ATL INDIE ROCK BAND SHEPHERDS TACKLES ANXIETY, TOXIC MASCULINITY IN NEW ALBUM
It seems like it’s been lightyears since the days of dancing at rock shows, getting our palms dirty and heads banged in mosh pits. I wistfully recall a time we didn’t have our smartphones the way we have them now; or the way they have us now, at their beck and call with every ding, vibration, and red-dotted alert. Everyone has a lot to say online, but when it comes to real life, at nearly every show, we’re all just standing there.
In Atlanta, for some time, it felt like we plateaued. No one has been able to collectively recapture the air of 2008-2012 when the Black Lips, the Coathangers, Deerhunter, the Selmanaires, and the like were taking reign not just in Atlanta, but on a larger scale. Maybe that was Atlanta indie rock scene’s heyday.
Or maybe not. Since America’s been rocking with the one called “45” in office, there’s been a new air down here. There’s this common thread of unrest among us and somewhere in that is a new wave of excitement and craving to explore that unrest. Not necessarily from newcomers, either, but from artists who have been here working and creating for years and are beginning to strike in their reception.
Take Atlanta-based five-piece indie rock outfit Shepherds, for example.
Here is a band that’s been gestating in Atlanta since its formation in 2010, has undergone multiple line-up changes, and is about to release its second full-length Insignificant Whip on October 18 via Arrowhawk Records. Shepherds was originally a three-piece with members Jonathan Merenivitch (guitar/vocals), Peter Cauthorn (bass), and Adrian Benedykt Switon (drums) and released Exit Youth in 2015. The group was formed while each member pursued other projects. Some may remember the super buzzy indie band Mood Rings or noise post-punk outfit Georges Bataille Battle Cry, in which Cauthorn and Switon were members, respectively, and the soul-driven group Tendaberry, in which Merenivitch was a member. In the remnants of these groups after their disseminations, Shepherds remained in tact.
Since then, the band has evolved with Vinny Restivo on bass and added new instrumentation with May Tabol on rhythm guitar/synth and Ryan York on the drums (and recently added Arthur Cabral to the touring band). This new line-up moved Switon and his stand-up drums to the forefront joining Merenivitch on vocals, making Shepherds a two-drummer operation. It took eight or so years to crack the code to discover the right lineup and achieve what is the band’s most perfected sound and version of itself so far.
Live, the band delivers a level of potency that’s got people with their hands out of their armpits, faces out of their phones, and dancing in this palpable blend of movement-inducing rock swelled with emotional swagger. This version of Shepherds carries a striking resemblance to Hex Enduction Hour-era Fall and the Rapture with an accent of Roxy Music. I have yet to see a show without Switon looming over a stand-up drum, cigarette in hand, doing this well-executed Bryan Ferry thing that just works. (Consider breaking out that eye patch, Adrian.)
Perhaps part of what’s kept Shepherds in longstanding formation is the process of trial and error learned through experiences in other bands, sparing them from the weird power struggles, “benevolent dictatorships,” and opposing views that often occur in the infinite forays of band drama. While each member has experienced these things in other projects—including Slang, Del Venicci, Jock Gang, and Dog Bite—Shepherds was never the infrastructure to work out those issues, making it a refuge to implement lessons learned and experience gained.
Compared to the band’s debut Exit Youth, the sophomore album is quite a jump. When listened back-to-back, you can hear how much the band has grown. While Insignificant Whip may not quite be Shepherds’ masterpiece, it is definitely its best work yet and a big step towards whatever that masterpiece will be.
This is evident in the opening tracks “Savor Your Sons” and “Your Imagined Past,” both heavy with hooks, upbeat, and circuitous. “Close But Not Far” is confusing (in a good way), not just in its title, but with its scratch-and-scream pummeling that puts us in the throes of anxiety and paranoia, like coming down off a coke bender… or maybe just a lot of coffee.
“Perhaps This Was a Thorned Blessing, Pete” is the band’s most masterful—which may be appropriate, considering it’s the oldest song on the album—and is the one that brings the house down. I was there, at 529 on New Year’s Eve when this song began with Switon’s voice crooning over the beatific shakes of a tambourine and keys escalating in a crowded room full of diamonds and sequins. (Seriously, Adrian. Eye patch.) Next thing I knew, the distortion crackled and kicked in, sending the crowd’s heads tossing side to side while Merenivitch and Switon strutted on stage amidst jagged riffs and resounding snares in a duet that was contrasting but frictionless. The saxophone makes a soulful appearance on “Blood Moon,” providing an ample interlude to bring us back from a tumbling fallout. Mark Smith of the Fall once said, “Rock ’n’ roll [is] a completely non-musical form of music.” That is not apparent on this record.
