Catching up with Twin Cities expat Shahs

Shahs performing at BSMT in Missoula, MT

Shahs performing at BSMT in Missoula, MT

Shahs is the one-man-band and project of Twin Cities expat, Tom Helgerson, who recently picked up his gear and headed out to live in Missoula, Montana.

We don't hold that against him, though, as he has managed to put together one of the more accessible collections of pop-infused, experimental electronic music of the year, Dry Heat/Valley Low, on the local Riley Bushman imprint. As a small-run vinyl with handmade and pressed covers, his latest batch of songs continues the cycle of lounge-centric, lo-fi whirlywind vocal finesse Helgerson has been cranking out since he started Shahs five years ago.

[jump] Groovy mixes of Tropicalia, reggae and art rock fly about Tom's music, not only in his own project's but in the mixes he's created on his music blogs, Bonetopia and Lordtopia, where he showcases and shares pieces of his own collection and influences, and chronicles the progress of his work and the scene he happens to be participating in wherever he goes.

As evidenced by the new release and a recent visit back to the Twin Cities for a couple shows, Shahs has shifted even more toward a pop sound since leaving town last year, while still maintaining a minimalist approach.

I had the chance to find out more about how Dry Heat/Valley Low came about and what Tom has discovered musically and about himself since leaving the Twin Cities.

Cover art for <i>Dry Heat/Valley Low</i>

Cover art for Dry Heat/Valley Low

How long have you been playing music as Shahs? What other musical projects have you been involved with or are involved in at the moment?

I've been doing the whole band thing since I was in junior high. As Shahs, since the fall of 2005. I took some time off for a year in late 2006 and didn't really start up again seriously until about the summer of 2008.

Before that I was mildly active playing guitar with a Minneapolis band called Thank You (they've changed their name to Young Quitters I think) and with Glass Organ, a project I did with Justin Meyers from Devillock. Colin from Vampire Hands and Capricorn Vertical Slum and I used to do a collaboration/improv set when we both still lived in Minneapolis. It went by a bunch of names. Metal Teeth is the one I remember the most though. I played drums, keys, and sang a little for To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie two years ago. We toured Europe and I think it's that experience that inspired me to revisit all these songs that'd been backing up for Shahs.

Here in Missoula, I've been playing bass in a kinda B-52s inspired punk band called 10yoGF. It's fun. I like not having that much responsibility sometimes.

You have a very distinct sound to your music. How did it develop?

Totally by accident. One day I discovered that running a microphone through a delay pedal could do some interesting things. Then I figured I could loop it. That's how the drum sounds took shape. Over time I found myself using as little gear as possible and trying to write songs. Working with limitations like that was pretty fun. I only had a mic, a keyboard, and an amp at the time. Whenever I'd hit a wall I'd look into getting something new. Nowadays I have two keyboards, a mixer, two delays, and a mic. That's it.

You have a lot of musical influences on your blogs and in your mixes. How does that inspire the music you do? Do you see yourself ever venturing off into some of those other genres?

I like pretty much everything. Or at least a bit of everything. I'm a weekend warrior when it comes to record collecting, I usually don't care about first pressings or any of that kinda stuff but I love hearing new and interesting things; new to me at least.

I try to draw from a lot of different genres with my own music. A lot of my beats are based in either Calypso or Tropicalia music, my keyboard and songwriting styles are more influenced by stuff like Gary Wilson or Randy Newman. There's a song on the new LP ("St-Gilles") that I consciously tried to write as a country song or a folk song. Considering how limited I still am with what gear I have to work with, it's pretty difficult to venture too far out of the niche I carved for myself. Believe me, I want to change pretty drastically sometimes but I like keeping Shahs a one person project and at the moment I can't afford anything like a drum machine or a sampler to really expand my sound.

But really, a lot of the music I listen to has one basic thing in common. They write songs. Good songs. That's something I think that's been lost by a lot of musicians these days. People that are too obsessed with gear, musicianship, or creating a "sound" tend to lose the point. I mean, this is all my opinion of course, but it's really pretty hard to write a decent song, let alone a good one. I don't think I've done anything earth-shattering with Shahs, but I'm really just trying to write good songs. Even so, I don't think my best stuff really holds up to any of my favorite writers. Jorge Ben, Ariel Pink, Randy Newman, Mayo Thompson, etc. No matter what or how good they play or how their "sound" creates their identity, it all comes down to the fact that they know how to write some pretty good songs. Uniqueness should come from how you choose your melodies and structure them together, not how amazing you are at playing guitar or that all your albums sound like they were recorded with a Fischer Price tape deck.

What took you away from the Twin Cities to Missoula? How is it different there and does that help you creatively? When are you coming back? Please!!!

I left because I wanted at least the semblance of a clean slate in a place I'd never been to. The first time I set foot in Missoula was when the day I moved here. It took some getting used to the size but after a year, I've grown to love it. I'm much closer to the West Coast now which is pretty cool. I've been meaning to tour out there and now it'd be a lot easier for me to do so.

When I first came to Missoula it was fall going into winter. I didn't know a whole lot of people and that really didn't change until Spring came around. All that time alone and at home turned out to be a watershed. I wrote a new song almost every week. "Nothing Was Delivered," off of Dry Heat, is the first song I wrote in Montana. It gets annoying sometimes not having nearly as much going on every night here, but all that free time can always be spent creatively. It's awesome.

I'll come back to visit. I'm even thinking of coming back to visit my family for Christmas. The way I'm feeling now, I don't think I'll move back to Minneapolis any time in the near future. I love that town and in a lot of ways it totally shaped who I've ended up being, but I need to stay out here for a least a while longer.

What went into making the new record Dry Heat/Valley Low? Did your approach change when knowing it would ultimately be heard on vinyl and not just mp3s?

I didn't do that much different. I've been recording myself for so long and though I know I'm no expert, I always think I got a sound at least close to what I was going for. With Dry Heat I had my friend Mark (from TKAPB) assist in the recording most of it. When I got to Missoula, I redid a few of the songs I felt were missing something. All in all, it was done pretty much the same way I've done everything else. Yeah, this is first time I'd ever used pro-tools, but my machines will always sound like my machines no matter what we're recording with.

Anything else you want to tell people about Shahs?!

There is no "the" in Shahs. That's a pretty nitpicky thing but it's annoyed me.