Shapeshifter's Tim Ritter: I love the indie scene here like my own kids
Courtesy of Tim Ritter
While grunge broke out of the Pacific Northwest in the early '90s, there was something different happening in the Twin Cities. Bands here were far more influenced by what was happening in the U.K., and a vital and volatile shoegaze/Krautrock/dreampop scene materialized. Sadly, many of those bands went under-appreciated and have been relegated to the dusty annals of time. But many of the musicians from that scene and era are thankfully continuing to make music in one form or another, with some bands even playing the occasional reunion gig.
One of the best bands of that time was Shapeshifter, an ethereal quartet started by a bunch of high school friends in St. Paul. The group is set to play a rare reunion show tonight at Cause, along with their old friends in BNLX, Two Harbors, and Fury Things, giving Twin Cities music fans a clear idea of where the sound of the Cities has come from, as well as where it's going in the future.
Gimme Noise caught up with one of the founding members of Shapeshifter, Tim Ritter, and he shared his recollections about what the scene was like for his band back in the day.
Gimme Noise: So, you and Terry Haanen and Paul Horn formed Shapeshifter in '92, correct? What led to the formation of the band, and what was the Twin Cities music scene like for you back then?
Tim Ritter: Terry, Jason, and I all went to HS together in South St. Paul. Paul was my sister's fiancee. At first we formed as an instrumental project in 1991 with just Paul (guitar) Terry (drums) and I (bass guitar), and after auditioning a few vocalists we asked our old friend Jason to see if he was up to the task. We were all into the same music for the most part, so we all meshed influences really well.
The scene in St. Paul was getting more and more interesting. There was a lot of punk and metal for a long time, but people were making more psychedelic and passionate music after we formed. Especially in West St. Paul with bands like Railwave and Nectar. We were still outsiders to the TC music scene at large, but that didn't take too long to change, since we were so different from the norm at that time.
It seemed like that '90s scene spawned so many lifelong friendships and musical partnerships, sort of like what's happening today with so many different artists starting side projects with other musicians. How important and inspiring was that sense of camaraderie that permeated the scene back then?
It wasn't quite like that at first. The early '90s was a very "band-centric" time with people trying to be better and louder than each other, or writing the perfect melody, etc. But we all loved each other and went on to help each other out along the way.
I met Christian Erickson (Astronaut Wife) while I was in Shapeshifter and we were both moving on from previous bands, so we ended up having a long musical relationship that has involved a lot of experimentation and genre shifts over the years.
Obviously, grunge was dominating the charts throughout the early '90s, but your ethereal, shoegaze sound presented local music fans with a musical style that was far more prevalent across the pond in the U.K. Where did you draw your inspiration from, musically, and who were the bands that you looked up to when you started recording?
I listened to a lot of pre-Nevermind grunge and was always a big fan of the louder, heavier side of the Midwest. Seeing bands like Black Spot and Breaking Circus was a big thing for me in my teens and I was a huge fan of all the Amphetamine Reptile bands, you really couldn't ignore it at the time, they were so good. There was a lot of that influence in Shapeshifter early on and may have got missed for the emphasis on our "dreampop" sound as it emerged, but it was definitely there.
I think hearing the U.K. band Pale Saints' LP, The Comforts of Madness, was a major tipping point for me -- that record still floors me with its mix of sonic mayhem and breathless beauty, and I wanted to emulate that as much as possible. It was as important to me as Pixies' Doolittle or Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, if not more so... Of course we loved Telescopes, Ride, MBV, and all those amazing UK Creation bands. They really made that time crystallize since it was so brief.
You've stayed quite active in the Twin Cities scene over the years after the dissolution of Shapeshifter, playing in Big Daddy, JR, and Astronaut Wife, amongst others, as well as Blue Sky Blackout and Still Pacific today. How have you witnessed the Twin Cities music scene change over the years, for both the good and the bad?