In the deeper cuts there’s more conflict between the impulses the album fixates on: acceptance, anxiety, and confrontation. “Long Eyelashes” is completely anti-gloss and features a bit of a spoken-word by Merenivitch, providing insight into his own understanding of black masculinity: “Sometimes I feel like myself/Sometimes I feel like the other/Sometimes I don’t feel like anything at all/Between the lines of color/I try so hard to ride/I’ve got nothing to prove/And yet so much.”
“Perpetual Yearning” wraps it up nicely, compartmentalizing everything we just processed when Merenivitch draws the conclusion that maybe when it comes to the truth, it’s best to just “keep it to yourself, oh oh.” Shepherds ruminates on the vacillation between stark emotion and overwhelming anxiety that creates a state of bystander complacency in these times of reckoning.
This is what Insignificant Whip is all about: anxiety in a digitized world, escape, blackness, toxic masculinity, breaking free from our original programming, challenging our origin stories, our impulses.
Prior to Shepherds, Merenivitch was a member of post-punk soul band Tendaberry, formed in 2007, that regularly opened for Janelle Monae and performed as Bosco’s backing band for a while. After dropping out of law school at Howard University, Merenivitch moved to Atlanta and embraced what he now considers to be the jumping off point in his music career.
Merenivitch is a black man in a white male-dominated industry, so the topic of race undoubtedly comes up. Surely, there have been grapplings with that, from childhood to adolescence to now. The thing about Merenivitch is that he is probably the nicest guy you’ll meet in Atlanta music. I don’t say that to be chauvinistic, but merely to state a fact. I’ve never heard a single negative word uttered about this person, which is odd considering that from 2013 to 2015 Merenivitch was at times in five bands at once.
This is important because when you speak with Merenivitch, about anything, it’s very easy to get comfortable. He even politely corrected me when I mistakenly referred to his hair cut as a flat top when it was actually a gumby and I didn’t feel like shit about it. When the topic of race surfaces, Merenivitch is very well-reserved, poised, and non-defensive. This makes him very eloquent when speaking about his anger and anxiety, which he isn’t shy about. But his manner of speaking makes subject matters that are typically uncomfortable and left unspoken very approachable.
Do you experience racial tensions in the music scene today?
Yeah, it’s super white. [Tendaberry] was all black, so it was interesting, especially at a time when there weren’t that many all-black rock bands or black folks dabbling in rock music the way we were. I always circle back to the [R&B and soul] world because as much as I fucking love indie rock shit, it is an incredibly white part of the music scene and you do feel like the other. You’re either facing overt racism or subtle racism, no matter what you do. As a black person in a majority white rock scene, it’s inescapable. On that note, I think a lot of folks I’ve worked with have been fantastic in making sure that the scene is served by having some acts that are outside the norm. But it doesn’t always happen. The segregation… it’s awful and I wish it didn’t happen. But it’s happened. We could do more as a scene to make things have a little more intersectionality. I think people like to present themselves as a certain level of progressive, but they’re not. Cause they’re not going to shows, or at least local shows where a wide variety of people are playing. I almost feel like the music scene is a microcosm of our society in a lot of ways and runs into the same problems. It’s gonna take a lot of work on the sides of the promoters and audience to be as intersectional they say they’d like to be. I doubt it’s specifically an Atlanta problem.
Has rock always been the genre you were generally more drawn to?
I never thought I had good enough of a voice to be an R&B person. I think I have a very good voice, but it’s very much something that’s more indebted to rock music than it is to soul and R&B. I think what’s gonna happen is the next Shepherds’ record is going to have much more soul and R&B influence. It’ll be an attempt for me to integrate these sort of separate impulses I’ve had in a way I haven’t really done since I was in Tendaberry.
Have you ever experienced discrimination first-hand?
I remember I was on tour with Dog Bite and we were playing in Baltimore. I went across the street of the venue to use the bathroom because the venue’s bathroom was broken. I went to two different places in this shopping center and they all denied me. But they let my white bandmates use the bathroom. One place was a restaurant and I was like, “I just need to use the bathroom.” And they said, “Well, it’s only for paying customers.” And I was like, “Well, I’ll buy whatever.” And the woman said, “Well, what can you buy?” [Another time] on the way home from a Del Venicci tour we got stopped in Buttes County, Ga., and the cop made me get out of the car. When I was walking towards him… it was cold outside, so I put my hands in my pockets and the cop freaked out and was like, “Take your hands out of your pockets right now!” Like I had a weapon on me. I was like, “Whoa, take it easy. I’m just walking towards you and it’s cold outside.” That’s the anxiety I experience. You have to be very aware of yourself as you’re going through this world and when you’re on the road as a black person, ‘cause you will run into that. And you know, I’m not surprised at that kind of stuff. It’s jarring in the moment, but it’s like, this is America. This is what you experience as a black person. You can’t escape this stuff.
