The phone ringing is cut off as Chris Shiflett picks up, and before I can utter my timid inquiry of, “hello, Chris?” he’s bellowing the Canadian national anthem: “OHHHH, CANADAAAAA.”
“I saw the call come through, and I was like, ‘Canada? Who the fuck is calling me from Canada?’” Shiflett is in warm and jovial spirits, and had it not been 9:30AM in Los Angeles, where I reached him, I might have assumed he was drunk. How cynical and insecure, to assume friendliness can only be achieved with the boost of an intoxicant.
“People refer to Santa Barbara as the land that ambitions forgot.”
But Shiflett’s new solo record, the rollicking, uproarious country adventure West Coast Town, is very much concerned with people’s too-cozy relationships with substances. It’s not necessarily a reflection of Shiflett’s indulgence, but rather of a broader existential malaise that seems to hang over one’s hometown, thick with alcohol and amphetamines and underachievement. In this case, it’s the idyllic, wedding-reception-ready Santa Barbara, where he grew up.
“People refer to Santa Barbara as ‘the land that ambitions forgot,’” he laughs. “It’s like the song ‘Hotel California.’”
Indeed, West Coast Town toils in the same fatalism that typifies the iconic Eagles track. On “Goodnight Little Rock,” a touring punk rock band is locked into the reality of playing in bars to no one in particular, driving like long-haul truckers through the states for…what exactly? It’s almost self-defeating, but one thing is certain: they’re “never ever coming home.” Tripling up on beds in a cold motel room, eating crackers and Coca Cola for dinner, but at least they won’t be caught rotting in their hometown. This one is at least partially autobiographical.
“You can never recapture the feeling of your first tours,” Shiflett recalls sorrowfully of his punk days. “I hated when tours ended. I didn’t care if it was a seven-week tour in the shittiest conditions. The end of any tour for me was always like that feeling when summer camp ended.” Naturally, Shiflett is excited to get back in touch with those roots on his solo tour, stripped of his now-usual Foo Fighters comfort (he’s served as the band’s lead guitarist since 1999).
And in many ways, West Coast Town is Shiflett getting back in touch with his roots, if not interrogating them and the distance he’s put between them. “I grew up in a west coast town,” he proudly belts on the title track, before he admits later on, “It was paradise but I had to leave.” It amplifies the endlessly ambiguous back-and-forth, love-hate relationship many share with the place they grew up. Shiflett worked out a clever way to address a punk adolescence spent in a beach town: put it on a country record.
Shiflett traces his first grazes with country music to when he left Santa Barbara at 18 to move to Los Angeles with a friend, who bought him a sidewalk-sale cassette of Johnny Cash’s Sun Records sessions. He nursed an ambivalent curiosity towards country until the late-Tony Sly, Shiflett’s bandmate in No Use For A Name, directed him to Uncle Tupelo-spawned alt-country group Son Volt, and the ever-adored Wilco. Shiflett followed the thread on down to California country standards like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. The punchy twang of their Bakersfield sound gave Shiflett the nudge he needed to lean into making his own country records, and their legacy is scrawled across the faithful, bucking guitar work that weaves throughout West Coast Town.
“I couldn’t write a bunch of country songs that were like… rural American themes. I’m a fucking city slicker, it wouldn’t be sincere at all.”
He mostly eschews the mournful, profound foot-dragging of low-tempo country legends like Townes Van Zandt, instead opting for bright, major-key movers that hum along at dancing-pace, brimming with plucky guitars and rumbling bass. “I really wanted to make this an ‘up,’ Saturday-night-kind-of-feeling record,” he remarks, “at least musically.” But they’re a feathery, upbeat platform for what are often tales of drunken misery and loneliness. There are booze-addled nights in hotel rooms (“Broke and hungover right here in 102”) and baleful self-loathing (“I’m still drunk, still in love, still not enough”) tucked amidst summery composition and Nashville producer Dave Cobb’s lively, rowdy mix. “It was like a dark-edged, bubbly thing that we were striving for,” Shiflett remarks. “I couldn’t write a bunch of country songs that were like… rural American themes. I’m a fucking city slicker, it wouldn’t be sincere at all.”
That dissonance, that reconciliation of incompatible backgrounds, is a cornerstone of what makes Shiflett’s new record such vital work. It’s an album of bouncy drinking tunes coloured by serious substance abuse and personal purgatories. It’s a popular story, but rarely articulated in such pleasant contexts. The contrast accentuates the subject matter, a clever reflection of a dire track-marked grit and reality tucked beyond eyesight of the brand of escapist, utopian romance that envelops a place like Santa Barbara. “I wanted to capture some of that in these songs,” Shiflett explains. Not just for narrative’s sake; he lived this. He relays as much on the joyriding binge “Tonight’s Not Over,” which makes mention of both key bumps and NOFX’s The Longest Line, which is ironic given the speculation that the latter refers to cocaine itself. Shiflett isn’t apprehensive discussing it, but he measures his words. “That song in particular is like a diary entry of a certain time in my life,” he says. He’d spend weekends partying in Santa Barbara, only driving back to Los Angeles with hours to spare before work at 8AM on Monday. He remembers that Sunday night would go too quickly: “The next thing you know, it’s 3 in the morning, and you’re like, ‘goddammit, I did it again!’ and then there’s that lonely dark drive when you’re fucked up out of your mind back to your apartment in L.A.”
I can hear a grin as Shiflett tells me he’s relieved his teenage son isn’t getting into the same shenanigans that he did. Shiflett got out of Santa Barbara; he’s gotten to see the world in vans and buses and planes, in dive bars and concert halls and arenas, in No Use For A Name, Foo Fighters, and now on his own. He got to write West Coast Town; not everyone from Santa Barbara has a success story. “A lot of people from my generation that grew up there really fucked themselves up,” he says gravely. “There was something very self-destructive and nihilistic about the generation of people from when I grew up in [Santa Barbara], and I’m endlessly fascinated by that.”