You can ask just about anyone in town and they’ll confirm that Dennis Sheridan is one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. I write this not only as someone lucky enough to call him friend, but as a writer and musician with a wide network of friends in town, all of which seem to know and respect Dennis; he’s that kind of guy. Sheridan’s early work included playing saxophone to the ska ensemble Skam Impaired, before moving on to front bands like the sci-fi themed indie band The Blue Goat War, or more personal projects like Follow the Train. And he’s played with tons of bands in town aside from those, as well as a few on the west coast where Sheridan and his family now call home. We caught up to Dennis to ask him about his music, parenthood, and surfing. You can catch him with tomorrow night performing a Blue Goat War reunion at the Lebowski Fest, and you con’t want to miss that.
Never Nervous: What got you into punk or indie to start with?
DS: I was a miserable fat kid when I started high school, coupled with bad social skills. I became fascinated by all these people who were making often aggressive, homemade music that sounded unlike the templated offerings on the TV and the radio – and a lot of them were kids my age. The “scene” was no less reserved in the serving of ridicule than the rest of the population, but there was a feeling of acceptance of the underlying eccentricities that you’re born with (that you can’t help). Thus, it offered some comfort and a bit of escape from the emphasis on conformity coming from every other direction.
NN: I know you are a bit of a multi-instrumentalist. What was the first instrument that you played? Was it the first instrument you played in a band, or was that something different?
DS: I’ve had a guitar since I was 14 that was a gift from a family member. I squeezed unpleasant sounds out of it for years until I was a sophomore in College. At that time, someone left a beat-up trumpet at my house. I decided to learn how to play it and started taking lessons. A few weeks in, I joined the pep band at Bellarmine and added some unintentionally entertaining dissonance to their brass ensemble, but I eventually learned how to play the thing and concurrently attempted to properly learn the guitar. So I guess the first band I played in was the Bellarmine pep band.
NN: How has your playing evolved over time? Do you ever hear things that you did years ago and wish you’d done anything different, or do you find satisfaction in letting the moment breath?
DS: I haven’t played trumpet in years. With the guitar, and the bass especially, I don’t know how much I’ve improved, but I have more fun now than ever and a feel a bit less self-conscious. Stuff always sounds better when you’re not so close to it. That’s the thing that sucks about rehearsing something, you can be really excited about a creation and feel the enthusiasm deflate over time.
NN: What can you tell us about your experiences in Skam Impaired? How did you join that band?
DS: I had been playing the trumpet for about a year and one night I ran into Pat King (we’d met a few times before). I went back to his house and we listened to some music. Stan Doll was over there too. Pat said they were playing a show the next day at a music store in Mall St. Matthews (Stan was sitting in for Nick) and they asked if I wanted to play trumpet with them. I barely honked the right notes but it was a lot of fun – especially watching the unsuspecting mall-goers walk past grimacing with their hands over their ears. For some reason Pat asked me to keep playing with them so I did. And we played a lot.
NN: Given how different your subsequent musical projects have been, what was/is your relationship to ska?
DS: I’d like to be cool and say that I don’t like Ska, but there’s something about it that’s just plain good times and free of inhibitions. It can add some sunshine to a bad day. I don’t listen to it as much as I used to in College but I still think it’s good stuff. The “movement” (if you want to call it that) had a positive message and even the worst dancer can learn how to skank. I prefer sad bastardy stuff and/or less straightforward music these days, but I have no issues with Ska – even the Punk-Ska flavor that Skam was going for.
NN: How did the Blue Goat War form? What inspired that particular narrative, and how did the story evolve over time?
DS: My friend David Boston used to make these awesome 4-track songs in his bedroom with a very minimal setup. His stuff was (and still is) really creative and always sounded awesome; and even though it was really simple it was always unique and interesting, so I attempted to do something like that… One day, I recorded a song by myself that I really liked and it had some outer space vibes to it. I had tried several times to write serious lyrics and they always felt pretentious and boring. Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I thought it might be neat to tell stories with the music. So I re-purposed the aforementioned song to be about an alien encounter of sorts and this vision popped into my head of blue goat from the planet Uranus. The whole thing unfolded from there. At first I was going for some kind of early Space Oddity-ish stuff passed through a Douglas Adams filter, but the project carried on in many (too many) directions. It was a fun way to experiment with different sounds and ideas. It was never very popular but it was silly and some good tunes were made thanks to the various lineups the band enjoyed.
NN: When writing for a band that has such a specific concept, how do you insert any sort of personal qualities to the music, or was the concept designed for pure escapist enjoyment?
DS: My friend Drew (who played drums for BGW during for a while) always told me “you need to stop hiding behind the goat.” There are many personal references and references to external observations of very specific real-life characters that are not very difficult to glean from the lyrical content.
NN: How did the Blue Goat War conclude? Was the story complete, or were you ready for a change?