You’ve mentioned Insignificant Whip is about anxiety—what other issues do you focus on?
There’s a lot about masculinity—toxic masculinity—and redefining it. The first song, “Savor Your Sons,” which Adrian wrote is basically about the ways our parents can force us into these gender roles that we’re not necessarily comfortable with and tamp down our sensitivity as men. We’re tackling that, grasping that, working on escaping these toxic lessons we learned about communicating and being men. It’s a lesson we learned when we were kids and trying to escape that. “Long Eyelashes” really tackles the idea of black masculinity and what that means. I watched this video of Tupac when I was a kid, like 17, and he was just an art school kid, you know. There’s definitely elements of the power he had as an adult, but there’s this femininity about him. It really struck me and reminded me of myself when I was that age. It’s very jarring to look at that video and see him later on when he’s taken on this thug persona. You know what he experienced in his life, you know he lived in the hood and all that, but it makes you think what other societal pressures exist that make a person change and make him feel like he has to present himself that way just to survive, just to exist in this world. So much of that is the pressure of being a black man in America and the shit you have to deal with. Especially if you’re an outspoken black man.
Do you have any examples?
That’s the thing about this anxiety. Part of it is me reckoning with moments in my life where I feel like I should have said something, but I didn’t. Or reckoning with the ideas of what blackness is. In terms of playing rock music and being a black person, the thing I heard the most during the first part of my career was, “You’re not supposed to be playing this music, what are you doing?” Because of this particular idea of what a black man is supposed to be in the music industry and what I’m supposed to be playing. Having to fight against that has been very interesting, and whether I’ve internalized angst or racism from those experiences or how I perceive myself. I don’t think I’ve been as outspoken as I should be and I’m working on being more outspoken and more confrontational about these experiences I’m having. There have been moments where I felt like a revolutionary and there have been moments I’ve felt like a sell-out. I think a lot of people experience that, but they’re not really talking about it.
How did you decide on the name Insignificant Whip?
I was writing a lot of stream-of-consciousness poetry at the time and I wrote this piece that’s going to be the insert of the record. It addresses certain parts of iconography in hip-hop culture and sort of twists it on its head, like gold chains that have turned green from rust. One of the lines is something like, “The rims on a whip that turn in a certain way that makes them seem insignificant.” There’s so many connotations with the phrase “insignificant whip” that just made me feel like this was perfect for what we were doing.
Listening to Merenivitch speak on these matters outside of a local coffee shop wasn’t disheartening, but rather hopeful—which isn’t something you get much of in rock ‘n’ roll or indie rock. Frankly, most times it’s a lot of stagnant ego pomping itself up in the midst of everyone’s thick narcissistic tension hovering over venues and interviews for stories such as these. Even in the face of challenging subjects, Merenivitch brings forth a sense of inclusiveness, bridging the gap between two parts of the spectrum of what is the human experience: full-on excitement and outright fear. This bridging, sometimes clashing, is well-orchestrated in Insignificant Whip.
As for the challenge that faces many of us to do more, both as creators and spectators, in the microcosm of society that is local music, maybe it’s time for us to rethink some of the stuff we’ve grown so accustomed to. A single band and a single album might not change the world—especially if the world doesn’t want to be changed—but we do know one thing: this band is not full of shit.
Catch Shepherds on the road in these select cities.
Fri., 10/11 Charleston, SC – Tin Roof
Sat., 10/12 Charlotte, NC – Snug Harbor
Mon., 10/14 Raleigh, NC – Neptunes
Wed., 10/16 Philadelphia, PA – Anthoma Gallery
Thurs., 10/17 Baltimore, MD – Wind Up Space
Fri., 10/18 Brooklyn, NY – Our Wicked Lady
Mon., 10/21 Saratoga Springs, NY – Desperate Annie\’s
Wed., 10/23 Louisville, KY – Kaiju
Thurs., 10/24 Knoxville, TN – Pilot Light
Fri., 10/25 Athens, GA – Caledonia Lounge
Sat., 10/26 Atlanta, GA – 529