties.
Being active in the 90s, did you have any pop influences from that era?
I listened to a lot of older music when I was younger like surf music and classic country. I played my guitar and went to shows but I never could really be hip and groovy with my ear on the track. I just was and am in my own spaced-out world.
Lyrically speaking, the song “Frank” from Dieselhed’s album “Chico And The Flute” stood out to me as an incredibly mysterious yet descriptive narrative. Was this song inspired by a real person or is it purely fiction?
Dieselhed regrouped in the early 90s and there were two singers; me and Zac Holtzman. We co-wrote a lot of the lyrics and Melodies. That was Zac’s Melody and narrative for “Frank”. It was about him getting picked up by a freaky dude while hitchhiking. I ended up played the organ and sang backups on that particular track.
Any chance of a reunion album or performance with Dieselhed?
Hhhhhhhmmmmm, I doubt it. The drummer Danny Heifetz lives in Australia and the rest of us are spread around California. I actually wrote a song about 25/30 years ago on a Dieselhed record called “Someday We Won’t Be a Band” which kind of predicts all this.
Dieselhed had a relationship with the Gregg Turkington (A.K.A Neil Hamburger) and his Amarillo record label during the 90s. Can you describe how you found Gregg Turkington and Amarillo?
Diesel had put out our first album with Amarillo. Greg Turkington was part of the vibrant San Francisco freak show. I think he had put out a few of our records around the same time he produced a cassette of his prank phone calls. We knew him from around town, then later brought him on tour as a manager when we toured with Link Wray.
Have you been in contact with Gregg Turkington since Dieselhed disbanded?
Unfortunately, no. I believe I helped sell his merchandise once when he was doing a Neil Hamburger show because no one was manning his merch table.
The city of Eureka has appeared in both your early work with Dieselhed as well as your solo work. How has the city influenced your writing and what are your personal thoughts on the city?
I always liked it because it’s a portal into history and it doesn’t seem to have any clothes on. Lots of ghosts wandering the streets… It’s pretty depressing. I swam around in that narrative for a long time but I don’t anymore. It’s kind of spooky and had a violent present and past.
Being a musician or artist is one of the most uncertain careers to successfully accomplish. What would you say to a struggling musician who is finding it difficult to obtain notability for their work?
The only notability I ever wanted with my music and art was money… “note ability”. I haven’t found this through art yet. I want money so I can buy more animals and land, look out on the snowy planes. You just got to make stuff. I say find two friends you love who dig your art, and show them everything; even the raw unfinished crap. If the rest of the world wants to love it, that happens magically (and of course with a lot of hard work).
From a personal perspective, do you create music to evoke emotion, as entertainment, or something completely different?
I never thought about this until recently. I just thought it was my civic duty to shake my booty. I write music to organize and grow in my thoughts or to get through pain and sort out the beauty and the darkness. I play Live music because it feels good and I can completely focus on that moment. Just find clarity and purpose in my chaotic mind.
What’s your earliest memory of music? Are there any genres that stood out to you as a child?
My folks play old-time music from the Appalachian Mountains. You know, I was raised as a baby sleeping in guitar cases at parties.
Did the cliché rockstar lifestyle ever appeal to you? (i.e. Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll)
Arg… we used to drink so many beers. The sex, drugs and rock’n’roll didn’t appeal to me until my late 30s when I was in a bad marriage. That’s when I thought about that… while drinking with Korean War vets on the lower east side of Manhattan.
Are you “yay” or “nay” for the current music of today?
I don’t know much about what’s happening today in the music business. I want to believe in “yah” but a lot of stuff on the radio and coming out of passing cars is pure dog droppings.
Are there any modern artists who particularly stand out to you (for either good or bad reasons)?
I enjoy my friend’s bands mostly. Dengue Fever, Slow Motion Cowboys, Secret Chiefs 3, Sarah Bethe Nelson, Sonny & The Sunsets. I’m actually writing a song about listening to my friend’s bands so stay tuned.
How does it feel to have a cult following within the underground music scene?
That’s funny! I didn’t know such a thing until I played a Brent’s T.V gig at the Lookout Records shows last year and people who were not alive when the band broke-up had the records and were excited to see us. I really hope my music brings positivity to all who hear it.
You have been working with painting these days. Is this a skill you’ve acquired in recent years or something you’ve had a lifelong passion for?
I have been too busy to make paintings these days, though I usually jump around between music and art. I come from an artistic family as my mom is a painter, my sister is a photographer, and my Dad is a ceramicist. My folks also play banjo and fiddle. I hope to clear a space soon to start making some painting with some silk screen images.
I understand that you now have a family and children. Do your children share your passion for art and music?
I have a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old. They can sing in key but they just don’t care about playing music. They do have great taste in music though so dad doesn’t go nuts in the car.
What creative projects or albums are you currently working on?
I just finished an album this week on Rocks In Your Head Records. My old buddy Sonny Smith (from Sonny & The Sunsets) produced it. The name of the album is ‘At The Time I Didn’t Care’. I also have a comedy album in the works. I’ve got all the material ready, though I may make it a “fake live album” that’s set in a fake bar setting similar to a Lenny Bruce style record… Maybe with a band behind me. It’s amazing because I can make up these jokes and use voice memo on my phone. Wherever I am, I can make art on the move.
Be sure to keep up with Virgil on Facebook or through his website at www.virgilshaw.com
Interview by Adam Plant for KBS Magazine
Photographs courtesy of Virgil Shaw, Future Farmer Recordings, Dieselhed and Amarillo Records