DS: We were working on a “Son of the Blue Goat” concept but it was never finished – just a few basement recordings. Kevin invited us to open the very last Elliott show at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. I’d never been further up the coast than Maryland so Kira and I took a week off work and made it into a road trip. We met the rest of the band there and the venue had screwed up and never wrote down that we were playing, so they had to squeeze us in. It was an unpleasant experience even though all the Elliott guys were super good to us. It was also a wakeup call in the context of balancing fantasies with realistic expectations. We came back from that trip only to find out a few days later that a close friend had committed suicide. At that point, the silliness of the BGW was not very enjoyable so we did a big ending blowout a few weeks later and after that I tried playing music that felt (to me) different.
NN: Reading through your band list, I understand that you played with a number of different acts around the same time. Were you ever in more than one band at a time? How did you juggle those responsibilities?
DS: It didn’t seem like a big deal. All about communication. But that was also before we had kids…
NN: How did Follow the Train start? Was there an intentional shift away from a long form narrative concept, or did you continue with longer story cycles in that band as well?
DS: I wrote a bunch of songs that were more personal and maybe a bit softer. I somehow conned Andy Hurt into playing drums with me. We drafted Bill and Angela to play bass and keyboard respectively. In contrast to the goat, our first few shows were well-received and the band went on to enjoy some success on a smaller scale… A few years later there was a huge lineup change and we returned to sci-fi storytelling music; but the first few train records were more like small collections of short stories rather than volumes in a longer set.
NN: From an outsiders perspective, you seemed to be the central figure in Follow the Train. Given that, what caused the band to end, rather than, say, new or different members to be brought on? What is the soul of a band?
DS: I ended the band because I had two small children at home and at the time made little money and needed to focus on building something that paid the bills. Also, the band was very intense. It was starting to make me crazy (and no fault of anyone but myself) even though it was sounding better than ever. In our final lineup there were 5 other shredders beside myself. The last record, “Mercury” was about amplified burnout using the metaphor of melting on the surface of Mercury while staring into the Sun. We went out in flames, but I like to think maybe we’ll be reborn someday like the phoenix.
NN: What bands have you been in post-Follow the Train? Tell us a little about your time in the interim.
DS: Andy Hurt and I have had a project called Creature Island off and on for the past few years – since the train broke up. It’s mostly a recording project for psychedelic folky tunes… I played in a loud psychedelic rock band called Good Girl a few years ago before we moved to California with some of the members of Emanuel. Good Girl fizzed out, but it was a blast. I played bass for a rock band in San Diego called American Rust and recently quit that to focus on songwriting again with a yet-to-be-named band. I’m really excited about the new project even though it’s still in the early stages.
NN: How did fatherhood change your relationship to music?
DS: It made it so that I have less time to play it. But the kids are slightly older now and I’m starting to think more in the context of trying to think up stuff that I can play for them. They’re enthusiastic about everything and have showed a lot of interested in playing the guitar. I’m looking forward to when we can all play together as a family.
NN: Now that you live on the opposite side of the country, how do you feel about Louisville’s music culture? What do you miss? What do you not miss?
DS: I am a Louisville music cheerleader. I’m sure our friends get sick of hearing about it. There are so many good Louisville bands right now – been really stoked about White Reaper and The Wrists (and a ton of others). I miss the creative culture in Louisville very much. People are constantly making things here and it’s great. I’ve had to work harder to scratch the surface out West to find the kinds of musicians we that we were surrounded by in Louisville. There are great bands in San Diego, but the music scene is not nearly as rich as it is in Louisville (in my biased opinion). However, where we live now, it does seem easier to get noticed if you’re good at what you do and that was more of a challenge in Louisville given the ratio of music makers to people that wanted pay $5 to go watch people make music.
NN: How did the Blue Goat War reunion come up?
DS: Will asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes. We got Pete Isgrigg on board, who was the other original member, and Kevin Ratterman who recorded almost every blue goat record and played drums on a few. It’s going to be a short set but it’s also going to be a great party!
NN: If you had to choose between always catching the best waves when you surf, or landing every trick on a skateboard ever, which would it be and why?
DS: I was obsessed with skateboarding in my teens and early 20s. I was never good at it as it required turning off the part of your brain that was concerned with injury. I get to skate with my kids now and that rules, but no comparing it to surfing. Surfing can be just as dangerous depending on the conditions, but generally water does not hurt as bad as concrete. More importantly, there is no feeling like dropping into a perfect wave, leaning into a nice bottom turn and trimming down the line right on the curl. No two waves are ever the same and even the worst day in the water is a dream come true.
NN: How good do you think this new Star Wars movie is going to be?
DS: It’s going to kick ass!
NN: What non-musical things have you excited lately and why?
DS: My family and my friends! The Pacific Ocean. The Wet Hot American Summer netflix series! Getting a good night’s sleep later so this question doesn’t seem so perplexing in the morning.
NN: What are your top-five desert island musical picks and why?
DS: In no order:
- Green Mind
- What’s Going On
- Mary Poppin’s Soundtrack (It has everything when you think about it)
- Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
- Business as Usual