ONE TRACK MIND: Jeff Mueller from Shipping News talks about the making of “The March Song”

Growing up, there were few bands here or anywhere as cool as the Shipping News. From the moment that I discovered Rodan on, I’ve been a fan, marking occasions in my early-20s with the release of whatever their latest album was at the time, which I always found incredibly inspiring. Guitarist and vocalist Jeff Mueller has had a big impact on me, either through his use of metaphor in lyrics, or his sublime guitar playing. In that spirit, I caught up with Mueller to ask about one of the most enduring Shipping News songs, the haunting “March Song” which you can hear below.

Read on to learn about time signatures, insect men, and how the Shipping News made it work without living in the same city. Oh… and keep your eye out for June of ’44, who happened to play out in Italy not too long ago. I have no idea if that means they’ll do it again, but wouldn’t that be rad?

Never Nervous: How did the Shipping News write songs? Was it per individual? Does it in any way correlate with who sings on what song? Was it collaborative?

Jeff Mueller: Early on, our music was composed by Jason and I. We weren’t initially setting out to form a new band, this phase was more of a recording project, where we put together sound-bytes for the NPR show, This American Life. We realized as we were finishing up that we wanted to make more of it and planned a lengthier session to write and record a broader range of material – this is when Kyle stepped in and truly pinned us together. Most of our songs at this point were sung by the person who was largely responsible for the musical focus. Later on, in 2003-ish, when Todd joined the band, we took on a much more collaborative approach – though, in most cases, the person singing continued to be the person who offered the principle ideas of the song.

NN: By the time of Very Soon and In Pleasant Company, were you even in the same state as the rest of the band? How did that work?

JM: We were never in the same state to begin with… I was in Chicago at the beginning, then Philadelphia, then back to Chicago. We would bracket out practice periods where the hope was that we’d only focus on music for the time that we were together, like, 8 – 10 hour practice days for 5 or so days at a time. Sorta cram 3 months of a normal bands practice schedule into a 5 day stint. In many ways, this approach abetted far more productive results, as, for me at least, it takes an hour or so just to get in the right headspace, and then there was still another 7+ hours of super creative writing time. Whereas most bands probably only hit it for a few hours at a go, which would only leave a couple hours of “in the mode” time.

“We were never in the same state to begin with… I was in Chicago at the beginning, then Philadelphia, then back to Chicago.”

NN: Tell us a little about the composition of The March Song. Did it start of 7/4 (or 7/8? I’m terrible at that) timing or did that clipped beat get added in later? Relative to that, how did you all make it flow as well as it does? That’s a tricky time signature, but so hypnotic here.

JM: It was always in 7/4, I never set out to write in specific time signatures, it just sorta happens. Often, it’s not until I’ve presented a part to the other band members that it ever really gets counted out. Jason and Kyle have a way of smoothing out my rough edges, in a positive way, they’ve always found the pockets in my geometric mess. As far as the flow of the song is concerned, I think what helps is that it establishes itself, and doesn’t derive (save for some significant dynamic shifts) until the hard break towards the end, where an altogether different feeling “outro” is introduced.

NN: What kind of gear were you using? Your guitar sounds righteous and I love your use of delay.

JM: Thanks, mate! I started with a Gibson SG Firebrand, then later switched to a Gibson ES325, which I used almost exclusively in Shipping News from 1999 until the last show that we played (June 19th / Skull Alley / Louisville / with Bear Claw and Three Second Kiss). My amp was/is a Music Man HD-130 with a Marshall 4×12. Effects were the Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Digitech PDS 8000 Delay / Sampler pedal.

The song QUIET VICTORIES has a heavy dose of delay in the guitars, I always love hearing the way the distorted delay falls over the clean parts immediately after shutting off the distortion pedal – and, at the end, when all hell breaks loose!

NN: Did the riff or lyrics come first? How do either correlate to or inform one another?

JM: The lyrics for THE MARCH SONG definitely came after the song was composed – the tone of the song felt tight and a little creepy. And, as you mentioned, the odd time signature getting smoothed out so nicely also made it feel a little slick, in a good and gross way. These punctuations, along with various other external, strained relationship interjections, fully informed the content of the lyrics.

NN: I’ve always loved these lyrics and it seems ominous and foreboding, but you never know. Who is the subject of the song? It seems like it could go either way, from self-denigrating to a subtle call out to someone else. To what does “cocoon man” refer too?

“The ‘cocoon man’ is sort of the awful animal that is exposed after the outer, glossier skin drips off. Like a reverse chrysalis, where the beauty of the more approachable object is gone after the first set of transitional stages have passed.”

JM: It’s not about anyone specific… it’s a broader swipe at people that portray themselves in a certain, often misleading manner – to get at something, or to convince you that they are a definitive type of person, and then come out at the other end as a revealed, different creature all together. So, the “cocoon man” is sort of the awful animal that is exposed after the outer, glossier skin drips off. Like a reverse chrysalis, where the beauty of the more approachable object is gone after the first set of transitional stages have passed.

NN: How does it stack up in your mind to other Shipping News songs looking back? How did it mark that time and place for you mentally and emotionally?

JM: It was always a crowd pleaser! I think we played it so much that I started paying too much attention to the parts the bugged me, but then, after shelving it for a few years and upon re-listening, I didn’t recognize those issues any longer, and started liking it again. Where it ranks? It’s up there for me!

We wrote it in the middle of a very busy and bustling period for me musically. THE MARCH SONG grew organically for a year or so before we recorded it, no major changes, but the details weren’t fully settled on until the 4th or 5th revision. I think it does a pretty good job of marking a section of my state of mind at the time, I was in the middle of a 99 date June of 44 tour – we sorta jammed a Shipping News practice into one of my breaks. Jason and Kyle came to Philly, we tried playing in my basement, but, alas – too loud for my neighbors! We reached out to a band from south Jersey called the Secession Movement, we didn’t know them… yet, they graciously allowed us to practice in their Cherry Hill space for nearly a week. It was perfect, they were unbelievably kind and generous to us, which is an odd contradiction to the lyrical content of this song – which we wrote in their basement!