By David Wicik
One of the first things to remark about the band Shapers is just how mature of a sound the group has been able to achieve in such a short period of time. But there’s a simple explanation for that. While the four-piece ensemble, who make nuanced experimental music, have only been recording as Shapers for about a year now, they have been playing together and evolving as musicians for nearly a decade.
Shapers is comprised of married couple Zaid Maxwell and Amelia Styer, Todd Waters and Steve Reidell, the latter better known for his work on world-famous music blog The Hood Internet as DJ STV SLV, mash-up maestro extraordinaire (Styer jokes that Reidell looks at the Shapers project as “his crazy little brother”). The four formed the core of May or May Not, a now-defunct pop group that Maxwell says took after late-era Beatles work in its song structure and sound.
The transition from MoMN to Shapers reflects a sea change in the group’s methodology. Whereas MoMN was a group of songwriters working in isolation, Shapers embraces a more aleatoric approach to music making. As Waters explains, “Those (MoMN’s) pieces were mostly written, and we would all make our part for it. In this band we just make it up, we improvise and record ourselves and then try and go back and find the good parts.”
Moreover, while Shapers may have only been performing for about a year now, with a first LP, “Little, Big,” getting pressed last summer, the road to becoming Shapers included almost a year-and-a-half gestation period. The group spent the time jamming in the basement studio of Maxwell and Styer’s West Logan Square condo. “We allowed ourselves a huge chunk of time to explore what we wanted to do and didn’t really pressure ourselves at all and didn’t place any expectations about what we wanted it to sound like or what it was going to end up being. We just committed ourselves to exploring and having a good time with it,” says Styer.
This lack of haste reflects the different motivations that the Shapers members carry in relation to their music. Put simply, Shapers are more grown up than most groups will ever be. For one thing, they all have full-time day jobs: Maxwell is a server at Smith & Wollensky; Styer works for Marwen, a nonprofit after-school art program for under-served high-school students in the city; Waters is a professional chef; and Reidell is busy doing whatever it is a world-famous DJ does.
Shapers is what fills up their free time. They have a routine: three times a week for three hours a day. Nor do they ever burn the midnight oil, jamming straight through when the mood strikes them, since the couple living above Maxwell and Styer have a newborn to worry about (Shapers communicate with them via text to orchestrate practice times).
The Shapers don’t burden themselves with any illusions. For them, fame is secondary. While Styer admits that they would like notoriety if only for the ability to share their music with a larger audience, Maxwell sums up their goals better in pointing to a shared desire to make music that is unique.
And the music of Shapers is certainly unique. The group has referenced themselves as post-genre, which Waters eschews as simply an easy way to get out of having to explain your music in an interview. But the point is not entirely unfair.
Comparisons can be made to the post-rock of groups like Do Make Say Think and Explosions in the Sky, as well as to the krautrock of groups like Faust and Neu!, but the recognition only appears fleetingly, at certain moments. Most songs have polymorphous structures, with drawn-out sculptural passages layering on multiple synth frequencies, guitars and percussion until a crescendo is breached through density.
Shapers say that their influences do not show up as readily in the music because of the way it is created. As Maxwell has it, “The influences are in the way we approach the music and not necessarily in the music you hear.” So while they might try and emulate the phasing compositional patterns of Steve Reich, or the raw production of Gang of Four—because the songs are created organically, through distilling improvised music—reading similarities out of Shapers music is a necessarily non-linear process.
The band say that their name comes from the Irish slang, to throw shapes, meaning to make faces—apparently Styer has little facial control during recording sessions. But a double entendre here seems not only appropriate, but unavoidable. Shapers don’t so much write songs as play with, or shape sounds. Think of them as musical tinkerers, inventing aural wonders by accident.
Shapers play at The Hideout, 1354 West Wabansia, (773)227-4433, on February 5.