I managed to keep my foot in the local music scene mainly because the scene is so low-stress. I managed to gain respect by being respectful in turn -- being a professional, and keeping long-term relationships with people I admire. I consider myself blessed. The music scene is different now in so many ways and mainly due to technology. From setting up gigs, promoting, communicating with bandmates, and most importantly creating and recording music. When we started Shapeshifter the internet was still being developed, and cell phones were expensive and useless... unless you were a doctor or something. So we did it all with snail mail, land lines, print, and radio.
I was talking to Terry (drummer in Shapeshifter) about how when we were playing in the '90s, you were lucky to see any photos of your band playing, and sometimes you had to pay the photographer for good quality ones (you still should, but we don't) and you would wait weeks for prints. Now you just go on Facebook or Instagram and there you are! When I was in the band Bella Koshka we had so many pictures of us on the net, I was starting to get a vanity complex!
Courtesy of Tim Ritter
What brought about the reformation of Shapeshifter over the past year? And how gratifying is it for you to make music with your old friends once again?
We reformed a couple times over the years for private events, but last year Jon Hunt (Blue Sky Blackout) asked us to play in a club as a sort of '90s band reunion show, so we did, and it went really well and the response was tremendous. When we got together at those rehearsals we played all the old material and thought it still had some relevance. We agreed that if we were offered the right show we would play again.
So when Ashley (BNLX) asked us to play we decided to give it a another shot. We have fun playing together again, but it's still a serious affair. We all have busy lives and we make every minute count. We never liked being sloppy back then and we simply refuse to change the ethos. But we still have a lot of fun since we are all still very good friends.
We are sharing an unreleased version of Shapeshifter's "Low Profile," that you recorded with Ed Ackerson back in the day (which Ackerson just remastered from an old cassette). What do you remember about that session, and what is it like working and recording with someone like Ed?
I met Ed early on and he always supported me 100 percent. We had done some recording with other friends and were getting a little disillusioned with the process. He offered to record us at the Terrarium for a 7-inch we wanted to put out on John Kass's (Go Johnny Go) Prospective Records label. Low Profile was a crowd favorite and we really wanted a great recording of it. We were digging a recording he produced for Balloon Guy and decided to try it out.
Ed was and always has been one of the most professional and honest guys to work with. He guides the sessions with such ease. I remember him setting us up that night and how much fun we were having getting Paul's stereo guitar sound with all these crazy amps... nobody gets a better guitar sound than Ed. He's the man. Anyway, the record was never released, but I'm glad we can share something from the past that we can be proud of.
You're playing with some really talented young bands on Friday night -- Two Harbors and Fury Things -- in addition to BNLX. Do you keep up with what's happening in the current Twin Cities music scene? And if so, how rewarding is it for you to see these emerging acts representing the proud tradition of Minnesota music and taking that sound in exciting new directions?
I love all these guys. I've shared the stage with most of these musicians many times in one way or another... other than once with Fury Things -- I haven't played with them that much, but those guys are seriously powerful players. They blew me away with their intensity and form. Definitely a band to watch!
I'm so proud of all the people from my past that are still playing and making a real life out of it. Ed and Ashley have the sweet life of course. But I love the indie scene here like my own kids, and it's so alive with energy and talent it's unreal. One guy I have to give props is Ben Ivascu, who is probably the best drummer in the Cities right now. He just got back off the road with Polica, and I couldn't be more proud of that guy. I have to admit that I don't get to just go out and see bands like I used to, but I support them as best I can from my domestic cocoon. When I play, I always try to watch the bands play too, since you never stop learning, and I plan on playing a whole lot longer.
What does Shapeshifter have in store for us at the show on Friday night? Is there any chance of you all getting together to record again, or is just playing live enough for you right now?
Nothing really new or special is on tap, but if you have never seen or heard us we could be new AND special! We have been rehearsing our old material for now, but I feel like we still bring out the intensity of that musty stuff... it's loud too... really really loud. I hope that's OK.
Shapeshifter play tonight at Cause with BNLX, Two Harbors, and Fury Things. $6. $21+. Doors at 9 p.m.
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